You can find some documentation of the residency as it progresses by following the ‘Instrument Building’ link, above.
The call for papers for an international conference on “Alternative Histories of Electronic Music” (AHEM) is open until 31 October 2015. The conference will be held at the Science Museum Research Centre, London, on 14-16 April 2016. The call for papers can be found here: https://ahem2016.wordpress.com/call-for-papers/.
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.
(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:
- Both are members of a common historic trajectory of live electronic music (as opposed to electronic music produced off-stage in a studio);
- Both are practices in which the performer him- or herself builds, modifies, and/or combines the tools of music-making;
- Both are improvised in nature, algorithmic in process, and bounded by the constraints of the chosen system;
- 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.
- Full paper with DOI, as published in ICLC proceedings
- Abridged transcript, as delivered at EMS (PDF; Adacemia.edu login may be required)
- Online presentation (slides and recorded narration, as delivered at EMS)
- Link to previous (related) conference paper (IFIMPAC)
This is an updated version of the post originally entitled “Electroacoustic Music Studies (EMS) Conference 2015, Sheffield”, which was posted on 29 June 2015.
The first concert formally attached to this project took place on Saturday 23 May 2015 at the Clothworkers Centenary Concert Hall, University of Leeds. Grey Area – an Edinburgh-based ensemble specialising in semi-improvised and experimental musics – performed a programme of music by Hugh Davies, as well as a range of other pieces related to Davies’s practice as a performer and instrument-builder. Videos of the performance can be viewed by following the links at the bottom of this post.
- Stockhausen – Verbindung (Connection) from Aus den sieben Tagen
- Hugh Davies – Music for a Single Spring
- Christian Wolff – Edges
- Hugh Davies – Quintet
- Owen Green – Neither the Time nor the Energy
- Stockhausen – Intensität (Intensity) from Aus den sieben Tagen
The evening began with a pre-concert talk in which the pieces on the programme were introduced and explained, and – in the second part of the talk – discussed with two of the ensemble’s members. Set against the background of Davies’s work as Stockhausen’s assistant in the mid-1960s, Davies’s self-built instruments, and the interpretation of graphic and text-based scores, were central themes of the discussion.
A video recording of the pre-concert talk can be viewed by following the link at the bottom of this page.
Davies’s own Quintet is a piece in which the majority of sounds heard are produced via microphone feedback. Four performers hold microphones close to loudspeakers, one in each corner of the room. This causes acoustic feedback, which is controlled by a fifth performer, at the centre of the room, who also has a solo in the middle of the piece.
Davies’s Music for a Single Spring is a semi-improvised piece in which, as suggested by the title, all of the sounds are produced by a single metal spring, heavily amplified using magnetic pickups not unlike those found in an electric guitar. In this performance a stereo recording of the piece, originally performed by Davies himself, was diffused via six loudspeakers surrounding the audience.
Three of the pieces on the programme were pieces regularly performed by Davies’s own ensemble, Gentle Fire, in the 1960s and 70s. Stockhausen’s Verbindung and Intensität – both from a set of fifteen pieces entitled Aus den sieben Tagen – have text scores, rather like poems, which the players interpret. Wolff’s Edges, on the other hand, has a graphic score comprising a series of symbols, each with a particular musical meaning. Unlike a conventional musical score, however, the symbols in Wolff’s score are not to be interpreted as direct prescriptions of what should be played. Instead, they are supposed to represent the outer extremes of the musical material; in a sense, then, they give an indication of that which should not played, rather than what should. In the Stockhausen pieces, and in Wolff’s Edges, all of the players work simultaneously from the same score.
Owen Green’s piece Neither the Time nor the Energy was the only new piece on the programme. Played on an amplified cardboard box bowed with a double-bass bow, the piece puts one in mind of Hugh Davies’s many idiosyncratic self-built instruments, which also tended to be constructed from every-day objects and household nicknacks, amplified to reveal their latent musical possibilities.
Along with Green’s cardboard box (Green is a member of the ensemble) the other instruments used in the performance were violin (Emma Lloyd), laptop (Dave Murray-Rust), double bass (Armin Sturm) and modular synthesizer (Sean Williams). Music for a Single Spring was diffused by James Mooney.
Further information about the pieces, and how they relate to Hugh Davies’s work, can be found in the programme and in the pre-concert talk (links below).
The concert was well-received, with positive comments from both in-person and online viewers. (The concert and talk were streamed live online.) A post-concert survey revealed that many audience members had been fascinated by the relationship between improvised and scored music. One audience member commented: “I had never seen people playing to a score in the context of improvisation.” Green’s use of a cardboard box as a musical instrument also appears to have been a highlight. Another audience member remarked: “I’d never seen a cardboard box being used in a concert like that before. I especially liked it in the Stockhausen.” Almost 40% of audience members responding to the survey commented that this was not the kind of music that they would typically listen to. Gratifyingly, however, all of those audience members also said that they would consider attending a similar concert in the future. This suggests that the Hugh Davies Project might have a role to play in bringing experimental musics to a wider audience.
The next planned event is a weekend of concerts to be held on 17 and 18 October 2015 at University of Leeds. Updates will be forthcoming via this website.
- Concert programme (PDF): click here.
- Pre-concert talk (video): click here.
- Concert, part 1 (video): click here.
- Concert, part 2 (video): click here.
- Storify with some Tweets and pictures from the concert: click here.
- Previous post advertising the concert: click here.
Note: If you watch the concert/talk online (or indeed if you attended the event itself) you are invited to complete the brief audience survey, designed to assess the value of this research project to a wider public. Your response will be warmly appreciated. The survey can be accessed by clicking here.
Image credits: Mark Summers, Colin Bradburne, Tenley Martin
Grey Area Performs: Hugh Davies, Stockhausen, Christian Wolff, Owen Green
Saturday 23 May 2015, pre-concert talk 6.30pm, concert 7.30pm
Clothworkers Centenary Concert Hall
School of Music, University of Leeds
Leeds, West Yorkshire, LS2 9JT
Video stream: http://livestream.com/uol/davies-stockhausen-wolff-green
A rare opportunity to hear performances of works by Hugh Davies and other avant-garde repertoire from the late 1960s. The programme will include Davies’s Quintet (1967-8) and Music for a Single Spring (1975), Verbindung (Connection) and Intensität (Intensity) from Stockhausen’s Aus den sieben Tagen (From the Seven Days, 1968), Wolff’s Edges (1968), and a more recent work by Owen Green for amplified cardboard box. Many of these works were performed by Davies’s own ensemble, Gentle Fire, in the 1970s. On this occasion they will be performed by Grey Area, an Edinburgh-based ensemble specialising in the use of live electronics and acoustic instruments.
There will be a pre-concert talk at 6.30pm; the performance itself will begin at 7.30pm.
About the Ensemble
Grey Area was formed in 2011, with an initial focus on Stockhausen’s ‘Intuitive Music’ works Aus den sieben Tagen and Für Kommende Zeiten. The group has gone on to work with a range of structured improvisations by composers such as Christian Wolff, Cornelius Cardew, Hugh Davies, and Tim Souster, as well as free improvisation and original and collaborative pieces and processes by members of the ensemble. One of the group’s principal interests is in distributed creativity, and the ideas of authorship, agency, and emergence are never far away from Grey Area’s music practice. Regular players are Shiori Usui, Nikki Moran, Armin Sturm, Owen Green, Emma Lloyd, and Sean Williams, with guest players including Sue MacKenzie and Dave Murray-Rust.
- Video stream: click here
- Facebook event: click here
- Concert series webpage: click here
- Directions to the venue: click here
Photograph: Yao Hui
In February 2015, a concert of tape music works by Delia Derbyshire and Daphne Oram was staged as part of the Electric Spring Festival at University of Huddersfield. The concert was preceded by a public conversation between the curator of the concert, Dr James Mooney, and one of the festival’s artistic directors, Prof Monty Adkins. A complete recording of this pre-concert discussion is now available via SoundCloud: click here.
The conversation addressed the context of electronic music in Britain in the 1950s and 60s and included discussion of Hugh Davies, his self-built instruments and – in particular – his International Electronic Music Catalog. The tools and techniques of electronic music production in the 50s and 60s were discussed, as was the institutional context of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, where both Derbyshire and Oram worked.
While simultaneously extolling the challenges and contingencies of archival research, Mooney and Adkins discussed the work of some of the key figures in British electronic music history. Oram’s philosophy of electronic music, as expounded in her book An Individual Note: Of Music, Sound and Electronics, was briefly explored, as was her creation of the novel Oramics synthesizer, currently on display at the Science Museum, London (some slides from the exhibition were shown during the talk). Among Derbyshire’s activities to be discussed were her project with David Vorhaus, White Noise, and her work with Brian Hodgson and Peter Zinovieff under the name of Unit Delta Plus. Others working in electronic music in Britain in the 1950s and 60s, such as Roberto Gerhard and Tristram Cary, were also mentioned.
Opening the conversation to questions from the floor revealed a wider range of topics for discussion. What would Delia Derbyshire have made of present-day electronic music making technologies had she been around to see them? Is it, by comparison, ‘too easy’ to make electronic music these days? Addressing these questions led to a broader discussion of how the advent of electronic technologies radically shifted compositional horizons post 1945. Other topics addressed during audience discussions included gender politics, Oram’s secretiveness around the development of the Oramics machine, and the emergence of the British free improvisation scene out of electronic music activities of the 1950s and 60s.
From the conversation and ensuing discussion there emerged a picture of a peculiarly British approach to electronic music: individuals working without institutional support, whose creations – both in terms of music-making machines and compositions – bore little resemblance to their continental European counterparts.
I recently presented a paper at the International Festival for Innovations in Music Production and Composition (iFIMPaC), which took place at Leeds College of Music on 12-13 March 2015.
In the paper – which was rather verbosely entitled ‘Hugh Davies’s Self-Built Instruments and their relation to Present-Day Electronic and Digital Instrument-Building Practices: Towards Common Themes’ – I discussed Davies’s instrument-building practice and introduced a few of his self-built instruments. (Davies built well over 100 instruments in his life-time; only a few of these were discussed here.)
I then went on to talk about some more recent practice, including the work of Lee Patterson, Luke Fowler, and others, that has been influenced by Davies’s instrument-building, briefly explaining the nature of the influence. I also discussed – somewhat more speculatively – some possible connections between Davies’s instrument-building practice and the present-day practice of live-coding (which involves using computer programming languages in a live performance, to generate or manipulate music or visuals in real-time).
A version of the presentation that has been converted into an essay can be downloaded as a PDF by clicking here (Academia.edu login may be required). Alternatively, an online version of the presentation itself – comprising PowerPoint slides and a recorded narration – can be viewed here.
Comments are welcome, and can be provided – with thanks in advance – using the Contact link.
(Thank you to Stephen Pearse for the image.)