Bjork singing ‘Sacrifice’ with the Sharpsichord in Dagg’s workshop.

What drives a man to spend six years drilling more than 10,000 holes into a 4 ft long stainless steel cylinder and carefully forging another 2 1/2 tons of metal into an interactive musical box the size of a burger van? When the English Folk Dance and Song Society asked Henry Dagg to make a series of outdoor musical sculptures for the gardens of Cecil Sharp House, London in 2005, neither he nor the committee were expecting a six-month project to take five years to complete without reaching a final installation.

The Sharpsichord is a 10-foot tall metal-stringed harp that plays itself – it’s either solar powered or hand-cranked. It plays up to 46 (chromatic) notes at a time. You simply programme the notes you want it to play by screwing steel pins into holes in the big steel cylinder. This Steampunk-esque instrument looks like something you’d come across in a Philip Pullman or China Miéville novel.

Henry took inspiration from Cecil Sharp, famous for his quest to document England’s traditional folk music in the early 20thcentury before it was lost to history. If you look closely you might notice that the Sharpsichord is reminiscent of the cylinder phonograph that Sharp used to make his recordings.

Henry designed the instrument so that members of the public could have fun creating and modifying the tunes it plays, much like the iterative process through which traditional folk music evolves. It was also used on Bjork’s Biophilia tour.

I spoke to Henry Dagg about the science – and the convoluted history – behind his most ambitious sound sculpture to date.

How does the instrument produce sound?

The sound production is entirely acoustic – the Sharpsichord has a harp frame supporting 46 strings, which are plucked by an action featuring a specially devised jack which circumvents the string on its return stroke, allowing the sound to decay naturally. The strings are paired over pivoting bridges which transfer the vibrations to a diaphragm in the sound box. The vibrations are then amplified by two large horns.

You screw pins into the ‘x/y’ matrix of 11,520 holes on the cylinder

The sound is hollow, metallic and harp-like, with a long sustain and a slight vibrato, and emerges as a kind of bass-left, treble-right stereo.

How do you programme the musical patterns that determine what notes the Sharpsichord plays?

Once you’ve decided what notes you want it to play, you simply screw pins (there is a supply in a tray under the cylinder) into the ‘x/y’ matrix of 11,520 holes on the cylinder. The 46 holes across the ‘x’ co-ordinate correspond to pitch, rising in semitones. Each position carries a pitch label, ranging from C1 (the C two octaves below middle C on a piano) to A4 (the A just under two octaves above middle C).

The 240 holes along the ’y’ co-ordinate around the circumference of the cylinder equate to time divisions – think micro beats in a bar. So, every hole is a combination of pitch and time position.

Each of the 46 keys on the keyboard plucks its respective string and indicates the hole required. You can use it to play your piece in real-time but you need to have pretty strong fingers!, One of the advantages of programming your piece with pins is that the Sharpsichord can play complex arrangements with an acoustic, human quality which can normally only be achieved by years of practising on an acoustic instrument!

What if you want to change your piece?

That’s easy, just turn the handwheel to play the programme forwards or backwards, and re-place pins in new positions to create the notes you want!

Any tips for someone who fancies writing music for the Sharpsichord?

Most importantly, perhaps, you’d want to have a clear idea in your head of what your piece is, or jot it down on manuscript paper, because you will have to spend hours of pin-screwing just to hear your tune for the first time – it’s not like a real-time performance instrument such as a piano or guitar.

Second, as with all instruments using a pin-cylinder memory (like the Victorian street piano) you’re dealing with a short loop of time, i.e. the length of the circumference of the cylinder (six feet). So one of the challenges in composing or arranging is to fit the piece neatly into the available 240 holes, which equate to the time divisions. You can use any time signature – 4/4 time quavers uses 8 holes per bar, giving you 30 bars; 6/8 time uses 6 holes per bar, giving you 40 bars etc. So this tends to impose a rather rigid cyclic structure on your composition, unless the intention is to record a number of separate programmes and join them together, in which case the live acoustic element is lost.

Another snag is that the pin-reading mechanism requires a minimum of one vacant hole between repeated notes to allow its full return.

How did you construct it and how long did it take?

Stainless steel was the only affordable option since the sculpture had to remain functional under permanent exposure to the weather. As a sculptural tribute to Cecil Sharp and his phonograph, the contemporaneous Victorian engineering vernacular seemed the most appropriate design aesthetic, and the combination of curves and webs in the structure also contributes to maximizing strength and rigidity from a minimum of material.

I hope to provide it with an auxiliary memory

The design obviously called for casting so I discussed it with specialist foundries but the cost was way beyond the budget. So I decided to fabricate it from stainless flats, which took a very laborious year. Then there were many development stages such as the tone production and devising tooling to build the horns and drill the cylinder; it took four years to reach a point where the instrument could perform. Five years in total.

Why the decision to make it solar powered?

Part of the brief from the Society was to make the sound-sculptures powered by sustainable energy sources such as wind, solar, human muscle etc. Since its intended site in the Cecil Sharp House garden was favourable for solar PV generation, it made sense to have the option of using solar as a way to charge the battery that runs the motor. However, it can also be run by turning the handwheel. This is often preferable as it allows more expression, especially in ensembles with other musicians.

Have you played in many ensembles with it?

I’ve collaborated with various other musicians and singers but the instrument was never designed to be moved, so they have to come to me! Even Bjork came and recorded ‘Sacrifice’ at the workshop, though her label did eventually persuade me to modify it for touring so I played it with her and her other eccentric instruments at the Manchester Festival.

What do you think the future holds for the Sharpsichord?

I’m very anxious to resume my composing and incorporate it into my own music; but now that it’s movable what I hope to do is to provide it with an auxiliary memory which retains all the flexibility of the programmable cylinder but allows enough capacity for at least a concert’s (i.e. 60 minutes) duration.

Bjork’s label did eventually persuade me to modify it for touring

Another approach I hope to explore is to market the Sharpsichord samples as an iPad app, and fit the action with solenoids operated by a wifi controller, so that if the instrument is performing at a music venue, users of the app can bring their own compositions and hear them on the original instrument.

Why was the Sharpsichord never installed?

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. I produced designs for three pieces and they were enthusiastically received by Hazel Miller and her committee, without whom the Sharpsichord would not exist. However, the first and largest sculpture, the Sharpsichord, soon proved to be an order of magnitude beyond the scope of the modest budget and the 6-month timescale. The cost of stainless steel was also continuously increasing, 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 rising value of metal had created a national epidemic in 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 venues to adopt it on the society’s behalf but there was no interest. Ultimately I had little choice but to reimburse the Society’s contribution towards its development. Not the ideal outcome, but its preservation was important to many people, including me!

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Read more from the 21st Century Musical Instruments series:

The Airpiano: Conjuring sound out of thin air

Imogen Heap’s ‘Gloves:’ When motion becomes music

The Gameleste Project: Björk’s musical innovation

The evolution of the Bütone Drum

Sharpsichord: The solar powered harp that plays itself

The Aluphone: Inspired by a fence, debuted at the Olympics

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