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A Study of Electronic Music Counter-culture
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Circuit Bending
 
    Historical Overview
    Musical/Cultural Analysis
Circuit Bending
    Historical Overview
    Musical/Cultural Analysis
 
Circuit Bending
Historical Overview
The background concept of Circuit Bending goes back to early avant-garde composers such as John Cage and David Tudor. These composers pulled apart electronic devices and used them as musical instruments, even before them in 1915 Lee de Forest the inventor the vacuum-tube-based audion piano “wrote of the very weird and beautiful effects that could be obtained by touching parts of the circuitry” (Mirapaul, para.10, 2004). However it is Reed Ghazala (2005) who famously short-circuited a mini amp in his draw in 1967 that created a “flanged pitch…sweeping upward to a higher frequency, over and over again” (pg.8). From that moment he has been creating new instruments from old electronics and teaching people the world over, making him the titled ‘father’ of Circuit Bending.
    Ghazala only began to come into public attention in the last few years, in that time he has built up enough followers to create a new musical genre and culture. Ghazala’s fascination began in the 1970’s, as a 15 year old he could not afford a synthesizer, so he began making his own from cheap circuits (Ghazala, 2005). Many musicians, whether inspired by Ghazala or on their own path of discovery, began similar projects to make electronic music without expensive synthesisers. As Collins (2006) puts it, “Britains vibrant Bending scene has roots in the prevalence of toys as affordable, alternative noise makers among improvisers in the 1970’s” (pg.92). This excitement died down with the introduction if the integrated circuit and the computer in the 80’s until the re-emphasis of circuit bending as a anti-computer backlash in the late 90’s (Collins, 2006).
    This backlash was most probably led by the launch of Ghazala’s website anti-theory.com in which the process of circuit bending was described alongside many examples of Ghazala’s own work. This was picked up by many of the indie, anti-mainstream artists of the time, and they adapted ‘Circuit Bending’ to be used in a new context, as a compliment to dance or pop music. Many different artists have used Circuit Bent instruments; Nine Inch Nails, Autechre, Aphex Twin, Damon Albarn and the Flaming Lips (Circuitbenders, n.d). In recent years this has expanded to a festival in New York exclusively for Circuit Bent music entitled BENT. This festival started in 2004 to allow Circuit Benders to meet perform and attend workshops and try and further spread knowledge of this art form, Reed Ghazala is a regular guest speaker (BENT, 2006). This festival is helping promote this music to the world, however ‘pure’ Circuit Bent music has not had any major CD releases and seems destined to remain a live participatory art form.
 
Musical/Cultural Analysis
The musicality and culture of Circuit Bending is almost completely of its own. Firstly this analysis is of the pure form of Circuit Bending music and culture, and not its use within other genres. Bent instruments create electronic sounds, often randomly fluctuating in pitch or volume and embracing the sound of ‘glitches’ or noisy blasts.  This element of embracing errors is at the centre of Circuit Bending, it is about creating sounds that are not supposed to happen and not supposed to be heard (Gard, 2004). In terms of musicality, as with electronic art music, it is primarily concerned with timbre and takes little regard of pitch and rhythm in a classical sense. Ghazala (2005) explains that part of the composition process is the discovery of these sounds, and the actual bending is as important as the output work. He applies some philosophical theories to the art such as ‘chance electronics’. In a similar vein to Cage’s aleatoric music, the art of Bending is dependent on chance, when a person prepares to bend they have no idea of the final outcome. Bending involves randomly testing links between different parts of the circuit and listening to the sound.  The musical nature of Circuit Bending has more to do with the process than the resultant sound and is a genre of experimentation.
    The culture behind Circuit Bending owes a lot to Reed Ghazala and his writings. Ghazala (2005) is a very new age theoretical type. For example he describes in his book the art of turning a toy into a performance instrument through body contacts, that is, parts that can be touched to ‘play’ the circuit. He describes these instruments as BEA-sapes, Bio-Electrical Audio sapiens a proposed new species as you become a part of the circuit instrument (pg.16-17). This eclectic nature runs through all Ghazala’s writing and therefore attracts many ‘neo-hippies’. Quite often Circuit Benders are seen performing with long hair heads down in amongst the instrument they have built (Cementimental, 2005). Another side of the culture is the anarchistic chaos factor, the complete anti-music of noise. So Circuit Bending culture also touches the noise culture that is prevalent in Japan. In general the culture of Circuit Bending is alternative and eclectic, yet has a novelty and cuteness that opens it up to the world. Circuit Bending has a music and culture that is based on experimentation and anarchy, it has roots in electronic art movement and influences new age thinking, overall it is a stand-alone art form unlike any other.
 
Alex Yabsley (Dot.AY)
February 3rd, 2007