Beating The Eardrum
Circuit Bending Festival Has Its Screeching Fans, But It's No Sonic Boom

By David Segal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 30, 2005; Page C01

NEW YORK The Homicidal Choir is not actually a choir, but the group sounds like murder and it will put you in the mood to kill. There aren't many noises in the world as chaotic and as grating as the noise made by this duo on Thursday night, at the second annual Circuit Bending Festival in progress through today.

For 10 minutes, the two members of the choir -- known by the stage names Nobody and T-Bone -- whip up a plague for the ears made almost exclusively with a pair of children's toys. Nobody -- who for some reason wore a hockey goalie's mask for half the show -- plays a kiddie guitar, the sort of starter instrument that is supposed to make mellow synthesizer tones when you press its buttons. But this instrument's mellow days are behind it. Nobody had rewired it to make menacing blips and random gurgles. T-Bone has done something similar to her kiddie drum machine. Together the two make a cacophony that in most places would clear the room.

Peter Edwards with a Speak & Math and other toys whose wiring he's modified to produce the "musical" squeaks and squawks sought by "circuit benders," who are holding their annual festival in New York. (By Helayne Seidman For The Washington Post)

But everybody here at a run-down performing-arts space called the Tank, in a soon-to-be-bulldozed part of far West 42nd Street, stays put. Even odder, they cheer. Fans of "circuit bending" aren't interested in hummable melodies or danceable beats. On this night they are not disappointed.

"Wow," murmurs one fan after the applause dies down. "That was tight." Tight, maybe. Bizarro for sure. Circuit bending started about 10 years ago when a geographically diverse group of basement tinkerers began to experiment with soldering guns and the cast-aside first-generation electronic Christmas gifts of their childhood. They discovered that if you pop the top off anything that has a simple circuit board and makes a sound -- an '80s-era talking doll, for instance -- you can hot-wire it and produce squawks that the manufacturer never had in mind, squawks that in some cases had never before been heard.

United by the Internet, circuit benders started sharing notes and trading pointers, and now they're a certified subculture. They tend to view themselves as outsiders, fed up by the hackneyed (to them) sounds that are emitted by conventional instruments. They also sneer at laptop computers, which are featured ever more prominently in electronica and hip-hop.

"It definitely has a defiant edge to it," says Peter Edwards, who says he makes a full-time living modifying such toys and, indeed, claims he can't keep up with demand. "It's become this new punk culture, a new do-it-yourself culture. But mostly it's people looking for unusual sounds."

Edwards started soon after he graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design, where he studied sculpture. After attending a live performance of circuit benders, he bought 30 Speak & Spells in an online auction for a total of $250. It turns out that the Speak & Spell -- which was made by Texas Instruments as a learning tool for children -- is gold to benders, beloved for its durability and its amazingly rich circuitry, not to mention the huge vocabulary stored in its chip. Though discontinued long ago, there are always a few for sale on eBay, many of them pitched directly to circuit benders in search of new hardware.

Which, by the way, is news to Texas Instruments.

"I can't find anyone who's ever heard of circuit benders here," Kim Quirk, a spokeswoman for the company, said yesterday. "We wish them the best of luck."

Edwards demonstrates his handiwork on a Speak & Math, a Texas Instruments gadget that was intended to teach arithmetic. It looks pretty much undoctored on the outside except that it has red buttons sticking out of the front and a series of silver switches attached to the sides. When Edwards turns it on, it begins babbling. When he flips those switches he can loop, distort and change the pitch of that babble. It isn't clear that he is "playing" the Speak & Math the way you play, for instance, a guitar, but he seems to control the sound a little.

"It's control within randomness," he says, as the voice of his Speak & Math twitches and drones in the background.

There are a handful of marquee musicians who own circuit-bent instruments -- among them, Tom Waits and Peter Gabriel -- but there isn't much risk that this phenomenon will go mainstream any time soon. Circuit benders are typically a few parts Moby and a few parts the Professor from "Gilligan's Island," without any of the former's appetite for commercial success. There are about 25 people in the crowd on Thursday night, nearly all of them men.

"We were joking before that these guys do this all for the chicks," Daniel Walker says.

Unbelievably, the Homicidal Choir is not the most difficult listening of Thursday night. That title goes to one Travis Fuller, who takes at least 10 years off the ear life of everyone in the Tank as he screams into a microphone wired through a contraption with a dozen different jacks and knobs on top. It sounds like a poodle being strangled, but much, much louder.

"This one's called 'Smile,' " he says, before he starts shouting again.

Joshua Hydeman is up next and he seems to want the prize for the Most Horrible Noise of the Night for himself. He nearly takes it, screaming through yet another obscure homemade thingamabob. He certainly comes up with the single most dada moment of the evening. He ends his set by peeling some kind of citrus fruit and rubbing it all over his face.

None of these people is playing songs, in the sense that a song has a chorus and lyrics, a beginning, middle and end. For the most part, the performers just make noise for about 10 minutes, then the noise subsides and when they say "thank you," you know the song is over. The pleasure for performer and fan alike comes from the textures of the noise, the idea of it as a landscape that has never been experienced before. It's all about sonic novelty. You get the sense, too, that these circuit benders just like to freak people out. T-Bone, for example, wears braids, which give her the look of a schoolgirl, until you notice the top of her head, which is shaved and vividly tattooed, like a Technicolor yarmulke. One can only think of her parents.

"It's kind of fun trying to bring this through customs," Nobody, who is actually 23-year-old Hector Castillo, says, talking about his modified "guitar" after the show. "The customs agents are, like, 'What is that for?' And I'm, like, 'It's to make noise.' And they're, like, 'What?' "

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- tom moody 5-01-2005 7:29 pm

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