Tristram Cary

John Robert Brown

Recently organising the recordings of his music, Tristram Cary discovered that his collected compositional output fills 76 CDs. Now 82, Cary has an impressive list of film music credits. These include The Ladykillers, 1955, Richard Williams' On the Little Island, 1958, (winner of many awards), The Ballad of Peckham Rye (with Muriel Spark and Christopher Holme), winner of the Prix Italia, 1962, and Sammy Going South, the Royal Command Film of 1963.

Born in Oxford, the third child of novelist Joyce Cary, Tristram Cary studied at Christ Church, Oxford, and then served in the Royal Navy from 1943 until 1946. From 1948 he studied at Trinity College of Music. During war service, Cary had specialised in radar, where he developed his knowledge of electronics. Upon leaving the navy he applied his electronic knowledge to design a pioneer music studio. In 1967 he founded London's first teaching studio for electronic music, at the Royal College of Music. Now usually described as the father of electronic music, Cary is also the author of the Illustrated Compendium of Musical Technology (Faber) and the composer of the 'Dalek' music of Dr Who. Also in 1967, Cary joined with Peter Zinovieff and David Cockerell to found Electronic Music Studios (EMS) (London) Limited. In 1974 Cary moved to Australia, to live in Glen Osmond, a pleasant suburb of Adelaide.

"I think it was a great mistake to change countries at nearly 50," he says, expressing regret about emigrating. "The result was that I hardly get played in England. I'm a dual citizen, with two passports. In England they don't know what I've done since 1975. Here in Australia they don't know what I did before 1975."

"I had the idea of electronic music when I was in the navy," he says. "I did radar. I was trained as an electronics engineer. I had the idea that a tape recorder could be used creatively as well as reproductively. I determined that as soon as I got out of the Navy, at the end of 1946, I'd get hold of a recording machine of some sort and start experimenting. So I was really working on electronic music in the late 'forties. I was selling electronic stuff to the BBC as early as 1955."

These were the days of wire recorders, which Cary says were no good. "Solid metal is no good for speech or music," he explains. "You can record Morse code, and that kind of thing. Solid metal tape was first invented in 1906. But it was the Germans in the late twenties, BASF - who are still in business of course - and AEG. BASF were developing a tape based on an iron oxide powder deposited on a plastic or paper tape. AEG were working on a tape transport. So by 1936 BASF had developed a tape recorder that really worked. But we didn't know about it in England. I was only a schoolkid. In 1936 I was eleven.

"My colleagues in the navy, and I, and my friends in the music business, had heard of tape recorders, but we had never seen one. We'd heard that it was a high quality method of recording, and of course from the point of view of a creative use you need a linear method of recording, rather than a disc. You can't edit a disc. The only other linear method of recording at that time was sound film, and the sound tracks of the thirties were not really high quality enough to interest composers. So I thought we possibly had a new medium here, and it proved to be so. When I came out of the navy in 1946 I was a student and had no money at all. So, as they did in Paris, I had to start on disc. I bought a 78 rpm disc lathe, and started work. I couldn't afford a tape recorder until about 1952."

In answer to my question as to whether it is at all possible to edit a disc, he says: "Well you can edit in a way. You can make loops, you can copy and dub. There's a limited amount of things you can do, if you are ingenious enough. If you have a trail of pickups, picking up behind the cutting head, for example, you can make echo. I had a turntable that ran at all sorts of different speeds, and a backwards turntable, where I could play things backwards, with a backward pickup, with the angle of the head the other way round. It's a matter of ingenuity and invention, really. But the first tape recorders that came to England were huge great professional things, costing £10,000, so they were out of my reach. So it all got going in my mind when I was in the navy."

Cary remembers 'a little bit' of opposition from musicians who thought that they would lose work. "But because I was employing musicians in my film music from 1955 onwards I was giving at least a fortnight's work a year to a symphony orchestra, so they couldn't really complain. In any case, I don't believe that electronic music is about playing tunes. I was a bit appalled when keyboards started to come in during the sixties.

"My friend Bob Moog, now dead of course, was the first one to get a commercial synthesiser on the market. I didn't have synthesisers; all my components were separate. The studio went from place to place. I started at my house in Earl's Court. Then I went to Chelsea, and then I moved to the country with my family. My main studio was in Suffolk. I built a beautiful house, based on a seventeenth- or eighteenth-century double dweller. Last time it changed hands it went for half a million. I built a new wing on it, and had my studio in the garden. Seven acres of land; I had a vineyard, in fact. It was right out in the country. It wasn't even in a village, it was in the middle of the fields, so I could make loud noise at three o'clock in the morning and the only creature that would hear it would be a cow!" In the light of such success, why did Cary emigrate?

"A combination of things," he says. "In 1972 or 1973, our top of the range EMS machine was called a Synthi 100. Even then it cost £10,000 to buy, and we'd sold several. There was one in Moscow; there was one in Brisbane and one in Melbourne."

From 1967 he took a class at the Royal College of Music every week. "George Loughlin, now dead, who was then Ormond Professor at Melbourne University, dropped in on my class and said 'Let me buy you lunch'. He said: 'We've bought this very expensive thing, and we don't really know how to use it. Will you come to Melbourne and show us?' It was going to be in August, which is horribly cold in Melbourne, I may say.

"I went out. For freelance composers, August is not a good time in Europe, because most people have their bums on the Spanish beaches. That year, George arranged lectures all over the place. I visited all the state capitals except for Darwin, and gave lectures. I was rather taken by the country. At the same time, in England my children were coming through the educational pipeline, so education bills were falling. I only had one child still at school, which was my daughter. On top of that I was looking at myself. I was 50 in 1975.

"I said to myself: 'Where's the bloody music? Where are the symphonies? Where are the string quartets?' I'd been doing films, television and radio, made quite a good living out of it - but are you going to write any bloody music before you die, or not? Or are you going to spend the rest of your life on the end of the telephone doing boring six-part serials for the BBC?"

"So I thought, well, no, perhaps not. And I thought that the only way you are going to live, and be able to enjoy a drink in a restaurant, is to take a salary, instead of waiting for the phone to ring. So that would argue an academic post. So it's really just a matter of accident. There were all sorts of possibilities in England. And the job could have been in America - but it happened to be in Australia. In 1973, when I went to Melbourne I came through Adelaide and gave a lecture here. The professor said: "How would you like to be visiting composer here?" So I agreed, turned up in Adelaide in 1974. As soon as I got here they started to twist my arm to stay. My wife came out, and hated it here. She couldn't wait to get back to the UK. I took the job, and I stayed. That's how it happened."

First published in Classical Music magazine, 21 July, 2007. Reproduced by kind permission.
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