When the English Folk Dance and Song Society gave maverick bespoke instrument creator and sound sculptor Henry Dagg £56,000 to create three environmentally interactive musical installations little did they know that he’d build only one, it’d cost £90,000, take him five years, could never exist outdoors and can only play 90 seconds of music. Also, they never foresaw that he’d refuse to give it them preferring to buy himself out of the contract. Further more the English Folk Dance and Song Society never imagined that it’d end up on stage in Bjork’s ‘Biophilia’ showcase.
Can you describe how your Sharpsichord actually works?
The Sharpsichord is an automatic acoustic harp, which is designed to allow any musician to compose his or her own music by screwing a ‘pin’ into the surface of a perforated cylinder at the position required for each note to be played. Each of the 11, 520 holes is threaded to accept one of the 3mm threaded pins kept in a tray under the cylinder. A scale across the top shows the pin position for every note in the 46-note chromatic scale, while another scale at the side calibrates time by numbering each of the 240 horizontal lines of of holes. As the cylinder rotates, each pin lifts a lever coupled to a mechanism, which plucks the appropriate string. Each pair of strings transfers its energy to a rocking bridge coupled to a long diaphragm whose vibrations are amplified acoustically by a large horn at the bass end, and a smaller horn at the treble end. A keyboard allows real-time performance and helps note finding. The solar panels can charge the battery, which runs the motor.
How did the idea for it come up?
I was commissioned by the English Folk Dance & Song Society to create several sound-sculptures that visitors to their garden at Cecil Sharp House could interact experimentally, but which could also be incorporated into performances by musical ensembles performing in the garden.
What was its shape or sound specifically inspired by?
The Sharpsichord was intended as a sculptural tribute to Cecil Sharp, who pioneered the collecting of recordings of English folk music using a cylinder phonograph; its design was influenced by the need to incorporate an instrument capable of staying playable and in tune in a permanent outdoor location.
What was the plan before you built it?
It started out as a drawing on a sheet of A4, and although some changes were inevitably necessary, all the essential features of the final harp are in the drawing.
What can it do that other instruments can’t?
1. It’s an acoustic harp, which stays permanently in tune.
2. It’s played by a mechanical memory, which allows anyone to create or alter their own music, and play it either forwards or backwards.
Sonically how differently does it sound to how you intended?
It sounds different in several ways; I chose the dead centre, where it sounds like a cross between a harp and a bass clarinet. another is the vibrato effect arising from the method I used to stabilise the tuning. Unlike the original, it amplifies the bass and treble strings separately through two horns, giving a kind of stereo effect.
Tell me about the construction process?
I built it entirely from stainless steel; It’s entirely fabricated by bending flat bar into curves, followed by an infinity of cutting, welding, grinding, and polishing. The transmission called for a lot of lathe and other engineering work. I had to invest in a big scaling up of my machine tools to produce the larger parts.
How easy is it to play?
The Sharpsichord was designed as a public instrument that required no performance skills at all. It’s extremely hard work and needs the touch of a jackhammer to play it.
Has it induced any brain or bodily meltdowns or deformations through playing it?
Not so far.
Why does it rock?
It’s a real musical instrument with a new sound and a lot of innovative features.
Why is it flawed?
The most obvious flaw is the limited capacity of the cylinder, which only holds around 40-90 seconds before repeating the programme.
Which musical legend would it be best to collaborate with?
Peter Gabriel. Brian Wilson also.
What songs can we check out that show case it the best?
[See performance videos below]
What did it teach you the most about yourself as a musician?
How much I enjoyed making music on an acoustic instrument without having to practise playing it!
Does it surprise you that so few musicians make their own instruments?
Not really. Developing a new instrument usually requires endless time and patience while trying to make things work the way they should but never do.
Watch the Sharpsichord in action below.
‘She’s Leaving Home’ with Jack Hues & Chris Wood
‘God Only Knows’ with Hannah Peel & Laura Groves
‘Caesar’ with Chris Wood & Rob Jarvis
Find out about more ‘Inimitable Instruments ‘ on ClashMusic.com HERE.