Circuit bending is the art of creating new sounds and effects by manipulating the innards of low-voltage gadgets such as children's toys and cheap synthesizers. On its way from Los Angeles to New York City, the Bent Festival makes a pit stop this weekend in Minneapolis to celebrate this quirky art; events include live performances and demonstrations, art installations, and workshops for beginners as well as advanced enthusiasts. City Pages took a moment to chat with circuit-bending enthusiasts Bianca Pettis and Jacob Aaron Roske, who together make up the local sound art group Beatrix*JAR.
City Pages: So how did you get into circuit bending?
Jacob: I learned from Ryan Olcott [of 12 Rods and Mystery Palace] one Sunday afternoon about four years ago. I was instantly hooked because you don't have to have any technical skills or even know what you are doing. Circuit bending allows you to have an amazing sonic experience housing new sounds in an old machine with an on/off switch.
Bianca: I learned from JAR about three years ago. I really feel drawn to bending because it's so unique and I love the quality of the sounds that bending produces and the randomness and indeterminate nature of those sounds.
CP: So what's the learning curve for circuit benders?
BP: There is no curve at all. Anyone can bend—new, young or old!
JAR: You just have to have an open mind and be willing to explore the machine sonically.
BP: You also need to know how to solder—but that's really simple.
CP: Any tips for beginners?
BP: Keep an open mind is essential when you are bending.
JAR: And an open ear!
BP: People should also bring a sense of play.
JAR: Every machine has a different sonic pallet inside of it—different sounds that exist within it.
BP: We like to tell people they are sonic explorers during our workshops.
JAR: People should be willing to take apart their machines without feeling like they are going to break them.
BP: We always suggest that people start bending with second hand toys, they are inexpensive and they have already been discarded—and you can have your first bending experience on them and then move on to bending something of more value.
JAR: Like a more expensive drum machine or keyboard.
CP: Is there anything you keep an eye out for when raiding an old basement for toys, or checking out garage sales?
BP: We are big fans of Casio keyboards.
JAR: We like the SK series a lot and when we perform as Beatrix*JAR I play the Casio MT-540.
BP: We also look for kids drum machines and quirky kids toys that have a lot of sound initially. Machines from the 80's are the best.
JAR: They usually have more sounds to bend.
CP: Any unusual places you'd recommend when looking for materials to experiment with?
JAR: We like to go to church rummage sales, estate sales, garage sales, and thrift stores.
BP: For bending materials we go to Ax Man Surplus and we order switches online. We don't go anywhere to unusual, I know there are other benders out there who go to more extremes to find machines than we do.
CP:What's the strangest thing you've used to create a sound?
JAR: I induce and manipulate AM radio frequencies with a disposable flash camera. I charge the camera in close proximity to the radio and it creates an electronic cat purr/sonic explosion mixed with the AM signal.
BP: The Musical Animal Playground! It makes different animal sounds like a cat and frog, and with the bends triggered it sounds amazing! JAR bent it about two years ago and I used its samples for one of our songs, "Oral Fixation."
CP: What inspires you when you're doing this? It sounds like play.
JAR: I am inspired by discarded and unwanted sounds, and feel really fortunate to re-present them in an original way. There is a real surplus of discarded machines and sound-making devices.
BP: I'm inspired by having a nonmusical childhood. I was turned off as a kid trying to learn music—the guitar, the keyboard. My music lessons never really sunk in, so I settled on being a music connoisseur. It's really cool now to be an adult and to see technology advance in such a way that people like me can make music. I can work from an emotional and intuitive place as a sound artist as opposed to a technical place that a musician might be in.
JAR: We're also inspired by the sameness of music. We feel really inspired to color outside of that box. We want to create something original and inspire others to think in this way.
CP: Would you say that the Twin Cities is a big town for circuit bending? Are there any local events/locations that are hot spots? Would you say that the phenomena (as well as the festival) has grown since you started?
BP: This is the fourth year of the festival. It's very cool that it's traveling around this year. It will be in New York, Minneapolis and Los Angeles.
JAR: But there are bigger cities with more interconnected benders.
BP: I think that's why we started doing circuit bending workshops and that is why we are so excited about the festival. We feel compelled to inspire new benders and new sound artists so there will be even more interesting music in the world.
JAR: I think the phenomenon grows every minute.
BP: Let's hope it bends the radio airwaves—and the way we listen to music.
$24 for a three-day pass. For info, visit www.bentfestival.org.