The Folk Music of Chance Electronics: Circuit-bending the Modern Coconut

By Qubais Reed Ghazala

School age Ghazala

They began testing me in grade school. Special tests. What's-wrong-with-Reed?-tests. To take them I'd be called out of the class right in the middle of the day's lesson. Why does Reed look out the window all the time? And what are those things he draws? Those Or ...whatever they are. What is he drawing?


I was expected to follow the course of my parents - Masters degrees in this and that, graduating with honors and so on. I did try. But I was bored. Very, very bored.

It was, perhaps, in third or fourth grade that I was summoned to the front of the class. Instead of being glued to the blackboard, as was expected of educable students born in the 1950's, I'd been spotted head-down at work with my pencil. "And bring that!" my teacher scolded, pointing at the drawing I was about to leave behind.

Drawing in hand I approached the teacher's desk. The class around me was hushed. "Give me that!" she demanded, taking my drawing and staring at the jumble of lines.

The confusion on her face was obvious to everyone - this was not the rocket ship or cartoon she expected. A couple giggles broke out from the kids behind me. "What is this?!" she said sternly, flustered, and barely in control. I whispered, nearly ready to cry, "It's an endless maze."

I will tell you now what I should have told her then: I was bored. Instead I offered to demonstrate the maze. "Do you want to see?" I said, thinking I might get out of trouble if I explained things and certainly not realizing how much trouble I was about to set in motion.

Nodding a "yes", a slow yes, my teacher handed me the maze. I placed the maze on her heavy oaken desk, an invader next to her black books and purple mimeographed lessons, and reached into my pocket. The disapproval on my teacher's face worsened. My schoolmates, usually a noisy bunch, were dead-silent again because this was very strange. If called to the front of the class the determination was usually swift.

Leaving the nickel behind in my pocket I removed the remaining two cents of my "milk money" and held the pennies in my clenched fist above the maze... a maze that at that moment had no beginning or end, a piece of paper filled edge-to-edge with continuous maze, homogenous and without distinguishing feature. Just corridors twisting, overlapping here and there, crowding the paper as though pressed for space, all the while purposeless with embarkment and destination points unknown.

I dropped the two pennies on the maze and they spun. Pirouetting in my graphite jungle they finally settled to finish the maze, creating at the same moment a surreal map of my destiny.

"Now there are start and finish points," I explained, "and every time you drop the pennies you have a new maze." In my teacher's silence I ran the new maze with my eyes. "May I keep this for a few days?" she asked, her tone now very polite.

It was one of my best mazes, but I agreed and was dismissed to my seat. Through a sea of awed faces I sulked to my desk and, missing both the irony and prediction of this incident, began to plan the next maze, or some other page I'm sure, in my "problem student" dossier.

As mentioned, I was tested and counseled and encouraged and interviewed and on and on and on. Nonetheless, I've always looked at the world outside the school window as my fantastic personal laboratory, a stupendous learning environment all by itself. And it has always been to its flasks and lessons that I've felt most welcome, and within them most fulfilled.

Ghazala's childhood home and the house where bending was born

It is because of this, I suppose, that I fell down the rabbit hole. You see, this is just what happened. I was not guided toward it or pushed; I did not even know it was hidden there in my tall, spring grass. Not only did I fall down the rabbit hole by accident, I stumbled down on a moonless night and in it I found that special thing: the magnificent endless maze that brings me, this time, to you.

The starting point of this maze was a few years past my grade school experience. I was in junior high school, but only barely. The rabbit hole was in my bedroom charading as my wooden multi-drawered desk. In the main drawer was a magic lamp that I knew well, but had not rubbed correctly to meet the genie. It is rare, Aladdin might agree, to hear the genie before taking sight of, but this is how the oracle came to me - in abstract musical apparition.

What happened? In a rush to find a forgotten item for a lost-in-time project, and somewhere during the psychedelic 1966-7 "Summer of Love" era, I closed my desk drawer and the world changed. I'd fallen down the hole and I heard the genie call in oscillating waves luring me inside the lamp. Or was it the sirens of Ulysses, I might ponder now, drawing me again to dangerous shores?

In my drawer a small battery-powered amplifier's back had fallen off, exposing the circuit. It was shorting-out against something metal causing the circuit to act as an audio oscillator. In fact, the pitch was continuously sweeping upward to a peak, over and over again.

Ghazala's high school desk

Opening the drawer I discovered the amp, my genie lamp. I immediately thought: if this can happen by accident, what can happen by purpose? And if this can happen to an amp, not supposed to make a sound on its own, what might happen if you short-out circuits that already make a sound, like keyboards and radios and toys?


I was a penniless teenager. I'd heard a few synthesizers on recordings. But at fifteen years old and fundless, owning one was not in my near future. Here, though, in this shorted-out mini amp I had discovered a sound source within my means to explore synthesis and experimental music.

I soon modified the amplifier in numerous ways. Placing the circuit within a larger housing, I added rotary switches to the short circuit paths so I could run the new circuits through various resistors, capacitors, diodes, photo cells, and any other electronic component I could find. Potentiometers and push-buttons were added. I discovered places on the circuit that, if touched, would make the circuit howl: I then added body-contacts. Not knowing I was building patch bays I built patch bays. I even added a tiny spinning speaker system.

Re-creation of Ghazala's first circuit-bent instrument.

This instrument could synthesize all kinds of interesting sounds. Animals, insects, machinery, wind, thunder, and endless abstract, unrecognizable noises could be produced.

Turning the rotary switch sequenced these sounds and created rhythms of these unusual voices. Waving a hand over the photo cell gently swept the pitch and animated the sounds. If the body contacts were touched during any of this the voices could be pitch-shifted downward until nothing but clicks or upward until out of hearing range.

A chain of people could "play" each other's bodies using the body contacts. If you broke the chain with your partner, closing the chain again by holding hands, or stroking an arm, or kissing (or any way to vary the contact of flesh) would play the instrument.

No one had seen such a thing before at my high school. The box now had a couple dozen controls and a set of cables for the patch bay. There were chrome finger contacts, several dials, and speaker grille cloth cut from my orange plaid bedroom curtains.

Reed Ghazala, Gary Dumford, Vicki Mastranardo and cookie truck

Much would be lost were I not to note that these were wild times. I was fifteen years old by now, back in school after returning from a tumultuous trip to Laguna Beach and Haight-Asbury, a trip that ended up with half of our vagabond tribe (including me) in prison.

There were no serious charges. Vagrancy, plus "being in California as an out-of-state minor without written parental permission." Nothing less than a flown-in parent as chaperone would the State of California accept for our release, and only under the additional contingency we would be immediately escorted by said chaperone across state lines and out of California's hair.

Our cookie truck, ransacked by the Laguna Beach police, broke down shortly after we hit the road. In desperation a pick-up truck was quickly purchased from a gas station and in it we (plus a tarantula) all arrived back in Ohio just in time for high school to commence. Having lost my glasses body surfing in California I began that school season half-blind, squinting my way around in the bell-bottom & paisley dress code of the day.

At this point the circuit was housed within a small cedar box. Inside the hinged lid I had glued whole nuts, in the shell. These nuts, hard-shelled almonds and pecans, were used to hold the patch cords as it was always easy to wrap the cords, in one way or another, around the nuts to keep them at hand but out of the way. "YOU made this?" my electronics teacher stammered. We were making a table lamp out of a bowling pin in class.

Original instrument in cedar box; final configuration.

The circuit and I were a spectacle. Media stereotyping at that time denied members of the counter-culture mere consciousness let alone acuity. My instrument and I did not fit this popular myth. Again I was making my teachers uncomfortable. In fact, the circuit and I were often seen in school as a threat.

Truth be told, at home in my basement lab I was learning more about electronics, music and synthesis, than my high school could offer at any grade level. I learned endless valuable lessons as this first instrument was built and re-built over those early years, housed and re-housed into different enclosures. Further, as I began to chance-modify other sound circuits I became aware of what seemed to be a new world of music, intriguing and endless, just moment away.

I was exploring chance electronics. While simple, the process is explosive in startling audio output. Fantastic aleatoric music might result composed of either "real" instruments (samples) or layers of evolving indefinable sounds (new synthesis). When working with human or animal voice synthesizers new musical languages might appear. Perhaps less dramatic but no less intriguing are the original tone colors that might result, turning that $2 discarded keyboard into something you will gladly place in your studio.

How? You just do what my desk drawer did: you short things out.

Simply, cut a 12" piece of insulated multi-strand wire, strip a little insulation off each end and "tin" the ends with solder to make them solid and firm. With the circuit making a sound, you touch one end of the wire to a circuit point and the other end of the wire to another circuit point. If this results in an interesting sound you mark the circuit so you know where the ends of the wire were to create that new sound.

The act of circuit-bending.

Keeping one end of the wire stationary and on the initial spot, the other end of the wire, let's call it the traveling end, is touched to another arbitrary spot. If a new sound is created the circuit board is marked again. Once the circuit is searched in this way, if the searcher is not yet content with the found sounds, all starts again but with the stationary end of the wire on a new spot. The traveling end repeats its tour.

When satisfied with the collection of discovered circuit paths they are finally "hardwired" into place. This is done by wiring each new circuit through its own switch, a toggle switch that you mount on the instrument's case.

Using the switches you can now actuate the effects you discovered with the traveling wire. Plus, now you can combine the effects by turning several switches on at once. I should also note that once the tiny speaker is bypassed the new "line output" will usually produce fine frequency range and fidelity.

We've entered a world where music, in theory, circuit design and composition, no longer adheres to human presumption. Thus, great new sounds and musical realities can happen here as you sit with your out-of-theory instrument, your truly alien instrument, and listen to its metamorphosed output. After all, you now have an instrument that exists nowhere else in the universe and can present you with sounds no one else has yet heard.

Not that I don't appreciate the music lab's environs, even adore a good system or module. I do! And not that I'm uninspired with the results of the theory-true synthesizers I design from scratch, such as my Vox Insectas or human voice generators. Wonderful instruments! Appreciated as well are the complex polyphonic instruments I've built from kits or schematics adhering strictly to design (and music) as we know it. Still, I've personally found more truly new sounds to listen to, to ponder and work with by week's end, through chance electronics. "As we know it" ...changes.

Ghazala in home experimental music studio playing an English
Phonofiddle, mid 1980's


I am surrounded by instruments - every catastrophe in my house sounds musical. My total collection nears five hundred including many unusual instruments of the world, antique through modern. I'm fond of everything in the planet's instrumentarium (and play Chinese er hu as often as electronic instruments). It is because of this, perhaps, that I recognize the difference. Chance-wired instruments take you to a new place.

In struggling with this difference I've developed language to help people understand the technical process as well as the tenets of the art movement that has resulted (perhaps the first electronic art or art-object movement). This nomenclature was introduced, I felt, as a matter of necessity for my article series introducing my original discovery process to the readers of Bart Hopkin's Experimental Musical Instruments magazine. It was in 1992, in EMI, that I first published my term "circuit-bending".

Many new terms were to follow such as "living instrument", "the threshold of invention", "clear illogic", "BEAsape" and "immediate canvas", along with various instrument names now used to define the movement's emergence.

"Immediate canvas" is very important. Until now the presumed hurdles of electronic design have instilled a sense of apprehension in lay persons. Even without electrocuting one's self, a slow and tedious entry is expected within a stack of daunting, equation-bound texts. Circuit-bending changes all this as it transforms the circuit into a friendly and "immediate" canvas: like the painter's canvas, immediately there for anyone at all with brush in hand. Just walk up to it and paint.

One of the reasons the modern painter's canvas is immediate is because painters, today, rarely wildcraft their pigments. Stretch a canvas (if that!), squeeze tube, paint. That's pretty immediate.

Similarly, a parallel can be seen in circuit-bending's circuit board as canvas and ready-made pigments in the form of the traveling wire mentioned above. Just as personal understanding of the science of pigment is not as needed by painters today as it once was, upon circuit-bending's immediate canvas a similar thing now occurs: the science of the electron is no longer needed to advance the creative moment. Finally, with electronics, just walk up to it and paint.

The painting process here, circuit-bending's chance approach, is an act of "clear illogic". As opposed to fuzzy logic, a seeking of norm within chaos, clear illogic seeks chaos within the norm. It is through this chaos, a powerful creative force, that the instruments are allowed to behave beyond the theoretical intentions (and limitations) of the designer.

Let's place this concept on more familiar ground. Earthlings "musicalize" things. An instrument will be made from a coconut washed-up on the shore, eventually. The coconut could become the ball of a rattle (idiophone), or halved, the shell of a drum (membranophone). A hole could be poked and blown over (aerophone). The coconut might be used as a resonator for a stringed instrument (chordophone). It depends on how you see the coconut.


Our society's electronic discards, like coconuts fallen to the sea, collect at the high-tide lines of garage sales and flea markets, second-hand shops and garbage bins. Circuit-bending sees these circuits as the island native saw the coconut. These circuits are coconuts of our island. Adapt the coconut, adapt the circuit. Circuit-bending, seen as art, was inevitable.

I say inevitable due to a principle I call "the threshold of invention." This threshold exists as we encounter our leading edge of time. Because the modern moment occurs before us as though on a stage, and we, the audience, witness, there will be the possibility of a common reaction. Often this reaction is seen as a wave of invention. With discarded circuits on the stage and artists as audience the threshold of invention suggests that what I discovered back in 1960's was due.

Conceptually, a "living instrument" is somewhat more difficult. You and I are living instruments. We accept that our voice will change, become deeper over time, quieter in the end, and will some day fail. We accept that our friends and lovers will change as they age. However, can we accept this in our musical instruments?

The why and why not of this issue could fill pages with ink in excess and halls with people in argument. Let me just say that not all circuit-bent instruments are "living instruments." That is, instruments that are slowly burning themselves out faster than usual due to the bending process. The great majority of my own bent instruments are not living instruments (at least in this regard; it can easily be argued that all the instruments we know, acoustic and electronic, are living instruments). And none that I routinely offer to the public are.

Inverter, a living instrument

However, some bent instruments do age and sound different as time passes, as they consume their accelerated timeline. The instrument grows a little older, moves a little closer to early demise, every time you turn it on. Don't play it to save it? Play it to let it sing? Not your father's Farfisa, for sure.

Body-contacting was one of the very first things I found possible within the bending process. From the start I had the feeling that I was transformed in some way by body-contacting an instrument, myself becoming a part of the circuitry as surely as any capacitor soldered in place. I felt that a new, albeit temporary, creature was created when a musician played a body-contact instrument - in this moment when the electricity of both bodies intertwine, the same essential electricity that if denied would cause each body to die. I was changed and the circuit was changed, and I had trouble deciding where each of us began and ended. I simply concluded we were something new, and we were one.

Therefore, with the rush to discover and name new species so pressing in the circles of biology, cautiously I introduce the BEAsape (pronounced "be a", as in "be a sport"; "sape", rhymes with grape).

The Species Device, a BEAsape instrument

BEAsape, of course, is an acronym: BioElectronicAudiosapian. Instrument/animal, mutant or hybrid, both musically and zoologically the BEAsape pushes boundaries and is interesting to discuss

During my 35 years of experiment and design I've created countless circuit-bent instruments. A few of these instruments are now well-known within the circuit-bending movement.

Ghazala's first Incantor prototype made from the first Speak & Spell available to the public.

Best known is the circuit-bent Speak & Spell. Originally a spelling game, this series of human voice synthesizers was manufactured by Texas Instruments decades ago. While I immediately circuit-bent the first model released to the public,

I did not publish my work until many years later. It was in 1993, in EMI, that I introduced the Incantor (Incantor as in incantation - odd chants and streams of mystic-sounding vocalizations result from circuit-bending's rearrangement of the programs meant to construct speech).
I'll describe the primary circuit-bent functions of an Incantor as these will set an example of results not only found in Incantors, but many other bendable circuits as well.



Modern Incantor.

Through the standard techniques of circuit-bending I discovered six systems I routinely build into Incantors: looping, streaming, master pitch, body-contact vibrato, reset, and pilot lights for power and audio peak. Many more modifications are in my notes.



Musically, the most familiar territory on an Incantor is accessed through the looping system. Here, also, is where the bottomless pit is found, filled with more sound-forms than you'll ever have time to hear.

An Incantor looping system actually interfaces as two systems. The first initiates a sound loop when a push-button switch is pressed. Each time the button is pressed a new loop is set. In this way you can audition loops to find one you want to work with. Throwing a nearby toggle switch then locks this loop into play. The second part of the system is optical: loops are incremented forward into new forms as a hand is waved over the instrument.

In practice, the player starts the Incantor which, through the voice synthesis method of linear predictive coding, ties allophones together and begins to speak, somewhat fluently, in a human language. If, in mid-word, the looping function is actuated, instead of the sustained noise of vowel or consonant you might expect you suddenly find yourself listening to a sequence of varied sounds. These might be segments of speech, abstract unrecognizable sound, or both. They might be overtly musical, almost musical, or not musical at all - just faint hissing, perhaps, that rises in volume once in a while.

A full range of dynamics might evolve within a single loop ...tiny sounds, great sounds - surprising sounds of nameless instruments. If you push the button again you have a new loop, a completely new loop perhaps, and so on, forever.


The streaming system consists of three switches, each capable of rearranging the digital speech programs in various ways. Instead of looping, these switches transform the audio into endless streams of aleatoric music.


Any output can be tuned with the pitch dial over a very wide range, all the way down to deep sub-harmonics.


Similarly, the body contacts affect pitch though not to so great a degree. Touching the contacts decreases pitch only a little, but just right for real-time vibrato.

After having worked with numerous random and pseudo-random machines, written code and bent code and built complex, processor-controlled synthesizers to explore chance in music, I cannot deny the Incantor its simple elegance of interface and certainly not its stupendous, in fact fathomless, output. As chance music box the Incantor is a truly remarkable machine.

Briefly, I should touch on a few more key instruments.


Trigon Incantor.

The Trigon Incantor, another human voice synthesizer, increases the chance interface via the steel-balls: three large steel balls are rolled around on the pressure-sensitive stage to actuate the aleatoric responses.



Morpheums are deep BEAsape instruments combining animal cries with mechanical sounds, drastically pitch-shifted by means of the body-contacts: new voices result.

Pink Moon Aleatron

Aleatrons are circuit-bent keyboards (an entire book could be written on the fantastic output of circuit-bent digital keyboards; the new response, tonal as well as aleatoric, can be mind-boggling).

Examples of instruments I design entirely myself (and then circuit-bend) would be my Photon Clarinets, the Vox Insecta and Video Octavox.

Photon Clarinet in antique ice crusher case.

Hands are waved in space over the Photon Clarinet's dual sensors, like a theremin. While one sensor smoothly sweeps the pitch, like a theremin, the other steps the pitch through arbitrary scales presenting a very unusual voice system.


Vox Insecta in antique Stenograph machine.

The Vox Insecta is a complex insect voice synthesizer capable of reproducing, as well, choirs and orchestral textures. The Vox Insecta was used in its many modes on my threnody CD to musically set the tragedy of Hiroshima.


Video Octavox on antique television.

With the Video Octavox any video recording becomes the experimental music counterpart of the player piano roll: a program medium. Here the instrument's light sensors attach to the video screen activating a "string" section of violins, violas and cellos (filtered VCO's) as well as a built-in Photon Clarinet.


A visit to my web site will introduce dozens more instruments, sound files, and much descriptive text. There you'll find the Feylith and four-channel Dworkian Register, instruments meant to create a surround-sound environment for other instruments to perform within. You'll find the Particle Bay, another chance steel ball instrument, this time based on audio samples. You'll see the Sound Poem Tank (a phonics machine), the Audiowave Detonator (a sample smasher) and many, many more circuit-bent designs.

Despite the heterodoxy of these instruments, I prefer to not let bent-circuit musical composition become a thorny subject. I am satisfied with the realization that every sound, like every color, elicits an emotion. That is enough for me even when composing with aleatoric elements (though this subject is both fascinating and endless, being debated with me since I built my first instrument).

I suppose the greatest value I see in circuit-bending, beyond the new palette, is how the art encourages fresh musical thought. It is these two aspects, the art's sound and ideas, that have kept me at the bench and in the studio for decades.

Some artists gravitate to the art due to the anti-establishment aspects, a political stance setting themselves against the standard music industry (instrument manufacturers as well as music purveyors). While conscious of the political subterfuge such an art might engender, I, on the other hand, do not see this as either unusual or particularly important - it is how our machine works. Part again of the threshold of invention, an unstoppable force.

I should mention that in my exploration of "anti-theory" I do not abandon theory as many people presume. I only question it in the way that scientists always question prevailing concepts. I cannot think theory without anti-theory, a devil's advocate, alongside. Theory has been my friend for a very long time, true. But I've found it is not the only way to think, and clearly not the only way to create.

You will note I have refrained from dropping the names of colleagues. Rather than parallel and compare this art and its output to any known models, I, in teaching it as the entity that impressed me as a young artist, have chosen to model presentation similarly. I focus on the history of my original discovery process which was original in that, as noted, I was uninfluenced by outside teaching or example. I was too young, too isolated perhaps.

My aim, therefore, has been to welcome everyone by removing technical as well as academic hurdles as they were removed for me (14-year-olds rarely have college music labs to work in, classically the alternate and more usual birthplace of experimental music and instruments). However, for more specifics I will refer the reader to my 20-article series in EMI where I more closely detail the evolution of circuit-bending as well as its placement within the context and history of electronic and experimental music.

As to this odd art's influence, circuit-bending's instrumentarium is exploding world-wide. The internet will hit non-stop on various galleries and artists presenting their discoveries (when I launched my website in 2000 it was the only place online to see circuit-bent instruments; it was also the first online instructional site). Now hundreds of new instruments are being built, by chance, every day.

It is accepted that I have innumerable students. Millions I am told. The truth, however, is that they are not mine. They and I, in fact, have the same teacher - a mind-altering addictive art that reveals itself in examples of composition that, while too alien to recognize, aretoo musical to ignore.

The church where, in 1968, Ghazala's first instrument was destroyed by an enraged audience

Still, my course has not been smooth. At one low point in the late 1960's an audience tried its best to hospitalize me, my band, and destroy my first instrument. Undaunted, I continued to explore the art. I never feared for its place in the world. I was sure a space would evolve.

Transistors, now tribal, are chanting rhymes. A tempest of new song is swirling within these hidden camps. Circuit-benders are, in a sense, ethno-musicologists exploring villages ringing with electronic folk music, indigenous in this case to circuit and time rather than people and time. They feel as I have always felt and continue for the same reason: a sense that there is a rich new world of music at hand.

Standing next to my teacher in grade school, in trouble at her desk, was an incident that now reveals itself as a prophetic moment. Predictive in that I would continually find myself the "odd man out" in how I looked at things, trouble of one kind or another usually close at hand. Ironic in that following my own ideas and interests, while a hindrance in school, did bring its own reward in the end.

Mostly though, that moment in front of the class was keenly metaphoric in that my endless mazes of grade school were so like the maze of traces on the abandoned circuit boards I bend today. How like the two pennies dropped on the grade school drawing the two wire ends are, dropped onto the maze of circuitry to define start and finish! Further, how endless are the corridors in this new maze of hide-and-seek circuitry, in that nearly every audio circuit around us is an experimental musical instrument waiting to happen.


"This article is an expanded, early version of Ghazala's "The Folk Music of Chance Electronics, Circuit-Bending the Modern Coconut," that also appears in more concise form within "Music after David Tudor, Leonardo Music Journal Vol. 14., MIT Press."