Instrument-builder Residency with Anton Mobin

The Hugh Davies Project, in collaboration with Access Space, is hosting an instrument-builder residency with Anton Mobin, from 29 February to 14 March 2016.

You can find some documentation of the residency as it progresses by following the ‘Instrument Building’ link, above.


AHEM: Alternative Histories of Electronic Music CALL FOR PAPERS

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:

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.

Conference Presentation on Hugh Davies’s Self-Built Instruments

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 ( 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.)

Article Published in Organised Sound

Dr James Mooney – principal investigator on the Hugh Davies project – has recently published a journal article on ‘Hugh Davies’s Electronic Music Documentation 1961–1968.’ The article appears in the international, peer-reviewed journal Organised Sound, and (apart from Davies’s own writings) is the first detailed study of Davies’s work to be published.

The article focuses on how Davies, via his research and documentation in the 1960s, provided a radical new vision of electronic music as a truly international, interdisciplinary activity. It begins with a discussion of several texts on electronic music that were published between 1952 and 1962—before Davies carried out his research, that is. These publications tended only to discuss electronic music activities in a small handful of Western European and North American countries (France, Germany, the United States, and their close neighbours). They also tended to treat electronic music as the preserve of an elite group of avant-garde composers, with little or no discussion of the use of electronic music techniques in other musical or creative disciplines.

Davies’s work, by complete contrast, charted the development of electronic music in at least 39 different countries, as well as documenting the use of electronic music techniques in other musical, artistic, and technical disciplines, including sculpture, painting, poetry, synthesizers, and computers, as well as popular music and jazz. Hugh Davies, in other words, showed electronic music to be a far broader phenomenon—in terms of its international reach and interdisciplinary scope—than had ever been previously recognised.

The article also discusses Davies’s motivation for representing electronic music in this way, which has to do with his belief in international, interdisciplinary exchange as the bringers of aesthetic and artistic diversification. The article’s abstract (and the full article, for Organised Sound subscribers) is available via the publisher’s website at: The full article, minus typesetting and correct pagination, is also freely available via the White Rose Research Online repository: