Hugh Davies’s Instruments and Live Coding: Two Conference Presentations

I recently presented a paper on “Hugh Davies’s Electroacoustic Musical Instruments and their Relation to Present-Day Live Coding Practice” at two international conferences: the Electroacoustic Music Studies Network (EMS) conference in Sheffield in June 2015, and the first International Conference on Live Coding (ICLC) the following month in Leeds. The full paper, plus an online presentation (slides and recorded narration), can be accessed via the links at the bottom of this post.

Davies and McLean

(Image: Hugh Davies playing the Shozyg in 1991 (left); Alex McLean live coding in 2011.)

Beginning in 1967/8 and continuing for the remainder of his career, Hugh Davies constructed over 120 self-built musical instruments, many of which consisted of every-day objects amplified via contact microphones. The purpose of this most recent conference paper was to identify points of similarity between Davies’s practice and the present-day practice of live coding, defined here as the use of a computer programming language to generate music in a live performance. The paper is part of a broader attempt to place Davies’s instrument-building practice in a broader historic and cultural context, and is an extension and further development of a previous conference paper that I delivered in March 2015.

Very briefly, the four points of connection that I make between Davies’s practice and live coding in this paper are as follows:

  1. Both are members of a common historic trajectory of live electronic music (as opposed to electronic music produced off-stage in a studio);
  2. Both are practices in which the performer him- or herself builds, modifies, and/or combines the tools of music-making;
  3. Both are improvised in nature, algorithmic in process, and bounded by the constraints of the chosen system;
  4. Both are underpinned by a community-engagement ethos.

The brief question-and-answer session after the paper was delivered at the EMS conference led to some most interesting discussion, addressing several aspects that I was not able to cover within the 20-minute time-frame of the presentation itself. (Here I must thank those who made comments and asked questions after the talk, including Georgina Born, Simon Emmerson, Adrian Moore, and anybody else I may have forgotten.) It is true, for instance, that there are other musicians and musical cultures that are perhaps more obvious and direct inheritors of Davies’s kind of practice than live coding, particularly improvisation groups such as John Richards’s Dirty Electronics Ensemble, and also Adam Bohman, Lee Patterson, Mark Wastell, and others (some of these were mentioned in my previous conference presentation). Nonetheless, there is still a certain ‘DIY mindset’ that is a shared characteristic of both practices. There is also common ground in the way the performer becomes engrossed in the music-making system, and in the careful fingertip dexterity with which interactions with the system are carried out. (See the image above.)

As anticipated, presentation at the ICLC highlighted a rather different set of perspectives on this particular aspect of Davies’s work. For example… In my presentation I noted that in live coding it is quite common to project images of the computer screen during performance, so that the code being typed can be seen by audience members and correlated with changes in the music. Similarly, in performances with his self-built instruments Davies used, wherever possible, to video-project images of his hands, so that members of the audience could better understand the relationship between the sounds heard and the objects and gestures that created them. But to what extent are these practices truly equivalent? In Davies’s practice, one delegate commented, it is the entire instrument that can be seen in video-projection, whereas in live coding one cannot see the mind of the coder. Here, I’m reminded of some of the writings of Thor Magnusson, and specifically the idea that in coding, the symbolic structures that constitute the code – including those held in the mind of the live coder and not yet present on the screen – are a vital and constitutive part of the instrument itself, in a way that is not true – at least on the surface of it – in the case of physical instruments such as those built and played by Davies. To approach the problem from another angle, one might rephrase the question as follows: when we look at code in the context of a live-coded musical performance, is it the ‘instrument’ that we’re looking at?

In general the discussions that I’ve had at the EMS and ICLC conferences have helped to refine and validate the points of connection between Davies’s practice and live coding that I have suggested. Improvisation was a recurring theme at the ICLC, suggesting that Davies’s connection with the free improvisation scene is indeed an important factor in correlating his practice with present-day live coding activities, for instance. And yet, clearly, nobody could claim that Davies’s practice and live coding are identical in every respect, and the discussions that I’ve had with conference delegates have also highlighted some significant differences between the two. For example, there is an immediacy in improvised interactions with physical instruments that does not exist to the same degree in live coding, where a certain ‘time lag’ as algorithms are typed is practically inevitable. (This particular issue was interestingly discussed by Antonio Goulart and Miguel Antlar in their presentation based on this paper.)

The links below give access to my full paper – “Hugh Davies’s Electroacoustic Musical Instruments and their Relation to Present-Day Live Coding Practice: Some Historic Precedents and Similarities” – as well as an abridged version reflecting how it was presented at the EMS conference. (The ICLC presentation was even shorter in duration – 12 minutes.) A link to a earlier conference presentation that discusses Davies’s work in the contexts of avant-garde and freely improvised musics – including some practioners who acknowledge Davies as a direct influence – is also given.


This is an updated version of the post originally entitled “Electroacoustic Music Studies (EMS) Conference 2015, Sheffield”, which was posted on 29 June 2015.


2 thoughts on “Hugh Davies’s Instruments and Live Coding: Two Conference Presentations

  1. Interesting paper, thanks. Do you feel there is also a connection not just to live coders but also to musicians using hardware synthesizers (both analogue and digital) and performing their own music live? I can claim as a practitioner to identify strongly with points 1, 2 and 3. On point 2 I suggest that there is a very large element of this in the synthesizer community as a whole (both commercial and avant garde) who design their own sounds (no presets), and in the subcategory of analogue synths there is a strong circuit bending tradition and raw design culture (in the 1950s Tristram Cary both designed and built his own studio, this ethos continues with various kickstarter projects etc). How do you feel about this in relation to Hugh Davies?


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