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Steve Firth from Embrace: Picturing the band

Steve Firth (Embrace), Duncan Grant
Uni days: Steve in leather jacket behind me

Visit Duncan Grant’s gallery

I first met Steve in 1983 in my first week at college in Liverpool. He was studying Geography  (and then later Psychology, the History of Art and Fine Art) and I was studying geology. I think probably because our names were close in the alphabet we ended up in the same accommodation.  Turned out we shared exactly the same birthday, but I don’t think that had much to do with anything.

We knocked around with the same group of friends and in our second and third years, Steve lived in a house with a cellar that we painted up and used to rehearse our band. There was Pete on guitar, Jez on keyboards, Dicky on drums, Steve playing bass and me doing vocals. I can’t remember the name of the band  but we did a couple of college gigs.

For me, that was the beginning and end of my career in music. Steve on the other hand went on to much bigger things and now, since lockdown, he’s taken up his art again, painting pictures featuring the rock band he’s played in for twenty-five years now – the mighty Embrace.

Steve Firth (Embrace)
Steve playing in Embrace

Early influences
Steve Firth grew up in Halifax, listening to John Peel on the radio.

‘My era is the early punk stuff,’ he says. ‘I was listening  to bands like  The Damned, Buzzcocks and The Clash. When I was about 15  went to see Stiff Little Fingers. They looked really cool in their skinny tight pants with zips everywhere  and I thought, I want to be on stage doing that.’

Steve persuaded his mum to but him an electric guitar.

‘I thought you’d just plug it in and it would be all big and distorted and I’d sound like The Sex Pistols, but it sounded terrible!’ Steve laughs. ‘There was no internet in those days to learn from and I knew nobody that knew anything about music. My mum bought me a music book but it was all Skip to My Lou My Darling and stuff like that, and I wanted to play Anarchy in the UK.  Anyway, I kept it up for a few years. I was in a band at school but I never really took it seriously.

Steve Firth (Embrace)
Steve playing in Embrace

By the time he got to college, Steve was into post-punk and goth rock, listening to bands like Birthday Party and The Mission 

‘Everyone at college liked different music to me, and they wouldn’t listen to mine,’ he remembers. They started playing me Pink Floyd and a bit of prog rock. So I started to like Pink Floyd, which I still do now, to be fair.  I was in a couple of bands there  but I was still only really playing at it. We didn’t really knew what we were doing and we never got to the studio or played any proper gigs.

Post-college blues
After college, Steve needed to get a job and with nothing doing in Halifax, he went with a friend down to Crawley, where he found work straightaway, in a warehouse near Gatwick Airport.  But after a year of living in friends’ garages and camping out in gardens, he popped home to Halifax to see his mum and never went back.

‘I got a part-time job there, which became permanent and before I knew it, six or seven years had gone by and I wasn’t doing what I wanted to do,’ he says. ‘During that time, I played in a punk band that did covers and some of our own stuff. I remember doing a gig in a pub in Halifax and it looked as if we had about fifty  people watching us, but there were two TV screens above our heads with the boxing on, and everyone was watching that and we were just an annoyance. So I gave that up and I decided that was it.’

Steve Firth: Portrait of Danny McNamara
Steve Firth: Danny

The cat, the suit and the wardrobe
In 1994, Steve was looking at the small ads in the local free paper.  His cats had ripped up his work suit while he was asleep and he needed a cheap wardrobe to put his clothes in. Glancing through the music ads, he came across a band looking for a bass player.

‘It was influences The Smiths, Stone Roses, Pixies, Nirvana all the bands I was into at that time,’ Steve remembers. ‘And they were literally just half a mile up the road, so I gave them a ring and went to see Danny [McNamara]. He got out his guitar and played me a load of songs, demos they’d done in the studio and I thought, “this guy is serious, he knows what he’s doing”. So I picked up my bass and joined in, and that was the start of it. I was in the band.’

It was two years later before Steve did his first gig with Embrace.

‘At that point, the band hadn’t recorded anything,’  Steve explains. ‘ They sounded a bit like Echo and the Bunnymen, which was good. But they’d done a couple of gigs and got some bad reviews saying they were the lowest common denominator of all the bands they were influenced by, so they were like, “OK, we need to go away and write some proper songs and find an identity”.

Steve Firth (Embrace): Portrait of Rick McNamara
Steve Firth: Rick 3

They worked really hard.

Steve remembers travelling to Leeds to rehearse three evenings a week after work, and later at the weekend too, while the band worked on new songs and reinvented itself. Finally, they made a demo tape , got hold of a copy of Music Week from the library, and contacted some agents. They got a lot of interest, and after spending a couple of days in London visiting them all, Embrace decided to go with Coalition Management and met Tony Perrin, who still manages the band today.

Tony Perrin set about contacting record companies and the band did three showcase gigs at iconic live music venue, the Duchess of York, in Leeds.

‘About a dozen record companies came to see us play,’ Steve says. ‘Butch Vig even came over from America to see us, because there was a real buzz about us at this stage. We weren’t very good really but they saw the potential and at that time, everyone was looking for the next Oasis.’

The band signed with Hut Records, part of the Virgin group.

‘Hut had  Placebo, Smashing Pumpkins, Gomez – all these bands that were kicking off at the same time, so it was a hip label to be with,’ Steve explains. ‘David Boyd was in charge and there can’t have been a much more successful person than him in the music business at the time.’

The first three albums
In June 1998, Embrace released their debut album The Good Will Out, which went to number 1 in the UK Album Chart. It  went gold immediately and became the fastest-ever-selling debut albums by a British band, going on to sell over half a million copies in the UK. Soon the band were touring in Europe, Thailand and Japan.

‘We didn’t expect that,’ Steve laughs. ‘No-one expects that. You hope for it, but just to get in the charts was a massive thing.’

Their second album, Drawn from Memory, was released in  2000. It was well received by the music press and reached number 8 in the UK Album Chart .

‘That album was  a bit more eclectic than the first one, because we thought the first one didn’t show off the band as well as it could have done – we thought we were more interesting than that,’ Steve says. ‘But we took too long over it. In those days, everyone was pushing us to keep up the impetus, telling us you can’t be off the radio for too long or everyone will forget about you and someone new will replace you.’

Embrace: Early press shot
Embrace: Early press shot

While they were touring Drawn from Memory, Embrace were supported in Blackpool by emerging band, Coldplay who, later, also supported them at Glastonbury.

‘In those days, we used to get hundreds of tapes from bands that wanted to support us,’ Steve explains. ‘Danny used to religiously listen to them all. He got this tape from Coldplay and offered them the support slot in Blackpool. We thought they were really good, that they’d have a career at least and get a few albums out. We never thought they’d be one of the biggest bands on the planet, just about!’

In 2017, Coldplay returned the favour, offering Embrace the main support slot when they played to 80,000 people at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff.

Drawn From Memory was followed in 2001, by Embrace’s third studio album, If You’ve Never Been.

‘That’s my least favourite album,’ Steve says. ‘It’s too sleepy – sounds as if it needs a good kick up the arse! But it was really a reaction against the criticism we received for the second album. The music press called it “schizophrenic”. We thought that maybe that was why it didn’t do so well, so we did something that was a little bit more chilled.

The album reached number 9 in the charts.

‘Normally, if you got to number 9, you’d be well pleased, wouldn’t you?’ Steve asserts. ‘But that wasn’t good enough for the record label and they dropped us.’

Steve Firth (Embrace): Portrait of Rick McNamara
Steve Firth: Rick 4

‘The biggest comeback since Lazarus’
Being dropped by Virgin didn’t worry Embrace as much as it might have.

‘Rick [McNamara] had bought a farmhouse with a derelict barn, which the band converted into a studio, ‘ Steve explains. ‘Rick taught himself to operate a mixing desk and we got stuck in.’

Freed from the record company and from the financial implications of  recording in London, the band took things a bit slower. They made some more demos and Tony Perrin got them signed to Independiente Records. With new producer, ‘Youth’ on board, Embrace released the album Out of Nothing, which reached number one in the UK Album Charts in 2004.

‘NME were calling it “the greatest comeback since Lazarus”!’ Steve laughs. ‘And I think we appreciated it more second time around. The first time we were caught up, touring, doing interviews, doing photoshoots, videos, all the stuff that goes on. This time we had time to enjoy it.’

Embrace: Cover 'Out of Nothing'
The album ‘Out of Nothing’ which included the hit single ‘Gravity’

Out of Nothing included the hit single Gravity, which was gifted to the band by Coldplay. 

‘Danny and Chris Martin stayed in touch all the time,’ Steve explains. ‘They used to talk and play songs over the phone to each other. .. What do you think of this?… Oh that’s not good enough for you….That’s your best song. All that sort of stuff.

Gravity came out of one of these conversations. It was going to be on Coldplay’s next album, and then the rest of the Coldplay lads said they didn’t like it. So Chris rang Danny and said, “You know that song of mine Gravity that you really liked. Do you want to have a go at it, otherwise it’s never going to get used?

We’d just finished the album and Danny came in and said what do you think about doing a cover of this?  So we did a version of it and it was really good. And, obviously, once our manager and the record company found out, they were really keen. So we went back down to London and recorded it, put it on the album and it turned out to be a great thing for us really. One of our biggest songs. It was even on Gavin and Stacey.’ [In Series 2, Episode 7, when Nessa gives birth to ‘Neil the baby’]

When Gravity was released as a single, Steve  was back working again, this time on the shop floor, welding plastic.

‘I never told anybody I was in Embrace ’cause I found it a bit embarrassing, ‘ he says. ‘We had the radio on all day and suddenly Gravity’s coming on the radio and it’s quite exciting. And then it’s on three or four times a day. Finally I had to go to my boss and say, “Can I have Thursday off  cos I’m on Top of the Pops.” I never went back!’

Own goal?
Embrace: 'World at Your Feed' CDEmbrace’s
fifth studio album, This New Day was released in 2006. Just as they finished recording, manager Tony Perrin, was approached by the FA, who asked if Embrace had a song that might make a suitable anthem for the 2006 World Cup.

‘We did have a song with no lyrics, that we hadn’t quite finished that we thought might fit the bill,’ Steve remembers. ‘So Tony told the FA and they said, “That’s great, just what we’re after”. I think it was Tony that came up with the title World At Your Feet. We had about three days to get it recorded it and the FA really liked it and said they’d get all the England team to sing and join in on the video. But none of that happened. The players weren’t into that sort of music. So we didn’t get much support in terms of that.’

The single, which was also on the album, entered the UK Singles chart at number 3. Although Embrace were told the song would sell millions and make them their fortune, it didn’t affect album sales very much and Steve suspects that it might even have put some people off the band.

As the only football fan in Embrace – he follows Leeds Steve quite enjoyed the experience.

Steve Firth: Portrait of Danny McNamara
Steve Firth: Danny 3

‘I got to meet Groff Hurst, George Cohen, Alan Ball and I went to the Grosvenor in London to the PFA awards and Sven and Nancy and all those sort of people were there,’ he recalls. ‘But if you talk to certain members of the band they’ll say it was the worst decision we ever made. We did one tour after another and suddenly we were in a different league. Now instead of talking to music journalists we were  talking to The Sun  or The Mail and they didn’t really want to discuss music, they were always looking for an angle, something sexy, some gossip. I don’t think any of us enjoyed that. You were kind of scared of what you were going to say in case it came back to haunt you.’

Then, after probably one too many tours, Danny McNamara’s voice gave up and he told the band that he needed some time off, promising that they would get back together when he’d recharged his batteries. He moved to London and got involved in the club scene for a while.

Back in the zone again
‘After about four years, we got an email from Danny saying, “I’m in the zone again”, so we all got together at Rick’s and started on the next album,’ Steve says. ‘We reinvented ourselves and came back again.’

Embrace‘s next studio album, Embrace, was released after a seven year break, in 2014.

‘That’s still my favourite album,’ Steve says. ‘I think it’s got the most interesting music on it. A bit dancier, a bit heavier. I like the ballads  but growing up with punk, I prefer something that people can react to.’

Embrace released their next album Love Is A Basic Need in 2018.  And in 2019, the band celebrated 21 years since the release of The Good Will Out with a national tour.

Steve Firth (embrace): Portrait of Mickey Dale
Steve Firth: Mickey 2

The band’s line up now is the same as it was when that album was released – Danny McNamara on lead vocals and acoustic guitar, Rick McNamara on lead guitar, Steve on bass, Mickey Dale on keyboards and Mike Heaton on drums.

‘We’ve stuck together, never fallen out, never split up, never had the whole rock star thing,’ Steve says. ‘We’re just a group of friends really who want to carry on doing what we do.’

Steve says that journalists can be pretty disappointed to find out that the McNamara brothers  get on and are no Liam and Noel Gallagher.

In 2018, in a side project, Steve returned to his punk roots, playing in Land Sharks, the band he founded with Embrace  drummer, Mike Heaton; Embrace’s keyboard tech, Beever; Mikey Shiraz from punk metal band Mr Shiraz; and Sam Wood, the guitarist from metal band Wayward Sons.

‘Mike our drummer was messing around in his little studio and he came up with this song that sounded very old school, like the Ramones but a bit heavier, and we started sending songs back and forth and then got everyone involved,’ Steve says. ‘We’ve only done about a dozen gigs. It’s not been a big thing because the virus kicked in. But it would be nice to carry on with it, because it’s fun. No stress. Just a laugh – turn up, plug in, have a few beers and a great night. If anything happened it would be fantastic, but it’s not likely to, ’cause we’re not trying hard to push anything.’

Steve Firth (Embrace): Painting at home
Steve painting at home

Embracing his artistic side
Art was Steve’s favourite subject at school and although he loved studying it at college, he says, he never had the confidence  to pursue it once he left.

‘I never really thought  I was good enough to make money from it,’ he admits. ‘ I didn’t really think I had a distinctive style or anything to say. It was one of those things I’d pick up every few years. I’d go out buy a load of artist’s pads  and pens and paint, and then I’d think God, they’re not very good, and then I’d stop for a few years. I’ve never really known what to paint. I haven’t got a focus. ‘

But with time on his hands during lockdown Steve had a change of heart.

Steve Firth: Artwork
Steve started painting again during lockdown

‘I thought, come on, you’re in a band. Paint what you know,’ Steve says. ‘I’ve got thousands of pictures, videos, images, and I could manipulate them on my laptop and try to make them look more pop art. So I started painting and I thought, this time I’m not going to give up straight away. I’m going to keep going and and try and develop a style.

‘And what I’ve found is, the more work you do, the more ideas you get. So I’m four canvasses in and suddenly I can’t sleep and I’m thinking, “Oh I’m going to do this or that tomorrow, I’m going to try this style”. And now I’m sat there for twelve hours painting,  and it flies by and I still want to do more. I’m loving it for the first time in my life. I posted a few on Facebook and got some really nice responses so it builds your confidence up.’

Steve works in acrylics mainly and has completed 40 canvasses this year featuring the band, which he now offers for sale to sell as limited edition, signed prints.

Embrace have just finished their new album, due out later this year. It a long process, not helped by a six or seven month wait for vinyl. The schedule means Steve will have plenty of time to develop his art further.

‘We don’t do a lot of gigging, so it’s not really like I haven’t got the time.’  he says. ‘Plus, I don’t have to think about doing another job while I’m painting, so that’s a good thing!’

Steve Firth (Embrace): Band Bow
Steve Firth: Band Bow

More information
You can buy Steve’s artwork here:
Steve’s Facebook:

Links to all things Embrace can be found via
Twitter –

Land Sharks

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The Genius of Henry Dagg: Holistic musician

Visit Duncan Grant’s gallery

I’m not from a musical family really. I played harmonica in a band when I was at college. In fact, one of my mates, Steve Firth, wanted to be in the band but didn’t play an instrument, so he taught himself bass guitar. Ironically, he was the only band member to go on to have a career in music. He played bass with the successful Britpop band Embrace

Duncan Grant: Dad at work
My Dad

My dad was a decent singer though and, when asked if he played a musical instrument, he used to say that he played the spoons.  As far as I know, he couldn’t play the spoons. It was just one of those things he said if the subject of music came up. Like, when we came home from school asking if we could have recorder lessons, or violin or trumpet or whatever was on offer, he’d say ‘Yes… if you can play The Sound of Silence’ or ‘Will they teach you Over the Hills and Far Away?’ or ‘OK…so long as you practise up the top of the garden’.

I do remember him making stuff. He made moving tanks from cotton reels, elastic bands, sticks and matches, and a kind of percussion instrument – a notched rod with a propeller on the end, which rotated when you ran a stick across the notches. He stretched elastic bands over tobacco tins to make a kind of harp, blew over the top of bottles, ran his fingers round the rims of glasses and made duck sounds by blowing on blades of grass stretched between his fingers and thumbs. His favourite homemade instrument was a makeshift kazoo made from a Rizla paper and a comb.

I didn’t think much of it at the time, but since speaking to the extraordinary Henry Dagg, I think maybe Dad might have been onto something.

Holistic musician
It is hard to find the right words to define Henry, although many people have tried.

If you search online you’ll see him variously described as ‘composer’, ‘musician’, ‘bohemian’, ‘self-taught engineer’, ‘blacksmith’, ‘craftsman’, ‘sound sculptor’, ‘creator of musical instruments’, ‘world-class musical saw player’, ‘visionary inventor’ and ‘genius’. And they are all right. He is all of those things. But Henry prefers to be known as ‘a holistic musician’.

‘Holistic musician describes the vocation of musicians like me whose work includes composition, performance, and developing new musical instruments and sound sculptures,’ he explains.

Electronic to acoustic
Henry’s virtuosity was apparent from an early age. He grew up in Dublin, the child of classical musicians. Aged eight, he began learning the ‘cello and was building electronic circuits, which he modified to produce a range of unusual sounds – a process now known as ‘circuit bending’. His first ever public performance, at a school concert, featured a primitive home-built synthesiser, which he used to imitate everyday sounds, including fire engine air horns and his geography teacher’s bubble car.

Henry Dagg: Portable electronic music studio
Henry’s portable electronic music studio

‘The audience was so enthusiastic that it probably altered the course of my future,’ Henry remembers. ‘I continued to build similar projects, the largest of which was a kind of portable electronic music studio, on which I composed my own version of ‘musique concrète’.’

During his teens, Henry taught himself piano and electric bass. He transcribed chunks of prog rock from bands like Focus and Genesis by ear, and dreamt of a career  as a composer for the BBC Radiophonic Workshop (RW), which specialises in producing  bespoke electronic music and sounds for BBC radio and television programmes. In particular,  Henry admired the work of John Baker, whose compositions consisted of recordings of real acoustic sounds spliced together from tiny pieces of tape.

So hoping to follow in the footsteps of John Baker who had joined the BBC as a studio manager, Henry joined the BBC sound engineering section in Belfast. Eventually, he was sent on a very short attachment to the RW but was not offered a post. Instead, having impressed RW head Desmond Briscoe with some of his compositions, Henry was commissioned to compose original music for TV and radio programmes, while still based at BBC Northern Ireland, often still using tape editing and manipulation techniques. Digital sampling was available at that time, but it was unaffordable.

It was during his time at the BBC that Henry brought his first house in Belfast and set about converting it into a series of workshops and studios.  But renovating his house while also holding down two jobs – sound engineer and a composer – became too much. He decided to leave the BBC to concentrate on music, supplementing his income by busking on the streets of Belfast playing the musical saw.

A 1987 BBC documentary about Henry, Anything that makes a noise: A man and his music provides an insight into the way that he works. Henry is meticulous and inventive, developing new processes and techniques to get the quality of outcome he wants, whatever the task. The documentary also features Henry at work on a ten-minute tone poem Fanfare for the Bogie Man, commissioned  by the BBC for a programme about a train journey from Belfast to Dublin.

The freedom to work for himself, brought about an important change in Henry’s approach to composition. He turned his attention from electronica to acoustic music and sound sculptures.

‘I’d become a bit disenchanted with the whole process of making music that had to be assembled laboriously in a studio,’ he explains. ‘Affordable digital samplers were still years away at this stage and my experience of using synthesisers had convinced me that, for my ears at least, music really becomes most alive when the sounds are made acoustically and mechanically by the physical vibrations of real moving objects.’

Henry had already experimented with multi-sampling, using authentic acoustic sounds. An early commission required a rendition of Three Blind Mice for a BBC Schools programme, played by drops of water falling into jam jars. The drops, which Henry chose from hundreds,  were selected for their natural pitch, even though it would have been considerably quicker  to use variable speed to alter the pitch of a single drop.

‘The great thing about multi-sampling like that is that you capture all the individual variations that happen with acoustic sounds,’ Henry explains. ‘No two acoustic sounds are exactly the same and that’s what makes acoustic instruments special. If you use just one sample on a digital sampler that’s exactly what you get every time you use that sound. It loses it’s original quality completely and just sounds artificial.’

Harry Partch and his instruments

‘I started wishing that there was some way that I could keep using new, unusual sounds but performing my work live in a band with other musicians,’ he continues. ‘So I began to imagine a new family of instruments that reconfigured existing acoustic principles to allow live performance using new sounds. I’d already been doing this to some extent for Fanfare for the Bogie Man, where I’d been building little musical devices, but I was also greatly inspired by the new instruments and sound sculptures featured in a California magazine called Experimental Musical Instruments and  particularly by the work of Harry Partch. I felt we were kindred spirits, so sound sculptures featured very heavily in my thinking when I was setting up my workshop.’

The Biscuit House and its musical railings

Henry Dagg: Musical biscuits
Musical biscuits

By 1993,  the growing collection of machines and tools necessary to create Henry’s new instruments and sound sculptures had outgrown his Victorian Belfast house that was ‘trying to be a factory’. So he relocated to a former mineral water factory building in Faversham, Kent. As with his previous house, he called his new home ’Biscuit House’, a reference to Henry’s system for baking shortbread biscuits in various shapes, including musical instruments, stamped out with his precision, custom-made biscuit cutters.


Henry Dagg: Musical railings and gates at Biscuit House
Musical railings and gates

The first sound sculpture that Henry completed in his new workshop was a set of hand-forged, musical railings and gates for the building itself. The installation, which spanned 40 metres, took him five years to complete and was designed to be played like a glockenspiel.

‘I felt obliged to exploit the long frontage of the building to create a manifesto for my work,’ Henry explains. ‘So I composed a 28-bar chord sequence and built it in groups of chime bars embedded in a wrought iron structure, with a score notated in nuts and bolts.’


Henry Dagg: Musical railings and gates opening by Dame Evelyn Glennie
Dame Evelyn Glennie

When it was finished, Henry invited world-famous solo percussionist, Dame Evelyn Glennie, to open the musical gates and railings with a premiere public performance.

‘She very sportingly came and improvised for 20 minutes in front of a big crowd and camera crews from three television channels,’ Henry remembers.

Henry’s first  installation is still there and, these days, it doesn’t attract a lot of attention locally. But at the time, it proved to be a very good investment in terms of the interest it generated for future commissioned work for Henry, as well as providing a splendid, practical addition to his new home.

Rochester Independent College Musical Gates

The first of Henry’s new commissions was for a new set of 12-foot high, 28-foot wide, stainless-steel musical gates and railings for Rochester Independent College. Like all Henry’s work, they were made by hand in his workshop. The commission took him  four years to complete.

The completed installation, which is adorned with flying pigs in sunglasses – the mascot of the College – is designed to be played by a group of musicians performing together.

It has a range of over six octaves, comparable to a full orchestra and features vibraphone bars, tubular bells and organ pipe-like tubes sounded by strings that can be plucked, struck or bowed. These two video clips tell something of the story of the magnificent gates, from initial design through to the opening  concert

The Sharpsichord
A second commission to come as a result of Henry’s Biscuit House gates installation was for a sound sculpture for the gardens of Cecil Sharp House – home of the English Folk Song and Dance Society – in Camden, London. 

Cecil Sharp was a 19th century musicologist, noted for his collection of English folk song and dance. Henry’s  design – a programmable acoustic harp for public use – was sculptural tribute to Sharp, with much thought given to the context in which it would be erected. He called it the Sharpsichord.

 ‘As Cecil Sharp House had music at its core, I thought it wouldn’t do them justice to make a sound sculpture that just made random noises,’ Henry explains. ‘My design for the Sharpsichord was inspired by Cecil Sharp himself, who set up the recorded music library using a cylinder phonograph to record songs. I also wanted it to be fully chromatic and concert pitch so that it could be incorporated in arrangements with other instruments that might be played in the garden.’

The resulting sound sculpture was a two ton, 46-string, solar powered, weatherproof, programmable pin-barrel harp.

It works like this.:

  • Two solar panels at the top charge a battery, providing power for a large rotating pin-barrel to be turned automatically. Alternatively, the instrument can be powered manually using a handwheel
  • The music is programmed manually on the pin-barrel itself, which is drilled and tapped with over 11,000 holes in a grid pattern. It can take up to a day to arrange the pins to produce just a minute of music
  • As it rotates, the pin-barrel activates the mechanisms that pluck the strings of a harp at the back of the instrument
  • The sound from the plucked strings is channelled into a stainless steel box and amplified, in stereo, by two giant acoustic horns. The smaller horn is for treble notes and the larger for bass notes
  • There is also a keyboard to help the programmer to find note positions on the pin-barrel. If a musician has the strength and stamina to exert the considerable pressure needed to pluck the strings, the Sharpsichord  can also be played directly from the keyboard.

‘The idea was that visitors to the garden would execute their musical ideas by inserting pins into the cylinder and then they would leave that musical idea behind,’ Henry explains. ‘This would then be developed by the next people who came along, so the tune would morph from one thing to another in the way that folk music tends to do.’

Henry Dagg: Sharpsichord
Hand fabricated cranks and gears

Although the outline drawing was simple, the work required to  develop the Sharpsichord into a functional prototype was enormous, with many very time-consuming challenges to overcome. Because of this, the build overshot the original timescale  – what should have taken six months took five years – and  escalating metal prices meant  that costs also went up by a factor of ten.

And there was another unforeseen difficulty. The rising price of metal had sparked an epidemic of metal theft.

Henry Dagg: Sharpsichord
Array of mechanical plectra and dampeners

‘Even before it was completed, everybody who saw the Sharpsichord pointed out that it would never survive in a garden in Camden with no real security oversight in the evening and at weekends,’ Henry explains. ‘So that made me think. I realised that this was something of a scale I would never be able to do again and it just didn’t seem at all appropriate to risk its demolition. And so the only solution in the end was to repay the Society its original contributions and, with the help of generous admirers and supporters, buy it back.’

So the Sharpsichord  remained in Henry’s workshop where it still lives today. But that is not the end of the story.

Henry Dagg: Recording with Björk
Recording with Björk

One day Henry, who had been arranging and uploading short videos to You Tube to promote the Sharpsichord, got a call from musician Matthew Herbert. Herbert said he’d sent one of Henry’s videos to Björk and that she was very keen to record a song with the Sharpsichord for her new project and album Biophilia, released in 2011.

However, it transpired that the length and structure of the song, called Sacrifice, which was already written, were far too long and elaborate to fit the cylinder in one programme.  As Björk wanted a fully live performance, Henry arranged the song to include a live keyboard part, to be played on the Sharpsichord keyboard in synch with the cylinder programme.

During the recording session at Henry’s workshop, Björk  asked him about the possibility of taking the Sharpsichord on tour with her, for live performances.

‘It was an exciting prospect for me as it would give the Sharpsichord great exposure,’ Henry recalls. ‘But it was not straightforward. The Sharpsichord was designed simply as a sound-sculpture installation, so it could never have travelled in one piece without considerable, and very expensive, modification.’

Henry Dagg: Björk Biophilia, Alexandra Palace
Björk and Henry at Alexandra Palace

Nevertheless Henry agreed to tour with Björk and, over several months, converted the Sharpsichord  into a mobile structure that could be lifted by crane onto the flatbed truck ready to be taken to  her shows in Manchester and at Alexander Palace, where it proved a great success. You can see Henry and  Björk working together with the Sharpsichord in this video.

In 2016, the Sharpsichord made another excursion, travelling to Norway where Henry gave his TED talk The Quest for New Music From Old Technology 

Although the Sharpsichord has not ventured out recently, Henry believes its future lies in guest-performing with other artists or bands, and he is planning to create an auxiliary memory to augment the Sharpsichord’s current 40-90 second memory, so that it can retain enough material for a concert.

‘I envisage an optical memory based on lines written in felt pen on a roll of clear acetate,’ Henry says. ‘Whatever it is will be pretty low tech. You could computerise the whole thing but it’s not in the spirit of the Sharpsichord. Everything you hear, you can attribute to something you see.’

In this clip Jack Hues (formerly of new wave band Wang Chung) sings the Beatles song She’s Leaving Home, accompanied by the Sharpsichord. and here Hannah Peel and Laura Groves sing The Beach Boys  song God Only Knows, accompanied by Henry on the Sharpsichord.

Extending the acoustic range
Henry Dagg: CATASTROPHONYOver the years Henry has invented and built  a range of  innovative and unusual acoustic musical instruments, usually in response to commissions.

Perhaps the most well known is the CATASTROPHONY, a miaowing cat-organ, which famously reduced Prince Charles to tears of laughter during a recital at a royal garden party in 2010. Here is Henry playing the CATASTROPHONY at Jools Holland’s Hootenanny in 2010.

The Ring Cycle
came about as the result of Henry’s involvement in a schools project in Basingstoke in early 2005.

A group of musicians – Henry,  jazz musicians Herbie Flowers and Buster Birch, and Dave Jackson from Van der Graaf Generator – was appointed by Anvil Arts to hold workshops in schools. The musicians helped children to make their own music and encouraged them to get involved in a public performance at The Anvil concert hall, along with the four musicians and members of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Henry’s role was to challenge primary school children to create their own instruments, and also to devise and produce a new instrument that could be played by a whole class at the concert.

Henry Dagg: The Ring Cycle
The Ring Cycle performance

Henry came up with The Ring Cycle, a line of rotating cylinders of tubular bells, powered by one person on a cycle frame, that could be played by 30 performers. Each player had one cylinder in front of them, and a mallet. They followed the conductor, who had a flip chart with a series of numbers on it, and then, when their particular numbers came up, brought their mallet in contact with the rotating bells.

‘It  was really simple and didn’t require any ability to read music, just the ability to remember a string of numbers,’ Henry explains. ‘The kids were very good at it and took to it really naturally. They played three pieces  and it made a fantastic, really loud sound.’

While he was thinking about possible instruments that the children could build from readily available materials, Henry came up with the idea for his Hooty Scooty.  Although he quickly realised that the project was too technical for children, he later developed  it into a very playable instrument.

The Hooty Scooty combines the working elements of a hurdy-gurdy, two phono-fiddles and a scooter. The front wheel of the scooter drives the rosined wheel which bows the strings. This means the performer has to be scooting while they are playing in order to make the sound. You can see Henry performing  on the Hooty Scooty  alongside pianist Rimski and his pedalling piano at the 2013 Duchamps Festival in Herne Bay, Kent.

When the Tour de France came to Canterbury in 2007, The Canterbury Festival asked Henry to come up with some bicycle inspired musical contributions as part of the celebrations.

‘They had heard about my Ring Cycle so they commissioned me to write a new 20 minute suite for that,’  Henry says . ‘They also wanted me to create a new pedal-powered monophonic instrument to lead a parade of cycling-inspired instruments. So I devised the Voicycle.’

The Voicycle uses the pedalling power from an old tricycle to drive a heavy flywheel, that in turn powers an acoustic siren, with a lever to control the pitch. Here is Henry performing Edelweiss on the Voicycle at the Duchamps Festival in Herne Bay, Kent in 2013

Achieving the dream
After the opening performance of the Rochester Gate Harp, Henry took a break from time-consuming commissioned projects. He is now spending time converting the former offices and canteen in his factory-home into a habitable residential area.

‘It’s now 25 years that I’ve lived in a place with no insulation and no central heating and I’ve decided that this needs to take priority over commissioned work,’ Henry says. ‘ I have never embraced the bohemian lifestyle, living in a cold, crumbling canteen-cum-bedsit. It just became a necessity because once you accept a commission, your time is sold before you can get your hands on it.’

And while Henry has achieved a great deal of success and support from his commissioned works, he feels that he has still not really yet achieved what he hoped when he left the BBC all those years ago.

‘The reason for the existence of a lot of my instruments is not because I really wanted them at all, but because other people wanted them,’ Henry explains. ‘They don’t really represent my ideas of the electro-acoustic ensemble that I’ve been trying to reach all my life.  I think live performance is the experience that musicians live for and what I really want to do is to be able to perform my music live, with others.’

You can hear Henry Dagg playing live at Artists Behind Closed Doors at 8.30pm on 28th July 2020.  Register for the event here:

Contact Henry Dagg about any aspect of his work via his website: