by The Spin
Science was never a strong suit for The Spin — words always came easier than numbers. But ever since we were tiny tots, watching our parents make music come out of a radio by pressing its buttons, we understood that boxes covered in knobs and blinking lights could be used to bring ideas to singing, dancing life. Accordingly, we were stoked to hear that the Circuit Benders' Ball would be returning to Nashville — not only had founder Tony Youngblood planned a full night featuring discarded technology recycled to make new music, but also an entire day of workshops designed to provide hands-on experience with making the instruments. Finally, we hoped, we could tinker with something electronic and come away with more than a fancy paperweight. We only had time for one of the three workshops, so we chose the most logical: Intro to Circuit Bending. Noting the instruction to bring your own toy, we snagged a $2 keyboard from the thrift store and strolled to Brick Factory.
When we entered, the classroom was nearly full of students of all ages, busily cracking open talking toys of one sort or another. The bright and high-ceilinged Brick Factory now resembled a mad scientist's laboratory, bubbling over with all of the tools and components needed to turn abandoned toys into two-headed musical monsters. Leading the workshop were Patrick McCarthy and Tommy Stephenson, Chicago natives who perform and lecture as Roth Mobot. Stephenson has over 20 years of circuit-bending experience, and McCarthy is a teacher and public lecturer on science and technology by day. Rather than bombard us with all of the technical information behind sophisticated circuits, they gave us the basics necessary to find the "sweet spots" in our toy's guts and start exploring possibilities for modification right away. They also gave us some important precautions — never try to bend circuits in something that plugs into the wall, for example.
We started probing around, and within minutes, every project in the room was singing like a bird on cough medicine — even the pre-teen participants were able to teach their old toys new tricks. We ended up making another paperweight, but we gained valuable experience that we can use to approach any toy we find interesting. Even more important, it didn't feel like a lecture. It was fun, and something we definitely want to try again. After a chow break, we found the room already filling up. A ladder had appeared, repurposed as a multi-level stand housing two projectors, a computer, and a camera. To shorten the walking distance between the two stages, homemade slides marked "input" and "output" had appeared in the windows at the back of the room. We had a minute to peruse the merch table before the show began; it's not often we see contact microphones and pocket electronic test kits laid out with the rest of the merch.
The calm and organized crew seemed ready to take on any challenges presented by the large and diverse bill. We counted 12 acts scheduled over a five-hour block, showcasing a broad range of DIY musical experiments. Some, like solo performer Posttaste and duo Pineapple Explode, used circuit-bent toys as part of a performance with traditional instruments, though neither of their performances was exactly traditional: The former performed intricate drum parts over a pulsing drone emanating from his toys, and the latter presented fractured pop songs on the banjo punctuated by blasts from bent gear. Other performers, like Elegant Bassterds and Brain Lesion, created slowly morphing (and sometimes disturbing) soundscapes with an array of homemade synthesizers and effects boxes. Though their instruments are purpose-built rather than repurposed, they fit directly with the spirit and aesthetic of the event.
Other performances served as both technique demonstration and standalone art. Though it took a while to get going, the presentation by Kelli Shay Hix, Josh Gumiela and Lucas McCallister was worth the wait. They used a video feed to control a synthesizer; manipulating a lit candle, a shiny jewel box, and other objects on a white board on the floor made both subtle and dramatic changes to the sound. Shortly thereafter, Teletron Orchestra demonstrated a toy mod conceived by Apples in Stereo frontman Robert Schneider. The Mattel Mindflex toy already transmits brainwave intensity readings to a base that turns them into electronic control signals; with just a few wire snips and a little solder, it becomes a device capable of controlling a synth with your brain. Two volunteers from the audience put on the Mindflex's Tron-esque headbands and read from a binder of prompts, and their brains controlling the TO's Minimoog created a spectacle that elegantly merged science and art.
Master DJ Pimpdaddysupreme delivered an impressive set featuring both his turntable skills and his circuit-bent gear. With his co-conspirator Matt the PM supplying live video mixing, PDS dropped 15 minutes of mind-bending mayhem that had to be seen to be believed, starting by using a mic mounted in a doll's mouth to amplify his toys (including a keyboard with a tongue controller), and ending with a 45 manipulated to sound like it was recorded on taffy.
Then, it was time for Roth Mobot. They had pre-assembled their rig on two large folding tables, featuring about two dozen modified toys, and they presented the closest things we'd heard to a pop song all night. Some pieces featured a rhythmic base generated by percussive sounds, while others rode on waves of evolving drones. Some even had lyrics, delivered by talking toys bent to do the Mobot's bidding. All told, it was mesmerizing to watch and hear, and exemplified the key points of the night: Everything electronic has a rhythm and a pitch. It may not make sense on its own, but with a little practice and elbow grease, you can translate it and put it to work for your own artistic purposes. Every piece of gear has its own quirks, but that results in everyone who digs inside getting something unique from it.
One major improvement we might suggest would be expanding the event to two days — we were pretty worn by the end of Roth Mobot's set, and though there were several acts left, we had to bolt. Maybe it was the sustained glee of spending all day up to our eyes in things that blink and beep, maybe it was folding ourselves up to fit on the slide so many times. Regardless, the event was a blast, and we can't wait for next year.