Adventures in steampunk folk with Luke Daniels

Luke Daniels
Luke Daniels
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What will Luke Daniels unearth next? The last time we spoke, it was in connection with his tribute album to the neglected Scottish dance band leader William Hannah, for which he retrieved a 1927 vintage Wilkinson Excelsior accordion from someone’s loft, as well as transcribing wax cylinder recordings of Hannah’s music. Not content with that, delving into antique recording systems put Daniels on the trail of an even older contraption, the wind-up chimes of the Polyphon, a Victorian, disc-playing music box manufactured by the Leipzig-based Polyphon Musikwerke company between the 1870s and 1890s. These highly sophisticated devices were exported across the world, their perforated steel discs programmed with music aimed at different national markets.

Oxfordshire-bred but based in Hamilton, Daniels is an accomplished melodeon player, guitarist and singer-songwriter whose playing credits range from Cara Dillon and the Riverdance band to the London Philharmonic Orchestra, not to mention featuring on the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit film soundtracks. Now, however, looking at images of him with the Polyphon on the sleeve of his album Revolve and Rotate (Gael Music), the term “steampunk folk” comes to mind. An intriguing assembly of clock-like disc face and glittering brass clockwork within its timber cabinet, the Polyphon looks like a domestic-sized Victorian time machine, and it joins him on stage at the end of this month in a brief Scottish tour in the company of fiddler Rua Macmillan and harpist Gillian Fleetwood.

Daniels went to a specialist company, Renaissance Discs, who not only restored the machine but made new, lighter-weight 19-inch discs to play the music he wrote for it. That was just the beginning, however: Daniels had to develop software that would enable him and his fellow players to co-ordinate their performance with the Victorian clockwork. “We developed a computer programme that would calculate co-ordinates for a midi file, which I could export from my Sibelius music software,” he explains. “It worked perfectly, and we produced the first new music on a Polyphon disc for over 130 years.”

The conversion job also involved replacing the machine’s original coin-operated mechanism with foot operated solenoid switches, and fitting optical and rotary sensors. “It made us appreciate what an amazing achievement it was for the 19th-century German engineers who made our machine, who would create their arrangements on pen and paper. We had a hard enough job doing it having written our own computer programme.”

The results are beguiling as the Polyphon adds its magical chiming to Daniels’s powerful singing and playing, as well as that of album collaborators such as guitarist Ian Stephenson and saxophonist Phil Bancroft.

Asked how he juggles his box and guitar playing, singer-songwriting and now the Polyphon project, he explains that they all ultimately feed into his Gael Music charity: “If I’m creating music as a composer or songwriter, it’s usually connected to wider work that’s being delivered by the charity in schools.”

Just as his Hannah project involved students from the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, he’ll be doing Polyphon workshops at the Conservatoire. He’s also getting primary school children to play penny whistles along with the machine and persuading older pupils to create electronic music to accompany it, activities which will culminate with a concert at next January’s Celtic Connections.

In the meantime, in contrast to Victorian clockwork, Daniels is now engaged with electronica himself, recording with Lau fiddler Aidan O’Rourke, guitarist John Doyle and flautist Michael McGoldrick in collaboration with German avant garde composer Sebastian Lexer. “We’ve been getting up to all sorts of experiments, putting traditional instruments through ring modulators and granulators, so

I’ve gone in the opposite direction from the Polyphon with this new project.” ■

*Luke Daniels with Rua Macmillan and Gillian Fleetwood, Eden Court, Inverness, 23 October; Tower Arts Centre, Helensburgh, 24 October; Scottish Music Centre, Glasgow, 4 November and Glasgow Royal Concert Halls City of Music Studio, 5 November,