Peter Zinovieff ‘Electronic Calendar: The EMS Tapes’ (Space Age)

An engaging retrospective of the great man’s work from 1965 to 1979

In an age where a software version of a vintage synth can be put on an iPad and played absent-mindedly while waiting for the bus, the practicalities – or rather, the struggles – of how early electronic music was created can sometimes be forgotten. Principally the output of scientific endeavour rather than for artistic or musical purposes, it’s no surprise that recordings from the time sound, and let’s be totally honest, a bit potty, carrying a sulphuric whiff of singed eyebrows and greasy lab coats.

‘Electronic Calendar’ was assembled and overseen by Pete “Sonic Boom” Kember, former Spacemen 3 member, fan of circuit-bent instruments and arguably the best thing to have come out of Rugby since cement and games played with odd-shaped balls. Here, Peter Zinovieff’s legacy gets the same lavish treatment and necessary profile-raising that Kember gave to the Radiophonic Workshop’s Delia Derbyshire.

For the most part, the tracks here have a highbrow quality, but this is no surprise given their original intended purpose. The pieces with composer and exponent of visual scores Harrison Birtwistle aside, many of these tracks were intended as backdrops for theatre or other creative projects – an example would be the contributions Zinovieff recorded for Hans Werner Henze’s ambitious six-movement ‘Tristan’, two extracts from which are presented here.

These pieces are musical, in an extreme sense, but on first flush they feel like they were primarily intended as opportunities to showcase the kind of textural capacity a sound source such as his VCS3 was capable of. And in that regard, ‘Electronic Calendar’ is a thoroughly absorbing listen, particularly when you think about how damn difficult it would have been to realise anything here when technology was so expensive, primitive and unruly.

Despite the interest in synths from many well-paid pop musicians, early exponents of electronic kit seemed duty-bound to align themselves with the classical world. The three pieces here with Birtwistle were originally made available through the most austere of labels, Deutsche Grammophon, while Dr Zinovieff also had a stab at forcing an orchestral structure into an electronic framework with 1970’s ‘Lollipop For Papa’. It represents an element of light relief among a collection of generally more demanding pieces with its wry humour and levity.

Elsewhere on this expansive collection, ‘March Probabilistic’ finds an army of bleeps meandering and wobbling around all over the show as if Zinovieff had given up all hope of keeping them under control. Other highlights include the fizzy urgency of ‘Tarantella’, or the tentative, regimented pulse of ‘Chronometer ‘71’ with Birtwistle.

The greatest success of ‘Electronic Calendar’ is to rescue Zinovieff – the person, the prodigy and the pioneer – from becoming another footnote in the genesis of electronic sound, something that could well be overlooked by anyone mucking around distractedly for a couple of minutes on the disappointingly inevitable iPad version of his landmark VCS3.

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