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Brooklyn, New York (Motherboard.tv) -- In 1967, Reed Ghazala discovered something amazing just by sitting at his desk.
At the time he was a broke teenager, musician, and experimental artist known to friends for his magnetic sculptures and the sort of pyrotechnic displays that once sent him into emergency surgery. And then one day in 1967, his desk began to emit strange sounds. He recognized their sci-fi whirrs and electronic tones as something like the sound of the expensive synthesizers of the day, and he was sure he wasn't imagining it.
The source turned out to be nothing more than a toy amplifier he had left in a desk drawer, its wires exposed due to a broken case, its power still switched on. The toy's innards were short circuiting against the inside of the metal desk, and in so doing were making music that neither its creators nor its owner could ever have imagined. Circuit bending was born.
Today, thousands of amateur electronics hackers around the planet follow Reed's lead, customizing or simply breaking their synthesizers, children's toys and other easy-to-crack-open gadgets with the hope of generating uncanny and wonderful cacophonies of sound. Hope must be a part of it -- the music, like its inception, has an intimate relationship with chance. Controlling the sounds of these hacked instruments using a soldering iron, a custom button, or, carefully, a finger, can be like wrestling the ghost in the machine. The most unexpected sounds are to be expected.
Experience helps, of course, in building more fine-tuned instruments, but as the "father of circuit bending" showed us when we visited him at his Ohio studio, every attempt to hack together an instrument is a brand new excursion into the realm of the audio frontier.
For Reed, who has written a number of educational books on instrument building, bending allows virtually anyone to explore that frontier, without needing to know electronic theory or daunting equations. "Circuit bending has leveled the playing field," he says. "It has become everyman's technique for prototyping audio circuitry."
One barometer of circuit bending's reach is the annual Bent Festival, where legions of tinkerers, knob twisters, performers and fans come together for three days to tear apart electronics, solder in unlikely places, and share their hybrid creations with a wider audience. This year's fest, which starts June 23rd in Brooklyn, features workshops, video screenings, art exhibitions, installations, and music performances that will, well, bend your mind.
Though historically associated with noise music, circuit bending has also informed more mainstream musical genres like industrial, electronic and glitch, and become a close confederate of the video game hacks of chiptune music. And even more conventional musicians have been known to partake in the sonic experiments of bent electronics. Reed himself has built custom instruments for musicians like Tom Waits, Peter Gabriel, King Crimson and The Rolling Stones.
Three decades after launching his musical idea, Reed is still building instruments out of the kind of electronics that tend to pile up in our closets, and fostering the idea that with a little bit of tinkering we can all make some pretty unearthly music.
"If Jackson Pollock were to design electronics, he'd be a circuit bender," says Ghazala rhapsodically, as if he himself were floating on the kaleidoscopic sound waves of his inventions. "The wires fall upon the circuit like the paint on Pollack's canvas."