Divertimento 05


Tristram Cary


It's time for Tristram Cary

Tristram Cary and EMS

Tristram Cary, though not a member of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, nevertheless played a key role in shaping the Workshop, in addition to being an accomplished musician and composer in his own right. He was a radio operator during World War II, and after the war, his experience carried over into new experiments in recorded sound.

As you might have gathered, the period after the war was what SF types call “steam-engine time” for electronic music—Cary, Oram, Briscoe, and many more composers in the UK and elsewhere were repurposing old military equipment and noodling around with magnetic tape and sound generators, many more or less independently of each other. Cary’s career as a film scorer eventually brought him into contact with the BBC, for which he scored “The Daleks”, the Doctor Who serial in which the eponymous pepperpots made their debut, and produced the incidental music for “An Unearthly Child”. 

In 1969, he formed EMS (Electronic Music Studios) with Peter Zinovieff and David Cockerell. EMS was the first UK synthesizer company; if you’ve seen any videos of Roxy Music performing while Brian Eno was in the band, he’s playing one of EMS’s VCS3 synthesizers. Around that time, Desmond Briscoe and Moog were making overtures to one another, with the idea that the BBC Radiophonic Workshop might acquire a Moog. But in the end, Briscoe and the BBC went with one of their own and in 1970, they purchased a couple of VCS3s and a massive Synthi 100, named the Delaware after the road outside Maida Vale. The synthesizers would have a profound effect on the output of the Workshop in the years to come.

EMS folded in 1979; meanwhile, Tristram Cary moved to Australia in 1974, where he worked at the university in Adelaide until 1986. He continued to work in music and sound, composing and consulting all the way up to his death in 2008. EMS and it assets went through several changes of ownership in the ensuing decades, before experiencing a rebirth in the 1990s with the return of interest in vintage synthesizers.

In 2010, Trunk Records released It’s Time For Tristram Cary, an anthology of his radiophonic and synth work ranging from the 1960s to the early 1970s. As a sample, I’ve selected “Divertimento 05”, commissioned for a short film that the typewriter company Olivetti was going to show at the 1973 grand opening of their UK training center. You can hear the heavily treated typewriter noises throughout—carriage returns, keys being pressed. For a splashy promotional video, this is a fairly dark and ominous sounding-track, severe and industrial, with some odd dissonances and minor tones. One wonders how it went over with Olivetti. In the liner notes, Jonny Trunk doesn’t say, and Cary himself never actually saw the finished film.


  • It’s Time for Tristram Cary. Trunk Records, 2010. Liner notes by Jonny Trunk and John Cary.
  • Special Sound by Louis Niebur. Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • What the Future Sounded Like, dir. Matthew Bate, 2007.