Published: 4 February 2010
By DAN CARRIER
IT looks like a crazy contraption the Edwardian artist
W Heath Robinson took so much pleasure in designing, and was set to be a grand attraction at Cecil Sharp House, home of the English Song and Folk Dance Society (ESFDS).
But the “Sharpsichord”, a one-of-a-kind musical instrument designed by sculptor Henry Dagg, needs a new resting place after it emerged this week that the remarkable sound machine, hand-built and the only one of its kind in the world, is too valuable and delicate to take pride of place at the folkie headquarters in Primrose Hill.
The machine is a solar-powered pin-barrel harp, and was due to be delivered by Mr Dagg back in 2006. It cost £55,000 and was paid for by the Big Lottery Fund. But the care taken by Mr Dagg over his creation means its installation is four years late – and now, because of its size, it needs a new home. Mr Dagg is planning to offer the instrument to other venues such as the Barbican or the Roundhouse, and hopes one will provide it with a space that will allow it to be played.
“We want it to be available to as many people as possible,” he says, “and so we are now looking for other venues who may be able house it.”
The machine works on the same principle used by Victorian barrel organs. Pegs move in and out of 11,520 holes that sit on a metal barrel. As the barrel spins, it pushes levers that then pluck strings. The sound vibrations are then amplified by two giant stainless steel horns.
Mr Dagg describes the overall effect as “haunting”.
“It sounds like a symphony,” says the inventor, who is also an accomplished pianist and a former sound engineer for the BBC – all of this experience he now uses to build unlikely sound machines.
Mr Dagg is known for his saw-playing ability, and has made other contraptions, such as a musical mincing machine which plays a tune while helping make the supper. Other items he has converted into musical instruments include a set of railings on the Kent seafront that are now a xylophone.
He says the Sharpsichord “is designed really as a composing machine – I want people to come and play their own pieces on it.”
And to make it easier for people to have a go at playing Chopsticks on the instrument, he is in the process of retro-fitting a keyboard.
The fact the machine is still not totally finished is testimony to the care and attention Mr Dagg has given to the project.
“The truth is I was radically optimistic about what I could achieve in the timescale I was given,” he admits.
“It has given the poor Society a lot of headaches, but they have been very understanding. Once I’d got going, there was no going back. I’d invested so much time and money and materials into it, so the only way to go forward was to carry on as I planned and find a new venue that will allow it to work.”
It became apparent last summer to the ESFDS’s head of marketing, Nick Hallam, that the instrument was not progressing according to plan.
“It was a case of evolution,” he says. “Henry went down a particular route, which was different from where we started.”
The brief given to Mr Dagg had been to build three instruments – but as the project developed, the idea morphed into one larger piece.
But with the machine full of delicate working parts there was a fear that it would not be able to stand the harsh realities of a Primrose Hill winter – and then there is the fact it would fetch a sizeable figure as scrap.
Mr Dagg, who plays the keyboards in a Genesis tribute band, built the Sharpsichord in a former brush factory in Kent. He has programmed it – so far – to play An English Country Garden and The Long and Winding Road, songs whose titles uncannily fit the tale of the contraption.
• Anyone who can suggest a good home for the Sharpsichord should email