Masters Project: 6. Circuit-Bending Toys (Part 5)

Notation Experiments for Circuit-Bent Toys

As I move onto my PhD it is high-time that I complete this series. After all, the Master’s Project is now complete.

It became clear in the middle of the project that I had bitten off more than I could chew regarding the installation. There was not enough time to both learn and implement the techniques I had been learning over the last couple of years into a large interactive installation. Therefore it was necessary to pop this concept aside (for now). However, all was not lost: I could still use what I had learnt, but instead have them feed into smaller pieces of work.

Over the year I composed pieces for; Solo Viola, a Concerto, Woodwind and Multimedia, as well as exploring some possible notation that could be used when scoring for Circuit Bent instruments. It is the latter that I will be talking about today.

N0t4t10n 3xp6r1m6nt5 f0r C1rcu1t-B6nt 70y5 (Notation Experiments for Circuit-Bent Toys) was created to work with and against the definitions and contradictions that appear when exploring Circuit-bending. This technique requires little foreknowledge of electronics, nor does it require you to know what it is you desire out of the toy; instead, the hardware hacker need only improvise with the internal circuitry of the toy in the full knowledge that the short circuiting may not work; often this process renders the toy useless. The overriding aim was to create approaches to making sounds that are foreign to the toy company’s original intention.

Prior to the decision to explore notation, I discussed creating scores for circuit bent toys with a number of delegates at the Performing Indeterminacy Conference I attended in the Summer of 2017. The idea was largely dismissed as irrelevant, impossible and doomed to failure.

I am in semi-regular contact with Reed Ghazala, who is closely associated with the invention and promotion of circuit-bending, and upon discussion, Ghazala has encouraged me to write these scores and invited me to share the results with him.

For Ghazala the toy is a living instrument whose inner nature and potentiality can be discovered (Ghazala, 2018). The score that I was intending to create, therefore had to explore concepts of  finding a balance between over- and under-notation. This process involved my having to
move beyond the notion of scoring sonically precise results.

I am not the first to explore possible notation for Circuit Bent Toys. Two scores already existed prior to my own exploration; Strutz by Jesper Pedersen (2011) and the Untitled for violin, circuit bent toy, and electronics by Nicholas Knouf (2008). Both of these use open score notation and encourage audience participation during performance, respectively. The notation I used employs my understanding of action notation, which is a notation that does not specify a sonic result since the nature of circuit-bent toys is that they rarely behave in a predictable way.

The structural concept of my score is borrowed from Stockhausen’s Momente für Sopran, 4 Chorguppen und 13 Instrumentalisten (1961/62). Stockhausen used moment form to create a certain type of drama. The moments of silence in N0t4t10n 3xp6r1m6nt5 f0r C1rcu1t-B6nt 70y5 became a compositional tool in their own right; while it was a practical solution to allow the performers time to regroup between moments, the silence determined the structure of the piece. For example, these silences may be heard as a build-up of dramatic tension between each moment. The order of the moments is chosen by the performer, the only proviso being that a sound instruction must be followed by a silent instruction. These moments are represented either graphically or textually; only rhythm, where it appears, is notated traditionally. The elements of play are in the toys, or instruments, themselves, while the exact order of the moments is left to chance. The fact that the circuit-bent toys rarely make the same noise twice, nor can the sound be predetermined provides the element of indeterminacy. In conversation with Johnathan Cott (Stockhausen: Conversations with the Composer London: Robson Books Ltd, 1974), Stockhausen raises the idea of building your own instrument if the existing ones do not do what you want them to. In practice, circuit-bent toys are not so much built as partially destroyed in the discovery of sounds.

I was lucky enough to have these scores workshopped by a local improvisation group called Athelstan Sound. They are a mixture of various types of artists, and most of the performers had little to no traditional score reading skills,
and therefore had few pre-conceptions about what a score should look like. As a consequence, the rhythmic moments were challenging and were not successfully executed. The members did not make any suggestions for how to improve this notation, but they did express a preference for avoiding musical notation. As a result, further consideration as to the rhythmic aspects of this score is needed.

– Jason Hodgson (17th August 2018)

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