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.

Christian Oncken
Christian Oncken

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."

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."

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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