Tristram Cary: Pioneer of electronic music

Sunday 23 October 2011 07:45

Tristram Cary was a pioneer of tape and electronic music but was equally at home with more conventional forces. As well as writing for the concert hall, he scored the film The Ladykillers and episodes of Doctor Who. He co-designed, with Peter Cockerell and David Zinovieff, the VCS3 synthesizer, making the new technology widely available; the synthesizer featured on Pink Floyd's The Dark Side of the Moon among many other albums.

Born in 1925, Tristram Cary was the third child of the novelist Joyce Cary and his wife Gertrude. Aware that fame had not brought wealth, his father wanted Cary to be a doctor but supported his decision to be a composer. His mother was musical but her taste stopped at Brahms and Wagner. Cary was introduced to modern music by his school friend Donald Swann.

As a child Cary had been interested in electronics and when the Second World War interrupted his studies at Trinity College of Music he joined the Royal Navy, specialising in radar. This inspired him to contemplate using tapes in music, and as soon as he was demobbed in 1946 he began experimenting, whilst studying piano, horn, viola, composition and conducting. A combination of teaching, composition and part-time jobs supported the development of his first electronic music studio.

Even so, his early works were for conventional forces and, as with most composers, he began with chamber music, though in 1952 he wrote a concerto for two horns and strings. In writing about his work, Cary was clear about its strengths but could be disarmingly frank about it. The first piece he recognised was a Partita for Piano from 1949 and five years later he got his first paid commission, for a BBC radio broadcast, The Saint and the Sinner.

His first film, the Ealing comedy The Ladykillers (1955), came about because he and the director Alexander Mackendrick both frequented the Fringes pub in Fulham Road. If Cary's contribution is rather overshadowed by the Boccherini string quintet that the robbers use as an alibi, it is because he wove it so cleverly into his own music.

Cary now began to support himself with commissions from the Old Vic and other theatres, BBC radio and television, and more films as well as concert pieces. Some required conventional scores, but for Richard Williams' award-winning animation The Little Island (1958) he combined orchestra and electronics. Cary also created sound effects for films including the ill-fated Casino Royale (1967), and the apocalyptic animation When the Wind Blows (1986).

His work at the BBC included several classic serials and incidental music for Doctor Who – he scored the first dalek story. His 1962 radio musical The Ballad of Peckham Rye (one of several collaborations with Muriel Spark) won a Prix Italia, and was later staged in London and Germany and televised in Austria. For Leviathan 99 (1968), based on Roy Bradbury's space version of Moby Dick he wrote "a sort of 19th-century electronic score".

While tape pieces give the composer access to different sound worlds, their fixed nature makes "performances" less interesting, and Cary looked for something more dynamic. In Narcissus (1968), a flautist and a tape operator reflect each other's performances (hence the title), and Trios (1971) employs the VCS3 synthesizer and two turntable operators whose actions are directed by dice.

In 1967 Cary founded the Royal College of Music electronic music studio, whilst also designing and building his own facility. When he emigrated to Australia, in the early 1970s, most of his own equipment was incorporated into Adelaide Univer sity's expanding teaching studio. Cary was involved in Expo 67 in Montreal, scoring Don Levy's multi-screen film Sources of Power, as well as providing the music for the British pavilion's industrial section, using stereo sound and 16 film loops.

In 1967 he also worked on the first of two films for the Hammer company; the studio provided several "serious" composers with work. In Quatermass and the Pit, construction of a London Underground extension uncovers a mysterious craft, unleashing ancient forces and telekinetic chaos. Cary supplemented his pithy, highly dissonant and atmospheric score with a panoply of special sound effects. Blood from the Mummy's Tomb (1971) needed a more conventional score, including Hollywood-ish "Egyptian" music for the predictably reincarnated princess and woozy "remembrance of past life" cues.

In 1973 he was commissioned by the machine manufacturer Olivetti. In the resulting piece, Divertimento, Cary employed the company's technology alongside 16 singers and a jazz drummer. Comparing the demands of corporate and court patronage, Cary described the piece as "friendly" and "undemanding". One of his last theatrical works was Echoes till Sunset, a three-hour open-air, multi-media entertainment for the 1984 Adelaide Festival.

Cary was a regular broadcaster, and wrote and presented two music programmes for the Open University. He was also a music critic and columnist, and wrote the Illustrated Compendium of Musical Technology (1992).

After various posts at Adelaide University, in 1986 Cary returned to full-time composition and sound consultancy, remaining honorary visiting research fellow at the university. He created concert suites from some of his early films: The Ladykillers appeared on an award-winning CD, one of several devoted to his film and concert work.

In 1991 he was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia for services to Australian music. His 75th birthday was marked by a commission from Symphony Australia for a large-scale orchestral piece, Scenes from a Life, which Cary described as "roughly autobiographical".

John Riley

Tristram Ogilvie Cary, composer: born Oxford 14 May 1925; married 1961 Dorse Dukes (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1980), 2003 Jane Devlin; died Adelaide, South Australia 24 April 2008.

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