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

Working with Stockhausen


On his first day as Stockhausen’s assistant, Davies experienced a new kind of electronic music: rather than being assembled on magnetic tape in the studio, the sounds that Stockhausen and his ensemble were making were being produced and electronically manipulated live on stage, with no use of tape whatsoever. Stockhausen was rehearsing his latest composition, Mikrophonie I, a piece in which the sounds of a tam-tam gong are electronically transformed. Two performers strike, scrape, or otherwise excite the surface of the tam-tam using a range of objects including kitchen implements, cardboard tubes, and electric motors. Two further performers capture the sounds via handheld microphones, which they move around according to detailed directions in the score. The position of each microphone relative to the tam-tam is thus constantly changing, and this affects the loudness and timbral qualities of the sounds that the microphones pick up; hence, the ‘microphonists’ play an active part in transforming the tam-tam sounds. Two more performers use electronic filters and potentiometers (volume controls) to transform the sounds further still before the results are amplified and projected via loudspeakers. The overall result is a combination of acoustic and electronically altered tam-tam sounds (Stockhausen, 1989).

Davies quickly became fascinated by the novel sound-world and unconventional performance techniques of Mikrophonie I. On the second day of his apprenticeship, he noted in his diary that:

The sounds no longer seem strange or at times crude; their microstructure becomes more alive when one gets to know the sounds better… I listen to the tape [Stockhausen] made in his garden with Jaap Spek [a member of Stockhausen’s ensemble] in August, using a plastic egg-timer, glass and shoe to ‘excite’ the tam-tam. This was the only actual experiment that he made for Mikrophonie I: even on this tape there is a very rich and wide range of timbres. During the rehearsals I find that I am beginning to know what sounds and sound characteristics Stockhausen will prefer. I am particularly interested by the sounds produced by the Massagegerät (hand held vibro-massaging machine) and the plastic propeller, both of which are electrically powered. (Davies, 1968d, p 9)

Davies operated filters and potentiometers in several concert performances of Mikrophonie I during his time as Stockhausen’s assistant, as well performing for a commercial recording (reissued on CD, Stockhausen, 2011) and documentary film (Dhomme, 1966).[8]

Another of Stockhausen’s works that Davies encountered was Mixtur, a piece in which the sounds produced by several groups of orchestral instruments (woodwind, brass, percussion, plucked strings, bowed strings) are transformed via an electronic process known as ‘ring modulation’.[9] Four ring modulators with sine-wave generators are used to independently modulate the sounds of the orchestral groups. (The percussion sounds are not modulated.) The generators are operated by four performers, who follow directions in the score that prescribe the frequency (pitch) settings for each generator. This results in timbral and rhythmic transformations of the orchestral sounds. In performances of Mixtur, Davies operated one of the sine-wave generators. A third piece along roughly similar lines – Mikrophonie II for choir, Hammond organ and ring-modulators – was also performed by Davies while he was in Cologne.

As a performer in Stockhausen’s ensemble, Davies gained hands-on knowledge of the tools and techniques of the emerging idiom of live electronic music, and a first-hand understanding of the new sonic possibilities that it engendered. He also encountered other experimental music techniques during his time in Germany. He experienced the spatial projection of sound via multiple loudspeakers for the first time during a lecture in which Stockhausen played his tape-based works Gesang der Jünglinge and Kontakte, for instance (Davies, 1968d, 10).[10] He also attended a solo performance by the percussionist Max Neuhaus, in which contact microphones were attached to percussion instruments and acoustic feedback used for musical effect (Davies, 2005, quoted in liner notes by David Toop).

In 1966, Davies’s apprenticeship with Stockhausen formally ended. Soon after returning to England, he attended a performance in London by John Cage, David Tudor, Gordon Mumma, and the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, in which Cage’s Variations V was performed. Sound material from pre-recorded magnetic tapes and shortwave radios was shaped by the movements of the dancers on stage by way of light-sensitive photocells and proximity-sensitive antennas that controlled the distribution of sound via a custom-built audio mixer, while ‘[a]dditional sonic material was contributed directly by the dancers through contact microphones embedded in objects they handled. Every action involving these objects was amplified’ (Miller, 2001, pp 551–554). It was a concert that Davies would continue to cite as influential for decades to come (Davies, 2001, p 54). Shortly after this, Davies travelled to Paris, and then to Trumansburg, NY (home of the Moog synthesizer company), to work on his International Electronic Music Catalog (Mooney, 2015).

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/170705/003