Vale Tristram Cary, 1925-2008

Photograph of Tristram Cary

The godfather of British electronic music, composer Tristram Ogilvie Cary OAM, died on 24 April 2008. He was aged 82.

Cary’s story is told in his Wikipedia profile and the Times Online obituary. If anyone outside the “serious music” world knows him, it’s usually for writing the soundtracks for early Doctor Who episodes and films (which he hated talking about), or the Hammer Horror movies Quatermass and the Pit (1967) and Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb (1971).

However Cary was also a pioneer of music synthesisers. Trained as a radar technician in WWII, he co-founded Electronic Music Studios (EMS), which created the first portable synthesiser, the VCS 3.

I worked briefly with Cary one summer as a programmer. He was director of the electronic music studio at the Elder Conservatorium of Music in Adelaide. I wrote a digital filter in PL/1 (!) for what I think was the Synclavier synthesiser — though it may have been something else, because as a hardware hacker Cary was well wicked. In his studio, it was difficult to see where one machine ended and the next began, they were so cross-linked.

I remember he was particularly fascinated with the sounds of bells, which then were starting to become achievable through digital synthesis. It was the first time I’ve ever found my applied mathematics knowledge of Fourier Transforms to be even remotely useful.

If you enjoy any kind of electronic music, you should take an hour of your day to learn more about Tristram Cary. He made your world.

[Footnote: I found out about Tristram Cary’s death from a most unusual source: the end credits to Shaun Micaleff’s program Newstopia. The more I discover about you, Shaun, the more I think my initial assessment of you as an arsehole was a mistake.]

11 Replies to “Vale Tristram Cary, 1925-2008”

  1. Another 20th Century genius passes away.
    However, I am pleased to announce I will officially not be ruining the occasion this time.

    Thank you.

  2. Stil, do you know if Mr. Cary had any involvement in the KPM Recorded Music Library’s KPM 1000 Series of greensleeve LPs from the early-to-mid seventies? This series began in 1965 and featured short instrumental pieces from contemporary composers of the time for use in television & radio programs, film and advertising. (Some of this music I actually remember from British educational programs in primary school.)

    Now some years ago, a nice slab of these vinyls fortuitously landed in my lap (in not at all above board circumstances, mind you) and a handful of those releases from the very early seventies, named Electrosound (by Ron Geesin), Electrosonic (Harper/Russe/St. George), Electronic Music (W. Merrick Farran/E. Vetter), The Electronic Light Orchestra (Adrian Wagner) and A Moog For All Reasons (Mike Vickers), dealt purely with experimental electronic music from a very eery, Theremin/Moogey-esque sound palette. They’re like prototypes of exactly the type of sound Walter/Wendy Carlos achieved on the Clockwork Orange soundtrack, and then later refined on the soundtrack to Tron. And I can’t help but think Tristram Cary couldn’t have been too far away from any of it.

    Any leads?

  3. @Stephen Stockwell: Having just conducted a comprehensive research project (i.e. I did one Google search and read 2 Wikipedia pages), I think that answer is: “No, Mr Cary did not do anything for the KPM 1000 series, but there is a connection”…

    One of the KPM composers, David Hewson, enrolled in a part time courses on electronic music with Tristram Cary at the Royal College of Music. Looking at the page for Mr Cary himself, his list of compositions doesn’t include any KPM material. He took a different path.

  4. Okay, relax.
    I too found the same answers from the same comprehensive search, but thought you may be aware of further detail, having actually known the man from Adelaide Uni.

  5. I’m very sorry to hear of Tristram Cary’s death. I wrote my Master’s dissertation on Cary as a Pioneer of Electronic Music in England. It includes a catalogue of his works up until 1973 if that is of interest to anyone. I had the good fortune to be able to interview the man and access his original documents. The dissertation is descriptive and I should put its revision on the list of things to do when I retire. I’m sure placing Cary’s work in historical persepective could improve the 1983 version!

    1. Hello Kaye,

      Greetings from Chicago! I was wondering if there’s a way to be able to read your thesis? I’m a huge fan of early electronic music and Cary’s music and would really like to read more about him, but there’s very little out there. I saw your thesis listed through one of my library’s search engines (WorldCat) but it’s not available. Is there a way I could get a copy from you? Or has there been any headway on posting it through this site?

      Best regards,


      1. @Gregor: Kaye has sent me a hard copy of the dissertation. Since it was produced before The Digital Age, it will need to be scanned and run through OCR. I will look at some timelines for that when I return to Australia.

        1. Thanks for the update – that would be really wonderful. I’ve got the “Soundings” 2CD but beyond those liner notes and your tribute I haven’t been able to find many accounts of his life and work — Kaye’s dissertation would be a very welcome read for many, I’m sure.

          In the meantime, I’m trying to borrow some of the Canberra School’s CDs through interlibrary loans, but so far am having little success.

          If scanning, etc., proves to be a bigger task than is feasible, I may be able to help. We have a somewhat fancy multi-page scanner at the music college where I work. One option is that I could reimburse you for a xeroxed copy & postage, then scan it and email you the digital file for posting on the site.

          In any event, I look forward to the outcome. Thanks very much again!

          Best regards,


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