The Hell Harp of Hieronymus Bosch

To the right is a detail from the right panel of Hieronymus (or Jheronimus) Bosch’s famous triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights (Museo del Prado, Madrid, see also full image below), painted ca 1490-1500, and that I visited in the end of July 2016 (it was postponed from April, which was the earlier plan).

Bosch Prado selfies On the way I originally planned to also visit the grand exhibition at Noordbrabant's Museum in Bosch’s home town ’s-Hertogenbosch (from which he took his name) celebrating 500 years after his death (his birth year is uncertain but is approximately 1450). It turned out that the exhibition moved to Prado just after, to join with the collections there, which made it become an even bigger exhibition, the biggest to date of Bosch’s work, where some have been newly renovated and some triptychs that were split-up rejoined.

This will also be me, when I have built a full-size “reconstruction” of this torture harp from hell (the harp on the original painting is about 30-35 cm) where I will be hung between the strings to find out what the sound of the Harp from Hell will be. I have spent time doing the work and plan to be ready to premiere the piece in 2018 or 2019.

A few attempts have been made before to copy the instruments in his paintings, but as far as I could find never in “full size”, and with the essential element: a man “crucified” through his body by the strings.

I plan to realize it, in other words, as a musical performance piece, where I myself will act as the tortured man hanging in the strings I play. I have to point out though, that the point for me is not the torture but the body involvement of being inbetween the situation as musician and instrument.

SecondHarp During the visit to the exhibition, I discovered that Bosch reused the image of the man crucified by the strings of a harp in another work some time later (see detail to the left), in The Last Judgment Triptych (ca 1505-15, when not on loan to this exhibition situated in Musea Brugge, City of Bruges, Groeningemuseum – not to be confused with another triptych with the same name in Vienna, or a fragment in Munich, see also full image below). I was already considering an unorthodox way of realizing the image, not being true to the exact model, when I saw this variation, with different colour and shape of the harp, and a different position of the man too. It also confirms my opinion that the interpretation (of The Garden...) that you sometimes see that the harp is built together with the lute behind it is wrong.

I pay less attention to this second image though, not because it is debated if the picture was made by Bosch alone or by apprentices or students in his workshop (however, the renovators last year expressed no doubt that it is made by him alone) but because it has less expression in its details. The image is smaller in size, and so the perforation of the 11 strings is not clear, the man is simply painted in front of the strings, leaving it open for imagination how many of them that actually go through his body: maybe through both legs, arms and head, maybe just the torso as seems to be the case with the former image.

When examining that, it looks like of the 21 strings, only 6-9 go through his body (the last three might go through the head or just behind it), so two are free between his legs and 10-13 are free above his head (between his arms). At first, I thought I would be as true as possible to the original image and its proportions, then I realized that my interest is not to make a three-dimensional copy of the painting but to concentrate on the idea of hanging in the strings. See the development of the work below!

Another detail I discovered, when seeing the x-radiograph of the work, displayed in the exhibition, is that Bosch did some changes to the harp during the work on the painting: he took away a draperie that covered the hips of the man as well as some of the harp, and a demon’s face looking at him from behind the strings. When I then looked back on the painting in a certain angle, I could clearly see the shape of the brush strokes of the drapes that he covered with other paint later. This relates to an idea I got much later. See below!

Earlier piano string works

The technique itself is not entirely new to me. I have in many years built a number of constructions and music based on long strings, of which many “acrobatic” in a similar way. Here are some examples:

- The Stringed Stirrups
- Down and Up
- Damplifly
- Rising Towards the Light
- The Aeolian Rowing Boat (unrealized)
- An Acoustic Study of the Wind
- An Acoustic Study of the Ocean
- Long String instruments at Skomvær Lighthouse

... and after this project was initiated also:

- Sound Fishing
- Androgynous Stones
- Sprelltima i klanghagen
- Long Strings with Sculptures

I use piano strings, which are incredibly strong. My education as a Piano- and Harpsichord Maker and my 20 years of practice as a piano technician have given me knowledge and skills for the instrument designing and building. I will from the start strive to make the instrument collapsible and transportable, to make it possible to perform in many venues.

Poetic oneirism throughout 500 years

If you read about Bosch and about the Garden of Delights, you will quickly get very confused, realizing that very little facts are known about Bosch’s life and his intentions behind the works. In the exhibition I was disappointed to find that they presented only the superficial idea that his intentions were the same as the themes he painted, very often obviously altar pieces depicting heaven and hell and the original sin, morals from the life of christ and of saints.

Bosch book Luckily, I brought with me as travel literature the only book I had in my library (probably inherited from my father) about Bosch, Hieronymus Bosch, The Paintings, Complete Edition, With An Introduction By Carl Linfert (The Phaidon Press, London 1959) (“complete” as they were believed to be at the time, some of them, like The Conjurer, later proved to have been made by disciples or followers but possibly based on his sketches; many others still debated about their veracity). Linfert stresses the ambivalence and ambiguity of the pictures as well as the themes in a very sympathetic and human way, not denying the pleasures from the warnings about the consequences of a sinful life, situating him after the Gothic (with its much more formal presentations of the devil’s shapes) and before the Reformation (which canalized some of the critique of the church and clergy which you can see in his paintings), and relating it to alchemical thinking as well.

Talking about The Garden Of Earthly Delights, he says:

Even if one did not regard the picture in a sectarian, unorthodox way as a representation of Paradise one had no need to call it a ‘Warning against Lust’. Rather is it a combination of doubt and wish-fulfilment manifested in the creatures hesitating between the elements and finally eluding them, and shown also in other metamorphoses. Thus it is best described as a picture of the world in alchemical flux. (p19f)

How shall we define this enormous, perennially captivating picture? Perhaps nothing but a supreme delight in invention has impelled these embodiments of voluptious tenderness, of horror, exhaustion and extinction. Whether or not they were at the same time programme pictures of a ‘Freethinking’ sect is an open question. They are at all events – down to the smallest gesture – more astonishing than if they had been mere transcriptions of the rule of life of any such association. Bosch’s penetration is surely to be ranked higher than the vitalism of these fraternities, however consecrated. His pictorial sense is greater because instead of turning aside with an air of moral superiority he actually includes in his view of the world not only the loss and distortion of sense but sheer nonsense. One should therefore not look in these pictures for either unity or consistent sense. For it is chance itself that is incorporated into Bosch’s symbolism. All things, however fortuitous, are important. Everything which might make sense is simultaneously displayed in crisis and at a moment of decline. (p22)

I know it might be out of place to quote a scholar’s writing 57 years afterwards – I don’t intend to be a scholar myself but to find a sympathetic viewpoint of how Bosch’s work affects us still today in a most profound way, and it seems to me that this, not in itself very difficult to grasp psychological and imaginative dimension is completely absent in the presentation of the Prado exhibition.

In it, they want to link Bosch to the Brotherhood of Our Lady which was active in his town, but they have contradictory statements as to if he was ever a member himself.

One of the authors of the Wikipedia entry on The Garden Of Earthly Delights mentions a speculation of a possible membership in the Adamite society, which wanted mankind to return to the state before the original sin (that was supposed to exist in Adam’s time before him and Eve eating the apple from the tree of knowledge), which utopian vision could be similar to the delights depicted in the center panel of the Triptych.

In any case, I agree that the impression from the painting to me, and moreover the importance for humans who watch it today, is the oneiric play of desire that breaks through the moral conflicts of sin and of daily hardships. Bosch is much more individualistic and complex in his thinking than the obvious and traditional themes (deadly sins, the passion of christ, the life of saints etc) that he used as vessels for the unconscious and imaginative flow of his daydreams and nightmares. Hell of noises

Hell of noises

On the side of the speculations as to Bosch’s intentions, I also want to connect this vision of his Hell, where musical instruments have turned into instruments of torture. It can be linked to writings of Schopenhauer, the work of the futurists to present day muzak terror, and the international acoustic ecology movement. I already mentioned such themes in my Muzakblocker – an audio perfume for self-defense. (Some of the topics: Muzak is part of the environmental pollution in the form of sound which is not only disturbing for the spirit but also a big problem for people with hearing disabilities. Public loudspeakers also actualize a discussion about democracy in relation to the coarse dictatorship of the majority over the minority, which swedish cultural politics is supposed to contrast! Who decides over public sound space? etc.)

Work plan

- Proposals for a performance to festivals and other organizers (museums, galleries).
- Study trip to ’s-Hertogenbosch (cancelled) and Madrid (done).
- Detailed technical drawing and planning of the construction (partly done).
- Buying of materials (partly done).
- Construction of the “costume” (partly done).
- Workshop time (locals where I can hang strings from the ceiling, first attempt done, more will come as the instrument develops).
- Excercises, adjustments, composition work, practice. - Trial performances (first one booked in December 2018)

Sketching Bosch's Hell Harp


I am presently passing from the sketch-state and construction work to beginning the first tryouts. Before starting to construct, I had to first make some important decisions about it. Would I construct the harp as a functional replica in which the full tension of the strings with me hanging in them will be possible to realize? I quickly decided that this is very impractical, in favor of the second idea: the tension has to be taken by a solid construction that will be a framework around the shape of the harp, which might be more of a theatre prop – or even a projection! – than the actual instrument. It seemed to me that a stable frame of house building scaffolding should be the basis of the instrument, which would then be possible to build up and take down whenever needed.

The most complicated area of experimentation is the actual hanging of my body in the strings. It goes without saying (to me anyway!) that I will not stick strings through my body. (That reminds me of a fascinated audience member at the 1996 Sound Symposium 8 who asked, after I tried to explain how the Stringed Stirrups work, with me “hanging in the strings”, –“Doesn’t it hurt?!”) Well, some people might like that idea, but I’m not particularly masochistic. I sketched where the strings should attach to me from above and from below, to make the impression that they go through me, and to also be free enough to make sound out of. This is the present working model.

In September 2017, I had the chance to do more sketching and become more detailed about some of the practical difficulties. The second sketch in the slide show to the left shows the developments, and pictures from the session at Academy of Music and Drama, University of Gothenburg, where I was working in a workshop with other colleagues, and also was able to do a life-size sketch on the wall, outlining my body. It also allowed me to switch between “creator perspective” and “user perspective”. I got further into the perspective of my own bodily possibilities, and how they will meet the source of inspiration I am using (the painting). For example, I adjusted the number of free strings before and behind my body, and the average distance between them. This was another decision to deviate from the painting in favor of practical playability.

The last part of my problem-solving concerned the strings below my body: how to tighten them after I have “climbed” or entered the costume, stringing myself into the harp? I sketched different forms of tightening mechanisms that an assistant probably would have to help me with.

Soon afterwards, in dialog with Magda Mayas, the ideas developed further. My feeling that I was missing something fundamental, that I complicated things too much, resulted in my doing away with the scaffolding as a necessary (but still possible) part of the construction. An answer was already provided in my ancient instrument the Stringed Stirrups, which I have been playing since the early nineties: the tension can be acquired entirely by hanging weights: in addition to my body weight, the lower “bridge” as well as the strings that don't “go through” my body, can be tightened with weights! In this way, the whole instrument hangs in the air. Only to avoid too much swinging, it can be attached to the ground in some way and only if needed. That would keep them free and flexible at the same time. I could carefully examine which weight would be applicable and work out for the string tension as well as for my own body's movability by using buckets initially: for each added liter the tension would be one kilo more. After such a tryout, the buckets of water could be replaced by fixed weights and the gauge of the strings be adjusted to fit them.

I have now constructed a (first version?) of the “costume”. I might have to do a little more sketching, but first, it was time for a physical tryout as soon as possible.

The first practical experiment, on April 3rd 2018 (see documentation video to the right), was very successful. I neither lost my ability to breathe or that it stopped the blood flow. I also had some mobility to change the tension between the strings as well as changing the tension in my body so I could keep going and release pressure from different parts from time to time.

In the summer of 2018, I decided to order preamps for the contact mikes that will be attached to each string. The provider is my friend Jo Frgmnt Grys in Berlin. This means that the mikes will provide a fuller bass sound. Each string sound could also, if I want, be individually amplified and sent to different speakers in the performance. In dialog with my friend Fredric Bergström in Gothenburgh, I also consider using a wireless system for at least some of the strings (the ones above my body attached to the costume).

The next step was to make a more definite sketch, find materials for, and build the lower “bridge”. I decided to divide it into three pieces (in front of, below and behind my body) for more flexible transportability. I bought suitable wooden pieces for it, and hooks for attaching the strings on them. The prop workshop at HSM promised to help with some of the building if I need. To this, I also built in the contact mikes, which required some additional electronic materials and a lot of soldering. To plan this in the most rational way takes a lot of thinking.

Now that I almost have a working model, many more steps have to be taken with the physical possibilities, the musical-, performative- and sound potentials and how to present it all.

One thing that I have been in two minds about, which has always been the case about the Stringed Stirrups, is the relationship between the “ritual” character of the performance, and the transparency that I also enjoy. Should I already be inside the instrument when the audience enters, transformed into the performative being that I have to become when playing? Or should I enter it on stage, like a human being doing the work, like an engineer, an operator, a technician? Last time I talked with Magda, I thought maybe I should actually unite the two, why do they have to be opposites? The question is, if it takes a very long time to enter the costume, maybe it will loose the tension necessary for the ritual component to be held up.

I made a first trial performance as a work-in-progress with audience feedback on December 6th, 2018, at HSM. A video documentary will be made of the preparatory work and the performance.

I didn't have enough time to build in the preamps yet, and the attachment of the contact mikes on each string hook was crudely done with adhesive tape. This is way less than ideal, but at least I got to try the instrument with some kind of amplification, and with the strings below. In order to calculate how much tension the strings needed, I used four buckets with water in order to be able to try the weight.
The string guages are:
From the body upwards to the ceiling:
3 strings 1,5 mm from the pelvis upwards
3 strings 1,0 mm from the neck upwards
Under the body:
1 string 15 1/2 (0,9 mm) from the neck downwards
2 strings 15 (0,875 mm)
2 strings 14 1/2 (0,85 mm)
1 string 12 (0,725 mm) from the pelvis

Weights under the strings:
The buckets weigh 0,5 kg
Water (if I remember right?):
6kg (=liters) first fixed
12kg loose strings 2-3
12kg loose strings 4-5
6kg last fixed

I needed an assistant for many of the tasks for the performance. This came to be Elsbeth Bergh, a good friend an collaborator who knows my work very well and is very practical. She helped me with taking away the ladder, hanging the buckets, handing me bows and beaters, and putting back the ladder.

I realized at least these things:
- The hanging position was pretty tense, especially for the neck. Better would be to hang in a smaller angle, closer to standing than lying.
- I could see nothing at all of the strings below me. I could only learn where they were in blindness.
- The sound of the strings is pretty damped, which is to be expected because they are attached (indirectly) to the body, which is too soft to reflect energy back into the strings.
- The cables from the strings above are bunched together and go down between two strings below. This inhibits the playing, since I can't see them they easily get in the way of playing the strings. But where to put them?

On the question of climbing in view of the audience, or not, I chose to be standing on the ladder while the major part of them came in. I was first of four performances, and after the short introduction of Thomas Markusson, I was handed the microphone and informed the audience simply that there are many ways to be inspired by Hieronymus Bosch, this is my inspiration, my fantasy. It's also not the finished product but an experiment, the first attempt in front of an audience. Then I hang down and started the performance. A slight anticlimax happened as the S-shaped hooks for the two middle buckets were suddenly nowhere to find. Elsbeth quickly find an alternative solution, and I could begin.

[Another thought, that came up when I tried to explain this project with Staffan Mossenmark, is that someone else might play the instrument than me, or as well, even though I might be the “crucified” body between the strings. And now that I write this, and look at the original paintings again, it strikes me that Bosch might have thought so too. The painted-over demon above the harp (visible only on the x-radiograph), did it actually play the instrument? And doesn't it look like the tree-like demon in the other painting is reaching for the strings? And what about the snake (in both paintings), couldn't it also be playing the strings?]

Information about further developments will be posted here.

Thanks to Paul Cowdell, who informed me of the exhibition through an article in The Guardian, which reminded me that I should finally realize this old idea.



[I have definitely decided now that I’m not first of all a musician. I have long said so, but in spite of me having an official status as such, hired as a free lance musician at Musikalliansen from Dec 2008 to July 2017, and a member of the swedish composers society (FST) since 2002, I increasingly have the perspective of my work as something like a “constructor of physical interfaces for inspired auditory exploration”. This meaning that I see my compositional work in making experimental musical instruments and exploring other, mainly acoustic sources of a meeting of my body with found and made materials and poetic objects whether they are usually called instruments or not. The execution of the composition is identical to the improvisation with the instruments or objects. Being a musician, musical performance artist or workshop leader, are just effects of the exploration.]

With the support of Konstnärsnämnden logo

From August 2017 to June 2019, this work is also part of my Thesis that I conduct in the Master of Fine Arts in Music with specialization in Improvisation Performance at the Academy of Music and Drama, University of Gothenburg.

The Gallery
Updated the 18th of November, 2018.