By Richard Fleury
Talented people feel at home in Faversham. It just lets them get on with their thing, however idiosyncratic that may be.
Take sound sculptor Henry Dagg, for example, who settled here in 1994. Ten years ago he became briefly famous for reducing Charles and Camilla to tears of hilarity at a royal garden party by playing Over the Rainbow on the 'Catastrophony', a musical keyboard consisting of tuned, squeaking, fluffy toy cats.
Remarkable though it is, the inspired lunacy of the Catastrophony is just the tip of a titanic creative iceberg. Henry is a serious artist who has dedicated his entire life to his unconventional work.
He describes himself as a 'holistic musician', performing his own compositions on instruments summoned from his own imagination and built from scratch with his own hands. These music-making machines are one-offs, designed from pre-digital principles and brought to life with skills, equipment and materials collected over a lifetime. He calls it creating “new sounds from old technology”.
The monarchic mirth stirred by Henry's royal cat organ performance made the national news. But it wasn't his first 15 minutes of fame and won't be his last.
Next year Henry and his wonderful world of musical innovation will be the subject of a new documentary. I sincerely hope the film will be a critical triumph and a runaway international success. Not just because he deserves a wider audience but because I made it. For the past eight, nearly nine, years I have explored Henry's life and career, interviewing friends and collaborators, and nosing through his personal archives. It has been a lot of work but never boring.
Henry's most ambitious projects have tended to expand spectacularly over time, both in scope and cost. While budgets balloon, deadlines dissolve and funders fret, Henry – to use Winston Churchill's deathless phrase – just keeps buggering on.
His Sharpsichord, or Pin Barrel Harp, is a case in point. Originally commissioned by the English Folk Dance and Song Society in 2006, it was to be one of a trio of outdoor sound sculptures intended for the garden of their London headquarters, Cecil Sharp House. Henry was given £27,000 of Lottery money and six months to produce them. Four years later, he had completed just one. And by then it was too valuable and vulnerable to be left outdoors.
But despite, or arguably because of, the Dagg mission creep, the finished article – a hybrid of barrel organ and harp – is unlike anything else on Earth. Weighing in at over two tons, this sonic magnum opus looks like a giant, steel Victorian music box from some steampunk fever dream.
Music is programmed by screwing pins into a metal drum drilled with more than 11,000 holes. Each tune is limited to 90 seconds and can take days to prepare. As the drum rotates, a staggeringly complicated system of wires, levers and pulleys, and wheels activates automaton fingers to pluck 46 harp strings.
It's surprisingly loud for a totally acoustic instrument, generating deep, otherworldly resonances. Somewhere between a grand piano and church bells with wobbling vibrato and a twanging, clanky mechanical quality, it sounds oddly organic and alive. It's quite magical
The product of a ferocious work ethic, a compulsively inventive mind and a singlemindedness bordering on monomania, this incomparable contraption could only have been created by Henry.
He does things his way, which is usually the hard way. Every piece of the Sharpsichord was hand-crafted in stainless steel, a notoriously difficult, unyielding material. Understanding what it must have taken to design and build, an engineer friend of Henry's once called it a “symphony in pain”.
I'm beginning to think Henry's way of doing things may be contagious. Back in 2012, he began work on his next major commission; a set of musical gates and railings for Rochester Independent College, again largely hand-built from stainless steel.
I was asked to capture the process for posterity. So I grabbed my video camera and headed to Henry's Faversham home and base of operations: Biscuit House. A former brush factory just off the Whitstable Road, this vast, sprawling workshop stuffed with ancient, heavy industrial equipment and Henry's extraordinary inventions would give Caractacus Potts shed envy.
College founder (and Faversham Eye publisher) Brian Pain originally commissioned Henry to create the Rochester gates for the school’s main entrance in 2003. But for various reasons – the Sharpsichord saga being one of them – Henry didn't pick up his tools until 2012.
On and off, I filmed Henry grinding, cutting, drilling, welding, blacksmithing (yes, Henry owns a forge) and polishing over four years until, in 2016, the gates were finally installed.
Set slightly back from from the busy A2 and standing four metres high, they now form a permanent art installation. How permanent? Henry's stainless steel masterpiece could be around for another 500 years, if not 1,000, according to a metallurgist specialising in the material.
I don't recall precisely when I realised these fully functioning five-ton gates incorporating flying pig sculptures and a musical instrument with the tonal range of a full orchestra were not actually the most interesting thing about Henry. But when I did, my film began mutating into a monster – much like some of Henry's own projects.
I felt that he deserved a full-length, 90-minute-plus documentary, and set about making one. By myself. There are good reasons, I would discover later, why feature docs are typically made by teams of seasoned film industry professionals with million-dollar budgets. By contrast, I had made a few short films on barely existent budgets with basic cameras and knowledge gleaned from my extensive studies at the YouTube school of film-making. In hindsight I wonder that if you spend enough time around Henry – or perhaps too much – some of his all-or-nothing ways can rub off.
I learned new technical skills, then had to relearn them as my cameras, computers and editing software passed into obsolescence with the passing years. Henry and I haven't got any younger either. Both our faces have acquired new lines since I started filming and my beard has gone grey.
People often ask how many hours of footage I've shot. Truth is, I lost count years ago. Now I measure in hard drive terabytes – currently eight (and counting). It's fair to say editing has been a challenge.
Henry keeps himself extremely busy finishing things that nobody else would ever dream of starting. With so many rabbit holes to get lost down, his has not proved an easy story to tell. No documentary can ever be more than a glimpse into a person's life and, in Henry's case, even a six-part Netflix docu-series would barely make a dent.
But I have tried to cover as much ground as possible, from his Dublin childhood building his own electronic instruments and dreaming of a job with the BBC's Radiophonic Workshop to playing the Sharpsichord onstage with Björk, and beyond.
Although Henry operates largely outside the commercial art and music establishments, his relentless, uncompromising creativity has won him famous admirers. Some generously agreed to appear in the film including Faversham residents Sir Bob Geldof and world-renowned jazz saxophonist Evan Parker, along with comedian Stewart Lee – for my money the best stand-up in the land – prog rock keyboard wizard Tony Banks from Genesis and Jack Hues from 80s pop band Wang Chung.
A younger generation of musicians are finding inspiration in Henry's work too. Critically acclaimed art rock band These New Puritans, whose music combines elements of electronica, post-punk and classical, recently recorded at Biscuit House with Henry and the Sharpsichord.
Now, finally, we're closing in on a rough cut of the film, which has the working title The Extraordinary Mr Henry Dagg. Pandemic permitting, we aim to show it locally in Faversham in the new year. This will be a free preview screening, with audience feedback welcome, so please book a ticket, come along and tell us what you think.
Once post-production is done and dusted, we'll submit a final cut to film festivals. Just as it has ravaged the performing arts world, Covid has affected the film festival circuit, but we hope to see Henry's unique story – and Faversham's part in it – seen far and wide.