What is a Sharpsichord?

• ~300 words • 1 minute read

Bjork is releasing a very ambitious album called Biophilia that's bringing together musicians, instrument makers, mobile app designers and scientists (whew!). You should absolutely read this New York Times article explaining how the songs will be released as individual, interactive iPhone and iPad apps and how the songs are being unveiled at the Manchester International Festival this month. It sounds fantastic, but the part that caught my attention was the mention in the opening paragraph of a mysterious, one-of-a-kind instrument called the Sharpsichord — a solar-powered, pin-barrel harp. Whatever that is, exactly. So I decided I needed to look this up and see what it sounded like.

The instrument is gorgeous in every sense, looking (and sounding, a bit) like a giant, overgrown music box plucked straight from a Tim Burton daydream. It was built by sculptor Henry Dagg and intended to be released in 2006 but, because of the amount of detail and time involved, it wasn't available ready until 2010! In fact, by the time it was finished they were already looking for a new home for the contraption because it was so large.

How does the Sharpsichord work?

The machine works on the same principle used by Victorian barrel organs. Pegs move in and out of 11,520 holes that sit on a metal barrel. As the barrel spins, it pushes levers that then pluck strings. The sound vibrations are then amplified by two giant stainless steel horns.

It's still not exactly clear to me where the solar-powered component comes in.

You can see the insides operating more clearly in this rendition of The Long and Winding Road: