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Discussing the Illumaphonium with artist Michael Davis

As part of this year's Snowflake Trail Bluecoat has had the magical Illumaphonium installed. We caught up with artist and inventor Michael Davis, the creator of this 3.5m tall and musical scuplture. Find out all about the instruments concept, creation, and design below.

The Illumaphonium will be on display at Bluecoat until Tue 3 Jan.

The Illumaphonium recalls instruments such as the glockenspiel and xylophone. How would you describe the piece? Would you say it is an instrument, sculpture or invention? 

The Illumaphonium has a lot in common with the Ghanain 'Balafon' and Indonesian Gamelan instruments. All of these use a five note 'pentatonic' scale as opposed to the 12 note chromatic scale we use here in the west. The beauty of using such a limited scale (The Illumaphonium actually has six notes) is you are able to play literally anything and it will always make harmonic sense.

My previous outdoor musical and sonic pieces have been instrument based, but I see this one as more of a sculpture. The two panels on display outside the Bluecoat are part of a set of four and together can form an interactive musical meeting place.


What is your background? And what inspired you to make such as piece?

I have always played percussion and have been making instruments since my early twenties. The physical size of the pieces has steadily grown over the years. I wanted to move away from more traditional 'instrument' based pieces and create something grand and intimidating, an interactive venue if you like, something you can literally walk inside where the music comes from all around you.

I remember vividly the exact moment that my drum teacher James Blades inspired me, and how that single moment some 35 years ago has shaped my life ever since. I literally woke up one day and realised that I knew how to make this strange musical sculpture / machine and that the world would be a slightly better place if I made the effort to make it.


What do you hope people will get from playing the piece? 

It is a beautiful sounding thing and can be explored and enjoyed in many ways either alone or in a group, as a still and meditative experience or explosive and tumultuous, but what I really hope for, and what is the core motivation behind my work, is that just a few people here and there will have that tiny but deeply profound moment of 'Wow! I had no idea I could do that!'

I want people to feel safe to explore sound without any fear of 'doing it wrong'. Too many people have their inherent creativity stifled at a very young age and go through life thinking that music and art is something that only other people do, but not them. I hope that through enjoying the Illumaphonium and the other sonic pieces I have made some people may realise that creativity and expression belong to and are part of everyone.


What instrumental music do you listen to?

I'm very much about the beats and not really one for vocals in music – not unless it's a language I can't speak. I really love a lot of West African music, I'm a real sucker for some of the big drum ensembles out there such as Doudou N'jai Rose's masterpiece 'Djabote', a 56 piece sabar drum orchestra from Senegal.

I can listen to drums endlessly. I also enjoy a lot of dub, again the really old stuff, King Tubby and pretty much everything from Studio One. I love drum'n'bass, artists like Peshay and Bukem still sound great after 20 years. One of my all-time favourites, but one that I find I can only really listen to on my own has to be Love Supreme by John Coltrane.


For our tech interested readers - can you offer a brief explanation of the build process. What materials were used? How does it work? 

That is a big question! Sonically, the installation at the Bluecoat is all acoustic, the sound is made from the resonating aluminium tubes which are suspended at a node point (a point that doesn't vibrate, and so doesn't stop the resonance). The length of the tube is just long enough to accommodate a single standing wave of air which resonates sympathetically with the fundamental frequency of the tube. This is why it sounds so rich and loud

Visually, the lighting patterns are produced by analysing an audio feed of the sound produced by the installation. The lights themselves are cast in a polyurethane resin from a 3D printed design.


What are your future plans for the piece?

I am always working on increasing the responsiveness of the piece. I have been working with chimes for over ten years, but it has been the integration of a visual element that has really made the idea take off. I’m just going with all the momentum at the moment. We have definitely hit upon a great idea and I guess we just keep getting it in front of as many different kinds of audiences as we can and continue to allow the public's responses to it to shape the future development.

Next year is looking really busy, we are already taking the Illumaphonium to five major music festivals.  I believe we are back in Liverpool for Light Night in May and we are going to Prague in the autumn too which is all very exciting for us. 


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