Playful stylophone exhibit to open at Geisel Library

By Scott Paulson

In 2002, David Bowie made a surprising Stylophone confession: “It’s the only instrument I take on holiday with me to compose on.”

In fact, Bowie’s 1969 album, “Space Oddity,” was composed entirely on a Stylophone.

The small British company that manufactured the instrument (Dubreq) was surprised to hear this news, as it had originally invented and marketed the instrument merely as a musical toy.

An exhibit of Stylophones — with items from the collections of UCSD grad student Sean Ryan, composer Pea Hicks, and UCSD Arts Library outreach coordinator and alumnus Scott Paulson — will be on display March 28-April 30 on the lower level, West Wing, of Geisel Library at UCSD.

The exhibit will open with a free “concert” at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday, March 28 featuring a premiere of works for Stylophone by Hicks.

At 2:30 p.m. Sunday, April 15, there will be a second premiere of a work for multiple Stylophones by Paulson.

Invented in 1967 by Brian Jarvis, the Stylophone is a pocket electronic musical synthesizer. The little instrument was presented as a novelty electronic organ with an iconic transistor radio look. A small pen (or stylus) was attached to the unit, and touching the metal tip of the stylus upon the engraving of a flat piano-like keyboard, allowed single notes to be played. The limited aspects of this single note action made the Stylophone a popular musical toy for amateurs.

A 1968 British television show hosted by novelty songwriter Rolf Harris was the launching pad for introducing the instrument to the public. Harris’ image was often featured on the packaging that one received after placing a mail-order for the instrument.

The earliest models had no volume control, a flaw that was later addressed.

The Stylophone was re-launched in 2007 by Ben Jarvis, son of the inventor. The retro-look of the instrument is intact, as well as the simple, charming, naïve functions.

While the Stylophone is probably not the world’s greatest little musical instrument, it has a lot of charm in small doses.

If you go

What: Exhibit “Stylophone: The Greatest Little [Musical] Instrument of the [Last] Century?”

Where: UCSD Arts Library, Lower Level, West Wing, Geisel Library

When: Library hours, March 28-April 30

Cost: Free

Related events: 12:30 p.m. March 28 premiere of works for Stylophone by Pea Hicks; 2:30 p.m. April 15 premiere of work for multiple Stylophones by Scott Paulson.

Contact: (858) 822-5758,