John Harvey: Blog

Intersections of image, sound, and word

The Amazing Bending Professor!

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‘City of Bend: Noise Permits’ (website for Bend, Oregon, USA)

My engagement with circuit bending (as it’s called today) first began when I was 16 years of age. I stumbled upon the technique by accident while attempting to fix a portable radio. And so did many other teenagers of my generation, it would seem. In the next four decades, circuit bending would develop into a significant sub-genre of ‘noise music’. For anyone who could not afford a synthesizer in the mid 1970s (and that was most people), the squelches, screeches, and hums produced by connecting circuits that ordinarily are isolated (thereby short-circuiting the path along which the electrical current normally passes) was the only way to achieve an engaging and usable, if admittedly low-fi, electronic sound. As such, the technique exploits the concept of positive malfunction.

Any electronic apparatus capable of making a noise (for example, a radio, audio recorder, child’s toy, game, or guitar effects pedal) can be ‘rewired’ to produce a range of unintended sound-forms. These sounds are often unpredictable, unrepeatable, and unstable; circuit bending is a chance procedure. The technique is simple: components, nodes, and pathways on a circuit board are joined using with an electrical conductor such as a wire, test lead, or even the experimenter’s body – some ‘benders’ use their fingers to manipulate the circuit board. Insomuch as the body represents a conduit for, and a source of resistance that impedes, the flow of electrons, it, too, becomes a part of the circuit and the means of sound production. Thus, the performer and instrument are one and the same: an electro-biological noise machine.

This sonic technique has parallels in the visual arts. For example, in the tradition of the altered image, artists intervene in a pre-existing photograph, variously adding parts derived from other photographs or visual sources, excising or painting over sections of the original, or re-photographing the source and translating it into a different scale, ratio, medium, or colour etc. In both circuit bending and the altered image, a found object is engaged with a view to unlocking and extending its capacity by subverting its function.

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While the technique of circuit bending is straightforward, the framework of performance and delivery is not. The name of the game is ‘hazard’, for several reasons. The circuit board is:

  • vulnerable. Having been removed from the protective case, its components and wires are apt to work loose or break;
  • unstable. The process of short-circuiting sometimes involves routing, for example, the full 3-volt DC current used to power the device through components that may not be designed to accommodate that charge.  As a consequence, they either weaken or burn out;
  • unknown. There is no guarantee that any productive sound will emerge from the process of probing the circuit board;
  • inconstant. There is no guarantee that, once located, a productive sound can be found again (even when the same two nodes are connected) or sound again, as it did previously.

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I gave a demonstration of the technique in one of the School of Art’s galleries at the Aberystwyth University’s Open Day on the 18 October 2014. There’s an inevitable terror associated with using a complex electronic network: the prospect of experiencing some unaccountable and unforeseen glitch in the system at the eleventh hour. In the professional sphere of music, the problem would be cheerfully handed over to the sound engineer. In the sphere of sound art, the artist is often the technician too. Having checked the network of devices and modulating filters (I have a procedure for rationally isolating faults), all hums were quelled, unity gain established throughout the system, and a test recording made. ‘The readiness is all’.

Throughout the the morning, Open-Day visitors were drawn to the ‘peculiar noise’ (as I heard it described) and into a conversation about my equally strange behaviour: poking fingers into the guts of portable audio devices (which had clearly see better days) and, like some sadistic torturer, prodding them with electrical probes in order to elicit a shriek. Some explanation of my indulgence was necessary, one which took in the history of sound art from 1913 onwards, and the crucial part that painters had played in its evolution. (These themes are explored in the School of Art’s undergraduate module on the art history of sound, entitled Art/Sound.)

After lunch, I was in my stride: noises were coerced from all but one device, looped, superimposed, and variously filtered. I heard sounds reminiscent of Louis and Bebe Barron’s ‘tonalities’ for The Forbidden Planet (1956): the death rattle of circuits in extremis. The audio capture was not intended to yield any compositional material. Nevertheless, the outcome was sufficiently engaging to merit the composition of three montages, as a token and document of the day’s efforts:

1 Exposed to the air or to view; not covered
2 She was put in a cubicle with the curtains left open
3 His eyes were open but he could see nothing.

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