From Reed's EMI article, The Dworkian
We cannot see behind our heads. But we can hear behind them...
I wonder if you've ever traveled to an environment where all the sounds
were foreign. Where even the wind sounded different as the familiar
air swept past. The example that comes to mind is that of a forest in
a distant land. A place with new animal and insect calls to hear, and
perhaps dry rattling leaves or high whistling cliffs to costume the
In such a spot, as I've succumb to on occasion, with the eyes closed
there is little to keep one on track as the mind takes extravagant leaps
in order to place what's being heard. Now, should a central voice become
framed within this sound space, and itself be of an exotic nature, there
comes into play a force of focus that seems to be almost desperate,
resolving the central voice as if it were catapulted forward by its
surroundings, a piece flung off of the surrealistic mass.
Part of this effect, it seems to me, comes from the listener being completely
surrounded by the unusual, hard-to-place sounds. In this environment
a person is transported to a new space. And so, it seems, is an instrument.
While the means of musical orchestration is a well-explored art, nearly
all examples set the instrument grouping right in front of an audience
that fully expects to find them there. That's all pretty strange for
critters that can hear behind their heads, isn't it?
Meant to address this idea of surround-sound art for surround sound-sensed-creatures,
the Dworkian Register is a four-channel instrument with which to create
and explore 360-degree sound fields. Abstract, surrealistic sound fields,
the type of which circuit-bending so easily produces.
The Dworkian Register is named after and inspired by John Dwork, a "natural"
circuit-bent instrument player. John is also a celebrated writer, publisher,
chef, overtone singer, flying disc champion, multi-media director (see
article's end), explorer, philosopher and practitioner of life in the
fullest... which in Johnny's case also finds him as a clergyman. John
holds the title of Rabbi Phun G Badillion of the several-thousand initiate-member
Phurst Church of Phun - "a theatrical/comedic "religion" honoring the
spirit of the Holy Phool archetype and practicing the Zen art of Crazy
Wisdom". Which is how I came to meet John since, like all good clergymen,
his duties include befuddlement. Circuit-bent instruments are now part
of the Phurst Church of Phun's high services and Phestivities.
During the construction of Johnny's first instruments, any incoming
call of his would be announced by means of, if not his own vocal eccentricities,
the small but outlandish voices of those tiny-speaker sample bank toys
seen everywhere now... cartoon sound effects, farcical voices and absurd
noises. After listening to these assorted phone messages, at times with
Johnny's voice mixed indistinguishably within the synthetic ones, I
became intrigued and began to pursue sources for these sound banks with
circuit-bending them in mind. Johnny's personality, shall we say, is
reflected further in the Dworkian Register's design ...but let's leave
some surprises for later.
Before I go on, I'd like to quell the suspicions that the Dworkian Register
is only a silly-sounding multi-channel toy, as nothing could be further
from the truth once the electronics are adjusted just a wee bit. As
is the usual case with circuit-bending, the nudge into anti-theory design
realities opens strange new doors.
Perhaps you've seen the children's books that come with an electronic,
pressure-sensitive sound strip at the right-hand side. This strip, contained
within a slim plastic housing, is printed with cartoon-like drawings
that depict characters or places out of the book's story. Pushing the
right picture at the indicated point within the text will result in
the triggering of an appropriate sampled sound, having waited all this
time for us to finally relieve it of its infallible sensibilities.
Four such story book strips make up the basis of the Dworkian Register.
Each one's signal is now delivered to a separate output jack on the
instrument's case, being that of a nicely styled old metal adding machine
known as the Comptometer. Every strip contains ten different sounds
giving the machine forty voices in all to work with. These strips are
sound- modified by circuit-bending in one way only: severe frequency
alteration by means of both body-contacts and master pitch dials.
In addition to a new pitch control and two brass body-contacts, each
of the four sample banks also has a new volume control, a new shut-off
switch for its tiny built-in speaker, plus a new envelope LED inside
its own Lucite cylinder chamber at the top of the instrument's housing.
These LEDs have their own switches as well. Being able to turn off speakers
and pilot lights when they're not desired saves power and can purify
Another body-contact effect was also discovered. The small brass knob
situated amidst the Lucite light pipes is connected to a transistor
lead of one of the four panels containing a nice assortment of rhythmic
percussion sounds. Touching this contact will cause any of its panel's
sounds to seamlessly repeat until released.
Resulting from these modified circuits are sounds that live far outside
their prior contexts. First of all, an important fact as noted many
times in these discussions, "toy" sample bank outputs often provide
a frequency range much wider that what the device's little speakers
can reproduce. Just feeding this signal into an amp will do wonders.
Then adding equalization and just a very slight touch of reverb to help
materialize their space can supply a sense of presence to these voices
that has them easily escape their "toy" entanglements.
When you take these sharpened voices, like a door creaking, water bubbling,
train track rhythm, person laughing, wild animal sounds of all kinds,
musical instrument noises, different spoken words, machines, insects,
atmosphere noises, all kinds of abstract "comic" sounds... when you
take these voices and begin to alter their speed with their circuit-bent
pitch controls, odd new meanings emerge. A lion's roar, sped up, becomes
an insect chirp. An insect chirp, slowed down, becomes a lion's roar.
But not the insects or lions we know about. Rather those in that distant
land, where we have to imagine what the sounds are all around us. And
all around us is the key...
The Dworkian Register, as noted, is a four-channel instrument. Its four
outputs are meant to be run into a mini-mixer also controlled by the
player. The mix is then routed into a four-channel sound system whose
speakers are situated to surround the audience. In this way these new,
wildly surrealistic voices can be panned throughout the listening space,
creating a distinct alien setting in which to support other instrument
performance, perhaps scattered about or moving throughout the area.
Low volume sounds, seemingly distant sounds, quiet background sounds
emanating from the surrounding speakers, can create a hypnotic field
to listen within. At very slow speeds voices can last for minutes, seemingly
drifting through space or hanging in the ethers. These voices can be
further animated by touching the respective bank's body-contacts inducing
sweeps, trills and such. A very nice effect is had through balancing
three similar of these slowed-down voices equally throughout the sound
field, giving the feeling of being in the midst of the habitat of some
native creature. And then, at random intervals, with the remaining sound
bank's pitch turned quite high, interjecting from it here and there
within the mix a few of the resultant quick, shrill little calls...
still distant, still unfamiliar, with an occasional cry or two mixed
closer at hand. Here is created a sonic environment that immediately
captures the listener, it being punctuated with a familiar, even natural
scheme of support and detail regardless of the unusual qualities of
Achieving a workable balance of sound is easy, having forty sounds spanning
a good frequency range to begin with even before expansion through the
pitch controls. Designing a repeatable series of very different sound
fields to set instrument groupings within is very possible, as you probably
Extending this theme of alternate realities further into the instrument
are its interfaces. A type of sonic surrealism comes into play while
activating the forty different sounds since their cartoon drawings have
been replaced with new artworks. From within my rubber art stamp collection
I chose forty images, many being reproductions of fineengravings. These
images were stamped, by means of masking in the "3-D" style, so as to
appear floating over each other. They were colored-in with blended color
pencil, this layout was then scanned into Photoshop to add the backgrounds,
and finally printed out, cut into strips of ten images each and placed
over the membrane switches that trigger the sounds. These strips are
the same dimensions as the originals with cartoon drawings and fit into
the housings in the same way. I've added clear plastic overlays for
What is the suggestion in pressing a picture of the moon and then hearing
a baby crying? Or the back-and-forth sound of a saw emanating from a
jellyfish? Who is the mooing mushroom calling? What amuses the giggling
oak leaf? I decided to allow this eventual matching to fall entirely
by chance, a visual extension of the misplaced voices now generated
by the machine. These four panels, along with their associated new pitch
and volume controls, are named after each panel's leading image: acorn,
eye, gingko and jellyfish.
Metallic purple-black, with hand-inked red control lettering under its
thick coats of clear gloss, the Dworkian Register sits orbited by the
chrome rim of its heavy bottom closure. This chrome is picked up in
the bases of the four Lucite rods at the top of the machine, each one
extending the ultra-bright light of the red hyper-LED housed beneath.
These LEDs are envelope pilots, one for each of the four sound banks.
With all four banks producing very slowed-down voices, the thick Lucite
rods shimmer with red light that animates the Register in a truly startling
though enchanting way. Three blue-violet LEDs also glow along; two within
frosted glass lenses as power indicators front and back, one hovering
above the instrument's images within a side-attached shade.
In pondering the reasoning behind classifying musical instruments by
sounding mechanism, or voice system, amidst all the worldwide variance
of design there becomes quickly evident a rigid desire for control suggestive
of an underlying but overpowering thought system. I wonder then what
the result of classifying instruments by thought system would be, and
what examples could be looked to as illustration. Maybe Cage's or Partch's
adapted or prepared instruments begin to point toward new thought systems,
although the apparent desire for traditional control ism still strong.
But what of the aleatoric, or chance, instrument? Here the musician
works with unforeseen spur-of-the-moment changes, allowing the instrument
to compose freely while applying controlling factors that often only
change the direction of chance elements produced. It is as though the
musician startles the instrument which then responds with new discourse.
Would this qualify as a new thought system in which to begin to understand
a new music? Or new instruments? Not yet? Then what of the chance instrument
that operates the other way around... startling the musician instead
of the musician startling it?
Across the front panel from the "Create" switch on the Dworkian Register,
which applies power to the instrument itself, is the "Confuse"n switch.
When this switch is flipped, the musician is immediately distracted,
thrown off better yet, by what then occurs along the entire front edge
of the Register. From within eleven small windows peer out eleven glass
animal eyes, all of different species and colors, all now flashing randomly
up at the player. Even without dimmed lighting the effect is disconcerting.
Enough, hopefully, for the musician to at some point be tripped down
a new path, already having become a bit dismayed by the fanciful sound
associations springing from the pictures at the fingertips.