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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Masters Project: 1. Introduction

This is an introduction to the post series which focuses on my main compositional project for my Masters.

For roughly the next 18 months, I will be studying my Master of Music at Canterbury Christ Church University, with a focus on Composition.

My aim for my Main Project as it stands at this point in time, is to create and develop an installation which gives the majority of compositional decisions to the audience (or users… this term may change). This installation will use and utilise an eclectic mixture of electronic devices, whilst allowing for a variation to the level of control given to the audience.

My initial reason behind doing this project, is not one that I could justifiably say was academic…. (apologies to my personal tutor Alistair Zaldua)…. I want people  (non-musicians) to be able to get stuck in, and be able to explore the more experimental side of music, without the fear that comes with attending a normal or more traditionally presented concert or performance.

Overall, this comes out of an impression that I get about a lot of experimental music, and the lack of accessibility for non-musicians. I have found that the way most of these experimental pieces are presented to the public beyond academia can come across as being very cold, very dry, and highly academic.   This can be off-putting for those not used to the format, traditions, and more technical aspects that come with the art. It can also come across that if you don’t understand the music, or even appreciate its finer aspects, then you are lower than those who do.  I have yet to hear this said explicitly, nevertheless it certainly feels that way to some, including myself. In addition, where and how these pieces are presented can also have an affect on its perception by an audience. For example, conferences, though open to the public, the audience that attend tend to be those already interested in the style or discussions that are being presented. And new audiences whose main focus in life is not to search for ‘new’ music may miss opportunities to widen their knowledge and to experience new world that they may have not been previously aware of.

Therefore, when it comes to my projects, I try to think about how I could present my work to those who are not accustomed to the strange sounds that can occur in such an experimental world. I also try to look at how music that has already been successful in this, and which have unusual (or non-traditional) elements have been presented, and represented successfully to a wider audience outside of the academic world. I hope to help progress this further. This does not mean I can guarantee that I will be successful in doing this myself, but an exploration is needed. In addition, this way of thinking about presenting new works to a wider audience does not mean “dumbing down” the end work, but instead looking at how these works are represented to the wider community.

In the past I haven’t always achieved this successfully, and even I will admit that sometimes I do enjoy the odd piece that explores a technique in a purely academic and explorative fashion. But I do feel that new music needs to also be for the wider community, not just for the academic musicologists in their ivory towers.

In fact, last year I put on a concert with pieces from the my three years of studying my Bachelors, to test out one idea about how to present my work outside of academia. (You can read it here: https://jasonhodgsoncomposer.wordpress.com/2017/01/31/inside-the-machine-concert-part-1-language-is-a-fictious-fact/

I do have a list of devices I would like to use in this piece already, however I will not write it on here for the moment. This is for one reason and one reason only: it will change, and probably drastically over the coming months. What I can tell you is that they spread throughout the past century.

The style of these posts will be one of documenting the processes throughout the development of the project, as well as discussing about how each part fits in both my end  installation, and its context within other realms of art and music. Most of the time this will focus on the positive, but I will also talk about the difficulties, (and frustrations), I discover along the way. The posts may also be accompanied by videos, photos, and audio clips. I may also discuss how particular parts of the project fit into my wider studies.

In addition, nearer the end of project there will be shameless plugging of the final event, and possibly beta-tests prior to this.

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That is all for this post. There is much more to say about my project, and I have even started on one and a half parts. Keep an eye out, and don’t forget to like my Facebook Page where you will see shorter and quicker updates. They is also twitter account in the works. It’s a-go here.

– Jason Hodgson (27th January 2017)