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

Summary: from composer to instrument-builder and performer

At the start of his career, Davies identified primarily as a composer. He began to compose using live electronic techniques after his apprenticeship with Stockhausen. The resulting compositions, Quintet, Galactic Interfaces, and Not to be Loaded with Fish, call for the live electronic transformation of sound sources – acoustic feedback, recordings on tape or disc, amplified objects. His first self-built ‘instruments’ (with scare quotes) were the amplified objects used in Galactic Interfaces, and his first self-contained instrument, Shozyg I, can be seen as a rationalisation of this, prompted by his increasingly busy concert schedule, which demanded equipment that was compact and portable.

Shozyg I marked an ‘instrumental turn’ in Davies’s practice; the point where instrument-building started to become an end in itself, rather than being secondary to composition. He started to build further instruments, totalling more than 120 in his lifetime (Roberts, 2001, p 61), and exhibited these in galleries as artworks in their own right, as well as playing them in concerts. The instrumental turn was paralleled by what Davies later described as a ‘progression from studio composer to solo performer’ (Davies, 1997, p 13). He assembled a performance instrumentarium – the shozyg table – comprising multiple self-built instruments and amplified found objects, which he played regularly as a soloist from 1971 onwards.

After the instrumental turn, Davies’s use of live electronic transformation began to diminish. This was partly because, as his instrumentarium grew, he was able to produce an increasingly wide range of timbres without electronics. Thus, Davies later recalled that he ‘rarely used’ his electronic sound transformation pedals in solo performances after about 1971 (Davies, 1997, p 14). It was also because Davies soon discovered that he could closely emulate the characteristic sounds of live electronics – reverberation, filtering, etc. – by exploiting the ‘natural’ sonic capabilities of the instruments themselves. Although this discovery was accidental – a by-product of using a single keyring mount for Springboard Mk. III – Davies actively developed it in his subsequent instrument-building activities, further diminishing the need for live electronics. In 1977, Roberts reported that ‘[al]though he has no fundamental objection to electronic modification of the signals produced by his instruments, Davies has used it very rarely’ (Roberts, 1977, p 10) – a stark contrast with Davies’s earlier practice, which placed electronic transformation centre stage.

Davies came to view his instruments as an alternative to studio-based electronic sound production methods. He called them ‘musique concrète synthesizers’ (Davies, 1997, p 14), a reference to their ability to instantaneously generate sounds that would take hours or even days to produce in a tape-based studio. Reflecting upon his practice in later life, Davies drew similar parallels:

Normally in building new instruments […], my sound sources are produced by found objects. My initial approach is very like that of a musique concrète composer, who will often explore found sounds that seem to have musical potential… (Davies, 2002a, p 39)

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170705/011