A Critical Perspective on Circuit-Bending
By Jeff Morton
– James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake
That might sound to you like a cappella noise music, or you might find a few recognizable words and get some sense of what it can mean. The similarity to noise music, and more specifically to the sounds we might associate with circuit-bending, is only superficial, but it is compelling in the context of this essay. Joyce’s technique is a transposition from the literal and linear system of written language to a broken and distorted “acoustic” space that suggests many meanings and interpretations. This is an action of confounding a logical system to produce interesting, effusive, non-linear side-effects, not unlike the action of rerouting electrical signals on a circuit board. I will discuss the wider context and meaning of circuit-bending after a look at how the practice has evolved over time.
Circuit-bending is the implementation of the creative short-circuit, according to pioneer circuit-bending artist Reed Ghazala, who is often credited as the inventor of the practice. He did coin the term as early as 1966, and he maintains a circuit-bending practice today, having evolved into a kind of wacky and awkward philosopher-electrician. His work is strange and fun, his website is dated and unprofessional, and he would seem to celebrate all of it under the umbrella of DIY and chance procedures. However creative and interesting, he is not a good primary source on circuit-bending because he embodies it so completely, in an almost mythic way representing the phenomena but with no outside perspective on it. Reed Ghazala’s quirkiness is only a minor concern, but it is confounded by his seeming adoption as the “father” of circuit-bending, on websites, in articles, and in other texts online. Some of Ghazala’s other invented terms such as “anti-theory” and “clear-illogic,” are compelling but imprecise, as is the word “alien,” which he uses to describe many of his instruments. I feel all of these terms are empty descriptors with only a suggestion of meaning, and which ultimately define the object or practice in the negative and /or through cliché. Of all of his terms, circuit-bending is the most developed and has been adopted most broadly, but even this term avoids a concrete definition. Ghazala claims there is a new musicality and zoology in circuit-bending [his terms], resulting from the intersection of human flesh and circuitry. This too is interesting but mostly meaningless. In practical terms, he is describing “touch points,” a common technique in circuit-bending, whereby skin, which has potential for passing electricity in small amounts, can disrupt or modulate the intended processes of a circuit-board when we touch its surface or wires connected to it. These actions almost always result in an expressive and dynamic interaction between the user and the circuit, and make for excellent performance possibilities. However, when I consider the process, I do not find the relationship of human flesh and circuitry different than that between a person and any non-electronic instrument such as a violin or piano, for example. Effusive and unpredictable noises are easily produced on a piano simply by playing it that way, as a departure from the expected music that the piano, by its design, suggests it can produce. As another example, consider the free jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman’s technique on violin. The new musicality that Ghazala describes, if it exists, is not exclusive to electronics, and while non-traditional use of a piano or violin may not be circuit-bending, it can inform how we understand and define the practice.
Ghazala describes circuit-bending as an action of finding more than designing, and his analogy to chance music composition is appropriate. In a sense, this comparison frames him as a kind of accidental jam space John Cage. Ghazala discovered circuit-bending, as he tells it, in an accidental encounter when an amp that he was working on became shorted out in the metal drawer in which it was kept. As Ghazala recalls in his online text The Folk Music of Chance Electronics: Circuit-Bending the Modern Coconut, “At home in my basement lab I was learning more about electronics, music and synthesis, than my high school could offer at any grade level…. Further, as I began to chance-modify other sound circuits I became aware of what seemed to be a new world of music, intriguing and endless, just moments away.” While his disdain for education is conspicuous and unhelpful, we should appreciate what Reed Ghazala accomplished and consider his writing, albeit with a grain of salt. What seems clear is that circuit-bending was developed by curious and playful individuals all over the world with no or next to no formalized training in electronic circuit design or theory.
Today, the term is relatively common. The internationally renowned Bent Festival is dedicated to the practice, and has been leading and expanding the definition for the past eight years. Based in Brooklyn, New York, the festival’s activities position circuit-bending broadly as DIY electronics, hardware hacking, glitch, code bending, software art, and abstract video, in performances, video screenings, installations, artwork, workshops, and presentations. This is an excellent compendium of activities to describe circuit-bending, and it has room to expand beyond the circuit-board. Things may have started with amps, radios, or battery-powered children’s toys, but circuit-bending is now just as easily applied to any electronic medium and conceptually to non-electronic media. Taken in this context, there is nothing particularly new about the process.
In the beginning of the twentieth-century, alongside many new electronic machines and early computers, electronic musical instruments began to appear. The Soviet-developed theremin is a famous example, as is the French instrument, the ondes martenot, both of which use radio frequency modulation to change pitch and volume of tones, resulting in eerie music that many of us would recognize from sci-fi movies. A critical question is whether or not Leon Theremin, the inventor of the instrument with the same name, was in fact circuit-bending as early as 1928. Ghazala and others would seem to suggest he was not, because he was a trained electrical engineer who built and did not break his machines. This distinction between building an instrument versus finding it through a destructive or reverse kind of process is subtle and elusive. In fact, Theremin both discovered the instrument and designed it. It seems he was working on a proximity detector using radio waves (a technology with espionage implications) when he found the same technology could be used to modulate audio frequencies. The result was practically immediate, and one of the earliest gestural controls for electronic music. For the play and immediacy of its invention, the theremin is a circuit-bend. If you doubt, consider the inventor’s use of the same technology in an oversize birthday cake for his sweetheart. When he presented the cake to her, it would begin to rotate as she approached it, getting faster as she came closer. That cake would look right at home in any hacker space today. There is little to no chance that these devices he created were all top-down designs, and it seems inevitable that there was discovery and play at the center of much of it. The confusion of terms perhaps arises from the first celebration of the theremin in the context of classical music, through Debussy melodies, for example, and a precise system of hand positions for equal temperament. The famous performer Clara Rockmore could just as easily have elicited wild noises from the theremin, so the choice to play tonal chamber music and to imitate an orchestral part, as was often the case, places the instrument in a non-bent context. Perhaps this has contributed to Ghazala’s and others’ perspective that the truly radical new discovery came later. Regardless of technicalities, it is not a far stretch to see circuit-bending concepts at play in electronic music as early as the 1920s. Today we have a different relationship with our electronics, but the invitation is the same.
If you have ever taken an electronic device apart you might have wondered at the complex system expressed in solder points, wires, and plastic. The unbent circuit board is a complete sentence, in a fashion: functional, logical, and self-contained. The language of a circuit board is imminently readable and not particularly complicated; though without practice it may not be easy. Circuit-bending retrieves part of this language for immediate participation by anyone with curiosity and a few basic tools. For this reason, an analogy to playing with words is appropriate. When we make a pun, we use words to form an expected literal meaning as well as a secondary unexpected meaning. The secondary meaning is shared, and the pun is successful because it is somehow funny in relation to the first meaning. But more importantly it is successful because the other person “gets it.” The meaning is sent off in a different direction than was expected, but it can be followed. Anyone can make a pun. In the same way, a circuit-bent object is a kind of joke that is played on (or with) the unbent object.
There is little to no chance that the millions of electronic toys that digitally and cheaply reproduce famous classical music melodies are having any positive educational impact on the children or families that collect and dispose of them. Their meaning is at once brutally clear and yet confused. Mozart does not make your baby smarter, but low-fi electronic sound and supersaturation of a meager set of melodies are certainly having an effect, not to mention the fact that a plastic box is singing to a child where a parent might have before. The stark tones and inarticulate programming are like a joke in poor taste. Like Adorno’s quip about too much Webern on the Wurlitzer, the millions of un-bent toys that only play annoying set renditions, with diminution and variation in the narrowest degree, are a self-perpetuating industrial monster; pure evil disguised as education. There is as much chance that these toys are making us smarter as there is that Mozart’s music is helping decompose the sewage at the Treuenbrietzen sewage treatment plant in Germany, where, as the story goes, they broadcast the music upon the shit, in an equally ignorant belief that a positive effect is guaranteed (in this case, decomposition, which is a good joke). The magical effect removes any personal responsibility for educating our children (or learning to better deal with shit), and replaces it with an imperial model that can be accepted but not questioned. Through circuit-bending there is a chance for us to break from this model of control and open ourselves to a self-directed artistic relationship with the electronic objects and the classical music melodies they contain.
Reed Ghazala, as noted earlier, correctly observed that circuit-bending is partly a chance procedure. Within his wider practice, his activities include something he refers to as dye migration (I wonder if that means tie-dying – ahem), as well as liquid, gel, and smoke chambers, plus mobiles and pyrotechnics. Chance procedures in all of these activities would seem to be in line with similar procedures in Cage’s Music of Changes or in the graphic scores of Xenakis, to name two examples in music. In the first example, the composer used random processes from the I Ching to build the work, and in the second example, a performer who interprets Xenakis’ score will do so differently each time, contributing to the work through their live interaction and interpretation of the non-linear system of notation. The point here to make is that the chance element of circuit-bending is real, but it is not unique to circuit-bending, and it is perhaps more theoretical than practical, as variety in circuit-bending has a familiarity over time.
When I began to circuit-bend I had no experience, no instruction, and no problem. A friend neatly described the concept to me in one sentence. He told me that I would need to open up a toy keyboard and try wiring new things like switches and dials onto the circuit-board. Easy-peezy. There were a lot of chance operations the first time I undertook the activity, some intrinsic to the objects I used and some intrinsic to my naiveté and unguided process. Since that time my work with circuit-bending has become refined to the point where I recognize similarities and idiosyncrasies in basically every electronic toy I encounter. There are many permutations and a practically infinite variety of interconnections, but it is always contained within the parameters of the original system. The distortion is always referential to the source, and the reference is critical. A circuit-bent object is fun for what it does, but also for what is was. This is true of the electrical processes and sound potential inherent in circuit boards, as it is for the visual appeal of seeing a Speak’n’Spell turned inside out and plugged into a PA system. There is an expansion of some kind, not additive necessarily, but seemingly new. However, while circuit-bent sounds may sound new, they are not necessarily.
The same sound that a circuit-bent object makes can conceivably be created through a designed electronic circuit. It would not be easy, perhaps, and the actions and intuition that create it would certainly be different. The point is that in electronic instrument building (not bending) the variety is already virtually endless. This is a simple fact of recombination of parts, and is not difficult to imagine. However, if we can build a near infinite variety of electronic sounds from scratch, in what way does circuit-bending add anything new? Artists who practice circuit-bending have noted in their personal experience that it opens an endless frontier or provides a near infinite variety of sound, but is it significant to add a second near infinite to one that already exists? I would say no, the significance of circuit-bending is not in the number or newness of sounds it creates (in audio-based circuit-bending), but rather in the process by which the sounds are created and the shift this represents. The process of individual discovery and risk-taking, and how it allows us to engage with (but avoid) typical emotions associated with failure is the critical expansion. New personal and unique narratives result, reflecting the position of an individual inside a culture overrun with cheap electronics. This process, which I noted is not a process of addition, is better described by a term in physics known as precession.
Precession, simply put, is the effect of something in motion on something else in motion, and is often associated with the rotation of the Earth. It also explains how a stone dropped into a pond makes ripples outward at ninety-degrees to the direction of the dropping, or how a bicycle stays up because it is moving forward. Through precession, one force creates another at a right angle from it. The bicycle will not stay up if it is not also moving forward. But the term can also be applied outside of physics. Buckminster Fuller often used the term to describe whole system interactions in politics and social planning. Because precession creates a second force that is a departure from the first and resultant and referential to it, I find that circuit-bending is well described by the term. One force is the people who bend, and the other is a force of consumerism that proliferates electronic devices. The facts around consumer electronics are contended with by the personal intervention of circuit-bending, and the result is something decidedly non-consumerist, even if it relies on and references consumerism. It is off in a new direction, a total field approach in which the commerce and control of electronic melodies-for-purchase and one-button-symphonies are confounded and deflated. This is a political action fundamentally.
Circuit-bending challenges assumptions about meaning and communication in sound and electronic media. The activity spontaneously manifested as a result of the proliferation of circuit boards and their collision with human nature and curiosity. For this reason there is a false history or myth to any one origin story, or to any one inventor, but individuals like Reed Ghazala offer insight into the activity in a special way. Acting as a foil, or circuit-bending fool, Ghazala is a friendly, and effective champion for the practice. He embodies the errors, glitches, humour, and self-enabling (DIY) that are the spirit of circuit-bending. Leon Theremin and Maurice Martenot were both champions of at least the spirit of circuit-bending, as are the producers and artists who present Bent Festival. People around the world are championing the practice, and are contributing to the ongoing definition. As the definition has developed and as it expands, the word bending, more effectively than circuit-bending, best describes the activity. Whether in electronics, music, coding, language, or any other medium, bending is an age-old activity of fragmenting linear systems to produce personal and individual narratives. It is a retrieval of power, or it is a joke, but in both cases it is on your own terms. You decide how to break the system, you decide what results to keep, and you decide if you like it or not. We are in charge, enabled to create and experiment as much as discover and accept. John Cage remarked on this position and it’s necessary balance in a mesostic he wrote late in his life, in his book Composition in Retrospect. “Acceptance of whatever must be complemented by the refusal of everything that’s intolerable. Revolution can never stop.” We accept the noises from a bent classical music toy, and we reject the authoritarian false-education of its original design. We bend, and the path of least resistance becomes an act of contention. It’s easy.
John Cage, Composition in Retrospect (Cambridge, Exact Change, 1993).
Buckminster Fuller, Critical Path (New York, St. Martin’s Press, 1981).
Reed Ghazala, Circuit-Bending: Build Your Own Alien Instruments (Indianapolis, Wiley Publishing Inc., 2005).
Reed Ghazala, The Folk Music of Chance Electronics: Circuit-Bending the Modern Coconut (online, http://www.anti-theory.com/texts/lmj/, accessed Nov 30, 2011).
James Joyce, Finnegan’s Wake (Great Britain, Faber and Faber, 1939).
Steven M. Martin, Director/Writer, Theremin: an Electronic Odyssey, documentary film (USA, Kaga Bay and Channel Four Films, 1994).
Marshall McLuhan, et. al. War & Peace in the Global Village (New York: Bantam Books, 1968).
Jonathan Neil, Editor, Iannis Xenakis, Composer, Architect, Visionary (New York, The Drawing Center, 2010).