Hugh Davies

(23.4.1943 - 1.1.2005)

Composer and a pioneer in experimental electronic music, he used domestic objects such as egg-slicers to produce his unique sound

Ubiquitous in the performance of contemporary experimental and electronic music is the table, an essential piece of equipment that may support anything from the latest laptop to collections of contact microphones, invented instruments and amplified domestic appliances. Frequently to be found behind that table during the last four decades was Hugh Davies, who has died aged 61 of cancer.

Even before studying music history, harmony and counterpoint at Oxford University with Frank Harrison and Edmund Rubbra (1961-64), Davies was exploring an unconventional career in sound. As a teenager, born and brought up in Exmouth, Devon, he bought his first recording of electronic music: Karlheinz Stockhausen's Gesang Der Jünglinge (Song Of The Youths, to a text from the biblical Book Of Daniel). The record featured in a lecture he gave to the Oxford Contemporary Music Society. Then, shortly after completing his studies, he moved to Cologne to become Stockhausen's personal assistant.

This was a time of breakthrough for Stockhausen, in which some of his most important works were composed. Fluent in German, open to experiment, yet possessed of a rigorously analytical mind, Davies was given the responsibility of preparing a score for Gesang Der Jünglinge, writing new performance material for the choral and instrumental work Momente, and, in 1964, performing in the ensemble that recorded Stockhausen's exploration of live electronic music, Mikrophonie I.

With the expertise of Jaap Spek, the technician at Cologne's WDR radio, Stockhausen had devised a method for using contact microphones to amplify sounds made by activating the surface of a large gong. On his return to England, Davies developed this technique into his life's work.

Although he still perceived himself as a composer of tape music at this time, Davies was drawn into a more spontaneous world in which the compositional control and expensive equipment of electronic music became increasingly irrelevant. Typically, he converted his lack of resources into a virtue, using contact microphones to amplify domestic objects such as combs, egg-slicers and small springs stretched across a tea tin.

As one of the few musicians in Britain working in this way, he was invited to join a number of ensembles, notably Gentle Fire, a septet specialising in the performance of electronic music compositions, and Music Improvisation Company, initially an improvisation trio formed by guitarist Derek Bailey, saxophonist Evan Parker and percussionist Jamie Muir.

Even in the late 1960s, few musicians were able to move confidently between the divided factions of experimental jazz, classical composition and rock. Crossing boundaries could be interpreted as a lack of commitment to a cause, yet Davies seemed untroubled by any potential difficulties.

Equally problematic was his determination to balance the life of a gigging musician with academic research. In 1968, his comprehensive International Electronic Music Catalog, compiled during two years as researcher at the Groupe de Recherches Musicales of French radio, was published by MIT Press. In the same year, he set up and directed the Electronic Music Studio at Goldsmiths College, London, where he remained till 1986.

Despite his impressive working knowledge of audio technology, Davies continued to pursue his low-tech, whimsical approach to live electronic music. In 1974, inspired by Davies, I edited a small book entitled New/Rediscovered Musical Instruments. He defined his contribution, a newly invented category of instrument named the shozyg as "a collection of amplified metal knick-knacks inside the covers of an encyclopaedia, SHO-ZYG ... an encyclopaedia degutted to substitute direct experience for learning".

This utilisation of everyday objects, and the detritus of a wasteful society, developed into a deeply felt environmental awareness. In 1978 he published a number of environmental music projects that analysed the sounds produced by varying road surfaces on motorways, and advocated the building of acoustic parks in cities.

His desire to move beyond the limited audience for experimental music was reflected by the many work shops in sound and instrument-building he gave for children, his position as a visiting lecturer and part-time researcher at Middlesex University from 1999 onwards, and his membership of the Artist Placement Group.

Throughout his life, he played with a remarkably wide cross-section of musicmakers, ranging from composer Jonathan Harvey to 1980s pop band Talk Talk. A renewed interest in his work among younger sound artists led to the release of archive material by himself, Gentle Fire, and his mentor in electronic music, the late Daphne Oram; he wrote her obituary that appeared in the Guardian (January 24 2003). At the time of his own death, Davies had recently completed a retrospective CD compilation of compositions from different stages of his career, due for release later this year.

He is survived by his wife and daughter.

Hugh Seymour Davies, musician, researcher and instrument inventor, born April 23 1943; died January 1 2005

David Toop
Monday February 28, 2005
The Guardian