"Synthesizers: Sound of the Future" Exhibit Shows Off Australia's Synth History

Australian musician and composer Don Banks was living in London when the burgeoning world of electronic music began calling to him. It was the late 1960s, and at the time, the only people who had access to electronic instruments were those associated with institutions that could afford the massive original Moog modular consoles, which went for $50,000 in today’s money.

Banks, who was working at the time as a secretary for the head of the London Contemporary Music Centre, couldn’t afford such an expense, not to mention the added cost of bringing an instrument back to Australia.

Luckily, Banks knew people who could help: his friends Peter Zinovieff, Tristram Cary, and David Cockerell. Heather Gaunt, curator of the Grainger Museum’s new exhibit, Synthesizers: Sound of the Future, recounts what happened: "[Banks] famously went to them and said ‘Here’s £50. What can you make for me?’"

In response to that proposal, Zinovieff, Cary, and Cockerell joined forces to form Electronic Music Studios Ltd. (EMS), one of the earliest and most influential synthesizer companies. The trio’s inventions would go on to become a major competitor for Robert Moog, and due to EMS’ instruments’ relative affordability, they had a greater impact on Australia’s early electronic scene than any other early synthesizers.

EMS’s synths are a major part of Synthesizers: Sound of the Future. The six-month exhibit brings together a variety of technology from this fascinating period of discovery and includes performances from contemporary electronic artists as well as lectures on the music business.

The history explored in this new exhibit is also tied closely to the history of the Grainger Museum itself. From its founding by the Australian composer Percy Grainger in 1938, the museum has acted as an incubator for Melbourne’s most experimental and innovative music. Grainger, most well known for his folk-dance compositions, spent the later years of his life in the museum, which he created to tell his own story. He devoted his time there to the creation of what he called "free music."

Free music, Gaunt explains, "was all about opportunities to have a direct influence on sound, without feeding it through an orchestra." Grainger believed that music could be created without human interaction, and he designed bizarre machines to do so, from prepared pianos to a curious device that made noise by rolling a wheel connected to an oscillator along rolls of paper. His ingenious experiments with DIY generative instruments are now on display in the museum, where guests are free to interact with them.

Grainger with Earle Kent and Kents Electronic Music Box, 1951

After Grainger’s death in 1961, the museum lay dormant and unused. But in 1966, it was discovered by music student and composer Keith Humble, who had just returned from studying experimental music in Paris to take a job at the University of Melbourne’s Conservatorium of Music—right next door to the Grainger.

"He decided he was going to reinvigorate the Grainger and set up an electronic music studio. Synthesizers were logical extensions of Grainger’s democratic, utopian sort of thinking," Gaunt says. She says that when Humble arrived, the museum "was dusty, dirty, full of mice... no one came in. [Humble] brought in grad students to work there, and [he turned it into] this thriving, amazing avant-garde center of innovation and creativity."

Humble’s role at the Conservatory meant that he was able to bring his interest in electronic music to a new generation of electronic artists. One of those artists was David Chesworth, who studied under Humble in the mid-’70s and put what he had learned to use in the recording of his seminal 1979 album 50 Synthesizer Greats.

"It was interesting being involved as the synthesizer was developing. It was all very new—it hadn’t become normalized. It was always greeted as a novel, slightly provocative instrument." - David Chesworth

"It was interesting being involved as the synthesizer was developing," Chesworth recalls fondly. "It was all very new—it hadn’t become normalized. It was always greeted as a novel, slightly provocative instrument."

Chesworth will return to the Grainger for Synthesizers: Sound of the Future, to perform 50 Synthesizer Greats in its entirety. To do so, Chesworth has written entirely new parts to the 39 tracks, which he will play on the same Korg 700 keyboard he used to record the album back in the ‘70s. That keyboard, he says, was used in a spirit of experimentation: "It had [originally] been developed as an addition for a lounge room organ console."

Visitors to the Grainger are always invited to participate in that same spirit of experimentation, interacting with the machines on display and seeing what weird and wonderful sounds they can create. For this exhibit, that interactivity is expanded—there are a variety of original EMS synthesizers, some of which were originally used by Humble at the Grainger, on loan from the Melbourne Electronic Sound Studio (MESS), an organization that provides access to vintage synthesizers for Melbourne musicians.

David Chesworth - "Kraut Mich Mit Einem Dachshund"

MESS has access to an incredible collection of vintage synthesizers, from early Roland drum machines to original RCA theremins. Generally, their use is restricted to members of the organization, but for Synthesizers: Sound of the Future, there will be a variety of instruments—including early EMS designs like the VCS3, the VCS1, and the EMS Spectre (known as the "video synthesizer")—on display for the use of exhibition patrons.

In addition, visitors can listen to a playlist of the music that inspired the students working at the Grainger in the ‘70s, and see the graphic scores for early synth compositions by artists like Humble.

Allowing valuable vintage instruments to be played by the public might sound risky, but it’s very much in line with MESS’s founding ideals, which—as MESS founders Robin Fox and Byron Scullin explain—is to allow a new generation of electronic musicians access to these machines, rather than allowing them to rot away as collectors items.

"These instruments sometimes end up in the hands of collectors who don’t necessarily play them," Scullin says. "That’s a form of vandalism, because it’s basically consigning them to becoming inoperable in a pretty short period of time."

EMS VCS3

Scullin believes that hands-on experience with analog synthesizers is still important in a world where most electronic artists use programs like Logic or Ableton Live as their main composition tools.

"The computer isn’t a musical instrument as such, it’s a data-entry [and] data-processing machine," he says. "There’s something of the subjective quality of music-making that is being lost in that process."

This exhibit provides rare chance for the public to see that difference for themselves. While enthusiasts can easily spend hundreds of hours tweaking the patches on an instrument like the VCS3 to create exactly the sound they want, even a total amateur can walk up to the instrument and understand intuitively how the noise changes when knobs are turned.

That’s the equalizing power of electronic music, and it goes a long way toward explaining why what was once a niche genre populated by tinkerers has gone on to take over the world. Synthesizers: Sound of the Future is a fascinating insight into the beginnings of the genre, and proves that in an age of digital ubiquity, analog synths are still a portal to discovery.


Synthesizers: Sound of the Future is open at the Grainger Museum on the University of Melbourne campus now through September 9, 2018.

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