Cameron Macdonald of XLR8R magazine interviewed Reed Ghazala while
researching the article "Accidents Should Happen" for the November 2003
cover story. Here's the interview including insight into BEAsapes,
glitch, alien instruments and circuit-bending's place in electronic
music. Links to XLR8R and Cameron are below.
-First off, what are you building for the Stones?
Few people know that Keith Richards digs experimental music. He and Tom
Waits, who owns a bunch of my bent designs, jam on cow fences and so on.
Keith's getting an Aleatron. That's a keyboard circuit-bent to produce
chance, or aleatoric, music. Very, very cool things happening here.
Chance music via circuit-bending is fascinating. It's outrageous and, at
times, even exquisite. It's our first true alien terrain to explore - an
environment very foreign to us, not of our intention and not the
environment of our upbringing. The saucer HAS landed; music is its
It's said that flying saucers have buzzed Jagger numerous times over the
years. An alien instrument for Mick seems long overdue. Mick will be
getting my chief alien music engine for vocalists: an Incantor. That's a
circuit-bent Speak & Spell, or in this case a Speak&Read, its ROM loaded
with lots of human speech sounds for circuit-bending to transform into
alien musical song-language.
Here, again, the program routines are rearranged by the creative
short-circuit into new musical, and oddly vocal, compositions.
Too, with Incantors you have an endless source of strange new music
forms to explore within the looping function as phrases of abstract
vocal/music sounds are repeated. Unusual meters are expressed in odd
musical arrangements here, a new one each time the circuit-bending loop
button is pressed.
It's like an alien music box but with a library of songs you'll never
get to hear all of... there are just too many possibilities. This
comforts me and makes me smile. The bent Speak&Read produces a lot of
vocal aberrations. I think Mick will find it interesting.
I was a rock drummer in 1968, the Stones being one of the bands we
covered and that I learned to play drums to. My wooden Ludwig drum set
was finished in "pink champagne sparkle". The Stone's Aleatron &
Incantor instruments will be a matching set - in pink champagne sparkle.
-How long have you practiced Circuit-bending?
Since the mid/late '60's. It was over 1966-67 that I
discovered the art and developed that first circuit into my first bent
instrument, the Odor Box. A 9-volt transistor amp shorted-out in my desk
drawer making all kinds of interesting sounds (see it in the prototype
gallery online at anti-theory.com). I thought - if this can happen by
accident, what can happen by purpose? I've been circuit-bending ever
since, non-stop, thirty-six years.
Two things very important to the art happened over this period. First, I
was invited by Bart Hopkin to write for his wonderful magazine,
Experimental Musical Instruments. It was in EMI, in 1992, that I first
published my term "circuit-bending". Twenty articles were written in EMI
over six years, the last in 1997 (EMI's last issue). It was this series
of articles on bending that brought my research out into the light for a
The second big event, circuit-bending having become a kind of secret
music science by then, was the turn-of-the-millennia launch of our
anti-theory.com website. It was preceded by a simple instrument gallery
within a prior domain along with a couple sites publishing my EMI
article on how to bend the Casio SK-1 (the first SK-1 bending guide
around; it's spawned a plethora of bent SK-1's since - find it at
windworld.com). But the launching of anti-theory.com, with tons of
instrument images and text about the art, the first bent instrument
gallery and the first how-to-bend instructions online, blew the lid off.
While EMI had a strong & significant international readership, the web
gave access to zillions more people and most bending projects can be
traced to the anti-theory site one way or another. All the other bent
sites were to follow, and quite swiftly as people wanted to either
promote the art or simply cash-in on it (bending seems to have created
the king of all cottage industries).
Circuit-bending became a wildfire art out of this exposure ...but not
due to this. It's hot due to things intrinsic to the art itself. What is
says about music. The intrigue of the sounds themselves. The
demystifying and ease of electronic design. The political and cultural
aspects. Even the tantalizing search through which bending is
accomplished. All this is exciting.
-Key inspiration for C-bending?
The sounds. While the search is really fun, and feels like digging in a
gold mine, it's the unusual musical nature of bent instruments that
still drives me on.
Imagine me, a penniless teenager in the 1960's, drooling over Silver
Apples' Simeon and the early Moog sounds, the Columbia-Princeton
mega-synths too, knowing these things were way cool but way outside my
reach. Then I short a toy amp and these sounds, even wilder, are
immediately at my fingertips. I was just astounded.
As time passed I got ahold of Moogs and all kinds of nice synths,
normalized and patch, and even built an early computer-controlled
polyphonic keyboard: voltage controlled modules patched together but
under the control of a programmable processor, to experiment with codes
to create chance music. A kit, the PAIA P4700-J was very nice,
especially with programs bent a little. But through it all, it's
circuit-bending that provided me with the most intriguing sounds to work
Of course, in the end it's not one sound or voice versus another. It's
what a voice says emotionally, bent, non-bent, electronic or acoustic.
Circuit-bending simply adds a new category of voices to electronic
music: a chance-prepared or chance-adapted instrument, vast as this new
category is (compare it to chordophones or membranophones of the world:
-How do you employ C-bent instruments into your music?
Lots of ways, just like any instrument. As the composition suggests.
This might take the form of a single bent instrument as solo amidst more
traditional instruments (as my early Odor Box performances, in the
'60's, accompanied by bass and lead guitar where the audience wanted to
destroy the instrument and kill us). Or a bent "section" might be
recorded using several similar bent instruments (as in, say, the
woodwind section of the orchestra). My Secret Garden recording would be
example of this style.
For that matter, an entire bent orchestra can be created using many
different bent instruments, or just with one if versatile enough as in
my Vox Insecta, an insect voice synthesizer. In my Threnody recording I
did just that, creating orchestral sections and even choirs by playing
this antique Stenograph-housed instrument in various of its voices.
No limits or preferences here. It's wide open. While a new field and
still being defined, composition is always a matter of similar
invention: you imagine the thing, and the tools and parts become clear.
You then get as close as you can. So great visions are rendered in the
Braille of concerto, of pitch sets or soundscape, still wonderful with
the curtain drawn!
-What are the best examples of C-bending you've seen? What are their
If someone new walks through the door and wants to be introduced to
circuit-bending I usually drop an Incantor in their lap. This is because
it presents fine chance music, as said before, in endless variation.
It's an unbeatable introduction to what circuit-bending's about (read my
online how-to to the end and then enter the lightning bolt for
instructions on building your own Incantor!).
Too, I like many different Aleatrons. They're full of surprises. From
the simple Casio SA2 (ab-so-lutely great!) through the SK-1 to the more
elaborate Yamahas and such, these are often amazing. The sounds range
from strange tonal aberrations to deep experimental chance music.
My Vox Insecta is a fantastic surreal orchestra simulator. The Trigon
Incantor is in a world of its own as you roll the large steel balls
around on the "lizard skin" to produce on-going streams of chance music
variations. Photon Clarinets are very cool: you play them with shadows
as you wave your hands in space. And body-contact instruments such as
the Morpheum, passing electricity through your flesh to function, are
astounding in their voices and implication.
Hmmm... I was just shown an Aleatron (originally designed/discovered by
Andy Ben) that Derek Sajbel, a film maker doing a documentary here,
brought with him from L.A. It was great! Really nice. Of course, I see
lots of original work online that seems fantastic too. This makes me
very happy. There are thousands of bent instruments being created daily
around the world now. Many, many, many are simply superb music engines
that I would give anything to play.
But, you know, favorites: it's an impossible question to answer. I have
a collection of hundreds of musical instruments, bent and straight. My
favorite is the one I need the moment its voice comes to me while I'm
composing. I'm in love with that one then.
At rest they're all like animals in a forest: unique, all beautiful and
all mysterious. Maybe "mysterious" is a key word here. Bent instruments
are very mysterious, adding to their animal nature. All a little insane,
like people more than instruments, spewing art in seizures, like
squirrel chant, independent and mysterious, quite outside the normalized
instruments in the music shop. This element of mystery exists in all
bent instruments and is a species trait. It endears me to them just as
eccentricity does in my friends.
-Where do you see C-bending's place in electronic music at large?
Remember that "glitch" music or music created
by software errors are now the rage-should C-bending be associated as
"glitch music" too?
Circuit-bending's place in electronic music? Well, circuit-bending
transforms the circuit-board into an immediate canvas for anyone. This
is key. Circuit-bending has brought electronic design, electronic music
as well as experimental music to the common person. No prior event in
history has attracted more people to experimental electronic music. This
is very important to electronic music and has in fact spawned a growing
art movement, perhaps the first electronic art movement of the planet,
and certainly the first electronic art-object movement embraced by a
growing school of artists. In a highly electronic society this is a
curious landmark and to me provokes interesting questions of
cause-and-effect in light of circuit-bending's technically, and even
esthetically, incongruent nature.
Glitch? This is a cross-over subject in many ways with circuit-bending.
Glitch, whose early examples exist as visual work, can be seen in the
abstract expressionist movement wherein the mechanics and act of
painting (wild "action" painting and the resulting drips and runs)
brought "flaw" forward as art.
A better, and older, example of High Glitch can be found in Japanese
Suminagashi, another chance art I practice. The earliest examples are
traced to the Heian Era (794-1185). Special inks are floated on plain
water. As the inks flow, solidify and tear in the subtle surface
currents, extraordinary patterns emerge. A sheet of paper is laid on top
of the water to "print" the changing image at the moment the artist
feels right. I extend this glitch by mixing my own inks: a chance
system of color & molecular tenacity.
The Japanese regarded this high glitch art as supreme. Flakes of pure
gold were even incorporated and the early prints were used for the
finest hand script of poetry to be penned upon. This was high art and
revered by the entire Japanese culture rather than greeted with doubt as
was/is much Western glitch.
Needless to say, in our glitchy world of technology and artists, many
other examples exist. Medicine, and all the sciences, in fact, are great
glitch arts should we extend the concept a little bit.
As for music, bending and glitch, there's a common connection attitude,
here taken from djmixed.com...
"The growing popularity of "glitch" based electronic music is bringing
an older and somewhat obscure art form to the forefront; a genre dubbed
"circuit bending". Circuit bending entails gutting inexpensive (and
ubiquitous) electronic noisemaking toys and rewiring their innards in
random or unintentional ways. By bridging unusual circuits and shorting
out expected pathways, creative heads are able to create alien
instruments that function within their own universe, oblivious to the
rules and structures forced on music." -Dan Elder
Nonetheless, most glitch music, the glitch genre today, looks to all
kinds of data & processing "flaws" from bad edit "pops" to
malfunctioning CDs to bad math in programs and on and on. Glitch can be
audio or visual or even linguistic (as in bent human voice synths or
poetry programs). As you might guess, I'm all for it. Use of the
mundane, of the lost or unappreciated, is great fuel for art. Superb.
While some glitch music looks to circuit-bending, circuit-bending in
itself represents a more concise universe in that here we discover and
use sounds that exclusively were developed through the act of chance
bending and the resultant "prepared" instrument (similar to John Cage's
prepared pianos or Harry Partch's "adapted" harmoniums). It is a
universe completely unexpected and, in fact, non-existent until the
theory-true barrier is broached with anti-theory's clear-illogic (as
opposed to fuzzy-logic) design. After all, fuzzy logic is meant to seek
a norm within chaos. Bending seeks chaos within the norm.
Still, in both fields, software errors = program errors. Helping
programs to create errors can be done in various ways. The three primary
ways I use are chance mechanical (circuit-bending rearranges digital
programs by corrupting signal paths), conscious rewrite (enter
bad/chance math/data in code) or interrupting a running program via live
data input (I did this with great result on the aforementioned PAIA
P4700-J by pressing numeric and command keys on the data keypad while
pseudo-random programs were running).
Circuit-bending is, of course, a form of glitch, dating in my history
back to my first instrument, the shorted-out nine-volt transistorized
mini-amp circa 1966-'67 during "the Summer of Love". Today the term
"glitch" is used commonly to describe the individual creative short
circuits implemented in the act of bending. Hardwired "bends" and
"glitches" are synonymous in the bending glossary.
While I've constantly recorded bent instruments since the '60's, in 1982
I composed my all-Incantor suite, "There is a Secret Garden", a
recording now considered the Rosetta Stone of Incantor music, bending,
and bending-as-glitch (available for the first time on CD! contact:
Lots of people trace glitch to bending, and more directly to my early
Incantor work. Persons "in the know" and hip to the history of
circuit-bending recall the music I circulated, all the cassettes (!!),
during the "cassette underground" of the 1970's-'80's. Lots of these
tapes contained music from bent instruments. Voice Of America,
Artifacts, A Watch in the Sea, Sound Theater I & II, Bring Your Room,
Mind over Matter, Natural Sciences, Behind the Emotional Mask, Three
Rings on the Ground, Vinegar vs. Cats, and a few others. Many of these
were compilations, in a way like sketchpads, containing experiments from
current work to my earliest recordings in the '60's. I hope to
re-release a lot of these as CDs soon too.
-I've heard that there was a sudden rise in popularity with Circuit
bending a few years ago, what do you think caused
many bedroom musicians to rip open and reassemble electronic toys like
the Speak and Spell?
Ha! This can pretty much be traced to the launching of my website,
anti-theory.com, about that long ago. I mean, prior to anti-theory.com
there was no internet presence for circuit-bending. No Incantors to be
seen anywhere outside of the EMI articles published years prior, in
print. The main feature of the site is the how-to where, for the first
time on the web, circuit-bending was taught and explained.
As mentioned, owners/users like Blur and Sonic Boom have attracted
attention. Peter Kember (Sonic Boom) was so impressed by the Secret
Garden recording that he asked for wiring diagrams, built a few
Incantors and then did the Data Rape tour/CD in the Secret Garden style.
This was an eye-opener. Clauser of Nine Inch Nails. Mark Mothersbaugh.
King Crimson. Faust. Chris Cutler (Henry Cow, The Residents and Fred
Frith's drummer). Peter Gabriel, in fact, has one of my earliest
Incantors. Lotsa good and well-known people are exploring (cool, too,
that bending's more a realm than a style as this will keep it
interesting forever as its ever-expanding universe is explored and new
But I'd say the real popularity is based on just regular people,
musicians and artists like us, realizing that they can build intense
alien music engines, all by themselves, and explore an unknown universe
of sound nearly immediately and at very little cost. All of a sudden
you're a creator of instruments, wild affordable instruments, instead of
a user of expensive stock instruments with stock sounds, all theory-true
and industry-safe. Circuit-bending is clearly neither. This is
fascinating to people and word gets out. It really is a vast new musical
reality to drown in. It has great charm.
Anti-theory.com gets millions of hits. Though it's just a small
non-corporate website it has become a demonstrator/teacher/new art
gallery for inspiring loads of people to believe that they can design
mind-altering electronics ...and they can! It really is pretty exciting.
-Where do you see the future of C-bending? Will it hit a limit in
In this new universe of alien music technology, even on an Incantor
you'll never hear all the possible sounds. Never. That's the beauty.
Legit designer types call it the "missing link", musicologists call it
"something new under the sun", and the press, "the shoRt heard 'round
the world." It's electronic alien folk music, I guess, as it sings a
song of a new electronic universe. I can't see an end to this new realm,
only new realms within. As a fellow bender just discovering the art
wrote to me, quoting A. C. Clark, "My God, it's full of stars."
Circuit-bending has already produced a new, if temporary, species: the
BEAsape. Bio-Electronic Audiosapian, the creature the player of a bent
body-contact instrument becomes as the electricity of both bodies,
player and instrument, mingle.
This creature is intense in its implication of instrument/animal as a
sole electronic entity rather than instrument as musical prosthetic (and
as such denied organic electro-biosonic matrix, the depth of the bonding
of electron, blood and music). The BEAsape has no separation between
instrument and player. It is a single musical electronic animal, a new
species, even if intermittent, at rest in hibernation, like a frozen
insect-human waiting to thaw.
But the future? Wow! Seeing as there are circuit-bending workshops for
kindergartners now (thanks, Ant Macabre!), experimental music and
clear-illogic electronic design being taught side-by-side with
finger-painting and social etiquette, I'd say the future is promising!
Circuit-bending prompts so many strong questions about art that I see a
quantum leap here for many people, a forcing of aesthetic & doubt that
must result in parascopic sight and keen evolution. I feel this must be
very, very good. To many people it's even a light in the darkness.
Thanks, Cameron, for this chance to spill some ink. My best to your
readers & fellow benders. May all your projects shine!
Green mold and falling apples,