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

Live electronic compositions

It was on returning to England in 1967 that Davies began to acquire the objects that now constitute the HDC. Keen to pursue live electronics in his own compositional work, but no longer having access to Stockhausen’s equipment, he set to work with what little equipment he already owned or could build himself. In the first instance, this included little more than ‘contact microphones and a stereo mixer’ (Figure 1 and Figure 2) and ‘a sine/square wave generator’ (Figure 3), ‘stereo amplifier (2 x 10 watts) and 2 loudspeakers’ that he built from kits. For sound sources, he began to build makeshift ‘instruments’ comprising every-day objects fitted with contact microphones. These included a ‘comb quartet (SATB)’ and ‘springs stretched across a wooden bridge mounted on an upturned tin’. In the summer of 1967, Davies played these ‘instruments’ in improvisations with the like-minded musician Richard Orton (whom he had met the previous year during a visit to Cambridge), along with ‘shortwave radios, amplified fireguard and toy piano’ (Davies, 1970a). A DIY approach in Davies’s work was thus born out of necessity, as a way of exploring live electronic techniques with little money and no institutional support.

Figure 1

Colour photograph of a pair of contact microphones

Two contact microphones used by Hugh Davies

Figure 2

Colour photograph of an Uher Quad Stereo pre-amp mixer

Uher Stereo Mix-5 type A121 mixer used and modified by Hugh Davies

Figure 3

Colour photograph of a sine square wave generator

Heathkit sine and square wave generator built from a kit by Hugh Davies

Before long, Davies moved to London, and developments began to pick up pace. He became the inaugural studio manager of a new Electronic Music Workshop (EMW) at Goldsmiths – a position that enabled him to acquire further equipment that he could not afford to purchase personally, including three high quality stereophonic tape recorders – all now in the HDC – one of which Davies promptly had modified so that its playback speed could be continuously varied (Figure 4) (Davies, 1977). He also became concert director for the Arts Laboratory in Covent Garden, an appointment that placed him at the heart of the capital city’s burgeoning experimental arts scene as well as providing ready access to a venue in which concerts could be staged. With these prerequisites in place, Davies was finally able to turn his attention to composition. 

Figure 4

Colour photograph of a Revox A77 tape recorder modified for continuously variable playback

Revox A77 tape recorder acquired by Hugh Davies for the Goldsmiths’ Electronic Music Workshop and modified for continuously variable playback speed

Around this time, Davies defined live electronic music in terms of the ‘electronic transformation of sounds’ during performance; whether the sound sources were ‘conventional instruments […] found or adapted objects […] electronic oscillators [or] recordings’, it was their electronic transformation that defined the practice of live electronic music (Davies, 2001, p 54). Several of the objects in the HDC were used by Davies for this purpose in his live electronic compositions of 1967–1968. As well as being among the first such compositions by a British composer, these pieces highlight the influence of Stockhausen, Cage/Tudor/Mumma, and Neuhaus upon Davies’s early practice. (See Postscript for details of recordings of the pieces discussed in this section.) 

In Quintet (Alstrabal……) (1967–1968),[11] Davies used his battery-powered Uher mixing console (Figure 2) to control the generation of acoustic feedback via microphones and loudspeakers, while a sine/square wave generator (Figure 3) was used ‘to modulate (without actually employing a ring-modulator) the microphone feedback’ (Davies, 1967).[12] Four performers (players 1 through 4) are positioned in the four corners of the performance venue, each standing in front of a loudspeaker, and each equipped with a handheld microphone. They generate acoustic feedback – a form of electro-acoustic oscillation – by holding the microphones close to the loudspeakers, in accordance with instructions in the score that describe the required actions and sounding results. For example: ‘Move the microphone slowly in different directions, producing increasingly wider pitch intervals’; or ‘Fade sounds in and out by hand movements between the microphone and the loudspeaker’ (Davies, 1967; Davies, 1971). A fifth performer (player 5), seated at the centre of the hall, controls the levels of all the microphones and the routings of microphones to loudspeakers, and thus has overall control of the other players’ ability to produce feedback. In Davies’s own realisations of Quintet, this was achieved by using the Uher mixing desk to control levels, and a four-channel switching unit custom-built by Davies to determine the routings. Player 5 is also equipped with a microphone and a further pair of loudspeakers, which are used to produce feedback for Player 5’s solo in the middle of the piece – during which the sine/square wave generator is used to modulate the feedback sounds.

The use of feedback for musical effect was something that Davies had previously seen in performances by Max Neuhaus. It is also likely that Davies would have experienced the accidental ring-modulation of acoustic feedback during rehearsals with Stockhausen; indeed, as the author has noted elsewhere, evidence suggests that it was the experience of trying to avoid feedback in rehearsals of Mikrophonie I that provided the inspiration for exploring it deliberately and explicitly in Quintet (Mooney, 2016d, p 105). As Davies did not possess a ring-modulator, however, the use of such a device in Quintet was not possible.

By the time Davies composed Galactic Interfaces (1967–1968),[13] however, he had built two of his own ring-modulators (Davies, 1970a), which he used along with two sine/square wave generators to transform the sounds produced by amplified every-day objects and pre-recorded sounds from magnetic tape. In Galactic Interfaces, four improvising performers produce sounds using ‘various small “instruments”, specially constructed [and] fitted with contact microphones’ (Davies, 1968a); these were, of course, the ‘instruments’ built by Davies in the summer of 1967. Further sound material is supplied by two stereophonic magnetic tapes, prepared by Davies at Goldsmiths EMW in early 1968. In performance, the sounds from the ‘instruments’ and tapes are transformed electronically (using the ring-modulators/generators plus an optional fuzz-box) and projected via four loudspeakers via a light-sensitive sound distribution device, again, built by Davies.[14] As well as the four-channel switching unit mentioned previously, the four independently adjustable input channels of Davies’s Uher mixer were exploited, and it is likely that the after-market addition of a pre-amplification stage to the mixer – indicated by the labelling seen in Figure 2 – was done to enable the performance of this piece, by providing the high impedance inputs needed when using contact microphones.[15]

Given the similarities in the equipment used (contact microphones to amplify every-day objects, light-sensitive photocells, etc.), it seems reasonable to suggest that Galactic Interfaces was influenced by the performance of Cage’s Variations V that Davies recently attended. There are also echoes of Stockhausen’s practice in the use of close amplification (as in Mikrophonie I), ring-modulation (as in Mixtur), and quadraphonic sound projection (as in Gesang der Jünglinge and Kontakte). A further connection to his experiences as Stockhausen’s assistant can be seen in Davies’s performance directions, which specify that the amplified objects should be ‘made to sound by a variety of different “strikers” […] of a variety of different materials’, a requirement that invites comparison to the performance techniques that Davies witnessed in Mikrophonie I.

Finally, in Not to be Loaded with Fish (1968–1969),[16] Davies used a cheap, battery-powered record player – now part of the HDC (Figure 5) – which he modified so that the record could be played forwards or backwards at the flick of a switch. In advance of a performance, the performer is expected to make a gramophone recording at a public ‘record your own voice’ booth.[17] ‘The record is to be made vocally,’ Davies explains, ‘with as much variety as possible (e.g. breathing, growling, murmuring, whistling, intoning, etc.) but excluding conventional singing’ (Davies, 1969).[18] In performance, this record is to be played forwards and backwards ad lib – using the flick-switch on the modified record player – such that the performance lasts ‘approximately twice the length of the record used’ (Davies, 1969). The performer also dynamically controls the stereophonic distribution of sound by manipulating two potentiometers (volume controls) – once again, Davies’s Uher was used for this purpose – as well as ‘chopping up’ the sound from the record player by operating a custom-built ‘2-channel pulsing unit’ consisting of two repurposed telephone dials through which the audio signals are routed.[19]

Figure 5

Colour photograph of a portable record player

Portable battery-operated record player by Electric Audio Reproducers (EAR), modified by Davies for use in live electronic music

The objects discussed so far – the modified record player (Figure 5), the tape recorders borrowed from the Goldsmiths’ EMW (Figure 4), Davies’s Uher mixer (Figure 2), and the sine/square wave generators (Figure 3) that now reside in the HDC, as well as the various other items that did not find their way into the HDC, the ring-modulators, the four-channel switching unit, even the ‘record your own voice booth’ – are the material evidence of Davies’s early career as a composer-performer of live electronic music, which by Davies’s own reckoning was the first such career in England. However, the makeshift ‘instruments’ built by Davies in the summer of 1967, and subsequently used in Galactic Interfaces, prompted further experimentation by Davies along those lines, ultimately resulting in a turn away from live electronic music per se, and an increased focus upon instrument building. 

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170705/004