From reconstruction to futurism

Originally from England, an aerospace engineer by education, Bryan Tolley worked during ten years at Los Angeles designing and building satellite test equipment for NASA. In spite of his profession instrument making had already taken hold during his studies with an impromptu meeting and concert with David Munrow. Prototype instruments started to be built at the engineering school workshop, and sometimes clandestine projects at the art school or furniture school workshops. In 1974, after a year of research and design his first hurdy-gurdy was completed. Once finished and playable this was to be Bryan's favourite instrument. Bryan returned to Europe to live with his French wife in the Basque Country. He refused initially an offer of work at Matra at Toulouse and took a job as a programmer, but then the company closed... Bryan and his wife became professional musicians and he began making and selling his instruments commercially.

Starting with ancient illustrations, paintings, sculptures, and texts he has recreated for the group (Les Troubadours d'Aquitaine) and also for his clients, not only early musical instruments but traditional instruments as well. Sometimes he'll create an instrument totally original, like the yellow solid-body electric hurdy-gurdy shown in the photo.

The instruments that I build are varied: hurdy-gurdy, bagpipes, wind instruments, string instruments, medieval instruments, Renaissance instruments, and also some percussion.

To choose a model is a very difficult decision! Maybe my speciality is that I don't make just one type of instrument. Very often I get orders from clients who ask me to make unique instruments that are copies their designs, usually of specific medieval illustrations or sculptures.

One model that is very much in my thoughts at the moment is my electric hurdy-gurdy. It is not an electro-acoustic instrument but constructed like an electric guitar with a solid-body and a humbucker pick-up. Why is this hurdy-gurdy so special? Well, the rhythm system is electronic. The wheel speed is monitored by a laser and the rhythm can be pulsed without the need for a drone and so the instrument can modulate without any limit...

I spend many hours in my workshop and working on the computer. Music festivals such as Saint Chartier are one of the ways to get out and meet the other makers and the clients. They offer a moments of inspiration and stimulation.

(Text translated from two articles in 'Trad' magazine.)