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What the Hell is a Sharpsichord?

Well it weighs 2.5 tons, looks like something in Willy Wonka, and Björk is a fan…

Björk, Henry, and the sharpsichord. It looks like something out of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. The Sharpsichord is an acoustic 46-stringed harp played by a pin-cylinder created by Henry Dagg, an English composer and sound sculptor who has played the 2.5 ton instrument with Björk on Biophilia.

He played a cat toy organ live at a garden party hosted by the Prince of Wales, which actually made royalty cry. He also believes in the renaissance of folk, having backed up singer-songwriters with the Sharpsichord has spent a lot of time working behind-the-scenes at the BBC as a sound engineer. He started composing music for TV and radio using acoustic sounds in the pre-digital sampling era and since then, has set up in a factory building in Kent to build new instruments and perform live music.

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All of this is very overwhelming and neat. Dagg, a multiple award-winner at musical saw festivals, answered some questions very politely from Kent. He talks in-depth about what it means to be a sound sculptor, commissioned instrument designer, and what it was like playing that "cat organ" in front of royalty.

Noisey: You were commissioned to make the Sharpsichord for the garden of the English Folk Dance and Song Society. Why wasn’t it installed there?
Henry: The English Folk Dance & Song Society won a grant from the Big Lottery Fund to make improvements to the garden at Cecil Sharp House and to commission me to transform it into a sound-garden. The Sharpsichord is an acoustic 46-stringed harp played by a pin-cylinder, which was designed to allow their visitors to create their own music by inserting pins where required for each note, and much of its design is a response to the many challenges posed by the requirements for such a musical instrument to remain functional and in tune in a permanently outdoor location. However, it soon proved to be a massive investment of funds and labor, way beyond the scope of the modest budget and the six-month timescale. The cost of stainless steel was also continuously escalating, so the funding ran out halfway through its development.

I managed to complete it within five years, with generous financial support from a number of friends and admirers of the project but by this time the record prices in metals had created a national epidemic of metal theft, and it was obvious that neither the Society nor I had any way of protecting the Sharpsichord from this threat. The Lottery allowed us a year to invite larger, more secure music venues to adopt it on the society’s behalf, but there was no interest. Ultimately I had little choice but to refund the Society’s contribution towards its development, with considerable financial help from the same Sharpsichord supporters. Not the ideal outcome; it would have looked and sounded wonderful in that garden, but its demolition by vandals and scrap thieves was by now inevitable in any urban garden without full-time security, so its preservation had to take priority for many people, including me!

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biophilia bjork sharpsichord

What was it like bringing the Sharpsichord on tour with Björk? It must weigh a ton.
It actually weighs 2.5 tones. But it never exactly went on tour with Björk; during the original Sacrifice recording session at my workshops, she proposed to use it on the international tour if I could make it possible. The Sharpsichord was designed simply as a sound-sculpture installation, so it could never have traveled in one piece without considerable (and very expensive) modification. I managed to work out a financing arrangement with her record label, and over several months of work, converted it into a structure which could be lifted by crane onto the flatbed truck which took it to her Biophilia Premiere shows at the Manchester Festival. I suspect that the likely extra cost and hassle were the main reasons it was not used on any of the tour outside the UK.

It traveled extremely well and performed perfectly for the seven Manchester shows; my main concern was staying on top of the keyboard parts I had to play during the song. They aren't particularly difficult, but the Sharpsichord keyboard drives the plucking-action mechanically, and is extremely stiff to play. It was a nice friendly show to be part of. The Alexandra Palace experience was way better though; the Sharpsichord was given its own stage, between two audience blocks, and both visibility and PA sound were much better than in Manchester.

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Cecil Sharp helped revive folk. Do you sense another folk renaissance in the works?
I do get a feeling that some of the current singer/songwriters with folk roots are reaching mainstream audiences. I've arranged Sharpsichord performances vocals by Chris Wood, who writes outstanding songs with a narrative and very incisive approach to topical issues, very much in the English folk tradition, and bands with folk roots like Bellowhead using mainly acoustic instruments are getting a good following too.

Sharpsichord henry dagg

Is there something special about acoustic instruments? If so, what?
I think the sound of most acoustic instruments does have a kind of ethereal refinement that is difficult to capture fully on microphones, and lends itself best to small venues without amplification, and there is a spatial dispersion of sound which creates a much more interesting audio "image" than the same sound amplified through a loudspeaker. But I think the main advantage of instruments which make their sounds acoustically, whether amplified or not, is that every successive note is a unique sound which is never repeated exactly, and can be manipulated to give nuances which gives the music much of its character and expression, and keeps the interest of the listener. It's more difficult to simulate this quality with synths and samplers where each note will usually reproduce precisely the same succession of waveform cycles, resulting in ear fatigue after a while.

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What is it that attracts you to non-conventional instruments, if you could pin it down?
It's just a natural progression from my earliest days growing up in a musical family; I was trained on the cello, self-taught on piano and electric bass, and much of my time was spent building electronic and electro-acoustic devices for generating and manipulating sounds and music, experimenting with tape recorders etc. My earliest ambition was to join the BBC Radiophonic Workshop, which is why my career began in the BBC sound engineering department. After a short attachment to the RW I was commissioned to compose music for many radio and TV programs, mainly using tape-manipulation of real acoustic sounds. I mainly used my synthesizers only during the composition process to create an approximation of the final real-sound version, which always sounded infinitely better to me. Tape was very slow, but infinitely flexible, while digital sampling was very new, inflexible, and completely unaffordable at the time. However, when I went freelance as a composer/musician in 1990 I became a bit disenchanted with the process of making music which could only exist as a studio engineering project, and I moved to an old factory building in Kent to develop new instruments to allow me to perform my music live. This is still the driving force behind all my work, although financial pressures have diverted me into a lot of commissioned work, which means that many of my current instruments have been designed around the requirements of particular clients. While digital technology is regarded as having the monopoly on innovation, I feel that acoustically/mechanically generated sounds still hold more complexity and interest, and that there are many areas which remain unexplored in this field. I think music is essentially a physical interactive process between people, and the visual aspect of performing on physical instruments adds a lot to the interest for a live audience, while boxes of unfathomable technology lack stage presence. New sounds from old technology, that's my quest.

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catastrophony cat organ henry dagg
ring cycle henry dagg

Catastrophony AKA a cat organ. AMAZING. Why did you choose to play the cat organ for Prince Charles and the Duchess
of Cornwall? Everyone in the audience was in tears with laughter, and yet the videos show you keeping a straight face.
I was asked by Jools Holland to join him in providing part of the musical entertainment for the START festival, a public event initiated by Prince Charles in the grounds of his home, Clarence House, to promote environmental awareness. I have been a long-standing admirer of Prince Charles particularly for his environmental campaigns, so I agreed. I was booked with my pianist over several days to perform our variety act, which incorporates a number of historic musical instruments including the CATASTROPHONY. It was a great experience, Jools introduced me to both the Prince and Duchess, and I presented them with some of my musical biscuits while he asked me about the Ring Cycle, a large instrument I had built some years before. We were subsequently engaged to play for them again at the Clarence House Christmas party. As for straight faces, I know there are people who seem to expect me to clown around just because some of my instruments are unusual, but most musicians will recognize the look of concentration that reflects the real effort involved in trying to stay in tune on the right note at the right time. Much of the humor comes from the sincere attempt to give a perfect performance on a silly instrument. Ring Cycle.

What is a sound sculptor and how is it different from a sound artist?
I don't think there are any hard and fast definitions, but sound sculpture usually takes the form of a physical structure or installation which makes sounds or music, most often by mechanical or acoustic means, either automatically or by human interaction. Sound art overlaps to some extent, but the focus tends to be more on the conceptual and aural content, and there is often little or nothing obvious to see, as the sound will be digitally processed and reproduced through small or concealed speakers.

What do you have upcoming next?
My current commission is a suite of musical railings and gates for Rochester Independent College, a 12-foot high, 28-foot wide stainless-steel structure which combines the functions of secure entrance and chromatic multiple-player instrument for the use of the music department. Installation is due by the middle of 2014. Apart from that, there is the occasional gig, and the routine manufacture of various parts for Streetly Electronics for their new Mellotron M4000. At present, I make all the Filtrons, loop-bins, flywheels, turnbuckle rollers and pinch-roller hubs, and their axles.

Nadja is on Twitter. Follow her - @NadjaSayej