The Ploughman's Lunch

Postcards from a PhD

Hugh Davies

Credit: Science Museum, London

Credit: Science Museum, London

Some of this week’s reading material has been an interesting article from the April 2015 issue of Organised Sound – ‘Hugh Davies’s Electronic Music Documentation 1961-68′ by James Mooney. Mooney is the principle academic on a AHRC funded research project on the innovative contribution of Davies to electronic music. It’s a project I’ve been keeping an eye on for a while as lead research institution the University of Leeds also provide me with my day job and it’s always nice to see coverage of a project you’re genuinely interested in pop up on the intranet every now and then (particularly if it involves news of people on campus playing amplified cardboard boxes).   It’s a project in collaboration with the Science Museum, London to whom the wonderful picture of Davies’ toolbox that accompanies this post is credited.

I first became aware of Hugh Davies through an interest in circuit bending – he is mentioned in Nicholas Collins’ excellent book Handmade Electronic Music – and the more I’ve discovered about him the more convinced I have become that his role in the development of this area has been underplayed. However, its probably fair to say Davies’ contributions in a lot of areas have been underplayed. Piecing together the small amount of published material that exists on Davies one sketches a picture of a man more interested in documenting and disseminating the work of others than drawing attention to his own. Working in higher education for much of his life, one might call him an educator and archivist of electronic music rather than a scholar and despite being a lifelong composer, his focus seems to have favoured performance rather than recorded output. No posthumous deluxe edition boxsets of Davies’ work are available, unlike his longstanding friend Daphne Oram, whose obituary he wrote for the Guardian in 2003.

Perhaps Hugh Davies greatest contribution to electronic music is the International Electronic Music Catalog on which Mooney’s article is focused. Published in 1968 Catalog draws together for the first time all the strands of electronic music being practiced and produced internationally and attempts to document every single electronic composition to date. Of particular interest to me, the article discusses Davies’ decision to organise Catalog by the originating country of musical output, suggesting an implication that “Davies considered international boundaries to be a significant factor in electronic music. It seems to lend itself to the idea that each country might represent a distinct electronic music culture, or electronic music style”.

My interest in this particular aspect of the article is related to my present ponderings on whether hauntology is an inherently British movement in electronic music and if so why. My conclusions to these questions are currently as incomplete as the homemade electronic instrument I was inspired to make after reading Hugh Davies’ Sounds Unheard, more abstract than the small collection of piezo disks and poundshop eggslicers gathering dust in a drawer, but no less lacking in potential.

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