From Reed's EMI article, The Dworkian Register:

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 breeze.

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 voices.

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 the sounds.

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 can imagine.

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 protection.

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.


Prices will range from $2,000 to $4,500.
A Dworkian Register of the complexity shown would cost $3,500 plus shipping.

POB 20181
Cincinnati, OH 45220