Spark & Spiel

Circuit-benders make music from obsolete electronics. You won't believe your ears.

The little Casio synthesizer cost Christian Oncken $3 at a secondhand store. It plays a tinny melody accompanied by a brittle dance beat from its tiny speaker. The keyboard lies face-down on Oncken's kitchen counter, where the musician has exposed the machine's circuit board, a green plastic surface studded with the soldered pins of capacitors and resistors. Spreading his fingers, Oncken begins what he calls the "Vulcan mind-meld." Touching his fingertips to the prickly surface, he conducts electricity through circuits the keyboard's manufacturer never intended to connect.

The song halts and restarts. There's a burst of raw noise, and the music morphs into slow motion. "Here we go," says Oncken. "We want to mess with this logic circuitry." The mind-meld is a technique for finding promising areas of circuitry to use. Now he's getting down to business, using a strand of insulated wire to connect individual points. Pay dirt: The disco rhythm suddenly drops an octave and takes on shades of madness, somehow crunchier and thicker. The melody has atomized, nothing but a structureless cloud of notes and noises, an incoherent but compelling rush of sounds. It's a good glitch.

This is circuit-bending, a habit-forming (and inexpensive) technique for culling new musical potentials from electronic instruments and children's toys by physically hacking the devices' programming. The term dates to the 1960s, when a hippie musician named Qubais Reed Ghazala started publishing information about his experiments with castoff electronic components. Ghazala's most famous invention is the Trigon Incantor, a "bent" Speak & Spell controlled with ball bearings that the musician positions on an affixed control pad.

Circuit-bending may be best described as a contemporary folk-music practice made possible by decades of proliferating electronics innovation and obsolescence. The music essentially is noise, in the sense that composer John Cage used the word -- as a form of music (or "organized sound") that defies the didactic formalism of previous centuries' musical structures. Parallel to the ongoing experimentation of instrument inventors, circuit-bending exists at the very margins of purpose or listenability. Most of its practitioners are newcomers to music, taking to it as home hobbyists, committed to novelty and to cannabilizing the past, scouring junk shops for raw material much as DJs resurrect forgotten vinyl dance classics -- or samples thereof -- in remixed form. The new instruments (some of them unduplicatable) are almost impossible to integrate with conventional instrument ensembles, and the sounds they make can be wildly unpredictable and hardly bearable for the listener. Nevertheless, bent noise possesses a kind of beauty that anyone familiar with 12-tone compositions, minimalism, microhouse or glitch-pop is well prepared to appreciate. Best of all, anyone can make it, as a proliferation of Web sites attests.

In 1998, Oncken, a computer programmer and musician (he's also a member of the Urban Jazz Naturals), came across Ghazala's Web site, www.anti-theory.com, and was moved to try his own experiments. Oncken's own Speak & Spell still operates the way Texas Instruments intended, ready to teach kids how to spell with a variety of preprogrammed games. The toy looks familiar enough, with its orange cast-plastic casing that forms a huge handle, the alphabetic pressure-sensitive keys and green LED readout. You wouldn't notice anything unusual until you turned it over and saw the multipin connector mounted on the side.

Clearing a space on his South St. Louis living-room carpet, Oncken powers up the Speak & Spell and attaches it with the multipin cable to a Sears Sports Center, a 1970s-era TV game console adorned with the requisite simulated woodgrain. The console's switches and knobs close circuits between pins in the connector. Oncken soldered each pin to a wire that finds a key point he identified in the Speak & Spell's circuit board, much as he explored the Casio's circuitry back in the kitchen.

"When the game runs normally, you have to press keys to spell words or whatever," says Oncken. He hits a switch on the woody console that initiates the glitch in the Speak & Spell. "But with the glitch on, it'll just make sounds on its own -- and start talking all kinds of weird crap." Scrambled data storms from the little speaker, intertwined with Jar-Jar Binks-like slobbering nonsense -- the toy's preprogrammed phonemes. "Air-raid," it suddenly warns. "Sto-mach."

One switch closes a circuit that makes the sounds loop ... usually. "If you do it real quick, you can sort of catch it," Oncken says. He flips the switch a few times until a half-second chunk of glitched noise recirculates as a frenetic, mechanical rhythm. Heck, it sounds like Detroit techno, circa 1986!

Dan Kelley, a software programmer newly housed in University City, began experimenting with electronic music only a year or so ago, when he downloaded a music composition program. That led to building synths and drum machines from mail-order kits and chaining them together with a MIDI controller. Financially challenged but addicted to building his own instruments, he too encountered Ghazala's Web site and followed the schematics Ghazala had posted to modify his own Speak & Spell. Kelley's toy jacks into his stereo and bristles with switches. On the back is written the word "Shovelface" -- a word it uttered when Kelley first bent the toy. Much of the thing is painted black. "I was drilling through the back of it, not noticing what I was doing, and I shorted out half of the buttons," he explains. "I painted it so it didn't look so much like it was broken."

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