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

Self-built instruments supersede live electronics

In 1973, Davies began a new phase of Springboard development, in which he sought to further diversify the instrument family’s sonic capabilities. Whereas the early Springboards had all used springs of identical dimensions, for Springboard Mk. VI (Figure 15) – now part of the HDC – Davies used four springs of different sizes plus one semi-spring to produce a ‘contrabass member of the family’ (Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 1975). It was lower in pitch and, at 133 cm in length, larger in physical dimensions than any of the previous Springboards (Davies, 1981, p 170). The largest spring, mounted centrally and stretched almost the full length of the instrument, had a fundamental frequency of 7 Hz, roughly two octaves lower in pitch than the lowest note on a piano. With Springboard Mk. VII, on the other hand, Davies extended the size and pitch range of the Springboard family in the opposite direction, with a ‘pocket-sized soprano’ version (Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 1975).

Figure 15

Colour photograph of Springboard Mark 6. A self built electro acoustic musical instrument by Hugh Davies

Springboard Mk. VI (1973), self-built electro-acoustic musical instrument by Hugh Davies

The next year, Davies built a further three Springboards that explored the ‘built-in reverberation’ feature first developed in Springboard Mk. III. In Springboard Mk. VIII, ‘the idea of the central keyring of Mk. III [was] developed’, while Springboard Mk. X, in turn, represented an ‘expansion of the idea of Mk. VIII, adding a second, concentric “keyring” with smaller springs connecting the two’. ‘Complex changes in filtering and reverberation may be produced in this model’, Davies observed, ‘by altering through damping the route that the vibration from a plucked spring must travel to reach the pickup’ (Roberts, 1977, p 12). These new developments culminated in the building of a prototype for Springboard Mk. XI – now part of the HDC (Figure 16) – ‘continuing the development of the keyring principle, replacing the larger ring by individual springs’ (Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 1975, p 2), and ‘so permitting slightly more subtle filtering’ (Roberts, 1977, p 12).[26]

Figure 16

Colour photograph of Springboard Mark 11. A self built electro acoustic musical instrument by Hugh Davies

Springboard Mk. XI (prototype). Self-built electro-acoustic musical instrument by Hugh Davies

Around this time, while reflecting upon his experience as a performer in live electronics ensembles, Davies noted that:

a general tendency has been to start out by assembling a substantial amount of personally-owned equipment for sound modification as well as for amplification, and then to find that the way in which the performers produce sounds on their instruments becomes increasingly closer to the sounds previously obtained by using transformation equipment... This [trend] is further substantiated by an increasing interest among the musicians involved in live electronic music in constructing new, usually amplified instruments whose sounds range from ones associated with conventional instruments to those of electronic music. These sounds are, furthermore, “natural” to the instruments... (Davies, 1973)

In other words, Davies was aware that, increasingly, he was able to achieve, via his self-built instruments alone, the kinds of sonic results that he had once obtained via live electronic processing. Indeed, Davies later noted that ‘[o]n several occasions, without initially realising it, I have built into an electro-acoustic instrument the equivalent of a piece of electronic music transformation equipment such as a filter, reverberation unit or certain kinds of modulation’ (Davies, 1981, p 163).

Davies’s Springboards – of which a dozen different models were ultimately produced[27] – provided the basis for a composition for small ensemble entitled Gentle Springs (Davies, 1972). Each of the four or five players was to choose a different Springboard, and ‘[explore] the “musical personality” of the Springboard that he/she has chosen’. No indication was given as to what sounds should be produced on a moment-to-moment basis; rather, the performance was supposed to be improvised, the sonic characteristics of the music being defined primarily by the distinctive sonic and tactile affordances (Mooney, 2010) of the instruments themselves. Notably, no live electronic transformation of the Springboard sounds was prescribed: the composition showcased the unadulterated sounds of the instruments, which were themselves able to reproduce many of the timbres that Davies had once achieved via live electronic transformation.

Gentle Springs illustrates how Davies’s creative priorities began to shift after the instrumental turn. Put simply, he went from being a composer who built ‘instruments’ for use in his live electronic compositions (as in Galactic Interfaces), to being an instrument-builder who composed as a way of showcasing his instruments (as in Gentle Springs).

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170705/009