Masters Project: 5. Circuit-Bending Toys (Part 4): Concert Reflection (19th April 2017, St. Gregory’s Centre for Music)

That’s it. This part of the project is over. It’s seems like no time at all has passed since I first introduced you to the Circuit Bending section.

That’s it. This part of the project is over. It’s seems like no time at all has passed since I first introduced you to the Circuit Bending section. Before I go on to discuss the concert, I just wanted to say a huge thanks to the Canterbury Christ Church University Scratch Orchestra for being my guinea pigs. Without them the project would not have been as successful as it was.

As part of the CCCU’s Music and Performing Arts Lunchtime Concert series, the Circuit Bent instruments were presented in front of a small but enthusiastic audience. I had contemplated to write some programme notes, however time got the better of me, and I also wanted the audience to be attentive to the actions on the stage. Having reading material that explained it would have been a distraction. Instead I opted to provide a brief explanation of the project, and the poem descriptions that Natalie Perdu had written as each solo instrument was presented, including that for Gallatronia (the T.A.R.D.I.S. toy).

Unfortunately Gallatronia was only 97% complete by the time the concert came around ( The only thing that needed doing was the putting back together of the toy). With that being said, the fact you could see the wires made added an element of sci-fi to the whole performance. The poem was written a mere hour before the concert began:

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Many times mysterious
Makes you so delirious
Study her star crossed brow
She’s so serious

Doctoring temporal flow
See the places
That she goes

Super Nova bright
Keeps the tempo tight

Overall I felt that the concert was a success. I babbled a bit more than I would have liked, but I put this down to pure excitement about the climax of the project. The Audience were also perceptive, and were amazed at how much sound you could get from so little. A couple of people even came up to have a play with the toys after I had invited the audience to do so before the performance began. My words were roughly “Don’t worry, you can’t break them because I already have”.

In an earlier post I posed seven questions or criteria to evaluate whether this project was successful beyond that of a personal feeling, and intend to take a stab at answering them before I type up my official evaluation for the project module.

1) Did those involved learn a new skill?

To an extent. Unfortunately due to the dreaded Health and Safety I was unable to allow them to actually bend their instruments with the soldering equipment. They did however get the chance to explore for potential sounds before I went home to bend the toys, and they also had the opportunity to learn how to play a new instrument.

2) Were the workshops engaging?

Without asking the members of Scratch directly, I can not 100% answer this. I can however base my answer upon my observations. (The answers may be somewhat biased, and I hope to reconcile this in the near future.)

During the first workshop the members were completely engrossed with discovering the potential sounds, and I had to almost force them away from their toys in order for the workshop to finish up in time to tidy up.

The second workshop involved them discovering ways of performing with these toys, and I had to actively stop them from coming up with a list the size of my arm, and start trying them out, and start figuring out the most affective ones for the upcoming performance. One such idea was that of creating circuits with the toys and our bodies. However, this was too unpredictable for the performance, although I do hope there is an opportunity that arises in the future to explore this further.

The third workshop was more of a rehearsal, and was thus more focussed. Therefore engaging is probably not the word I would use for this session.

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

This is a question I can answer completely honestly without any biased: Yes they did. They were enthusiastic and willing to try new things, including things that were out of my comfort zone, such as body touching to create circuits, and the use of saliva on instruments that were shared. So the fact that they were willing to try these things, and push further than I had previously conceived, surely says that they were enjoying the process. In fact, I don’t think that we went over the allotted time for our part of the concert purely because I waffled a bit. I also believe that it was because they enjoyed playing their instruments so much, that they forgot the time.

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

I believe they have. But once again, this is a tricky question to answer fully. I certainly have, but this does not guarantee that they have.

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

Right from the start there learning began. They started not knowing what Circuit Bending was, and then managed to have full discussion on techniques they could use to play the instruments within 2 workshops. If this doesn’t show that they became confident on the instruments in a short space of time, I’m not sure what would have.

6) Did they present a coherent performance?

This question goes hand-in-hand with the last 2 questions. In addition to all the work prior to the performance, which of course helps towards the coherency of the performance, is also how it was presented to the audience. Instead of presenting full and complete ideas, we presented the performance and a demonstration. Showing off what the toys could do, rather than compositionally sound (whatever they are) ideas. In doing so, members of the audience could see what was happening, and what was generating the sounds. Nothing was hidden (except maybe the wires inside… not the case for Gallatronia).

So in essence, because the some of the audience members came up afterwards to have a closer look, I believe shows that the the concept of my project was coherently presented.

At the end of this Creative Project, I can truly say that I have thoroughly enjoyed my myself. I look forward to applying the skills I’ve gained (technical and people based) to my Main Composition Project.

For my Main Project, without repeating what I said in an earlier post, the Circuit Bent toys will be presented as part of what I have called for now at least ‘an interactive console ensemble’. This ensemble will hopefully consist of; Circuit Bent Toys, an Atari 520 STfm, a GameCube, an Arduino, a Raspberry Pi, and possibly more. In addition my tutor Alistair Zaldua has set me with a task of writing a composition specifically for Circuit Bent Toys, which I have to say has been a task, as this hasn’t really been done before, and Circuit Bent toys being chaotic and unpredictable in nature, almost fight against being composed for, instead of being played with. Nonetheless I am taking on the task. I may even talk about this within this series of posts.

Keep checking this blog for updates on the Main Composition project, discussions on past compositions, and maybe even a review or two thrown in for good measure.

– Jason Hodgson (14th May 2017)

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– website coming soon –

Masters Project: 4. Circuit-Bending Toys (Part 3): What’s in a Name/Workshop 2 & 3

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.

In the last post, I introduced you to the instruments by how I bent them. But now it’s time to Name and Fame them!

There are now three circuit bent toys being used in my Creative Project, I shall introduce them in the order of their naming.

(The descriptions of the instruments were written by Natalie Perdu, a member of Canterbury Christchurch University Scratch Orchestra, and fellow Masters Student. Without further adieu, here are the instruments they helped to create:

 

First of, let me introduce you to Lady Penelope. 

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Lady Penelope

She is the only one to be described in a poem:

Pink whiz, heart attack girl.
Plastic face, no disgrace.
Living the life rarefied,
no second place.

Higher and higher the doyenne of cool.
Refined sugar sweetness,
distinctly old skool.

With vim And with vigour,
and clipped elocution,
she’ll draw you right in for your execution.

This is the game she loves to play.
The more you hold on,
the more you will pay.

Right to your core her electricity flows.
You’ll be bound in her net,
and trussed with pink bows.

 

Secondly, there is 8 Bit Guitar:

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8-Bit Guitar

A Garrulous and dynamic individual. Naïvely enthusiastic. 8 Bit Guitar gallivants into situations into situations where angels fear to tread. Attention span of a washing machine on full spin, with the hear of a tiger. Always tries hard and the results never fail to bring a mile to the stoniest of hearts. Needs to be watched over or may try too hard and exhaust themselves.

 

And lastly, but by no means least, Farmageddon:

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Farmageddon

 

Bright, breezy, bubbly! Who wouldn’t be drawn to the cheery soul of Farmageddon? When you find the online, you will be drawn into their sweet, cheery, and oh so polite persona. There is nothing Faramgeddon won’t do for you. You will be made the center of their world.  Until you’re not. Until their darkness begins to show. You always though the darkness was there, but you brushed that thought aside. Now you know. Now you see the sociopath that is Farmageddon.

All three of these instruments, along with a fourth in it’s prototype stages were showcased as part of  a concert at Canterbury Christchurch University on the 19th April.

The fourth instrument named Gallitronia (no points for guessing the influence of the name or what toy was circuit bent). As mentioned, this instrument was presented in its prototype form during the performance, therefore its full potential has yet to be realised. But don’t despair, I will talk about it more in detail at some point in the future.

Throughout this process, my good friends and Videographers Michael-Paul Thompson of CinemaTree Media, and Nathaniel Beddall are creating a short documentary-style video of this project which whilst its main purpose is to document the project for my Creative Project Module, it will also be available to you lovely people via my YouTube Channel.

 

– Jason Hodgson (21st April 2017)

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– website coming soon –

Masters Project: 3. Circuit-Bending Toys (Part 2): The death of the Radioscramaphonia/First Workshop

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.

When I started planning this entry I had completed my first Circuit Bent instrument and gave it the name ‘Radioscramaphonia’. I then made the mistake of adding things to it. In particular I wanted to increase my potentiometer, and to add an audio jack socket to allow for an easy way to amplify it. However, at that stage I did not have the skills or dexterity required to make these changes. And as a result, I had to pronounce the death of my Radioscramaphonia.

I even went to UKC to ask the computing department if they could help, but even they were unable to resurrect Radioscramaphonia.

Although, yes I was saddened to see my instrument give up its life, its sacrifice was not in vain. Instead, I had to see this as a learning opportunity.  What could I have done differently? What can I take away and learn from this experience?

Firstly, I’ve learnt the hard way that ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it!’.

Secondly, I learnt not to over complicate the task when you don’t have the skills (yet). I could have easily just replaced the speakers with the audio jack socket, instead of attempting to find a way to bypass it when an audio jack was plugged into it. Whilst I know this is possible, I am now aware that I do not have the skills or dexterity yet to achieve this.

Thankfully, however, this happened after the first workshop I ran as part of my Creative Project, in which I tasked myself with introducing the members of the Canterbury Chirst Church Scratch Orchestra to Circuit Bending.

The first workshop consisted of a potted history, followed by a demonstration of Radioscramaphonia, which led into them opening up toys to discover potential sounds that they could produce. Unfortunately, due to health and safety (and time scale to some extent), I was unable to allow them to use a soldering iron. To compensate this, I discussed with them about the built in failure to a project such as this. I warned them that the sounds they think could happen may change when wires and buttons are added, and new sounds may be discovered in the process. I also made it clear to them that there was a chance that the instruments may give up during the soldering process. I have had personal experience of this, but had no idea at the time that this was going to happen to my Radioscramaphonia. As an attempt at a backup to this problem, I advised them to explore more than one toy each.

The main toys they wanted to be bent were; a Pink Mini-Keyboard, a Pink Guitar, and a Leap Frog French/English Language toy.

The only one to survive from the main choices was the Pink Mini-Keyboard.

During the exploration of sounds in the first workshop, the speakers of the Pink Guitar was knocked and disconnected from the main circuitboard. After multiple attempts which included; replacing the batteries, replacing the wires, replacing the speaker, removing the speaker and connecting it directly to an audio jack socket; my attempts proved futile. Sound was still being made, but after a few seconds at full volume, it would decrease and end with you being barely able to hear it, even with amplification.

I did not have time to continue trying to fix this. So as the person who was playing tthe Pink Guitar had their heart set on a toy guitar, I popped to the local charity shops and found another toy guitar to circuit bend instead.

This circuit bending proved successful.

The second toy that did not survive this process was the Leap Frog French/English Language toy. Simply put, during the soldering, I must have accidentally connected something I shouldn’t have, and it just stopped working. So instead, a Farmyard Barn toy was circuit bent.

In the workshop we had discovered that hands-on was the best approach for this ensemble. The group weren’t over fond of the potentiometer, instead favouring the wires that used the body (and some spit) as a method of resistance. They also decided that they wanted a simple bend with resistant contact wires, and only a couple of buttons if possible that maybe triggered a new sound to be emitted from the toy.

With this in mind I’ve bent the toys with very little adaptations.

The Pink Keyboard had the contact wired added, and one button. The best way I can describe what the button does is to say that it makes the current audible. I’m not entirely certain this is the case, but for the sake of being able to imagine the kind of sound it produces, we’ll stick with that description. The contact wires on all the devices changes the resistance of the sound produced. Commonly this decreases the speed, which lowers the pitch. But occasionally it can increase the speed and pitch.

The replacement for the Pink Guitar, a White Guitar, also has these features. Another button was also added which sends a current via two connections which trigger sounds to be played. However, the connection isn’t clean, so instead you hear a quasi-random sound in terms of where the playback is cut with each pulse of current. Again, as my expertise do not lie within the fields of electronics or circuitry, I can only, certainty at this point, hazard an educated guess at what happens with the new connections I make.

The Farmyard Barn toy was an interesting, and very simple bend. No connections I tried sent any signal like those of the previous two bends. So this one would have no added button. Once again I added the contact wires, but in terms of additions, this was the only one.  Instead, by shear chance I discovered by making contact with the workings of the buttons (underneath the plastic animals), the velocity of the sound was vastly changed. With the addition of the contact wires, this dark and sinister sounds of an alien machine or creature emanated  from this innocent looking toy.

So far this was all the bending I had done in the time scale available between the first and second workshop.

In the next blog entry, I will talk about the second workshop, the naming of the instruments, and the plans for the rehearsal leading up to the performance. As well as some photos of the finished instruments.

 

– Jason Hodgson (10th March 2017)

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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.

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

Circuit-Bending is a term 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.

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. (See my playlist ‘Creative 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 may be some history dotted throughout this mini-series of posts, the focus, however, 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 will also be accompanied by videos demonstrations of each element.(Again, see my YouTube playlist ‘Creative Project‘).

As mentioned earlier, 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. The two are not dissimilar, however this term 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 applications however are 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 Read some tutorials on the basics techniques for Circuit Bending – this can be done with…

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 the project, how could I evaluate whether or not the project was successful. The potential criteria I have come up with, are:

Did those involved learn a new skill?

A ‘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 will change how I present the Circuit-Bent toys in my Masters Project.

The final word I could have to say in this introduction could easily be a list of items you need, but there’s no point reinventing the wheel, so 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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Don’t forget to share this blog.

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Twitter: https://twitter.com/JasonHComposer
Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/jason-hodgson
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/JasonMusicallyMe (I’m working on changing this URL, but to do so I need at least 100 subscriber. Which is where you lovely readers can help by pressing the subscribe button).

– website coming soon –