Masters Project: 2. Circuit-Bending Toys (Part 1)

An Introduction and the Plan

In this mini-series I will talk about circuit-bending as part of Creative Project, as well as occasionally, how it will relate to my Main composition project.

As corny as it sounds, the first question that has to be asked is ‘what is Circuit-Bending?’.

The term Circuit-Bending was coined by Qubais Reed Ghazala in 1992 in Experimental Music Instruments Magazine after his now 50 year old technique of creatively short circuiting battery operated, noise making devices to discover sounds beyond the devices original intentions. Consequently, Reed is commonly referred to as the Father of Circuit-Bending.

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Since then videos on YouTube, and forums discussing the technique have popped up all across the internet. I will be adding to this half a century old tradition, by creating my own circuit-bent instruments for both my Creative Project and my Main Project.

Now I’m not going to bore you with a long and arduous essay about the history of circuit-bending (I’ve already done that for one of my essays). Even though there is the potential for some history to be dotted throughout this mini-series of posts, the focus, will be on the process of this particular part of the project, thoughts I’ve had as I went along, and possibly a mini how-to for the less-so dexterous like myself (no promises on this one).

This series as a whole may also be accompanied by videos demonstrations of each element.

As mentioned earlier, in this mini-series I will talk about circuit-bending as part of my Creative Project, as well as occasionally, how it will relate to my Main Composition Project. The two are not dissimilar, however this academic year I have chosen to use one element of my Main Project for my Creative Project so I can learn more about the topic without the distraction of it within the wider context of my Main Composition.

The basics are the same in so far as they both require me to create some circuit-bent instruments. The application on the other hand is slightly different. For my Main Project, circuit-bending is a small part of a larger collection of devices. For Creative Project, circuit-bending is used in conjunction with workshopping, and composition creation with an ensemble. Therefore, because they share so many elements and discussions in the process, it seemed excessive to have separate posts for these projects, which is why I’ve chosen to combine them.

The outline for the practical side of the circuit-bending project is:

Step 1:

Research Circuit Bending (this part is already done).

Step 2:

Watch and Reed (…see what I did there…) some tutorials on the basics techniques for Circuit Bending – this can be done with Step 3.

Step 3:

Open up a toy and discover its hidden sounds. (Repeat this step for each toy).

Step 4:

Fix/Circuit Bend 1 Toy. This will inevitably end in me breaking something. However, the aim at with this step is to learn, rather than to succeed at my first attempt. If I do succeed I would consider this more of a failure, because it would have meant that nothing was learnt.

Step 5:

Create a short recording of me experimenting and improvisation with the Bent instrument.

The Creative Project:

The current purpose that Circuit-Bending has in my Creative Project, is to facilitate musicians in the act of improvisation, exploration, and discovery of chance based instrumentation.

There will be 3 workshops designed to introduce these musicians to Circuit-Bending and the its sound-world. At the end of the project, I do not aim to have created a coherent and reproductive composition using the circuit-bent toys, instead I am hoping to create a discussion about the possibilities of how the techniques used in the project could be used in other parts of music creation.

While writing this I’ve been pondering how at the end of this project I could evaluate whether or not the project was a success. The potential criteria I have come up with, are:

Did those involved learn a new skill?

‘New skill’ does not only refer to the technical aspects of circuit-bending. It also encompasses skills for the creation of music, ways to tackle the difficulties that arise when faced with new or unusual material, how to tackle collaborative composition, among others.

Were the workshops engaging?

During the workshops, did the musicians feel included within the process? Were they active in their participation? Did they find the process/workshops interesting?

Did the musicians enjoy the process of chance-based instrument creation?

As self-explanatory as this question is, this one relates a lot to the last question but is more focused on whether the musicians had fun. Due to the nature of the project, the circuits can break or simply give-up. Because of this unpredictability, and potential failure that is built into a project such as this, and as frustrating as it is, it is important to me that enjoyment is counted as part of the success of this project. Thus ensuring that if only one circuit bent instrument still exist at the end of the project, that the process is taken into account.

Have the musicians come away from the project with a new look are electronic music?

It is important to me and this project for people to have learnt something new about electronic music. I have in the past been guilty of almost dismissing the importance of electronic music. Already, over the course of this project, I have gained a new love an respect for the art.

Have the musicians over a short space of time, become confident on the new instruments?

Again, another self-explanatory question. Simply put, are they as confident at exploring the circuit-bent instruments as they are their own instruments?

Did they present a coherent performance?

I’m not looking for a perfect performance, or even to have a complete score for a composition by the end of the project. Instead I’m looking for a performance where they engaged with both the instruments, sounds, ideas, and the other musicians. Really, everything you look for in a normal free improvisation performance.

The Masters Project:

I don’t have a huge amount to say in this section as of yet, however I can say that how the Creative Project turns out will affect how I present the Circuit-Bent toys in my Masters Project.

The final words I could say in this introduction could easily be a list of items you need, but there’s no point reinventing the wheel. Instead I provided you with a link to the list that Reed has on his website Anti-Theory.

– Jason Hodgson (11th February 2017)

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