Henry & The Giant Harp, part two
Saturday, 6 February 2010
Last week, I wrote my Observer column about Henry Dagg’s giant pin-barrel harp. The gist, if you didn’t read the column, was that a chap called Henry Dagg had been given £27,000 of Lottery money to spend six months making four outdoor sound sculptures for the garden of the English Folk Dance And Song Society; four years later, he has finished one of them and it’s too vulnerable to be outside. Voices in the press were roaring angrily about “our money” being given to someone who couldn’t deliver on time or to purpose. I was arguing that this is exactly what arts subsidies are for: not to pay off those who are on top of the time/profit ratio, but to sustain those who need a bit of support because they might (when the creative spirit takes hold) accidentally spend four years on something that doesn’t fulfil its brief. This is the great dream of art for art’s sake, surely a joyful component of civilized society.
As it happens, the piece that Henry Dagg finished (ie. the giant harp) also looked really beautiful in the paper, surely worth building for aesthetic reasons alone.
To my great excitement, I got an email a couple of days later from Henry Dagg himself. He invited me to come and see the finished sculpture (“so much better in the steel”) at his workshop in Kent. I accepted that invitation today, and it’s one of the best adventures I’ve had for a long time.
Henry’s workshop is a magical wonderland. It’s full of machines - machines that he’s built, machines that he uses for building, machines that turn out to be instruments.
“What’s that?”, I asked as we wandered past a strange tall thing with wheels on it.
“The Voicycle?” said Henry, hopping aboard and cycling up and down, playing Summertime on a pedal-powered siren at the top.
I barely had time to hum along before Henry was off the Voicycle and onto the Hootie-Scooter, whizzing round his workshop to the tune of O Come All Ye Faithful which he played through its handle. A combined scooter and hurdy-gurdy! I never realized how badly the world needed one, until I saw what Henry had built.
“And that?” I asked.
“The Catastrophony?” Henry whipped off the wooden case to reveal a keyboard made of toy cats. He ran along it, pressing squeakers in their backs to make his workshop reverberate to Somewhere Over The Rainbow.
And then, of course, there was the main attraction. The picture at the top is me and Henry, standing in front of the giant pin-barrel harp. The Sharpsichord. (So-called in tribute to Cecil Sharp, the hero of English folk music). To appreciate its true beauty, you need us to get out of the way.
It is an absolutely incredible thing. Being, now, too valuable to stand outside, it can’t operate by solar power as it’s supposed to. But Henry can set its pins to any tune he likes (sort of like writing sheet music, but in 3D) and turn the handle to play the tune. It makes a beautiful noise, unlike anything else. He has actually invented a new musical instrument - completely new, yet nodding its stainless steel head to folk tradition and Victorian design - which sounds beautiful and looks beautiful, and the idea of him being in trouble with either the English Folk Dance society or the Lottery people makes my blood boil. I promise you, unless you are somehow against the idea, in principle, of subsidizing the creative arts with Lottery money, this is EXACTLY how you want it spent.
Henry is now hoping that an appropriate location can be found for the Sharpsichord to be stored inside, but somewhere the public can interact with it - like the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall, for example. I really hope it finds a home. Ideally it would be in a garden or a park, operating by magical solar power, but I can see that it would need a constant guard to prevent some chancer stripping it for valuable scrap. But this needs to be seen and played with. It’s wonderful, and Henry Dagg is an amazing fellow, living like Caractacus Potts surrounded by bizarre and brilliant inventions. Everything does something. The railings round his house are a giant vertical xylophone. He doesn’t even use an ordinary teapot.
It was a great afternoon, and I hope you all get the chance to see that harp one day. In the meantime, here it is being played by Chris Wood, accompanied by Henry Dagg himself. On the saw.