1957 - 2016

Composer-Built Instruments and the British Music Collection

Sound and Music

An holistic approach to music making

“A peculiar blindness is exhibited to the possibilities offered by musical instrument making. Rather than design, construct and play their own instruments children are often expected to adapt new principles whilst continuing use of old and familiar tools”. 

David Toop, New/Rediscovered Musical Instruments Volume 1

The idea of the composer-built instrument, a device created for perhaps just a single composition, or maybe with the intention of expanding beyond that initial piece, is one that has permeated my own research and compositional activities for over a decade. These instruments are able to transcend and augment the usual cultural and musical associations that more traditional ones are inevitably imbued with, and to create their own or borrow from other non-traditional sources. They offer a different relationship between the composer, the instrument, the music and indeed the audience, and escape the entrenched bonds and histories native to traditional instruments.

Invented instruments are not a new idea and yet limited study has been undertaken on them, meaning that countless numbers are being lost along with the technological and musical possibilities they contain.

Hugh Davies (1943-2005), a pioneer in the field and creator of over a hundred instruments, has inspired The Hugh Davies Project led by Dr James Mooney of the University of Leeds, UK, which broadly encourages composers to think about the creation of their own instruments, using Davies as a source of inspiration, whilst reflecting on his work. He is perhaps the best documented of the British composer-inventors but sadly even this is underdeveloped. Davies himself undertook study into the archiving of these sorts of instruments, and further research has been done by the likes of David Toop et al. Whilst it is clear that physical archiving of these instruments is difficult at best, photographic, video, audio, schematic, and written should not be but unfortunately is still lacking.

This exhibition seeks to begin to shed some light on these issues by highlighting British composers throughout the 20th Century through to the present day who work within this broad field. Whilst it cannot aim to be comprehensive, it will offer a flavour of what has been and continues to be created, and will hopefully inspire others to dig a little deeper.

“When I began my musical career in the mid 1960s I thought of myself as a composer with a strong interest in what was then known as electronic music, especially live electronic music. My early work with live electronics soon led me to what has become the main focus of my creative activities, inventing and performing on new, usually amplified instruments”

- Hugh Davies

Perhaps Davies’ most famous instrument is the 1968 Shozyg I (named after the encyclopaedia it was mounted in, which covered topics from SHO to ZYG). This instrument consisted of three fret-saw blades, a ball bearing mounted furniture castor and a small metal spring, all amplified using piezo-electric microphones through loudspeakers.

Below is a short video of Davies playing his instrument.

Fortunately, and unlike for a lot of these invented instruments, professional (commercial) audio recordings of works created with Davies’ instruments are available, although even these are somewhat scarce when considering his output as a musical instrument inventor.

The record above was found within the British Music Collection.

To the right is Shozyg I.

Another often unsung pioneer of British experimental music was Daphne Oram (1925-2003) who took a job at the BBC at age 17 and co-founded the Radiophonic Workshop there in 1958. During her childhood she “subjected the family piano to various experiments, such as sticking objects under the strings to change the tone quality - long before she had heard of John Cage and his prepared piano”. (The Wire, March 2003)

Whilst the prepared piano can itself be considered to be something reinvented by each composer to suit their own needs and requirements, for the purposes of this exhibition Oram's contribution is her Oramics Machine.

Oramics was a 'drawn sound' technique originally developed in 1957, expanding into the composition machine from 1962 onwards and which involved drawing on glass slides and parallel tracks of 35mm film, creating masks to control the amount of light reaching photocells. Through this technique pitch, rhythm, dynamics, envelope, vibrato and timbre could all be controlled.Later in life Oram worked on converting the Oramics Machine to RIX computer technology, although unfortunately this is a project she was never able to complete. Interestingly there is now an Oramics iPhone app, thereby (after a fashion) completing this work on her behalf.

Cornelius Cardew (1936-1981) is not especially well known for being an instrument creator, but nestled in his 1968 Schooltime Compositions, found at the British Music Collection, is a simple diagram of an instrument to be constructed an used in performances of the work. Although simple, the diagram itself is detailed enough to enable reproduction of the instrument at a later date, and shows a “cork tipped mechanical device” next to a “metal sound source”. The latter object looks to be a bell of some kind but since it is not specified as such can be safely assumed to be replaceable with any metal sound source depending on the performance situation. 

What is important here is that we can reproduce the instrument from the diagram should we wish to - something which is sadly missing from a great many composer-built instruments. Cardew has therefore provided the wherewithal for his Schooltime Compositions to be recreated and re-performed in their entirety by future generations.

It is often difficult to classify composer-built devices; they frequently eschew the norms associated with traditional instruments (including modern synthesisers and other forms of electronic instrument), and are not always physical. The advent of programming environments such as Max/MSP, Pure Data and Super Collider (to name just three), allows for complete instruments to be created in a digital, non-physical realm. These instruments can be paired with physical interfaces, thereby creating a hybrid.

Lawrence Casserley (B.1941) has spent his career working on the performance of real-time electroacoustic music and the processing of other musicians' sounds, collaborating with musicians, poets and visual artists alongside solo work. He has been working to create his “Signal Processing Instrument” since the mid 1990s. The original version, created in MaxFST on the IRCAM Signal Processing Workstation, was completed during a residency at STEIM in 1997. Since 1999 it has been built in Max/MSP and used multiple different physical controllers to create an ever evolving hybrid instrument. The current (2016) version couples the software with a pair of iPads running TouchOSC and a Novation Launchpad.

Ed Perkins' (b. 1982) 'Stick' is another excellent example of a hybrid instrument and is one that has also undergone significant changes and modifications over the course of the last ten years. The basic building blocks of the instrument are a pair of Doepfer ribbon controllers paired with a Nintendo Wii Remote to provide motion sensitivity. Perkins has built multiple iterations of a software instrument within Max/MSP that the Stick controls, creating something extremely performative which gives both visual and audio clues to audiences that the sounds he is producing and manipulating are occurring live. There have been 7 major overhalls of the instrument, each with five or six increments, and Perkins has so far used it for between 60 and 70 performances with different groups and for solo pieces.

Per Perkins: 

“The software behind The Stick analyses live data from the physical movement of the performer in real time, allowing immediate and nuanced control over the resulting equivalent to that of an acoustic instrument. In simple terms, the stick can be turned on the Z axis for timbral variation and the Y axis provides dynamic control. Later versions of the stick feature ultrasonic sensors for further modulation control through proximity of the perfomer's hands to the instrument body. The sound is created from a mix of synthesis techniques including sample based granular and wavetable engines combined with simple FM, AM, additive and subtractive modules.”

John Bowers (b. 1957) works with home-brew electronics, self-made instruments and reconstructions of antique image and sound-making devices, alongside contemporary digital technology, and has taken a very different approach to instrument invention with his 'Victorian Synthesiser'. This ongoing project seeks to build an instrument “boasting the kinds of parts and capabilities traditional synthesisers have (oscillators, filters, amplitude envelopes, modulation) but using techniques known to the Victorians”. (Bowers, www.jmbowers.net/works/victorian/html)

Sound artist Chris Weaver's practice provides yet another take on the notion of the composer-built instrument, with a great deal of his output focussing on ideas of communal production of music, from the production through to composition. 

No Such Object (left) was created (with Ed Baxter) for Speed of Light at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2012. Comprising of 880 bespoke, purpose-built portable FM synthesisers, the installation took place on Arthur's Seat and was controlled by the constantly changing, subtle movements of the audience. The democratising nature of this form of music-making is very much in the spirit of Hugh Davies' work, and so despite having a very different approach, a satisfying parallel is able to be drawn.

Weaver is also a member of the Oscillatorial Binnage Quartet (right) (along with Fari Bradley, Toby Clarkson and Dan Wilson), who investigate the various frequencies of everyday objects combined with hacked electronics to produce what they call “miraculous agitations”. These offer a different type of hybrid instrument from those we have already seen, and further highlight how broad the scope is for what can be considered an instrument and how to approach the music making process.

Phil Archer's (b.1975) relationship with invented instruments came from a growing disinterest in the creation of what he considered to be “just another piece of music”. In his words, he had “always been interested in the technology of musical instruments, from a simple vibrating string to coding my own software, and enjoyed exploring and combining the range of available materials”.

He has steadily been moving towards the creation of work that is more physical and object-oriented than in traditional forms of composition, “blurring lines between instrument and score, composition and performance - resulting in poetic, often absurd objects that [he finds] interesting visually, sonically and conceptually”.

The following instruments are a small selection of those types of device that Archer has been building and creating music with over the past two decades.

Johanna Bramli (b. 1980) is a sound artist, composer and performer dealing with sensory perception, space and audience interaction whose practice moves across different types of invented instruments, from home-DIY influenced wooden boxes with contact mics attached through to software-based instruments such as employed in her work Recycle~. 

ReCycle~ is built in Max/MSP and looks for audio files found in Bramli's computer bin to play back in randomised ways, using a large galvanised bin as the interface, alongside light detectors and loudspeakers which are hidden in the bin itself. When the lid of the bin is lifted, randomised sounds are played back with the amount of light allowed in affecting the cut-off. In this way the bin is able to be played.

Her “Wooden Box” instrument (far right, top) is a collaborative effort, having been constructed for her compositional needs by Ed Chivers at Noize Toyz.

Bennett Hogg's (b.1961) work as an electroacoustic composer and improviser has led to the development of his 'Resistant Violin'. Initially developed during his 2008 residency at STEIM, Hogg sought to find ways to interfaces his primary instrument for improvisation (the violin) with electronics/digital technology. In order to problematise the notion that technology somehow makes things easier, the Resistant Violin does the opposite - restricting and negating the existing possibilities of the violin, making free movement of the bow across the instrument almost impossible. Various sensors are connected to the violin at different points. Per Hogg: “The struggle against the tension in the elastic, and against the restricted positioning of bow and violin to one another thus generates voltages from the sensors that are then converted through a junXion board, through the programme junXion, and relayed on into MAX/MSP and LiSa. This data is then used to control various of the processing and playback parameters of whatever sonic material the instrument is able to produce.”

Yann Seznec has created a number of different instruments, which have in turn been used for a number of different projects. The following are just three examples out of many others.

The Styharp (right, top) is a musical controller built for Matthew Herbert’s One Pig tour. Designed to evoke a pigsty, the strings each controlled recordings, samples, and effects, creating a large and unwieldy instrument with sometimes surprising results.

The Secret Sounds of Spores (right, bottom left) is an installation that uses live mushrooms to control electromechanical instruments. Using lasers and computer vision, individual spores trigger musical notes as they fall from a mushroom. By surrendering control of the performance to a mushroom, the piece becomes about audience perception and a meditation on composition in general. Commissioned by an alt-W award from New Media Scotland.

Currents (right, bottom right) is a performance and installation using instruments made from discarded computer fans. It uses weather data to recreate weather conditions from around the world, reflecting our obsession with change, as well as the realities of a global economy that make it cheaper to produce anew rather than repair. Commissioned by Edinburgh Art Festival and PRS, Currents was awarded the British Composer Award for Sonic Art in 2015.

The final image below is of my own Large Flat Panel Speakers (LaFPanS) being used in my composition, Code-A. They have very particular resonant, drum-like qualities and are, by design, inefficient as loudspeakers. Below they are set in pairs, with one acting as a microphone and the other as a loudspeaker. I have explored different ways of using and presenting them and encouraged other composers to do the same, resulting in some interesting outcomes.

The instruments, compositions and composers that have been featured in this exhibition are by no means comprehensive and there are a great many more creators and inventors who have made and continue to make exciting inroads in this fascinating area of music-making. Whilst this exhibition was limited to British composers, there are of course a host of others from further afield who are more than worth investigating. One example who I feel it would be amiss to ignore is the American composer/inventor Harry Partch (1901-1974), who's wonderful array of instruments created across his lifetime are both fascinating and continue to be an inspiration for many.

The research undertaken whilst curating this exhibition is something of an extension of some of that carried out during my PhD and, as I found then, resources are hard to find but well worth uncovering. I have discovered composers and instruments new to me who have created and are still creating brilliant new instruments and pieces of music and thank them for enriching what I believe is one of the most interesting forms for making new music, and is one that holds infinite opportunities for the future.

Composer links:

Phil Archer: http://www.philarcher.net/

John Bowers: http://www.jmbowers.net

Johnanna Bramli: http://www.johannabramli.com/

Lawrence Casserley: http://www.lcaserley.co.uk

Bennett Hogg: http://www.bennetthogg.co.uk

Daphne Oram: http://daphneoram.org/

Harry Partch: http://www.harrypartch.com/

Ed Perkins: http://www.edperkins.co.uk/

Yann Seznec: http://www.yannseznec.com/

Chris Weaver: http://www.christopherweaver.co.uk/

Bill Vine: http://www.billvine.co.uk

Other useful links:

Hugh Davies Shozyg exhibition: http://www.jamesjbulley.com/sho-zyg.html

Palermo, Settimio Fiorenzo (2015) The work of Hugh Davies in the context of experimental electronic music in Britain. PhD thesis, Middlesex University: http://eprints.mdx.ac.uk/17408/

The Hugh Daviews Project: https://hughdaviesproject.wordpress.com/

Daphne Oram, An Individual Note (PDF): http://www.ideologic.org/files/oram_anindividual.pdf

STEIM (Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music) - http://steim.org/

NIME (New Interfaces for Musical Expression) - http://www.nime.org/

Noize Toyz - http://www.noizetoyz.com

Credits: Story

Curated By — Bill Vine
Thanks To — All the artists and composers, the wonderful staff of Heritage Quay, Sound and Music and specifically Harry Cooper who was both enthusiastic and very patient with me throughout the curation of this exhibition.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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