Queen Elizabeth Hall and the evolution of electronic music

Monday, March 26, 2018 - 10:12

It’s the evening of Monday 15 January 1968. Parts of the UK are being battered by a terrible storm, with high winds across the country, but it’s not enough to keep the crowds away from Queen Elizabeth Hall, which is hosting the First London Concert of Electronic Music by British Composers.

The concert is a sell out and hundreds of people have missed out on getting tickets. The first work on the bill is Potpourri by Delia Derbyshire, famous for her involvement with the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop and, of course, as the composer of the iconic Doctor Who theme music.

Also on the bill are works by Tristram Cary and Peter Zinovieff. The latter premieres his work Partita for Unattended Computer. As the name suggests, there are no performers involved, just a teletype paper tape reader, sound-producing equipment and the computer.

Delia at Queen Elizabeth Hall on 18 1 1968

Composer Francis Routh recalled the event in a 2012 blog post about Redcliffe Concerts of British Music: ‘A sell-out, a packed [Queen] Elizabeth Hall, a taxi queue extending to Waterloo Station, and reviews far longer and more detailed than was normally the practice, some showing insight, particularly  those in scientific journals like Wireless World and Computer Weekly, all reflecting a high level of public curiosity, fed by the novelty value of the new technology.’

read Routh's blog post in full

The technology impressed many concert goers more than the music. The Financial Times review said: ‘Technically it may be a triumph of skill and knowledge but what we heard resembled the dreariest kind of neo-Webern drawn out to inordinate length.’ And Zinovieff himself admitted the sounds were simple but that the effort that went into it was huge and the technology was incredible for those days.

But the impact on electronic music was significant. Zinovieff was obsessed with creating digital music of various kinds, be it computer-composed ‘synthetic’ music or processed sounds.

A year after the Queen Elizabeth Hall concert Zinovieff founded Electronic Music Studios with Tristram Cary and David Cockerell and launched the groundbreaking VCS3, Europe’s first commercially produced synthesiser. The instrument had a huge impact on modern music, although a large reason for its invention was so EMS could raise money to finance the studio that Zinovieff had built in his garden in Putney.

Peter Zinovieff and Electronic Music Studios

The connection between synthesised sounds and traditional music continued at Queen Elizabeth Hall, with three more electronic music concerts organised by Redcliffe Concerts of Britain. The last of these took place on 26 November 1973 and featured Harrison Birtwistle’s Chanson de Geste for 4-track tape and instrumental ensemble, and a piece by Cary and Zinovieff called Exercise for a Passing Cloud for 4-track tape, where a computer gave instructions for improvisation on a clavichord based on weather pressure systems.

By this time the idea of the synthesiser has gone truly mainstream. Brian Eno, the ever adventurous record producer and musician, used the VCS3 on Roxy Music’s 1972 hit Virginia Plain.

Roxy Music - Virginia Plain 1972

Queen Elizabeth Hall was also host, in 1973, to the first ever live performance of another landmark in electronic music – Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells.

As Francis Routh noted in his 2012 blog piece: ‘One result of the [1968] concert was to stimulate the setting up of computerized studios in music colleges and the music departments of universities throughout the country. The concert had demonstrated the stage reached in computer technology in this country.’

To this day we continue a commitment to providing a platform for experimental artists, as can be seen with our reopening  concert programme, which features, on Wednesday 18 April, the world premiere of Tyondai Braxton’s composition TELEKINESIS; and on Saturday 14 April hosts Hannah Peel’s collaboration with Tubular Brass.

find out more: Tyondai Braxton

find out more: Hannah Peel