Spark & Spiel

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

Another one of Kelley's devices, the Talking Discovery Doodler, sports a single glitch switch, which activates a belligerent high-speed pulse and four metal screws that serve bent connections within. These are body contacts, mischievous little bends that allow the user to exploit his body's electrical conduction to pitch-shift the automatic noise. Using them is a subtle art; too much action and the instrument goes dead, but gentle changes of finger pressure on the contacts produce rolling washes of noise, periodically complemented by some of the toy's built-in sound effects -- bleating sheep, people saying "Hi!" and such. It's all somehow very twisted.

"It's [twisted] because they're toys made for children," Kelley suggests. "It's like a defilement of something. I showed the Speak & Spell to a friend, and she was very disturbed by it: 'Poor little thing! Look what you're making it do. You're frying its little brain!'"

The twisted thrill of perverting the innocence of a child's toy is obvious. But the opportunity to push back at a consumer culture that exerts constant pressure on us accounts for the continued appeal of circuit-bending. "If you bend [an electronic toy] you sort of feel like you're liberating it from the constraint of what it was designed to do," Kelley says. "I think people have an ambivalent relationship with technology. It's nice to go back on it and tear it apart, where you spend so much of your time adapting to it."

Christian Oncken
Christian Oncken

For Oncken, bending resonates with his broader working methods as a musician. "I like building and repairing my own things," he says, "pushing the envelope on what a person can do on his own. I don't buy new equipment. I try to do it as inexpensively as I can -- to prove that it can be done, as much as anything else." This do-it-yourself ethic, evident also in the writings of Ur-bender Ghazala, implies that culture is not something to be purchased but to be made (or, in this case, dismantled and reassembled); that intentions and products are less important than growth and experience, however chaotic.

"Brian Eno talks a lot about happy accidents and almost a Zen flow to just making music and seeing what happens," Oncken explains. "With my own creations, I started out with less and less of an idea about where I wanted a piece to go or how I wanted it to sound and sort of meld and mutate sounds as I'm going along into a somewhat coherent structure -- more exploration than 'This is what I can do' or showing off your chops."

Sift through the message boards on the Web, and you might learn a little about the motivations of the benders who post information or ask questions. Mostly you will read a lot of tech talk, as well as some boasting about great thrift-store finds. There's a good deal of complaining about profiteers who sell instruments on the basis of bends others have found and freely shared. Occasionally there's even a burst of unbent childish thrill.

"It's clearance toy time!" reads a January posting on the Benders message board at Yahoo Groups. "The most wonderful time of the year."

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