Recap: Notes on Circuit Benders' Ball 2014


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One of Tim Kaisers homemade music boxes
The third installment of Nashville's Circuit Benders' Ball, held Friday through Sunday at Fort Houston, was remarkably like an old-school folk festival in the best possible way. Part science fair, part marathon showcase concert, this biennial event was all about sharing and spreading ideas. Instead of passing on old traditions, guests and participants sampled new or lesser-known ideas about performing music (or what even constitutes music), and took the opportunity to learn about them firsthand from the practitioners, lining up after every set to ask "How did you do that?" Or, just as often, "What did you just do?"

Frequently, the performers improvised, and there was often a visual component, whether projected video, interpretive dance or smashing equipment as part of the show. Ranging from glitches to drones and pulling in a little bit of everything in between, the music wasn't necessarily something you'd put on to relax on a Sunday afternoon, though some of it was quite pleasant. Methods of making sound ran the gamut from tweaking electronic toys to rearranging blocks of data from digital pictures, with all of them united by the common desire to tear down the walls that technology can build between the performer and his or her instrument, to make music a more active experience for everyone involved. I got to visit on Friday and Saturday. I've posted some photos and observations after the jump.

CBB Standardization panel (L to R): Josh Gumiela, Oliver Dodd, Brendan Byrne, Devin Bell
  • Stephen Trageser
  • CBB Standardization panel (L to R): Josh Gumiela, Oliver Dodd, Brendan Byrne, Devin Bell

Fort Houston, Music City's premiere "makerspace," was the perfect location for the weekend symposium, putting music-making, discussions and hands-on workshops in the middle of a bustling hive of creative activity. Fort Houston members were still wrapping up for the day when the Ball kicked off on Friday afternoon, so Tony Youngblood and his team of organizers took advantage of the nice weather and set us up outside. The discussion "Towards a Circuit Bending Standardization" raised more questions than it answered, but that's a good thing. The main idea: Wouldn't it be nice if there was a master library of all the useful tricks that others have taught their instruments? That way, you could have some idea of what to look for when you're getting ready to crack open your own toy, keyboard or drum machine, and some kind of standardized interface would make it easier to get instruments to communicate with each other, much as the MIDI spec did for synthesizers in the 1980s. At the same time, finding unique and useful bends is part of the art of circuit bending, so there are an equal number of reasons to avoid standardization. Moderated by audiovisual artist Josh Gumiela, perspectives were offered by Oliver Dodd of Enclave Cases (aka Carl Oliver), instrument design wizard Brendan Byrne and electronic performer Devin Bell, who's currently working on a design for a cheap semi-universal instrument interface.

Brady Sharp

A little later, the night's performances kicked off with glitch-enhanced performance art sets from Stan Richardson, aka Skoolgirl, and Maddy Madeira, aka Graphic Tease, and a set for prepared trumpet and effects by Cincinnati's Jonathan Hancock, aka Electric Inertia. Paul Horton, performing as The Tree Is Base, used a looper to build up jazzy compositions which he then deconstructed with a variety of homemade gear. As one of 8 million guitarists in Nashville, I was particularly impressed with all the things Brady Sharp (above) did with his. He performed a set for prepared Stratocaster and Pure Data, an predecessor to the extremely powerful software suite Max/MSP. Later, he explained that he'd learned the ins and outs of the program, known for its steep learning curve, by watching courses taught by Miller Puckette, one of the program's creators, and doing the homework in his spare time. Also note the neat projection display: Meltface Video Destruction's Devin Lamp came up with a way to split a color image across multiple projectors, and arranged them so that when a performer casts a shadow, other color mixes happen inside.

Jeff Boynton explains his rig.

Oliver Dodd did a great improv set using one of his Eurorack modular synthesizers, housed in a case that he built himself; inside 15 minutes, he had me convinced that we were fighting dragons in space, so I can't wait for him to do another eight-hour improv like he did for the Art Crawl at Track One back in March. Brendan Byrne performed a couple of minimalist pieces on a hand-built modular synthesizer controlled by a glowing LED cube, followed by a noise piece on a bass guitar that he'd turned into a software controller. Closing out Friday night, Jeff Boynton (above) came all the way from Los Angeles with his substantial collection of circuit-bent gear. In addition to a short set of Circuitry and Poetry with his wife Mona, he demonstrated a special kind of signal splitter he calls The Bento Box, which he used to feed a control signal to several of them simultaneously, pulled from performances of live drummers he'd recorded at home.

Testing the Hex-Schmitt trigger oscillator. I didnt kill mine!

I really enjoyed the Intro to Circuit Bending workshop at the 2012 Ball, and so I was excited to go one step further this time. I signed up to learn how to build a Hex-Schmitt Trigger Oscillator with Christopher Lavery, a member of Noise Furniture and a professor at Murray State University in Kentucky. An oscillator like the circuit we put together is the first tiny building block of a synthesizer, the bit that generates the sound that the rest of the contraption is shaping. The circuit we built, from the textbook Handmade Electronic Music (search for a PDF of that, and you can easily find a free copy of the first edition), is constantly spitting out a signal, and the pitch of the sound is controlled by a simple potentiometer rather than a keyboard. It's not a mini-Minimoog by any stretch of the imagination, but it is a gateway drug: It's cheap and easy to build, and you start thinking of ways to expand on it as soon as you finish it. Lavery showed us a contraption he built with two of the little guys controlled by the thumb-stick harvested from a dead video game controller.

Cher Von performs with the circuit jam

Performances kicked off again around 7 p.m., including artists (local Mike Hester and Benjamin Berg of Indianapolis, aka stAllio!) who use software to reinterpret all kinds of computer files as audio. Chicago's Garland Villanova created a glitchy soundscape reinterpreted by a couple of dancers, who also joined Christopher Lavery for an improv set that included an LP of Stravinsky's Rites of Spring and a piezo mic eaten by a box fan. One of the highlights of my weekend was Louisville's Cher Von, who sang and looped her own vocals as part of a circuit jam featuring Bowling Green chiptune ambassador and Datathrash Recordings founder Arnie Holder, Stanford University Ph. D candidate and programmer Kurt Werner and Dustin Yesh, an attendee who volunteered. Von told me her vocal style is a thing all her own, influenced by Vietnamese prayer chants and vocal music from Uganda. Though the players were improvising off the cuff, and one of them didn't even come here to perform at all, they showed an impressive and extremely satisfying intuition for working together.

Tim Kaisers mobile sound lab

There was a mind-bending A/V set by longtime circuit-bending partners Pimpdaddysupreme and Matt the PM, performing as Workshoppe Radio-Phonik. Hadals gave us an awesome monster-truck rally of a set that included destroying some tape recorders and giant homemade gloves with contact mics inside. The main event was the glorious return of master maker Tim Kaiser, whose devices frequently have as much of a mechanical component as an electronic one. For over half an hour, he manipulated a fascinating, ever-shifting drone elicited from homemade music boxes, hand-built stringed instruments, and a set of tuned fence-post caps wired for sound, as well as electronic tone generators and an electronic prayer box similar to the ones that inspired the guys at FMIII. Like the other participants, Kaiser was generous with his time and happy to answer questions about how he built his gear and how it worked.

Besides capping off an enjoyable evening, it was a nice reminder of why we were here in the first place: crossing the artificial divisions between all kinds of art, making connections with others, answering questions, asking new ones, getting even more curious. The next Circuit Benders' Ball is two years away, but with another Mini-Maker Faire likely to happen this fall and more experimental music shows appearing on the calendar, I have NO IDEA what to expect next — and that gets me pretty excited.


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