By: Katie Lally
He smiles at me while he plays, but his eyes are focused elsewhere, the miniature blue guitar in his hands crackling and whining until he finds just the right pitch, then he nods, recognizing something in the noise, and plunges into his newest song. Circuit-bender Andy Ben could easily serenade you on any number of instruments, including piano, stand-up bass, guitar and drums. So why would he rather tickle the keys of a haywire electronic toy whose target consumer is between two and four years old? Like many curious students, artists and musicians of recent years, he’s found a voice in circuit-bent instruments that classical instruments lack. He’s found a response.
If you’ve never heard of circuit bending, you soon will. Q. Reed Ghazala, whom the cult-following of benders reverently refer to as the “Father of Circuit-bending,” has created instruments for big-time musicians including Tom Waits, Keith Richards, Peter Gabriel, Faust, Blur—the list goes on. The new-age renaissance artist stumbled upon this phenomenon 38 years ago when the back of a small amplifier fell off and opened wide a world of sound. The exposed circuit had come in contact with a metal object, causing it to wave and short, and it was unlike anything he’d heard. Ghazala continued working with circuits, and in 1992 coined the term in an article for Experimental Musical Instruments in order to teach this next wave of experimental music. Word spread quickly that year, but the real explosion came with his website, Anti-Theory.com, in 1996. “The art has grown exponentially ever since.”
Exponentially, indeed. Thirteen years after its introduction to the music world, “bending” tutorials have mushroomed all over the internet, and the movement has been covered by news venues from Leonardo magazine all the way to Wall Street Journal and back again. A documentary is in the making by Derek Sajbel of Absurdity.biz.
After first hearing about the movement from Andy Ben, I jumped at the chance to attend the second annual circuit-bending festival. Bent 2005, a conglomerate 4-day run of music, free lectures and workshops attracts performers from California, Canada, even the Netherlands, and the attendees range from stereotypical audio-geeks and hipsters to second-graders who show up for workshops dragging their dumbfounded parents by the wrists.
The second night kicks off with a duo called “The Homicidal Choir,” and, honestly, it sounds like they want to murder us, or our eardrums at the very least. As they open with something resembling a chainsaw, the man behind me taps my shoulder, then drops a pair of foam earplugs (provided, free of charge, at the bar) in my palm.
“Trust me,” he grins.
So what exactly, is circuit bending? I try to squeeze an answer out of the audience-member next to me during the intermission.
“It’s taking a circuit, and changing the sound. Making it something different.”
“No… modifying implies you know what you’re doing.”
“So you don’t know what you’re doing?”
“Not exactly, no.”
At best, the music is delightful, surprising, even catchy. At worst, it’s literally ear-splitting. But most of the time, I feel like I’m listening to the electronic equivalent of someone tuning his guitar, and I’m bewildered when the audience claps at what just sounded to me like 20 minutes of dentist-drill. Do the performers even care that I’m here? Is that the point?
That night on the patio of The Tank, a performer from Boston, Vic Rawlings, tries to answer my questions, lighting a cigarette and pulling on a beanie when the light mist over us sags steadily into rain. Pleasing an audience, he says, doesn’t even factor into his playing. A long-time fan of string instruments and teacher of banjo and guitar, Rawlings still opts to play bent music when it comes to public shows.
“What’s most liberating about this is that it’s beyond control,” he says. “I don’t know what’s going to happen [and] that’s really important… When you see the amount of recycling that’s happening in [pop music], it’s spent… Somehow with [circuit bending] I feel like I have a voice.”
OK. I think I’m finally starting to get it. Circuit bending is about reinventing machines, reviving music that’s been played to death. It’s about chance, loss of control, liberation! Right?
“I’m a control freak,” says Patrick Boblin, a musician and student from Hampshire College who I find in the basement of The Tank the next day, surrounded by dismembered keyboards. He says his music stems from “a desire to control all the sounds [he hears].” As a child, Boblin took classical lessons on a larger version of the keyboard he now plays. “The [teacher] said I wasn’t any good and I went home and I cried,” he rolls his eyes, half-joking. After giving up music for years, Boblin now records songs with a keyboard almost identical to the one he started on – an instrument warped into something that, in every respect, can be called his own. Wonderful. But why do I leave the festival feeling more confused about circuit bending than when I arrived?
In a final stab at a working definition, I email the “Father” himself, Mr. Q. Reed Ghazala, who graciously answers all my questions and directs me to Anti-Theory.com for the more in-depth technical terms. “Potentiometers”, “humidity sensors”, “photo receptors”, “capacitators”, still sound like a foreign language to me, despite the workshop at Bent2005.
One mod, though, the “body-contact” stands out. The body-contact changes an instrument’s sound by the musician’s touch – allowing electricity to pass through his body. Ghazala writes, “[It] extends players and instruments into each other, creating, in essence, new life forms. An emerging tribe of bio-electronic Audio Sapiens.” And when Andy Ben hands me his bent blue guitar, the three silver knobs he’s installed near the bottom – the body contacts, are instantly my favorite. They warble softly under my fingertips, giving the slightest, almost sensual, responses as I circle the metal.
We meet up at his Silverlake apartment where the walls are completely bare except for a small shelf of enshrined electronic toys (the majority of them Furby-dolls, of which he has 5 or 6). A green plastic Eames chair squats in the center of the room like a weird avocado, and he sits there, as if bracing himself for my questions.
A fan of John Cage, Ben is no novice to chance music. It’s him that I hold in mind when trying to picture “the more musically, and politically, mature audience” Ghazala predicted would most appreciate the random nature of circuit bending. “Still,” Ghazala wrote, “we can’t [forget] that kids are bending in school at an age when only a couple years prior they were playing Mary Had a Little Lamb on equal-tempered plastic flutes. What will be the result of putting experimental composition into the heads/hands of kids whose next class is 2+2=4?” Andy, who works through non-profit organization STAR, has taught circuit bending to students from Kindergarten through 12th grade for over a year and a half, so I pose Ghazala’s question to him.
“I don’t know,” he shakes his head. “That’s why I want to keep teaching it, to see what it does… It’s a gateway, because it’s so accessible.” He shifts in the plastic seat frowning in thought, then surprises me with his bluntness. “In the end,” he offers, “all we’re doing is breaking toys… That’s more fun, because no one knows what the outcome will be.”
And why does he choose circuit bending above all other forums of music? The reason has more to do with funds than philosophy.
“It’s cheap. I can make new electronic music on a very cheap instrument that at the same time is very rare.” It’s also, he points out, the voice of technology past. “This technology… starts out in a very bourgeois state and through mass production and time gets watered down and becomes the excrement of the [consumer]. That’s where you find me – I’ll be at the flea market wading through all that stuff, next to the 4 year old, trying to find that new cool little toy.”
When I finally ask Ben to define circuit bending for me, I expect the same airy, technical talk that’s stumped me in the past, but he meditates on it for a minute.
“I found a toy that I haven’t [worked on] in at least six months… I opened it up today and, I poked around… I’ve got it right here, I’ll whip it out.” Bee-lining to his bedroom a few feet away, he retrieves a mass of wires in what appears to have once been a toy drum machine. It’s broken like a bright purple oyster in his hands, and starts to beat when he taps at some unseen switch. “I didn’t really know what I was looking for, I was used to doing glitches, and at first I couldn’t find anything but …” he licks his fingertips and places them gently over a small gray resistor waiting for the sound to explode from the instrument. The sound instantly jumps into 1st gear, squawking and crunching in a new, alien voice. I joke that we’re playing doctor with its soul and he smiles.
“When you get a toy to run itself outside of you,” he says, “that’s kind of what we are, we’re machines running outside of our minds… and then you have stimuli interact with that and that’s what [circuit bending] is—you’re trying to interact with [the toy] and not necessarily control it but have a dialogue; create a dialogue. A conversation.”
The voice on the other end may still be primitive, but it is begging to be heard.