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Finnish electronic music pioneer Erkki Kurenniemi has died

The instrument builder of Finland's early electronic music scene has died aged 75

Finland’s early electronic music pioneer Erkki Kurenniemi has died. He was 75. The film maker, artist and composer was also an instrument designer who invented one of the world's first digital synthesizers. In 1973 he designed the first commercially manufactured micro-computer, the DIS-System. As noted by Harri Uusitorppa in The Wire 225, the then relatively unknown musician entered the limelight at Helsinki's multimedia Avanto Festival in 2002, when Pan Sonic performed on some of his original electronic instruments. That year also saw the Love Records release of a collection of rare recordings compiled by film maker Mika Taanila, who also made a documentary about Kurenniemi called The Future Is Not What It Used To Be.

Born on 10 July 1941 in Hämeenlinna, Finland, Kurenniemi set up his first electronic music studio during the mid-1950s in his school loft. Between 1962–74 he worked as a volunteer assistant at the University of Helsinki's Department of Musicology where he built an electronic music studio starting with a Telefunken tape recorder. Kurenniemi also worked as as an assistant and a designer at Department of Theoretical Physics from 1962–73, earning a Bachelor of Science degree in 1968.

One of Kurenniemi’s earliest recorded works was 1963's On/Off, which was inspired by a power station. He designed and built the Sähkökvartetti (Electric Quartet) as an instrument for simultaneous group composition, which can be heard in Finnish artist M A Numminen's "Kaukana Väijyy Ystäviä". Inspired by the notion of bio-music and human interaction, Kurenniemi invented the DIMI synthesizer series.

Kurenniemi made 14 experimental 16 mm films about nature, sex and technology. As Jennifer Lucy Allan notes in an article on the exhibition Erkki Kurenniemi: Towards 2048 in Helsinki, “Kurenniemi anticipated a time where bodies would integrate with machines. In 1982 he wrote in his diary: ‘I have owned a PC for 20 months now. In those 20 months the machine has become part of me (or I of it).’ His self-built instruments bear this out: Dimi-T translates brain waves into sound; Dimi-S (aka the sexophone) uses human touch to complete the circuit to make sound.” She also noted the way he called the body an “organic slime machine”.

Following periods writing about mathematical theories of music, articles on science and the potential of computer technology, and working in jobs such as a designer of industrial automation and robotic systems at Nokia, Kurenniemi returned to music in the mid-2000s, when he collaborated with Thomas Carlsson on a new version of the Dimi instrument. Designed to create sound based on space, it featured two cameras connected to a computer and display unit.

Erkki Kurenniemi’s archives are available at the Central Art Archives of the Finnish National Gallery. He received the Finland Prize of the Ministry of Education and Culture in 2003.

Kurenniemi died in hospital in Helsinki on 1 May following a long illness.