There is a popular but hugely inaccurate thought that anything experimental, cutting edge, avant garde or in anyway progressive happens in big cosmopolitan cities. Although there is lots of historical evidence of this, its by no means the whole picture, which is why on a wet Saturday afternoon and despite some very annoying set backs during the day, I headed up the A12, past Ipswich and on the bleak A140 to Diss (pop 40,000); a small town in the centre of East Anglia, surrounded mostly by large,flat agricultural fields, small villages, a few industrial estates and not much else. I’m here to see and exhibition and evening concert of the music of Tristram Cary (Im going write a future blog as part of my unsung composer series), a pioneer of British electronic music and co-inventor of the EMS VCS3, who worked in a house with a modest tin hut for a studio about the size of a garage just outside Fressingfield (pop 900), about 15 miles east of Diss.
The event consisted of a case of memorabilia in the local museum, with many items being provided by his son John Cary, including the prototype VCS3, with handwritten parameters on the control knobs, often crossed out and overwritten in red ink, a 78rpm disc cutting lathe, which was his first recording device before he could get a tape recorder, lots of references to commercial films and TV programmes that he provided electronic music for and other memorabilia. My one comment is that it needed more than a single display cabinet as there ws too much crammed into one space, with result that smaller items such as some handwritten cards couldn’t be ready properly.
There was also a TV showing a rare interview recorded by ABC in Australia from a later period in his life, with some fascinating anecdotes, and next to the display cabinet an ipad running a VCS3 softsynth was on hand for people to play with, which proved quite popular.
Update: Exhibition extended to 7th May 2016
The concert was very well attended to the extent that extra chairs had to be put out, I was beginning to wish I had taken up Tristrans offer of emailing to reserve a seat as they were all rapidly taken up. The concert started with a quick introduction from John Cary, Tristrams son after which the first item on the concert programme was a showing of the 2006 documentary by ABC Australia “What the future sounded like”, a half hour potted history of Tristrams involvement in the early post war British electronic music scene and how he, Peter Zinovieff and David Cockerill came to found EMS, develop the VCS3 and its wider influence on music in the late 60s, early 70s.
First of the concert pieces was “Trios” written in 1971, and first performed at the Cheltenham Festival of that year- this “chance” piece was written for a pre-recorded tape of VCS3 parts and two performers with turntables and dice sets; 16 parts are pre-recorded on the tape and a further 16 parts each on two discs (in this case CDs) the players roll a dice set each which gives them the index number of the track to play- thus each performance is unique an cant be repeated. The pre-recorded tape was played back on a vintage reel-to-reel and the performers Ian Helliwell and Tristan Burfield had a CD deck each, with parts on CD. The end result was an interesting combination of textures and melodic elements. The sound quality was excellent, I wondered if I was hearing the original tape (Cary was an excellent producer) or weather the tape part had been re-recorded in recent years. The abstract quality of the music seems to have survived well over the years, and this is mostly due to the composed parts and the overall composition being thought out well.
There is a version on youtube here
The second and final piece “Narcissus” is possibly his best known live work, written in 1970, for flute and prepared tape (in this case Max/MSP patch) where the flute is recorded, then played back and the flute then plays over it- the performers Simon Desorgher (flute) and Lawrence Casserley (laptop) were both students of Cary at the RCM and know this piece well, the prepared tape part being expertly turned into Max/MSP patch and carefully re-creating the prepared parts of the tape; on the tape sections were cut out and replaced with tape leader so the incoming signal was only partly recorded before being played back, often making sounds from tremoloed stutterings to soft fragmented melodies. This piece feels quite contemporary with subtle transformations as opposed to big changes and effects, especially filteration and delay normally associated with the late 60s/ early 70s live tape pieces.
The concert was very well received, and its time Tristram Carys work was heard more regularly, in my opinion.