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Bend Me, Shape Me

Producing music from printers, hacking Speak ‘n’ Spells for backing vocals—it’s not trendy garage band style, but then, it’s not exactly rock and roll. A look into the engrossing world of circuit bending.

I switch on my Casio SA-1, hit the trusty “demo” button, and—after I am serenaded for a few excruciating seconds with the immense sonic ugliness of Wham’s “Jitterbug” (rendered in full 32-note polyphony)—my finger hovers over a big plastic key. A “num lock” key, salvaged from an old Acorn computer keyboard, it protrudes rather incongruously from the pad of rubbery push-buttons usually used to control the little instrument. After a moment’s hesitation, I tap it. A circuit that I’ve connected messily to one of the Casio’s microchips is completed and the toy keyboard, bought for 50p at a charity shop a few years back, suddenly descends into a rhythm loop sounding something like a car crash being passed through an overdrive pedal. This is circuit bending—not quite what Casio intended.

Described by its pioneer, Reed Ghazala, as “the electronic art of the implementation of the creative audio short-circuit,” circuit bending produces sounds that a device’s manufacturers never dreamed of. A Pikachu doll pleading for its life. A crowd of fur-stripped Furbies singing incoherently to one another in eerily high-pitched voices. Sounds containing all the raw emotion that a 10-inch wide keyboard or a Taiwanese plastic ray-gun can muster—the digital scream of the crashing processor.

Circuit bending was discovered by accident. As he tells us on his website, our Mr. Ghazala was, on a fine day in the summer of ‘66, sorting through a drawer in his workshop, stuffed with various dismembered electrical items. In all his vigorous rifling, he happened to unify the exposed circuit board of a toy transistor amplifier with another metal object, causing an unexpected stream of noise to burst from the tiny amp. Intrigued by this, he began to experiment and was soon churning out all manner of mutant machinery, from “trigon incantors” to “photon clarinets.”

Ghazala explains, in an in-depth article on, that “as a kid with few resources, living in a period when synthesis equipment was both rare and expensive, [circuit bending] was a viable alternative through which to explore and compose new forms of music.”

Something interesting can be made of an afternoon with a screwdriver, a Speak ‘n’ Spell, and a healthy amount of murderous rage.His first circuit-bent instrument, named “The Odor Box,” was originally used as a soloing instrument in a friend’s band, alongside the more traditional drums, bass and guitar. Although he claims of these earlier performances that “the audience wanted to destroy the instrument and kill us,” he has since gathered a loyal following of “benders” and, as the artist listing for the 2004 BENT festival put it, “is known internationally as the father of circuit bending.” He’s now compiled a thorough guide to the tools and techniques of circuit bending, vital reading for any aspiring circuit surgeon.

Quite simply, the modern practice of “bending” involves shorting out points on the exposed circuit board of a device (using something like a screwdriver) while said device is playing one of its tinny notes. This is done in the hope that some spontaneous and aleatory sound will erupt (as far as something can “erupt” from an eight-centimeter foam speaker) as the result of a crashed microchip or the torturous electrical manipulation of some other unfortunate component.

When an interesting short-circuit is discovered, a switch is then installed to bridge the two points involved and mounted on the external case—hence my little Casio’s “num lock” key. As a reassuring bonus, practitioners needn’t worry about the risk of brain-frying voltages, as this techno-surgery is performed almost exclusively on victims of the battery-powered variety. Some instruments are even kitted out with “body contacts,” metal pads designed to be bridged by a performer with a body part of their choice, effectively rendering themselves a part of the circuit. Talk about an affinity with your equipment!

Unsurprisingly, the popularity of the art appears to be increasing fast—every year since 2004, The Tank, “a space for performing and visual arts in New York City,” has hosted the BENT festival, which invites “benders from across the country and around the globe to perform concerts with their circuit bent instruments, to teach workshops to adults and children alike, and to generally descend on our fair city for a week of sharing and showing off their skills.” BENT ‘06—which took place April 9-23—was, by all accounts, inspiring. Described by one blogger as “fun and supremely geeky,” the workshops ranged from an after-school session offering local children an opportunity to try their hand at experimentation to a detailed tutorial on constructing versatile square wave tone generators. The live performances certainly delivered the metaphoric goods, with artists merging recorded audio with suitably psychedelic video sequences and live improvised bending.

Of course, this’d all just be another pretentious electronic art form if people didn’t use these bizarrely transformed instruments to make fantastic music. The debut CD from Dallas duo Tree Wave, Cabana EP, was released in 2004 to excellent reviews from critics both inside and outside the experimental electronica scene. Their lusciously melodic bend-pop (apologies, I’ve always wanted to invent a genre) makes for mesmerizing live shows—fanaticism-inducing performances mixing visuals from an Atari 2600 with the synchronized music of a Commodore 64 and an old Compaq Portable II personal computer—both running home-made software which is, as a nice touch, included on the EP.

However, retro games consoles are far from the limit of Tree Wave’s instrumental eccentricity. Paul Slocum, the duo’s technical half, has gone to the extent of performing a brain transplant on an obsolete printer. His complicated modifications to the Epson LQ-500’s firmware allow the print heads and roller motors to be controlled externally, providing a method for playing primitive—though seductively smooth—sequenced melodies.

Admittedly, the construction and customization of Tree Wave’s instruments might be a little beyond the technical expertise of the average “bender” (it would certainly be beyond me), but that’s not to say that something interesting can’t be made of an afternoon with a screwdriver, a Speak ‘n’ Spell, and a healthy amount of murderous rage.

Another notable musical figure on the circuit bending scene is Dutchman Gijs Gieskes, who has, over the years, amassed a large collection of decidedly odd electronic instruments, including complicated mechanical and electronic sequencers—many built from scratch by his own fair hands.

“I started doing circuit bending because I wanted new instruments, but I did not have any money to buy them,” explains Gieskes of his introduction to the genre in the mid-1990s. “The cheapest things to find were the toys from the secondhand market, but they were very limited in their possibilities. So, what I did then was just open them and see what was there to be changed—mostly by touching with my fingers on the circuit and just seeing what happened.”

He describes his circuit-bent TR-707 drum machine as an instrument from his arsenal that he particularly likes. “It has got a lot cool extra sounds from the bends and it is a lot of fun to play around with.”

One of the most striking aspects of many of Gieskes’s homemade devices is their appearance, often utilizing beautiful hand-etched circuit boards with knobs and buttons placed in curious, visually-pleasing patterns. “I studied industrial design at the design academy in my home town of Eindhoven, so my background is in design. The sound of my instruments is still important, but the design is on the top of my list. I want all of the instruments to be honest in their design. They should not have more than they need to exist, function and stay alive.”

However, to my mind, one of Gieskes’s most interesting and startling projects has been his experimental music made using the bleeps and bloops of a modified Nintendo Gameboy. A specialized sequencer program makes it possible for artists to use the Gameboy’s four internal synthesizers to create complex and dynamic soundscapes. Gieskes, however, chooses to keep his music squarely on the minimalist side of things (see “Puzy 99” or “The Birds”). “My Gameboy music is very much about the sound itself, but I do my best to get better at making melodies. I think the key to making great music is simplicity and melody. That’s why the Gameboy gives me great restrictions and forces me to think more about the melody than just the sound itself.”

To laud circuit bending as the new rock ‘n’ roll would, perhaps, be a bit excessive, but it could be just the thing to inject some needed unpredictability into the electronic music world. On the other hand, it could just be a bunch of overgrown kids torturing their childhood toys. Whatever it is, I know that my SA-1 sounds a hell of a lot better in the throes of short-circuited agony than when it’s playing that god-awful demo tune. Bend me up before you go-go!

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Louis Goddard is a writer, an unashamed enjoyer (and occasional purveyor) of all things pretentious and, most importantly, an infallible gentleman. He lives in Suffolk, England, yet doesn’t own a tractor.  . More by Louis Goddard