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Peter Zinovieff

Original here (h/t Maxim Saharov)

Retroactively, the death of Peter Zinovieff is announced and his figure is getting much needed reflection. I’m fully convinced – he’s one of the most fascinating characters of 20th century’s sound culture, so I’ll add a few observations of my own.

Those familiar with technical aspects of electronic music don’t need to be told about Zinovieff’s achievements – EMS was nearly the first European company to take on mass production of  synthesizers. Zinovieff was a forward-thinker and understood that everyday (!) musicians don’t need a gigantic drawer filled with tangled cables, but a stylish portable briefcase with a convenient modulation matrix and a preset system prototype.

He built in one of the first PCs into Synthi 100, thus highlighting the hybridization of  relationships between digit and analog way back in 74. Up until the final moment he was not just an engineer, but also a working composer. During the 2010 interview with Hans-Ulrich Obrist Peter Zinovieff was talking about how our computer technologies in the field of sound design are still too primitive. Such remark yet again proves that humanity lost its penchant for imagination.

EMS Synthi 100
EMS Synthi 100

Following the much-adored “future-in-the-past” formula as well as mediaarcheological presumption, the early years of electroacoustic engineering could be viewed as some sort of a blueprint, which the sound culture followed eventually, especially when it comes to electronica.

If Robert Moog thought of technique, sound and synthesis in the mimetic key and Don Buchla – as a radical breakup with simulation of reality, then the blueprint created by Zinovieff is impossible to define – its simply of no location: it oscillates between two of those exсesses without being confined to one extreme or the other, thus pitting them against each other. VCS3 became a favorite tool of many a maestro – from BBC Radiophonic Workshop (with whom he essentially designed it), Brian Eno and David Bowie to Pink Floyd, the entire constellation of krautrock bands, Cabaret Voltaire, Aphex Twin and even Eduard Artemyev.

To find a common denominator within this tradition, especially while drawing on some sort of stylistic unity, wouldn’t work. The issue is that Zinovieff, in a massive way, influenced the creative strategy of popular music, which paid attention not so much to the formal expression, but the artistic gesture and its pragmatics, thanks to which the form “was backing off” and destroying its own foundations.

For convenience purposes and following some sort of historical accuracy we’re going to name this tradition “glam”, all while meaning not the British endemic phenomenon from the 70s, but the conceptual approach that made its presence felt here and there throughout various applications of popular music and the art world at large. Glam – its not the sum of formal techniques, as much as the negative version of the initial message, inverted mirror, through which the popular music questions itself and ponders not the “why it is”, but the “why is it there at all”.

I think this is one of the many sources of this strategy that needs to be searched for in the personality of an engineering mastermind, but also his views on how the machinery dominates in everyday life. Peter Zinovieff was indifferent towards cult brethren, broke the rules, paid attention to design (for sound ages faster!) and ended up getting into brazen battles with nuns.

To find out who Zinovieff was its enough to take a look at the series of canonical photographs of engineers who were at the helm of synthmaking: in front of us is a man who is nothing like his genius co-workers. Dressed up in a stylish suit and chelsea, one that mods fear, cocky London flexer. For “the better machine looks, the more likely it operates at its best too”.

Farewell, forever.

Further Reading

Britain is no country for old men

On a Different Note:


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