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.

I was beginning to visualize a full-size “reconstruction” of the harp (the harp image on the original painting is about 30-35 cm) where I would be hung between the strings to find out what the sound of the Harp from Hell would be. I spent time planning the work and expected to be ready to premiere it as a piece soon after.

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 planned to realize it, in other words, as a musical performance piece, where I myself would act as the tortured man hanging in the strings I play. I have to point out, though, that the point for me was not the torture, but the body involvement of being in-between 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 expressed no doubt, in 2015, 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 Garden... image.

When examining that, it looks like only 6 to 9 of the 21 strings go through his body (the last three might go through the head or just behind it, it's not clear), so two are free between his legs and 10-13 are free above his head (between his stretched arms). At first, I thought that I should be as true as possible to the original image and its proportions, then I realized that I'm not actually interested in making a three-dimensional copy of the painting but to concentrate on the idea of hanging in the strings.

Another detail I discovered, when seeing the x-radiograph that researchers had made 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 drapery 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 (since graduating in 1996) as a piano technician have given me knowledge and skills for the instrument designing and building. I wanted from the start to strive for making 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 Earthly 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 they were the same as the obvious themes that he painted, often 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 (“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 (at least not an art historian at this time) but to find a sympathetic viewpoint of how Bosch’s work affects us still today in a most profound way, and it seemed to me that this, not in itself very difficult to grasp psychological and imaginative dimension was 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 had 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 cracks of 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 Arthur 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 call for a discussion about democracy in relation to the coarse dictatorship of the majority over the minority, which swedish cultural politics, by the way, is supposed to contrast! Who decides over public sound space? Etc. Written in 2009-12.)

Work plan

Originally, I made a work plan like this:
- Proposals for a performance to festivals and other organizers (museums, galleries).
- Study trip to ’s-Hertogenbosch (cancelled) and Madrid (done before it became a Master's project).
- Detailed technical drawing and planning of the construction.
- Buying of materials.
- Construction of the “costume”.
- Workshop time (locals where I can hang strings from the ceiling).
- Excercises, adjustments, composition work, practice.
The plan has been readjusted since. I soon realized that it's too soon to do the promotion work before I know how to make the instrument, how to play it, and if it works as a performance at all. The deeper I have delved into it, the more complicated it seemed to become. To take the initial project-supported work into a Master's project, also changed many conditions. It has made it possible to extend the working period without too much disturbances from other obligations. The financial conditions were that I had support for the first year but much less for the second (for uninteresting reasons). I have continued working as a piano technician, and with doing some workshops and performances, which has brought income, and I was lucky to find a room centrally in Gothenburg for a good price in a family of good friends. This helped making it possible in many ways but working and travelling has also taken time and energy from the work with the project, of course. I have not given priority to playing (or going to concerts of colleagues, with few exceptions) very much, other than payed work that has been offered without me promoting myself. The Academy of Music and Drama also provided not only technical help, and a venue to work in, but an environment where I had the opportunity to discuss the project with several colleagues, in several aspects, during the development of it, which is an unusual luxury and certainly has helped it both in practical and theoretical terms.

Sketching Bosch's Hell Harp


Not all EMI projects need sketching. As far as I remember, I have only used it in the cases of the Whalefish (where I also made a life-size cardboard model for an early prototype), the Stranded Whale (an intermediary project used only once, left unfinished and replaced by the Platforms) and the Aeolian Rowing Boat (still unrealized). In all other cases I have built the instruments without sketches. For the Hell Harp, the project is complicated enough to make sketching necessary. The sketches made me think and visualize ideas in order to reevaluate them before building. While showing them to colleagues, I not only was given feedback, but an opportunity to develop my ideas more effectively. Just to have someone listen helps, and even feedback and proposals that you decide to reject helps you define why you choose what you do.

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 concluded 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, so the harp itself might become more of a theatre prop – or even a projection! – than the actual instrument, i.e. only a visual remnant without acoustic function. 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 was the actual hanging of my body in the strings. It goes without saying (to me anyway!) that I wouldn't 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 the Stringed Stirrups work, with me “hanging in the strings,” –“Doesn’t it hurt?!”) 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 requires constructing a kind of costume around my body, in which the strings are attached.

In September 2017, I had the chance to do more sketching and become more detailed about some of the practical difficulties. The second sketch shows the developments from a session at the Academy of Music and Drama, led by Cecilia Lagerström, 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 closer to understanding 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 next 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 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 how much weight would be applicable and work out for the string tension as well as for my own body's movability by using buckets of water initially: for each added liter the tension would be one kilo more. After such a tryout, the buckets could be replaced by fixed weights and the gauge of the strings be adjusted to fit them.


I was then ready to construct a (first version?) of the “costume”. I decided to use perforated metal strips which are foldable and can be cut while still very strong. They have holes along it, so you can lock them with a metal screw and a nut and form them in whatever fashion you want. This I did at home, where I also attached screws with loops at certain points, in which to attach the strings, above and below my body. Three of the concentric “belts” around my body were open so I could get into it, and then lock them with the screws and nuts.

I thought I might need a little more sketching, but first, I was very eager to do a physical tryout as soon as possible.

First test April 2018

The first practical experiment, on April 3rd 2018 (See video), was very successful. I neither lost my ability to breathe or did it stop 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.

The test was done entirely without any amplification, though. Since I decided to use the costume as it was, I could then plan the rest of the instrument, including amplification. Now, there are many options for solving that. Since the strings are metal, it would be possible to use electromagnetic microphones, of the kind e.g. electric guitars use. A problem with that is that they are really sensitive to very small adjustments of their position in relation to the string. Since I have a long practice of making and using contact microphones, I decided to use those. They are very easy and cheap to make, and they usually sound great as they are. However, they don't produce the full range in the low end of the spectrum without the use of preamps. I have long thought of trying preamps, but since the sound is really good anyway over many years of use, I haven't been too eager to do it. However, in the summer of 2018, I decided to order preamps for the contact microphones that I would make and attach to each string, in total 20 of them. The provider was 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 would want to, be individually amplified and sent to different speakers in the performance. In dialog with my friend Fredric Bergström in Gothenburg, I also considered using a wireless system for at least some of the strings, the ones above my body attached to the costume, otherwise six microphone cables had to hang down between the strings below. I checked with the Academy if they have wireless systems – they do, but not six – so I decided to wait and try with the cable in the way until a later decision, maybe I'll purchase a system myself.

More building

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 the Academy promised to help with some of the building if I need. To this, I also built in the contact microphones, which required some additional electronic materials and a lot of soldering. To plan this in the most rational way takes a lot of thinking. (See video)

Presentation concerns: transformation and transparency

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

One thing that I had been in two minds about, which has always been the case about the Stringed Stirrups, is the relationship between the “ritual”, “mystic”or rather esoteric character of the performance, and the transparency that I also enjoy: all there is, is all you see. 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 decided it's time to try it out with an audience.

Another thought, that came up when I tried to explain this project for 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?

First performance as a work-in-progress December 2018

I made a first trial performance to enable audience feedback on December 6th, 2018, at Lindgrensalen in the Academy (See videos.)

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 by 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 let myself down into the hanging position.

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 and 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.

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.

It was only a few minutes performance, which consisted of briefly trying different playing techniques: plucking, bowing and beating with beaters that were originally made for the Stringed Stirrups. As necessary, the getting out of the costume became part of the performance, which led the audience to applaud three times: first when the playing was over, then when I got out of the costume, and last when I had climbed down the ladder to the floor. Maybe they correspond to the different levels of otherness that my performance consisted of: first out of the ritual performance, then out of the technical, and last back into my role as a human person.

I realized at least these things, on the practical level:
- 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, as mentioned before, 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?

I had built all the contact microphones for the strings connected to the costume, however I didn't have enough time to build the preamps into the system yet, and the attachment of the contact microphones 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 addition of the strings below me for the first time. 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 first and last were hanging in a hook in the “bridge”, the two middle ones in the interconnected strings no. 2-3 and 4-5 respectively. The strings passed through hooks whose function it is to conduct the vibrations into the microphones.

Second private tryout session March 2019

I booked Lindgrensalen, where my final exam presentation would be, for setting up the pole in which to hang the instrument, for last weekend (30-31) of March 2019.

In the weeks before, it took a lot of time to solder the 12 preamps for the contact microphones, to cut and replace the plugs coming out of them to fit the pins on the preamps. Everything is so small and I’m not a very skilled solderer (just enough to have made hundreds of contact microphones...), so I was using a double pair of glasses in order to be able to see anything at all, and I was still not completely sure I didn’t solder badly or even shortcutting sometimes.

The purpose of the session was:
- To include the remaining planned eight strings that don’t go “through” my body but are in front of and behind me
- To try a more upright hanging/playing position than last time, which I felt was too horizontal and uncomfortable
- To attach the contact microphones on the strings in a more firm way
- To try out the sounds with amplification, including the new preamps plugged in
- To start trying out musical sounds and methods in order to find out, invent and increase the instrument’s potential as a musical instrument

The first aim failed because I couldn’t complete the preparing of the last eight contact microphones and preamps that were needed for those strings in time. The other aims were tried out though, and this is what happened:

IMG_1255 I somehow had decided that I would be able to prepare and try all these things without an assistant. The difficulties with this were that
- the ladder that I climb in order to enter the instrument “costume”, had no one to remove it before playing, or put it back afterwards
- there was no one to hang or remove the weights (the buckets of water) under the lower strings while I was hanging – I had to adjust the weight a lot down so they could hang before I entered the costume, which was then still much heavier to enter and close.
- there was no one to monitor or adjust sound levels during playing.

Last time, I only attached the contact microphones with adhesive tape, which doesn’t conduct the sound vibrations into the microphones very well at all. This time, I glued them directly on the screws with metal glue while the instrument was hanging in the air.

Plugging in all the cables into the preamps and the mixer was quite exhausting and fragile. In the nest of cables, some came loose and had to be fit into their places again without soldering, hoping they would work anyway. The soundcheck was mysterious and incomprehensible: some channels sounded a lot, some on the wrong place, some hardly not at all. There was not enough time to make a proper search in order to solve all the problems, and I had to rely on that there were enough sounds to try anyway. There is a not negligible amount of vibrations conducted acoustically through the metal “costume” as well as the wooden “bridge”, so some strings probably sounded through the “wrong” mikes. I was nevertheless amazed that the sound, as predicted, was much richer and deeper than last time, probably due to the combination of better attachment of the mikes and the preamps. I also discovered that there was no need for a lot of weight to keep up enough tension of the lower strings: they sounded very well anyway (See video).
There were several problems that appeared during the session.

- Actually getting into the instrument. Since I had no assistant, I had to try out how much weight (water in the buckets) that I would allow before getting into the instrument. It had to be just about as much as I could handle while entering. In the end, I reduced it to around a liter per bucket. With the weight of the four buckets, the total would then be around 6 kg (except for the bridge itself). In my attempt to “straighten up” the hanging position, I first hung the lowest string (which takes the major weight around the pelvis), then the highest one (which goes to the metal ring around my neck), then the four others adjusted between. Maybe I made the high one too short: the neck ring became stretched out into an oval which was very difficult to put my head through. When I lessened the weight it was a bit easier, but still, it was impossible to get into the costume without putting two ladders close to each other on both sides of the instrument, and it was quite tight between them while I was playing. After some fighting, I even managed to put the three screws in place on the open metal loops of the costume (See videos).

There I was hanging and could start playing. I first tried the bows, which I thought would be the most “musically efficient”. There’s so much you can do with strings and bows. Then I tried beaters and plucking, but was less satisified with the results of that.

- Amplification. During playing, mysterious sounds sometimes came out of the loudspeaker. I guessed it was an automatic fuse in the amplifier that came into effect because of loud peaks. It was like a high-pitched firework-sounding glissando and soon the sound was back again. Or might it be preamp failures? It was hard to tell in the chain of plugs, cables and appliances between mikes and speaker.

- Contact microphones. Of the six mikes on top of the “costume”, five came loose from their glued positions! I only noticed the extent of this problem after climbing out. Perhaps the glue wasn’t good enough, although it seemed like the perfect one for the purpose.

- Getting out of the instrument. Unscrewing the three screws was not hard, they were only tightened by hand and so not very tight. But after that operation, the difficulty was to twist my body so I could bend out of the neck ring, back first, before climbing out of the rings for the thighs (which take the major body weight – I’ve learned this from rock-climbing security belts). This is hard enough when hanging, trying to get some firm balance on the two ladders and not knock them down, which might mean I would be completely stuck until someone would find me, dead or alive, Monday morning. After a lot of struggle, during which I feared I would either strangle or hang myself (a pretty heroic way to die?), I finally got out and could climb down. I was bleeding from my hands, feet and face and had bruises on my arms, but alive and with no broken limb. (See video.)

- It’s impossible, or seriously dangerous, to do without an assistant at this point, with the present design of the instrument.
- I have to systematically test all the preamps with another sound source to see if some are failing or need adjustment or repair.
- I have to find out why the glueing of the mikes failed and do it better.
- The visual presentation is still not very developed. I have used a beekeeper’s white overall (without the hood), that I have also been using when playing the Stringed Stirrups, to amplify the ritual or at least non-everyday character of the piece. There was not much of conscious lighting or any other prop or visual embellishment of the instrument yet. These remain as possibilities.

Inconclusive at the time. Would it really be possible to perform with this instrument? Would it ever be? What would I have time to prepare for the presentation on May 26th??

Heaven or hell?

Initially, I thought that there is one thing I should not bring from Bosch's painting: the Hell or torture element. With the ambivalence of interpreting Bosch's own attitude as a reasonable excuse, I felt free to reinterpret the image as part of a more desirable world. To make the instrument of torture into an instrument of joy. However, it seems as though the original setting haunted me in ways I didn't predict! In both the performance in December 2018 and the rehearsal in March 2019, I was struggling hard not only with the playing, but with the physical endurance and even safety. At the performance, the anti-ergonomic position was obviously felt by members of the audience as well, so the hardships inevitably became part of the performance. One told me that she thought of the construction Frida Kahlo was put in because of her serious spine injury that tormented her until her death and which was the theme of many of her paintings. At this time, it seemed that I had to listen to the voice of the instrument (or to Bosch?) and embrace it. I suppose all instruments involve a struggle of some sort, and this is not the first one of mine, either. The Stringed Stirrups and the Singing Coffin come to mind right away, and the performance Rising Towards The Light. The feeling of danger and risk, real or not, are part of many performances I like – they follow what I would call the adventure principle, a version of the pleasure principle as I imagine it. In the circus tradition and in its follower, the sideshow which features the weird, incredible or freaky, the adventure principle is well alive, although often in formalized and commercial form. And there is of course the S/M community which might appreciate this kind of weirdness. Maybe that could be another kind of area to enter with a performance of this kind – I'm not sure the musical taste is shared, though, but it might be interesting to try.

We'll still see which form of the marvelous I might manage to materialize.


What constitutes a success of an artwork? Although I'm skeptical to the term art as well as the term work, I think Marcuse has a point (in Aesthetic Dimension) when he repeatedly stresses that the art work has to be judged as a whole, and not e.g. by the ending or apparent moral of a story. Even though this project might not at some point end with a performance piece I feel confident in proposing on stages, I think the struggle of trying to realize it is worth the while, and it has been an adventure on its own as an example of how an EMI can (struggle to) come to life with all the back-and-forth problems, connotations and relations to art history, philosophy, acrobatics, performance art history and theoretical discussion about invention, creation, improvisations etc.

I have a long list of unfinished or unrealized ideas that I long to work with, some quite specific, some need a lot of development of their ideas, but all of them are journeys into the unknown, the unknown in technical solutions, social settings, visual imagery, sound, playability and mythological significance. The failure would be to stop trying to realize such dreams and urges, the success to pursue trying. If I loose inspiration, I also loose my ability to inspire. And I haven't lost my inspiration yet by far.

The birth of an instrument – the exam concert

With a feeling of approaching a catastrophe, I nevertheless decided to continue the struggle and invite anyone to my final exam concert on Sunday, May 26th 2019. The performance was divided into a section where I presented the background and development of the instrument, and the final attempt to play it. Quite a few people showed up, more than I expected, maybe 30-40 people, in Lindgrensalen.

This was the fourth time I had mounted the instrument in the ceiling. I reused the same strings, and for every time they got a bit shorter since I had to cut away the old loops and knots in order to make new ones. Every time I was hanging higher and closer to ceiling. I suppose next time I have to replace the strings.

I still didn't mount the eight strings in front and behind as planned – maybe they won't actually be needed for the instrument in the future either. The wood blocks for those strings were used as the only weights instead of the buckets of water I had used before. I still hadn't solved entirely the technical problems with the amplification. I was also in the middle of moving back to Stockholm and had unfortunately already shipped too many bows there, so I had to call an emergency, which Elsbeth Bergh solved with bringing a couple of good bows from a recent project. Again, she served as my assistant in the same way as last time.

And again, Tobias Kjerstadius was the sound engineer, and he got the task to just try to be ready for the unpredictability of the sounds from the many different channels. Three of them didn't have sound at all, which I didn't see as a big problem since the sound anyway travels a lot through the metal costume and wood block to the adjacent pickups. We agreed on using a limiter and just a little bit of reverb (which I don't usually use, but in this case it felt appropriate). He did great, and also kept an eye on the film camera. I was very grateful.

I had decided to only play with bows, they seemed far more useful in this instrument. I was also given a neck protector (of the kind that you get for whiplash injuries at hospitals) from a good friend to save my neck from too many bruises.

I took my time to explore all the strings and sounds, rather using the technical problems to play with as musical elements as they appeared. Some strings had massive distortion qualities, massive bass, and some other had more clear melodic tone. During playing, I discovered that my feet actually reached the lower bridge, so that I could use them to vary the tension in the lower strings. That became very useful. As a result, there was quite good layering of different sound qualities. When I played I actually had a symphonic feeling from the totality and I was very inspired and happy.

One friend in the audience later told me how she interpreted the music. She decided at some point to close her eyes, and she relived a period of sickness as a child, where all the senses had become oversensitive. The music then shifted from torment into a relief and calm, as her mother came into the room and covered the windows with blankets to ease her from the painful light.

Maybe it corresponded to my own feelings when I played. The extreme tension leading up to this performance, the worries, anguish, and eagerness and longing to meet the instrument in excitement and passion turned into a bliss and gratefulness that the idea had become physical and it returned to me with a strong voice.

The instrument finally wanted to be played. It was born.

With every birth, there is blood – without noticing or understanding why, I was bleeding from the same places again: foot, hand and bruises in the face and shoulder. The newly washed costume had to be washed again.

But I was very happy. It seems like the instrument actually will have a life after all. Back on the ground, in blood, sweat and flowers, with friends around me (see the last video).

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

University of Gothenburg logo From August 2017 to June 2019, this work was also part of my MA Thesis. The title is:

Bergmark, Johannes. “The Hell Harp of Hieronymus Bosch. The building of an experimental musical instrument, and a critical account of an experience of a community of musicians.” Independent Project (Degree Project), Master of Fine Arts in Music, with specialization in Improvisation Performance, Academy of Music and Drama, University of Gothenburg, 2019.

Taking a detail from Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden Of Earthly Delights as a point of departure, an instrument is built for a musical performance act deeply involving the body of the musician. The process from idea to performance is recorded and described as a compositional and improvisational process. Experimental musical instrument (EMI) building is discussed from its mythological and sociological significance, and from autoethnographical case studies of processes of invention. The writer’s experience of 30 years in the free improvisation and new music community, and some basic concepts: EMIs, EMI maker, musician, composition, improvisation, music and instrument, are analyzed and criticized, in the community as well as in the writer’s own work. The writings of Christopher Small and surrealist ideas are main inspirations for the methods applied.

Experimental musical instruments, improvised music, Hieronymus Bosch, musical performance art, music sociology, surrealism

You can download the full thesis from one of these platforms, or contact me and I'll email it to you:
Research Catalog.
Improvisers' Networks Online.
Gupea (soon).

Front picture Thesis

The Gallery
Updated the 21st of July, 2019.