Go back to article: The Hugh Davies Collection: live electronic music and self-built electro-acoustic musical instruments, 1967–1975

Hugh Davies: instrument maker


Shozygs I and II marked the beginning of an instrumental turn in Davies’s practice, after which instrument-building gradually superseded composition as his primary creative activity. The term ‘shozyg’ was adopted by Davies as a term to describe ‘any instrument (usually amplified) built inside an unusual container’ (Roberts, 1977). Several such instruments were built by Davies in 1969, though the majority of these were intended, not for concert performance, but for exhibition in art galleries as sound sculptures – a new format for Davies, but one that he would continue to pursue for the remainder of his career, in parallel with his performance-oriented activities.

Davies began to diversify his performance instrumentarium in other ways, however, namely through the addition of individual found objects intended for use as auxiliary sound sources alongside his fully-fledged concert instruments. The first such objects to be used by Davies were coiled metal springs, and a metal-stringed egg-slicer (Figure 8). These were amplified via an electromagnetic pickup – a new method for Davies – which had been salvaged from a telephone handset (Davies, 1997, p 12). Thus, in 1969, several springs, an egg-slicer, and an electromagnetic pickup were added to Davies’s performance table. The springs were played by stretching them by hand and dragging them across the pickup – an interaction that was assisted by the addition of key-rings at the ends of some of the springs (Toop, 1974, p 5). The egg-slicer was played by plucking the ‘strings’ and squeezing the frame or stopping the strings on the circular rim of the telephone pickup in order to control the pitch (Davies, 1981, pp 173–174). This setup was ‘first used in group improvisations in 1969’ (Toop, 1974, p 5), which are likely to have included some of Davies’s earliest public performances with the Music Improvisation Company.

Figure 8

Colour photograph of an egg slicer modified to make sound

Egg-slicer owned by Hugh Davies

The use of loose springs and egg-slicers soon led to the development of further concert instruments by Davies, as he sought to rationalise and augment the musical affordances of these simple found objects. His attempts ‘to construct a more varied egg slicer’ (Davies, 1981, p 174) quickly led him to develop the Aeolian Harp, an instrument comprising several ‘thin fretsaw blades […] mounted in a holder […] and […] blown on by the human breath as well as played with a variety of miniature implements such as a feather and a single hair from a violin bow’ (Davies, 1997, p 13).

Davies’s experiments with loose springs, on the other hand, led to the construction of five new concert instruments in 1970 that he referred to as Springboards – instruments in which a number of springs were attached under tension to sections of blockboard, and amplified via electromagnetic pickups. Springboards Mk. I, Mk. II, and Mk. IV comprised four springs each and represented different approaches to the geometric arrangement of springs (parallel, fan-shaped, etc.), pitch marking (marked or unmarked), and performance ergonomics (easy to play versus visually striking) (Davies, 1981, pp 168–171; Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 1975). Springboard Mk. III, comprising fourteen springs, was devised as both an exhibition piece and a concert instrument, and was thus designed to be visually striking as well as musically ergonomic. It was also the first Springboard to feature a new method for attaching the springs to the board, by hooking them all to a single metal keyring at one end. ‘[B]ecause all the springs meet at the central key ring,’ Davies later noted, ‘a form of “artificial” reverberation is added by undamped springs’ (Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 1975). Springboard Mk. V – a higher-pitched ‘soprano’ springboard – comprised just two springs mounted in parallel. At 6 cm wide, this was ‘more portable and in some ways more flexible in performance’ than the other Springboards. Thus, it was the most suitable candidate for regular inclusion on Davies’s performance table, where it was used alongside Shozygs I and II, the egg-slicer, and the loose springs and pickup.

Davies recorded several improvised solos on his Springboards, and gave these the title Spring Song (Davies, 1970c). The first live solo performance on a Springboard, delivered some years later, took the same title, and was described in Davies’s programme notes as ‘[o]ne of the earliest of Hugh Davies’s solo compositions for his instruments’ (Davies, 1970b). Davies clearly considered Spring Song to be a composition, then; however, there is no score for it; no notation, nor any indication of what kind of musical material should be played. Rather, it seems that any solo performance on a Springboard is, by definition, a performance of Spring Song. In effect, it is the instrument itself that defines the composition.[23] (For recordings of Spring Song, see Postscript.)

Another innovation prompted in part by Davies’s increasingly busy performance schedule was a set of three specially modified foot-pedals – now part of the HDC – which provided a compact and portable way of achieving live electronic sound transformation. The first of these pedals, constructed by Davies in 1970 (Toop, 1974, p 5), was a homemade ring-modulator ‘with a choice of two oscillators’ (Davies, 1997, p 14) housed inside the casing of a commercially-available volume pedal (Figure 9).[24]

Figure 9

Colour photograph of a Volume control pedal by Schaller modified by Hugh Davies to incorporate a self built ring modulator circuit

Volume control pedal by Schaller, modified by Hugh Davies to incorporate self-built ring-modulator circuit

The following year, Davies added a further two pedals: a commercial ‘wah-wah’ unit of the kind typically used by guitarists (Figure 10), and a fuzz distortion and phase-shift pedal custom-built for Davies, again, inside the casing of a commercial volume-control pedal (Figure 11); both of these pedals were further modified by Davies so that they could optionally function as simple volume controls, bypassing the sound transformation circuitry, thus adding further flexibility to his performance setup while keeping the number of pieces of equipment required to a minimum.

Figure 10

Wau Wau Yoy Yoy effects pedal by Schaller modified by Hugh Davies to operate via switch as a volume control

Wau-Wau / Yoy-Yoy effects pedal by Schaller, modified by Hugh Davies to operate (via switch) as a volume control

Figure 11

Volume control pedal by Framus modified for Hugh Davies to incorporate fuzz distortion and phase shifting circuitry and further modified by Davies to operate via switch as a volume control

Volume control pedal by Framus, modified for Hugh Davies to incorporate fuzz distortion and phase-shifting circuitry and further modified by Davies to operate (via switch) as a volume control

The pedals were routinely used by Davies in his ensemble performance activities up to about 1971 (roughly corresponding with Davies’s last performances with MIC), as a way of electronically transforming the sounds produced by his self-built instruments, thus augmenting the range of timbres at his disposal (Davies, 1981, p 510; Davies, 1997, p 14; Davies, 2001, p 56).

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170705/006