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

Instrument-building and performance

Davies continued to develop his shozyg table alongside work with Gentle Fire, and in 1971, gave his first solo performances using it (Davies, 1997). By this time, he had added a further found object to the table – an amplified ‘3D photograph […] whose grooves are played by running fingernails across them at different speeds’ – as well as a guitar string ‘whose tension is varied by [a] bamboo holder, […] plucked and […] bowed with a violin bow’, and amplified via a record player cartridge (Toop, 1974, p 5). (This was a method of amplification with which Davies was already familiar, since it had been used in Gentle Fire’s performances of John Cage’s Cartridge Music.)

The same year, Gentle Fire was invited to participate in the world première of Sternklang, a new composition by Stockhausen, and Davies conceived and built two new ‘Stringboard’ instruments – note: ‘string’ rather than ‘spring’ – for the occasion. One of these Stringboards now resides in the HDC (Figure 13). It is similar in construction to the Springboards, but since Sternklang required the performers to play specific pitches accurately, Davies used cello strings rather than springs, which were tuneable via pegs, and included frets and pitch names on the instrument’s body. The instrument was designed to be played by bowing.

Distinctively, Sternklang makes use of only 9 of the 11 possible notes of the chromatic scale, so that the notes D-sharp and F-natural are never played at any point during the piece. Examination of the Stringboard reveals that there are no D-sharps or F-naturals marked out on the instrument’s body and, furthermore, that the precise layout of the frets (i.e. the distances between one note and the next) correspond with the specific chords used in Sternklang. This proves beyond reasonable doubt that the instrument in the HDC is one of the two Stringboards that Davies built for use in this piece.

Figure 13

Colour photograph of a self built stringboard instrument by Hugh Davies

Stringboard instrument by Hugh Davies

Davies played his ‘self-built stringed instrument’ for the world première of Sternklang, but ultimately was not convinced that the instrument was musically effective, and switched to clarinet for Gentle Fire’s later performances of the work (Stockhausen, 1992). A few years later, Roberts noted that ‘[t]he small number of instruments that Davies has devised for the purpose of playing in specific pieces (e.g. the Stringboard Mk. I (1971) and Mk. II (1972) for Stockhausen’s Sternklang) have not, he feels, been the most satisfactory, especially where specific pitches were called for: he prefers to let the impulse come from the materials themselves’ (Roberts, 1977, p 8).[25]

Nonetheless, the experience of building and performing with the Stringboard appears to have influenced Davies’s subsequent instrument-building activities. In 1972, he began building a new instrument, subsequently described as standing ‘midway between’ the Springboard and Stringboard types (Roberts, 1977, p 12). Springstring – a one-off instrument, which now resides in the HDC (Figure 14) – comprised two interconnected semi-springs (coiled springs with a straight, elongated metal hook at each end) with a single pickup for amplification. The tension of the springs, and hence the sounding pitch of the instrument, could be adjusted via a tuning peg, and the instrument was intended to be played by bowing; both features invite comparison with the Stringboards that Davies had recently built and played.

Figure 14

Colour photograph of springstring. A self built electro acoustic musical instrument by Hugh Davies

Springstring (1972), self-built electro-acoustic musical instrument by Hugh Davies

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170705/008