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  • Writer's pictureThom Holmes

Electronic Music by Design: The Instruments and Music of Hugh Davies

Hugh Davies (1943–2005) was raised in England, studied music history and theory at Oxford University in the early sixties (1961-64). As a teen, he bought a curious album of electronic music, none other that Gesang Der Jünglinge (Song of the Youths) by Karlheinz Stockhausen. In 1964 he travelled to Cologne to work with Stockhausen as his technical assistant, succeeding Cornelius Cardew who was Stockhausen’s assistant before him. With Stockhausen, he learned about devising methods to amplify objects with contact microphones and joined the composer’s live performance groups for a couple of years. In the background we’re listening to Mikrophonie I by Stockhausen, on which Davies performed.

Davies also assembled and created documentation for Stockhausen's compositions at the time, an endeavor that led him to one of his most famous research accomplishments, assembly of the much-lauded International Electronic Music Catalog, a comprehensive index, guide, and discography to all of the known electronic music studios of the world at the time. He worked on this under the auspices of the Groupe de Recherches Musicales of French radio, which partly sponsored the research. Davies spend three months in Paris for this purpose. The catalog was published in 1968 by MIT press and the data was painstakingly collected through mail surveys and personal correspondence between the years 1965 and 1967. I still have my original copy, which has a been a cherished resource for me around the history of electronic music studios and their output. Davies' approach to data integrity, comprehensiveness, and accessibility have always guided me in my own research work. Anyone who has used my own book, Electronic and Experimental Music, can see the influence of Davies, which I have acknowledged especially in the appendix which is somewhat of an update of what Davies did in 1968.

I mention the electronic music catalog because it says much about Davies’ intellect, interest in experimental music, and meticulousness as a researcher. He forged a career for himself in education. Davies was the founder and first Director of the Electronic Music Studios at Goldsmiths, University of London from 1968 to 1986 and was subsequently a researcher there until 1991. Davies was a part-time Lecturer in Sonic Art at the Centre for Electronic Arts, Middlesex University, London from 1999 until his death in 2005.

But Davies is perhaps more widely known as a tabletop electronic gadgets improviser much in the tradition of Americans David Tudor and Gordon Mumma. He followed a similar but different path around improvised music in the UK and often participated in performances with jazz musicians including Derek Bailey and Evan Parker. Among the groups he worked with were The Music Improvisation Company, Gentle Fire, and Borbetomagus, all of whom we will hear in selections in this podcast.

Davies’ general practice was to generate sounds acoustically and amplify them electronically. Even it sounds like post-production processing might be in play, Davies is proud of the fact that the sounds he made were created in real-time. Keeping this mind adds value to the scale of his genius. According to his own estimate, as of 1994, Davies had constructed about “130 new concert instruments, sound installations, sound sculptures and toy instruments.”

His experience in making his own instruments began around 1968 with experiments with loose springs, leading to the use of any number of household objects including slicers for eggs and other kinds of vegetables that he plucked like tiny harps. He worked out a way to mount springs on a length of board to improve their resonant qualities. All of these were amplified with contact microphones and often the sound was processing using his own circuitry or modifications made to off the shelf pedals and other gadgets. This led to various instruments that he collectively called “springboards.”

Another instrument he created was called the Shozyg. It was made from some discarded hollowed-out encyclopedia volumes. The first of these, created in 1968, was originally a volume covering entries for the alphabet from SHO to ZYG, hence the generic name Shozyg which he applied to this whole series of instruments. Inside, he affixed small jigsaw blades, a ball-bearing furniture castor, and a spring, and connected them to a pair of contact microphones.

Another one of his instruments was the so-named “bowed diaphragm” which he added to his performance worktable while working with Gentle Fire in the early 1970s. We will hear an example of the bowed diaphragm in a solo piece as well as with Gentle Fire.

We will now listen to a retrospective of Davies electronic music work. The works span a long period of time, from about 1968 to around the year 2000. I’ve tried to assemble a diverse group of sounds from these various instruments, selections of his solo work, and collaborations with other musicians. The final track will be a sound piece for a museum installation.

In the podcast, we listened to a retrospective of Davies electronic music work. The works spanned a long period of time, from about 1968 to around the year 2000. I assembled a diverse group of sounds from these various instruments, selections of his solo work, and collaborations with other musicians. The final track was a sound piece for a museum installation.

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Electronic and Experimental Music

Notes on the development and continuing history of electronic music, its creators, and the technology.

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