Hugh Davies


Iconoclastic innovator in electronic music

Hugh Seymour Davies, composer, instrument maker and musicologist: born Exmouth, Devon 23 April 1943; Director, Electronic Music Studio, Goldsmiths College, London University 1968-86; Researcher in Sonic Art, Centre for Electronic Arts, Middlesex University 1999-2005; married 1981 Pamela Bailey (one daughter); died London 1 January 2005.

Diffident, yet obsessive; in several respects unassuming but consistently meticulous in every task he took on: Hugh Davies was probably always going to seem one of the British new-music scene's backroom boys.

My initial memory of him is at the Dartington Summer School in the early 1970s, when he taught there as part of the live-electronics group Gentle Fire, a pioneering outfit that was among the first to tackle Karlheinz Stockhausen's then brand-new, controversial text pieces, and much more besides.

In true Sixties style, staff and students sat about, and eventually dreamed up some rather nice, but as I recall terribly vague, ideas about a taped soundscape to act as a backing track to our own instrumental improvisations for the concert that night. Then we all drifted off to indulge in yet more frivolous summer-school pursuits, leaving Davies to spend a long, hot afternoon laboriously montaging the sounds of water to turn our nebulous musings into something interesting. After all, he was an acknowledged master of cut-and-splice in the old, pre-computerised days, when you had to take up a razor blade to compose with your original material on reel-to-reel tape.

Davies already had a sizeable reputation, and not only as a technological enabler. After studying music at Oxford University in 1961-64, and initiation into the early mysteries of electronic music via the composer Daphne Oram, he had somehow managed to persuade Stockhausen - then at the height of his powers and fame - to take him on in Cologne, at the age of just 21, as his composing assistant and a member of his live-electronics group. The two years or so he spent in Germany put Davies right at the heart of the European avant-garde at a particularly exciting time, and he continued to do important editing work for Stockhausen, some of which remains unpublished to this day.

Notated compositions, especially for conventional forces, and even tape pieces, became only a minor part of Davies's activities, especially after the early 1980s (though there are several music-theatre works that would pay reinvestigation some day). This was due to the diversity of interests that he developed, most of them distinctly at variance to the approach of his German mentor. The liberation of electronic music from the tape recorder was already an important part of Stockhausen's agenda. But Davies took this and ran with it in directions which took advantage of live electronics to carve out much more creative space for the performers themselves. This led naturally to new approaches to improvisation.

To turn penury into a virtue, he began to make his own instruments, many of them constructed, following exemplary ecological principles, out of materials other people might have thrown away, and often amplifying their sounds with contact or magnetic microphones: household objects - everything from egg-slicers and springs to breadbins and tailor's dummies - were a recurrent resource. Allowed to inspire their own sorts of music, essentially simple but in fact often cunningly rich and alluring, these instruments freed Davies's music from the shackles of compositional personalities and systems, and helped him to create an identity all his own.

Many of his inventions went by delightful names: the "shozyg", for example - in fact a generic name - is any instrument (usually an amplified one) built inside an unusual container. The name derived from the packaging devised for the oddments assembled inside the first two shozygs, amplified through two contact microphones: this was the final volume of an encyclopaedia which covered everything from "shoal" to "zygote" and hence had "SHO-ZYG" on its spine.

"Feelie boxes", built with John Furnival, introduced a tactile element and were often exhibited in art galleries. Davies's instruments seemed very much at home in exhibitions, and as parts of sound sculptures and specially devised sound environments, as they did in education work; children loved them, and their inventor had a natural empathy with young people.

With these home-made instruments, Davies could proceed, with a natural integrity in which he clearly delighted, to construct a whole world of sounds: sometimes tiny ones (springs, for instance) amplified, but also purely acoustic sound sources, such as toys. Even the shopping basket on wheels in which he transported his creations could, subject to the right conditions (the broken paving stones outside New Cross railway station, for instance) become an instrument in its own right.

As this might imply, Davies was frugal almost to a fault, at least certainly until he got married. He was a vegan, never drank alcohol or smoked and, so far as I'm aware, never drove a car.

Though easily self-sufficient as one-man band, Davies also collaborated with many other musicians throughout his life, mostly free improvisers who, like himself, operated on the fringes of more mainstream musical enterprises. From long since defunct groups such as Music Improvisation Company (including Derek Bailey and Evan Parker), to Dutch musicians such as Han Bennink (Davies joined a Dutch group that played a famous concert with the jazz trumpeter Don Cherry), right up to recent work with Hans-Karsten Raecke, Davies played all over Europe and occasionally elsewhere; a substantial discography attests to this career.

Meanwhile, he also made important contributions to documenting new-music activities, beginning with his International Electronic Music Catalog (1968), which sought to list and describe every piece of electronic music that had been composed in the world at just about the last moment in history when such a project could have been even conceivable. Later labours of love in this area include the 305 entries he contributed to The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments (1984), and a recent, far too little distributed book of his own creative writings, Sounds Heard (2002).

Davies was the founder-director of the Electronic Music Studio at Goldsmiths College, London (1968-86), and subsequently a research consultant there until 1991; more recently he had a position as a visiting lecturer and part-time Researcher in Sonic Art at the Centre for Electronic Arts, Middlesex University. But his resolutely freelance mentality and lack of sympathy with the more mundane requirements of academic life kept him apart from some of its rewards as well as its frustrations.

His work has seemed dated at some periods, especially, perhaps, during the 1980s when large computer systems and a different kind of professionalism in the fast-expanding international world of electroacoustic and computer music were all the rage. Yet, in the 21st century, it seems that Hugh Davies's innovatory, do-it- yourself, lo-fi approach - which in several respects prefigured present laptop culture - is finding favour with a younger generation to whom this remarkable and iconoclastic innovator now appears as a significant father figure.

Keith Potter