Reed Ghazala The Father Of Circuit Bending

- Joe Gavin (2006)




  Joe Gavin : Where do you live, state and city are fine?

Reed Ghazala : I live in a world of unseen magic and unknown fact; in a new Dark Ages of social repression and assaulted sciences. The less important answer would be: Cincinnati, Ohio. Sometimes. A town lost in misdirection, hoodwinked by the rich man’s lust for “big league sports,” a base focus jammed down the throats of the rest of us: Cincinnati is squandering its potential, the potential to be a colorful art-music-food-theatre city. Cincinnati has a vibrant art sub-culture. But, unfortunately, the city is, seemingly, unaware of its greater potential. Gambling & football spells a glum future, at least socially, for Cincinnatians. But keeping us all dumbed-down is important for the economy, right? Anyway – I live in Cincinnati, Ohio, sometimes. Also in the neighboring states. Much of the Midwest countryside is beautiful. I have several retreats. And I live in the woods when I can.

JG : What prompted you to start bending?

RG : My wrecked mini-amp, a nine-volt Radio Shack contraption, accidentally shorted-out in my desk drawer. The year was 1966 or ‘7. Bent sound is considered outrageous today. Imagine the power then, when synthesizers were barely known. I wanted more.

JG: How long have you been bending?

RG :Close to 40 years.

JG : What types of electronic instruments or gadgets are normally bent?

RG : The most-bent instrument in the world is the Speak & Spell, a talking toy made by TI in the 1970’s. It’s a fantastic bending target. I outline the construction of all 4 models in my book, Circuit-Bending, Build Your Own Alien Instruments, by Wiley and Sons. It’s one of their Extreme Tech series. The difference is, I wrote it not only for seasoned designers, but also for anyone at all interested in bending. No theory is needed. No knowledge of electronics. It’s probably the easiest introduction to electronic design to exist. I use pictorial diagrams rather than traditional schematic symbols. This turns people into designers, literally, overnight. All the needed skills are taught right there in the first chapters. Anyway, any battery-powered noise-making toy can be bent. But the Speaks are always prime.

JG : What was your first successful bend?

RG :That would be the mini-amp, back in the 1960’s. I designed three different instruments around that circuit. One was body-contact-only. Here people would hold the contacts while touching each other’s bare flesh to play the instrument. Now that was a lot of fun!

JG : What tips would you give anyone attempting to bend anything for the first time? Should they expect the instruments (or themselves) to be destroyed in the process?

RG : Circuits do fry sometimes. Go to my site ( and read the how-to. The entire bending movement started right there. Or get the book for a more detailed how-to, along with 20 projects outlined, step-by-step, to get there really fast. All it is is the creative short circuit. You just use a section of wire to bridge circuit points and listen to the result. If you like what you hear, solder the wire in place and solder a switch in the middle of the wire! Now you can turn the new sounds on and off at will. It gets deeper than that. And there are cautions. But that’s basically what’s up.

The chief caution is NEVER TRY TO BEND ANYTHING RUNNING ON HOUSE CURRENT – LIMIT EXPERIMENTS TO 6 VOLT OR LESS, BATTERY-POWERED CIRCUITS. I also wear eye protection and suggest all benders do the same. It’s never been an issue, but simple measures can go a long way at any tool-laden workbench.

JG : How does one find a bend on an instrument without much electronics experience or a schematic to help them along?

RG : Schematics aren’t needed to bend a circuit. Just simple experimentation. People go to thrift shops and buy 2-nd hand toy circuits really cheap. In essence, you use the bending probe as just mentioned. When you find a good, cool-sounding bend, you then run that new circuit through different components, like variable resistors, LEDs, all kinds of stuff. It might sound too hi-tech or complicated to the uninitiated. But it’s baby-simple. MIT has a program teaching little kids to bend. Truly, anyone can bend. And anyone can create an experimental instrument never before heard by anyone. A singular instrument existing nowhere else in the universe! And the sounds can be SO alien. It really is fascinating stuff.

JG : What was your most disastrous bend, did any good come of it?

RG : Oh, there haven’t been any real disasters. The most common pitfall is the circuit you’ve found a dozen great bends on that fries on the thirteenth bend. And that, after hours of work at the bench. But all arts have their pitfalls. Bending is cheap as long as you stick to 2-nd hand circuits. Benders learn to take fries in stride. Of course, you learn not to try THAT bend again.

JG : Are there any Holy Grail-type pieces you won't bend, if so what, and for what reasons?

RG : I didn’t bend my first SK-1 (though I did hack it – hacking is a know-how art whereas bending is a chance art). But as soon as I got another SK-1 I bent it immediately. Artists are shaman. This is important. Maybe more important than the sanctity one trespasses upon when eyeing a Holy Grail circuit!

JG : What effect do you think bending has had on musicians and the music they make?

RG : Bending opens new worlds of thought, sound and composition. Bending is extremely empowering. It’s been called the “missing link” in electronics and electronic music. Deep experimental music has been stripped of academic trappings and is now, thankfully, spilling out into the street, a much more alive and fertile environment. The thought process bending induces in beguiling! It’s addictive. Someone is bending a circuit, somewhere, every second of every day, all over the world now. The new musical language resulting is incredible in its diversity. Artists are grappling with bending’s new techniques, headspace and sounds, and a new instrumentarium is flourishing. Artists are thinking new thoughts, and that’s the seat of power.

JG : What would be the likelihood of you, or one of your peers (or anyone), developing a new instrument through bending, or building one from the ground up, that would become just as standard as a guitar or piano?

RG : But this has already happened! You’re distinguishing categories when you list an instrument. In the category of bending, the Incantor (Speak & X) is this instrument. Peter Gabriel got one of my first Incantors a long time ago. Sonic Boom took my advice to create Incantors and use them as on my Secret Garden music to tour with. Data Rape was the result. And the Incantor is, as said, the most popular bending target. If you’re asking me if a bent instrument will ever become as common as the guitar, this is a sociological quandary. Things are headed that way, but the common mind may not be ready for that leap. On the other hand, there are circles of brilliant minds where bent instruments are already more common, more popular, than guitars and pianos. That’s more important than bending becoming peanut butter to spread everywhere.

JG : Is bending destined to stay on the fringes of music, if so is that a good thing?

RG : What’s “good?” Bending is poised to be exploited, just the way all cool, earth-shattering things are absorbed and trashed by mainstream America. This is part of a principle I call the threshold of invention, an unstoppable force. But there will always be strong artists who operate immune to corporate bacteria.

JG : What are the advantages/disadvantages of bending being a fringe art?

RG : There’s a “secret society” aspect of fringe art. Some people like this. I’m more a scientist/explorer, and I feel I’m investigating a new species of being/instrument. So, for me, nothing will change, regardless of what anyone else does or thinks, fringe or not. And all the best artists I know are like this, regardless of their field. It’s when you try to push art, stylistically, toward a “popular” mold, that the fringe starts to shred. Usually the people who do this to art look at the art as secondary to their personal agenda not as artist, but rather as performer. Or retailer. Unlike performers and retailers, artists usually aren’t all that interested in making a name for themselves. Usually they’re too busy chasing/understanding//creating their art.

The best social aspect of bending is that it’s carried on the shoulders of very passionate, and often very brilliant, young artists. An art movement couldn’t ask for more! I think it might be possible for an art to stay fringe in sensibility, but still spread like wildfire.

JG : What would be the advantages/disadvantages of bending becoming mainstream?

RG : The advantage of any radical re-think becoming mainstream is that this is what progress is made of! Will people capitalize on it? They already have. Personally, I’d like to see a “BEND” button right next to the “MUTE” button on the remote. Bush and Cheney would be much more amusing that way.

JG : You've bent instruments for some mainstream artists, like Tom Waits and Peter Gabriel. Do they commission work from you, or do you offer pieces to them based on what they do musically?

RG : Both. I’m asked to do all kinds of special projects, some dependant more upon art than others. For example, a German stage director insisted I send Tom a back-up Photon Clarinet for his Alice in Wonderland performance in Hamburg. Why? The instrument was too weird to be trusted, and could not be written into the performance otherwise. German customs officials then delayed the shipment. I listed the package contents as “musical instrument.” But musical instruments aren’t supposed to have glass eyes, are they?

JG : What is the most satisfying part about bending for you, the process of finding new bends or showing off the finished product?

RG : What a question! In my recent writing for the Leonardo Music Journal (MIT Press), I was asked to provide dates of construction for the instruments appearing in the article. Some were not dated. I had to explain that I don’t think about signing or dating an instrument any sooner than I’d think of signing a box turtle I find crawling in the woods. These are creatures to me. I help them develop.

For client work I sign and date things. And I design finishing elements as will fill needs. But for myself, I design for the instrument, not me, if that makes sense at all. I’m helping alien creatures to exist, mainly. I enjoy presenting instruments, showing instruments to interested parties. But this is far secondary to the generative process.

Bending generally changes the aesthetic of an instrument by adding switches, knobs leavers, etc., do you stop there, or do you "bend" anything else, such as painting the instrument?

I bend everything in my world. Bending is the “Swiss Army Knife” of thought. But sure – I melt the plastic, bend paint chemistry, anything seen to take things where they need to be. I collect teeth, eyes, all kinds of sensors, and I’ll change housings in all sorts of ways to accommodate these additions. Just like you change as you grow and age. They change.

JG : Are there any instruments that you bend that you try as hard as possible to maintain the manufactures original aesthetic, i.e. not paint etc.?

RG : My feeling is that bending is a positive evolution. Some people consider bending to be a rape – an insane, sensationalist accusation and a total misunderstanding of the processes and results involved. Are you raped if you learn something? Learning is the structuring of new synapse. The new wiring of a bent circuit is the same thing. New wiring; new synapse. Learning a new language for us is seen as worthwhile. Not rape. So, this is a constructive, not destructive, force we’re dealing with. I try to also honor the original circuit by retaining its housing rather than re-housing it into another case. Painting, then, is seen as a way to further push the bent personality forward, part of the positive evolution at work.

JG : What effect do you think the art of bending and the instruments it produces would have on a small music scene like Richmond, Virginia?

RG : Very possibly, turn it upside down. Venues might be the determining factor. Open up a pure noise venue and watch what happens (bending can be either noise or delicate composition, but both need a place and audience declared to the pulse).

JG : What is your favorite bend?

RG : I’m a real fan of chance, or aleatoric, music. Incantors and Aleatrons (chance music keyboards) are at the top of my list. They’re magic music boxes, always ready to stream musical realities I’ve never heard before. Because these are such powerful bending targets, my book covers a bunch in detail. They’re many people’s favorite bends.

JG : What projects (books, albums, dvds are you currently working on?

RG : Tons of stuff. I’m designing new instruments and tools all the time.

I’m working four books. One will be the 20 EMI articles from the 1990’s, the articles that started the bending revolution, tuned-up and re-illustrated. Another is on incense: history, suppliers, and making your own (I’m an incense and resin researcher). Another is an autobiography. And the last is only a sketch right now… a highly-illustrated compendium of my various arts, texts, visuals and music (DVD included).

I’m working on re-releasing a lot of my cassette titles from the 1980’s, but now on CD. Lots of rarely-heard bent and experimental music there. You can see my online discography for this catalog.

I hope to have my films available on DVD soon as well, an on-going project.

My most interesting project right now is the re-release (with new, added material) of my Secret Garden recording (the planet’s first Incantor music). We’re doing this as a two-LP set on white vinyl, art by Samantha Mindrum-Logan. The piece centers upon ten “magic” plants of world history.

JG : Is there anything you haven't bent yet that you are itching to get your hands on?\

RG : Yes, but the White House won’t let me get anywhere near their national policy meetings.

Finally, I employ the use of bending in my own music. I have a Vss-30, and I've finally decided to let a friend do a patch cable bend on it, only after hearing his though (it sounds fucking amazing). Some friends say I'm crazy, I say crazy like a fox. What say you?

What say me? The more the merrier!

Ghazala’s book, Circuit-Bending, Build Your Own Alien Instruments, is available everywhere books are sold, including Amazon and Barns & Noble.