What the Future Sounded Like

What the Future Sounded Like

200627 min

Post-war Britain rebuilt itself on a wave of scientific and industrial breakthroughs that culminated in the cultural revolution of the 1960’s. It was a period of sweeping change and experimentation where art and culture participated in and reflected the wider social changes. In this atmosphere, a radical new group of electronic musicians utilized technology and experimentation to compose a futuristic soundtrack for the New Britain. In the early 60’s pioneering electronic musicians Tristram Cary and Peter Zinovieff established EMS (Electronic Music Studios) with wunderkind music engineer David Cockerell.

EMS’s legacy is the VCS3, Britain’s first synthesizer and rival of the American Moog. The VCS3 was a uniquely British invention used by some of the most popular artists of this period including The Who, David Bowie, Brian Eno and Pink Floyd, whose iconic album Dark Side of The Moon utilized the unique sounds of the VCS3 to startling effect. The album is still one of the top selling records of all time.

The individual backgrounds of the EMS characters show them as pioneering vanguards in their own right. As early as 1945 Cary hand-built the world’s largest private electronic music studio from war-surplus junk and went to lead London’s electronic avant-garde. He also moonlighted as a composer for pop cult films like The LadyKillers and the seminal television series Dr Who. Peter Zinovieff, an exiled Russian aristocrat and fringe dwelling avant-garde composer, borrowed money from his rich British wife to buy two military grade computers specifically for his personal experiments in electronic music. With David Cockerell’s ability to make anything that Cary and Zinovieff dreamed up, EMS’s musical inventiveness opened up a world of new musical possibilities. Prime Minister Harold Wilson famously declared in 1964, ‘Britain will forge itself with the white-hot heat of a scientific revolution. As leaders of a group of machine-based musicians, EMS was the ideal sonic-architects for a society where technology was God. They created incredible sounds for films about nuclear power reactors, adverts for early Olivetti computers and for the British Pavilion at the ‘67 World Expo. Played back today this early electronic music still arouses wonder at its creation and power.

The cross-pollination of swinging London’s psychedelic rock scene elite with the cardigan wearing ‘straights’ of EMS, changed the course of British rock and roll. Today in the avant-garde world of British electronica, the analog reverberations of EMS equipment and inspiration have come full circle and are being harnessed by bands like Add-N-To-X, Radiohead, and Aphex Twin. In an electronically dominated music world where one synthesizer can be preprogrammed to make any sound, these analog revivalists see the pioneering legacy of EMS as electro-genesis.

What The Future Sounded Like mixes experimental visual and sonic techniques with animation and never-seen-since archival footage. A sonic and visual collage, this documentary colors in a lost chapter in music history, uncovering a group of alchemical composers and music engineers who harnessed technology and new ideas to reimagine the boundaries of music and sound. 

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