Navigation for These Hopeful Machines

Cheryl Evans interviews James Gardner 3 March 2014

James Gardner

James Gardner Photo: by Stephen Compton

Cheryl Evans: I’ve been listening to your series and it’s actually quite good, isn’t it? How did it come about?

James Gardner: Well, in 2005 I did a couple of programmes for Radio NZ Concert about the Moog synthesizer. They worked reasonably well, but I felt there was more to explore along those lines, so eventually I hatched a plan to do a series on electronic music pioneers, pitched it to Tim [Dodd] and Kate [Mead] and they gave me the go-ahead. That was way back in 2010. As you know, it took another three years to get all the interviews in the can and edited, and then I spent ages knocking the script into some sort of shape. Tim and I managed to piece it all together for transmission last year [2013].

I’m pleased you enjoyed the series, but I have to say that I really couldn’t have done it without Tim’s expertise, close collaboration and unerring editorial skills. He tactfully curbed my excesses and made the series so Photo of James Gardner by Stephen Compton.            much better than if I’d been left to my own devices.

It’s still pretty dense, though, isn’t it? There were quite a few spots where my attention was divided between what you were saying and the music you were talking over.

Hmm. It’s true that I like a certain ‘statistical density’ – as Zappa might say – in radio programmes. I get bored by the simple alternation of dry voice /music track, and Tim and I enjoy taking advantage of radio as a medium, where we can layer sounds and crossfade things creatively. I’d like to think that because of this the programmes do bear repeated listening – and you can do just that, thanks to the streams on the website.

Yeah, yeah...but there were occasions where I really felt frustrated at not hearing the music properly.

That’s why, when the series was initially broadcast on Sound Lounge[1], there was an hour immediately after each episode when Kate played whole tracks or long excerpts of music that had been heard briefly in the programmes. And I hope that the inclusion of the full track listing for each programme might encourage people to check out music that caught their ear while I was droning over the top of it. It was also frustrating for me to have to represent long and complex works in the series with tiny snippets, so I was very pleased that we were able to commandeer an hour of Sound Lounge to compensate for that a bit.

You packed quite a lot into the series, but there was loads you left out, wasn’t there?

Tell me about it!

Well for a start, you left out so many big figures in New Zealand electronic music like Douglas Lilburn, Denis Smalley, John Rimmer, John Cousins, Ross Harris and so on. Why was that? After all, the series was a Radio New Zealand production...

Well, there are many other people here who could do a much better job of recounting the detailed history of electronic music in New Zealand than I could, and they could also do it with much more of a personal connection to the music and the composers. There’s certainly a tale to be told there, and it’d make a great radio series.  In the context of this series, though, I felt it was better to leave out the New Zealand history altogether, rather than provide some sort of shallow and sketchy token account of it.

We did, of course, include Barry Vercoe but that was much more to do with his ability to provide an insider’s perspective on real-time computer processing and score-following – not to mention Csound – than with him being a Kiwi.

It’s a rather Eurocentric and American-centred series, isn’t it?

Yes, that’s true. Like I said in programme one, the series is a personal and highly selective one – I make no claims for it being comprehensive or definitive.

I’d be the first to concede that there are many other histories, and many ways of tracing coherent paths through those histories. Given the programme’s in English, and it’s my native tongue I guess it’s inevitable that there’s an Anglophone bias.

But yes, I’m very conscious that there are interesting programmes to be made about, for instance, early Japanese electronic music – after all the Jikken Kobo [experimental studio] started around 1950 – [Toru] Takemitsu and Minao Shibata were on to it pretty early, and NHK set up a studio – very much along the lines of the one in Cologne – in 1954. There’s also a fascinating story to be told about early South American electronic music. [Mauricio] Kagel was making electronic and tape music in Argentina very early on and it’s worth remembering that the first electronic music studios in the Southern Hemisphere were set up in Chile and Argentina in the ‘50s. I’d certainly like to learn more about that stuff.

The problem is that – as far as I know – there aren’t that many writings in English about these studios or the work that came out of them, and recordings are also quite hard to come by.

OK, but why didn’t you talk much about electronic music in Canada, then?

Well, for a start there’s already a dedicated audio documentary[2] about Hugh Le Caine – a fascinating figure. I mentioned him only in passing in the series, though we did include more of him in the Moog programmes that Tim and I made. Sure, I could have included Le Caine, Gustav Ciamaga, Barry Truax, John Oswald and others, but there’s only so much time, and the series could just end up being like a sort of annotated catalogue. There are moments where it gets a bit like that as it is!

And even though I did cover electronic music in the USA at some length, you could argue that I didn’t spend enough time on the early years of the Columbia Tape Music Center[3], with [Otto] Luening and [Vladimir] Ussachevsky and those that followed, like Alice Shields and Pril Smiley for instance. Other listeners might bemoan the absence of Robert Ashley and Gordon Mumma or my not talking about GROOVE[4]...the list goes on...

There’s also the question of availability. For instance, we made quite a few attempts – through an intermediary in New York ­­– to get in touch with Wendy Carlos with a view to interviewing her, but we didn’t hear back.

So yes, I am very aware of such glaring omissions, but one has only so much time and a limited budget.

I was surprised that when you were discussing the wire recorder in Episode Two, you didn’t mention Halim El-Dabh’s 1944 piece ‘The Expression of Zaar’, which was recorded on that medium.

Well actually that piece – or rather the short ‘Wire Recorder Piece’ excerpt from it – was played in the second hour after the original broadcast. We’d prepared a short segment on it but we had to leave it out due to time constraints. I know the piece is often cited as musique concrète avant la lettre, but I’m a bit suspicious about the chronology. I have no problem accepting that the raw material was captured using a wire recorder, and that it was then processed. However, the contention that the final mix, as it were, was then transferred to tape for its first public airing at a Cairo art gallery seems a bit dubious. If it was indeed 1944, I‘d be really keen to learn how Middle East Radio got hold of tape recorders at that time – perhaps were they confiscated from German troops during El Alamein? It seems very unlikely, and I haven’t seen a satisfactory explanation of that bit of the story so far. Of course, none of this detracts from the audacity of El-Dabh’s early essay in the medium, nor from his crucial notion of ‘going inside the recording’.

In the series you drew attention to the impact that World War II had on electronic music from a technological, sociological and ideological point of view. Don’t you think you were overdoing it?

No, I really don’t. On the contrary, I think there’s a hell of a lot still to be unpicked about the impact of the war. There are obvious things like the development and adoption of the tape recorder, the brief rivalry between Paris and Cologne, and the acceleration of computer technology. But as I mentioned very briefly in Episode Two, the whole denazification process – as it relates to the earliest years of Darmstadt – is only just starting to be examined. Amy Beal[5] and Martin Iddon[6] have done some really engrossing work on this, and Ian Pace is currently researching Meyer-Eppler and others like Oskar Vierling – I had a fascinating email exchange with Ian that informed my comments in the programme. And then there’s the whole vocoder thread. Dave Tompkins’ book[7] on the history of the vocoder is a great read, but there are still a lot of unanswered questions about the nature and scope of the German vocoder projects before and during the war and how all of this informed Meyer-Eppler’s view of the possibilities of making an electronic music which had nothing to do with tape, or keyboard instruments.  And I’ve recently come across evidence that the GPO in the UK were working on a vocoder in the late ‘40s, so I look forward to all of those threads being teased out.

I was pleased to see that you included Suzanne Ciani and Delia Derbyshire in the series as well as a bit about Daphne Oram, but why didn’t we hear more about her Oramics work?

Oh, for a number of reasons. Over the last few years there’s been a tendency in hipster blogs and other publications –The Wire being perhaps the prime culprit here – to overstate to a ludicrous degree the impact and importance of hitherto overlooked or unsung figures in electronic music. Recent examples might include Fred Judd, Lily Greenham, Eliane Radigue, Ernest Berk, Desmond Leslie... each of them effectively becoming the “Forgotten Electronic Music Pioneer Of The Month”, and you get preposterous statements along the lines of ‘Daphne Oram Invented Techno’ or something equally daft.  Quite a few of of those people were really no more than amateur dabblers. Simon Reynolds wrote a pretty shrewd piece[8] that touched on this phenomenon a couple of years ago. I mean, if you’re into a certain kind of nostalgia it’s maybe nice that their work is being made available, and saved from oblivion – and I do like the stuff that Jonny Trunk puts out on his label, but there’s a danger that real achievements – like those of Tristram Cary’s for instance – are then lessened...[sighs]...

Look, there’s no doubt that – early on – Daphne Oram did have a significant impact on electronic music in the UK, most obviously through her part in establishing the Radiophonic Workshop as well as through setting up her own studio and her ‘outreach’ and teaching. Having said that, I think her direct musical impact has been rather overstated of late. Her Oramics machine was certainly a very interesting alternative way of generating sound. But for all the hype, the fact remains that it never seems to have progressed beyond the working prototype stage – despite decades of development[9].

What hasn’t really been put in proper perspective yet is the impact on UK popular culture of her work for commercials and schools programmes in the ‘60s.  Not as big an impact as the Radiophonic Workshop, to be sure, but it’s there nonetheless. To Daphne’s work in this field I think you could add the contemporary ‘commercials-with-some electronics’ sound world of Barry Gray[10]. He’s much better known for doing the music for most of the Gerry Anderson TV shows – Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet, Joe 90, UFO and so on – but he had a pretty good private electronic studio for the early 60s.  It included an Ondes Martenot, and Pete Townshend recorded his earliest demos there – Gray was a friend of his dad’s.

But by suggesting that we take Barry Gray’s vaguely-electronic commercial dabblings seriously, aren’t you just doing what you criticised The Wire for?

Hmm. Quite possibly, but I think it might be worth seeing what parallels might be drawn between Oram and Gray in the UK, and Raymond Scott and Eric Siday in the States.  Anyway, Barry Gray’s music for UFO was so cool.

Yes...Didn’t you contribute to the hyping up of ‘forgotten’ material yourself by focusing on a fairly obscure bit of Delia Derbyshire’s career when you talked about Unit Delta Plus – without even mentioning White Noise?

Yes, that’s a valid point. Again, it was partly a question of airtime – I had drafted a short segment about White Noise but pretty late in the day, David Butler[11] very kindly supplied us with an exclusive clip of the Unit Delta Plus music from the RSC Macbeth production that hadn’t been heard in public since 1967. Tim and I were very keen to include any exclusive material we could secure for broadcast, so that went in. But yes, you’re right – it does distort the picture, given that many more people have heard the White Noise album than anything Unit Delta Plus produced.

What were some of the highlights for you in making the series?

Well it’s always a pleasure to work with Tim... Overall, I was truly astonished by the generosity of so many of our interviewees with their time, for their detailed checking of the interview transcripts and for supplying great material for the series and great photos for the website.

It was extraordinary that Bernie Krause went to the trouble of sending us that ‘disastrous’ Beaver & Krause version of ‘California Dreamin’’, which he transferred from analogue tape specifically for this series. When he sent it he said : “Other than a few producers and record execs in early 1967 – most long dead, now – no one (except Beaver and me) has ever heard it. Until yesterday, that included my dear wife, Kat”. That’s pretty special. Similarly, Suzanne Ciani sent us some great material including that WBAI broadcast in full, and she was really generous with sending material that hadn’t been released at the time.[12]

For me it was really lovely to talk to John Chowning about FM and the DX-7, and he was so patient too – he must have told those stories hundreds of times. As someone who spent most of the summer of 1984 programming a DX-7, it was great to be talking with the guy who started it all off. But I can’t thank our interviewees enough for their time and their generosity of spirit. Interestingly it was only when I attempted to go through some of the ‘gatekeepers’ of now-deceased electronic music figures that I came up against obstacles. But those characters were very much in a minority.

How did you get interested in electronic music anyway?

I’m not quite sure. Like most of my generation growing up in England I did hear a lot of stuff by the Radiophonic Workshop without really knowing it – Mark Ayres is right on the money when he talks about all this in programme 3. But I don’t think I consciously encountered ‘electronic music’ in the Western art music sense until I was about 15 or so. But before then I certainly liked the sound – and the look – of synthesisers. I remember seeing a VCS3 demonstration on Blue Peter in about 1970 or 71 – there was a little picture of the synth in a Blue Peter Annual about then, and I remember seeing a MiniMoog when Chicory Tip were on Top Of The Pops[13] in 1972. I started buying Tomita records when I was about 13, partly, I think, because of the photos and the big list of Moog modules on the album sleeves! But I loved the sound of the first five or six Tomita albums. Still do, really. And it grew from there, mostly through curiosity.

You have to remember that back then it was really quite hard for an impoverished teenager to find anything out about synthesisers or electronic music – there was no Google or YouTube of course – so I’d write off to synth manufacturers for brochures and information. And there weren’t that many manufacturers, so I probably covered most of them! EMS were always the most generous and they sent loads of stuff including a VCS3 manual – written by Tristram Cary – which is still a great introduction to analogue synthesis. I visited EMS in Putney when I was 14 and again three years later when they’d moved to Oxford, and I was treated to one of Peter Zinovieff’s legendary EMS lunches – one of the last, as they went bust very soon afterwards! Again – it was nice for me personally to have Peter, and David Cockerell, included in the series.

There were some important books in my local library – the Appleton and Pereira[14], and Hubert Howe[15] books, things like that.  Obviously those books – and Radio 3 – mentioned a lot of the classic works and composers of electronic music and that’s probably how I got to read and hear about Varèse, Schaeffer, Stockhausen et al, though I didn’t actually start to buy records like that until a bit later, when I was 17 or so. But a lot of it was sheer curiosity – I bought The Nonesuch Guide to Electronic Music and Tim Souster’s SW1T DR1MZ on spec. when I was 15 just because of the descriptions on the sleeve! I didn’t have much money, so it was quite a risk to shell out 3 or 4 quid on records I’d never even heard...

One really significant event was listening to Tim Souster’s Radio 3 programme The Sleeping Giant Awakes.  It was about music that was then – in 1980 – some of the latest computer music. He played pieces by John Chowning, Michael McNabb, Jean-Claude Risset, Charles Dodge and so on. It made a big impression on me – hence the dedication of programme 5 to Tim.

What do you make of the resurgence of analogue synthesizers?

I’m in two minds about the whole thing. There’s part of me who’s still the 13-year-old kid staring at the ARP 2600 in Rushworth & Dreaper in Liverpool...but away from that kind of nostalgic techno-lust there’s the simple fact that any reasonably tactile set of real-time physical controls beats the pants off a mouse and cursor for kinaesthetic and haptic feedback. No arguments there. And sure, analogue synths – particularly big modulars ­– look sexy, and their design can lead to ways of conceiving signal flow in ‘subversive’ ways that one is much less likely to do, or be able to do, in the digital domain with a screen-based interface.

As far as actual sound is concerned, I think there’s no doubt that digital sound-generating technology is getting to the point where from a listener’s – rather than a performer’s – point of view, analogue modelling in software is so close to the ‘real thing’ as to make no perceptible difference in most musical contexts and under most listening conditions. But let’s face it, the resurgence of analogue synthesizers is not exclusively – or even primarily – to do with sound. It’s about the human/machine interface. And all those wires and flashing lights.

There are, of course, an overwhelming number of useful and – to my mind –musically desirable sound-making and -processing methods that can be achieved only in the digital domain.

Beyond that, there’s clearly a burgeoning subculture of modular analogue synthesiser owners, and a whole new generation of boutique analogue synthesiser module manufacturers – thanks partly to the success of the Eurorack[16] format. This subculture – and those manufacturers – are exhaustively (and exhaustingly) documented in the recent film I Dream Of Wires [17] But we’re getting into sociology and STS[18] territory here.

Are those 1930s Russian clips for real?

Ha! I must say I still haven’t entirely eliminated the shadows of doubt that were cast at my first encounter with these tracks – there is something slightly unbelievable about them. On the other hand, if these tracks – and the documentation that goes with them – are forgeries, they’re exceptionally elaborate ones, and Andrey Smirnov has been spending an awful lot of time and energy to perpetuate and promote a hoax. And for what? I can’t imagine that the financial reward would make it worth it.

There’s a great interview[19] with Milton Babbitt from 1997 where he talks about Pfenniger and Fischinger’s work with hand-drawn soundtracks and then mentions his encounter with a tape recording that was “alleged” to be of Russian handwritten soundtracks c.1935-38, and how he “wasn’t at all sure that it wasn’t a phony.” So he had some doubts. At any rate, I hope Andrey releases more material and recordings so we have more to assess!

Why didn’t you discuss the Telharmonium[20], or other pre-Theremin electrical instruments?

Because instruments of which there are no extant recordings don’t make good radio.

What’s your next radio series going to be about?

I’m still recovering from this one...and so is Tim, probably.

Once the expanded website is up and running I’ll consider this particular job closed and be able to think about radio afresh.

There’s an old project to do a couple of programmes on Michael Finnissy, which I’d like to revive. As for a series, I’m not sure. I think one on Henry Cow and Art Bears and associated bands would be interesting and worthwhile – I don’t think that’s been done yet, though there is a doco[21] about the Rock In Opposition movement.

I’m also very tempted to do a couple of programmes on Tim Souster, and – jumping laterally – one on Thomas Goff’s harpsichords[22]. But at this stage no, I don’t really have any Big Series in mind.





[1] <>

[2] A Tribute to Hugh Le Caine is available as a stream here: <>  (Free) membership of the Canadian Music Centre is required.

[3] From 1958 the Columbia–Princeton Electronic Music Center.

[4] GROOVE (Generated Real-time Output Operations on Voltage-controlled Equipment) was a real-time synthesis and processing system developed in 1970 by Max Mathews and Richard Moore at Bell Labs.

[5] Amy Beal: New Music, New Allies: American Experimental Music in West Germany from the Zero Hour to Reunification. University of California Press, 2006.

[6] Martin Iddon: New Music at Darmstadt: Nono, Stockhausen, Cage and Boulez. Cambridge University Press, 2013.

[7] Dave Tompkins: How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder From World War II to Hip-Hop. Stop Smiling Books, 2011.

[8] <>

[9] For an account of Oram and the Oramics machine by Graham Wrench, principal engineer on the machine from 1965–66, see: < >

[10] Stand By For Adverts, a compilation of Gray’s commercial work, was released by Trunk Records in 2011. <>

[11] Custodian of The Delia Derbyshire Archive at the University of Manchester.

[12] Much of this material has since been released on the albums Lixiviation and Voices of Packaged Souls on the Finders Keepers label <>


[14]  Jon Appleton and Ronald Pereira (eds): The Development and Practice of Electronic Music Prentice-Hall, 1975.

[15] Hubert S. Howe: Electronic Music Synthesis: Concepts, Facilities, Techniques

W.W. Norton & Co, 1975

[16] A module/rack format used most notably by the German synthesiser company Doepfer since 1995 and thereafter adopted by many synthesiser module manufacturers.

[17] <>

[18] Science, Technology and Society.

[19] <>

[20] The most comprehensive written account of this instrument(s) is Reynold Weidenaar’s Magic Music From The Telharmonium. The complete text is freely and legally available here: <>

A short documentary of the same name can be seen here: The sound of the Telharmonium is faked.

[21] Romantic Warriors II: A Progressive Music Saga About Rock In Opposition <>

[22] <>