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 http://www.embrace.co.uk/
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.
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.
‘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’.’ https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Musique_concr%C3%A8te
During his teens, Henry taught himself piano and electric bass. He transcribed chunks of prog rock from bands like Focus https://focustheband.co.uk/ 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. https://www.soundonsound.com/people/story-bbc-radiophonic-workshop. 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. https://youtu.be/dp5UKVN8B9c
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. https://youtu.be/ljCYiCwNx7E 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.’
‘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. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/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
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.
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.’
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. https://rochester-college.org/ 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 https://vimeo.com/238815007 https://vimeo.com/293949840
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. https://www.efdss.org/cecil-sharp-house.
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 a 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.’
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.
‘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.
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.’
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. https://youtu.be/n2kbd1Pt5d8
In 2016, the Sharpsichord made another excursion, travelling to Norway where Henry gave his TED talk The Quest for New Music From Old Technology https://youtu.be/GQqJjEDCpGM
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. https://youtu.be/eoWdefgfxgI and here Hannah Peel and Laura Groves sing The Beach Boys song God Only Knows, accompanied by Henry on the Sharpsichord. https://youtu.be/LpD1PsZS-sU
Extending the acoustic range
Over 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. https://youtu.be/cHfBQCJaJoI
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 https://www.anvilarts.org.uk/ 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 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. https://youtu.be/m2Msy7LwTQI
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 https://youtu.be/iGUhGKbr1x8
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: https://www.routestock.org/events-1/henry-dagg-abcd-artists-behind-closed-doors
Contact Henry Dagg about any aspect of his work via his website: http://henrydagg.com/