Perfect Sound Forever


Species Device Video Octavox on TV

interview by Jason Gross
(January 1998)

Reed Ghazala is a self-taught, self-exiled, self-executed multi-media artist. As the explorer of these pages will quickly discover, all of Reed's work --visual, audio, musical instrument design and writing-- reflects a unique thinking-space. Reed doesn't bend the rules; he simply never learned them. Original, improbable; Reed's work constantly surprises on its own terms and has established Reed as a materials and concepts visionary.

Reed's work can be found in the NYC Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim and the Whitney permanent collections. His sculptural experimental instruments have been built for Tom Waits, Peter Gabriel, King Crimson's Pat Mastalotto, Faust, Chris Cutler, Towa Tei, Yann Tomita, Peter Kember, Blur and many others. Reed's work has been requested and covered throughout the major media including ABC Television, The Discovery Channel, MTV, Disney, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Wired Magazine, Option, Billboard and Computers & Music. Reed's article series, "Circuit-Bending and Living Instruments" is now published and translated 'round the world.

Reed Ghazala is now known internationally as "The Father of Circuit-Bending", an original and amazingly simple electronic process of creating experimental musical instruments from pre-existing audio gadgets. Without any prior knowledge of electronics, people everywhere are following this new standard of audio exploration and are designing their own fantastic instruments.

PSF: Why do you choose electronic games/toys as your medium to work with?

Under the pressures of circuit-bending, nearly every electronic audio device that exists is an experimental musical instrument waiting to happen. Audio toys, such as the talking Speak & Spell educational game, are packed with complex sound-producing circuitry that can easily, by anyone, be nudged off the edge of their theory-true world. This opens up a wonderland of alien voices that can both inspire and illustrate new compositions.

The initial implementation of toys, along with my actual discovery of circuit-bending, was a complete accident. It was the mid '60's, I was a penny-less teenager, a musician, an experimental visual artist, and I longed for ways to experience unusual realities. I froze mixtures of colored liquids in the winter cold, hanging by strings in clear plastic bags from branches in the backyard. I made balancing sculptures containing hidden magnets that would hold them in seemingly impossible positions relative to each other. I made pyrotechnic displays that, while filling me with glee, also terrified a few farmers and even once sent me, unconscious, into emergency surgery.

But none of this proved to be as explosive as circuit-bending. The year was '66 or '67. I had left a toy 9-volt transistor amplifier amidst the clutter of my desk drawer, the back of its housing missing and with the power turned on. When I closed the drawer, to my amazement, there suddenly came from within my desk miniature versions of the sounds I associated with the massive synthesizers of the day. Like the $250,000 Columbia-Princeton machine. While they're everywhere now, sound synthesizers at that time were still quite a mystery to most folks, and weren't that easy to come by. When I realized that the sounds I heard were the result of the toy amplifier's electronics accidentally shorting out against something metallic it was resting on, two ideas immediately struck:

If these sounds are being created by accident, what could be done by purpose? If this can be done to an amplifier, meant to amplify a sound but to make NO SOUND itself, what would happen to SOUND-MAKING electronics when purposely shorted-out in the same way?

So, as a kid with few resources living in a period when synthesis equipment was both rare and expensive, here was a viable alternative through which to explore and compose new forms of music.

Working with this toy I discovered many really wonderful things! I found lots of these creative short-circuits, with many different responses to be had. I found that just touching the circuit with bare fingers allowed electricity to flow through the body, further shaping the sounds. I found points that would illuminate lights, and began adding other electronic components to the path of the short-circuits... capacitors, variable resistors; whatever I could find. I discovered also that when the line-output of the now circuit-bent amplifier was fed into a real stage amplifier, one of those big Vox or Fender stacks, the sound projected had nothing anymore to do with toys.

This transformation is consistent with all my instruments based upon toys. True, I also design some instruments from the ground up, from circuit drawing to prototype to finished model, as in the Photon Clarinet or the various insect voice synthesizers. Once these are working as prototypes I circuit-bend them too, furthering the control possibilities of the finished instrument. But working with toys has advantages beyond the eccentricities and power of the final voices:

- No knowledge of electronic theory is needed whatsoever to circuit-bend. Toys open themselves to the process. Anyone can do it. Simply, a wire is used to make connections between arbitrary points on the circuit while the toy is making its usual sounds. A switch is then wired between points discovered that produce an interesting sound so that the effect can be turned on at will. This procedure will usually result in a number of switches that can often be mounted on the toy's housing. If you learn to solder and can drill holes in which to mount your switches, you can circuit-bend.

- Yes, circuit-bending can destroy a device if the wrong connections are made. But I've found this to be rare. Nonetheless, frying a toy is much less upsetting than sizzling the oscillators in your vintage Moog.

- Toys use relatively low operating voltages, usually 3 to 9 volts, and are therefore unlikely to give you a jolt. Still, glasses or goggles should be worn for eye protection. That said, only once in 30 years of circuit-bending did I explode a component, and it was due to my applying too great a voltage to a circuit by means of an external power supply. A transistor popped in a nice blue flash. But this has never happened while circuit-bending a toy operating on its own built-in power. Obviously, circuit-bending anything plugged into the "house current" of your wall outlet is out of the question!!!

- Thrift shops are filled with second-hand electronic sound toys costing only a few dollars each. Such outlets will supply the circuit-bender with unending instruments to discover in the most affordable way I've ever found.

It should also be said here that beyond the obvious and delightful giddiness associated with toys being transformed into capable and outlandish synthesis equipment, when stripped of their target-sales housings and names all that remains of these toys is an electronic circuit lying there. And in many cases, these circuits contain sophisticated electronics capable of very high quality voices, just waiting to be nudged toward circuit-bending's anti-theory edge.

PSF: What do you find lacking in 'conventional' instruments (keyboards, guitars, drums, horns)?

The only time I ever find an instrument lacking is when it doesn't fit the need of the moment! As in, I want to set an idea musically and need to orchestrate in a particular direction. This might state that a flute would be called upon rather than a circuit-bent instrument, or visa-versa. But the differences between conventional and circuit-bent instruments ARE intriguing and do invite speculation. And in several ways, the circuit-bent instrument does stand alone.

All art resolves itself emotionally in the observer. Literature, visual art, music... consciously and subconsciously we are moved. Every sound has its emotional counterpart and therefore has a place in sonic composition. In this way, all sound-makers, be they traditional musical instruments, circuit-bent instruments or anything at all that makes a noise, stand on equal ground.

I curate and admire all kinds of instruments from within the usual categories. There are nearly 400 in the collection, from a towering foot-powered pipe organ to tiny Victorian "crickets". I'm always on the lookout for the unusual in voice or design within the major instrument groups. But, the difference you're referring to is real, and unfolds like this...

Musical instruments are classified by means of their voice systems. The five categories that emerge are 1) idiophone; a sonorous solid set to vibration (metal gong, wooden claves, glass xylophone, etc), 2) membranophone; a membrane set to motion (the usual struck drums, friction drums and kazoos or mirlitons), 3) aerophones; sound produced by the introduction and vibration of air (flutes, horns, harmonica, pipe organ, bull-roarer, whistling top, etc), 4) chordophones; sound produced by the vibration of strings (musical bow, harp, piano, etc), and lastly 5) electronic; up till now derived from the stoic pursuit of theory-true design (electric guitar, theremin, electronic organ, synthesizer, etc).

There is actually a sixth category, that of the "mechanical" instruments, some of which combine all of the above ( as in the electronically-driven "orchestrons" whose array of instruments play in unison according to a common program medium). Classifications here get touchy. Fascinating. Foggy.

OK. All these instruments were created based upon a common definition of music, regardless of style. That is, a thought system, which held high regard for control systems, shaped the implementation of the voice system. Which is more important? What if instruments were classified by thought system?

The importance of the thought system becomes apparent in the example of the adapted or prepared instrument. The objects lodged between the strings of Cage's piano or the re-tuning of Harry Partch's several traditional instruments to meet his 43-note scale are glimpses in this direction even if the desire for control is still steadfast. But what is the adapted instrument that explores these extended musicalities, while also, like a songbird or a countryside, sings past the traveler on its own directions?

This is often the electronic circuit-bent instrument, based upon a thought-system as well as a construction system that have so distant a relationship to the usual world of electronic design as to have nothing more than cheerful electrons in common.

The discards of our society pile up around us like coconuts in the surf. Picking up an abandoned toy, picking up a coconut, rewiring the toy, poking holes in the coconut, flipping the new switches on the toy, blowing over the new holes in the coconut, letting the toy's new music direct you to it, letting the coconut's new music direct you to it... these things are part of us. This is how musical thought systems are born.

Art and science futurists say in many ways circuit-bending IS a new voice system for the world of music. I'm not so sure. I do know that it is a new and novel technique, and that its productivity is mind-boggling. Which is how I've come to pursue it for three decades, and why people wonder if I prefer it to more traditional instruments.

I guess I should say that the way circuit-bent instruments implement new musical thinking is a real strength, since unusual pressures are placed upon the musician to find the headspace in which to listen and compose. I build experimental acoustic instruments as well, but the results are always more predictable and the chance to make great discoveries seems to be less. I know that kind of statement is upsetting to some people and often boils down to an aesthetic issue of the electronic voice versus the acoustic voice, a debate to which, as I probably indicated earlier, I am happily immune.

PSF: How do you strike a balance between making instruments which the musician can have some control over while still have variable, unpredictable factors to it?

Not all circuit-bent instruments produce aleatoric, or chance, music. The Morphium's bizarre animal/machine calls are as immediate and repeatable as the usual keyboard instrument. In fact, due to the controls conducting electricity through the player's flesh by means of stationary metallic body-contacts rather than dials to turn, levers to shove, ribbons to push, keys to press, etc, the interface is seamless.

A further step toward the aleatoric instrument might be the Photon Clarinet. It's played without touching by waving hands above two light-sensitive sensors. The left-hand sensor sweeps the pitch like a theremin while the right-hand sensor steps the pitch like a keyboard. However, the scales produced by the right hand are determined by the degree of light falling on the left-hand sensor, tuned by the left hand's position. The scales are always arbitrary although a good player can develop a nice degree of control... but is that what is wanted? If so, what kind of control and to what ends?

The Photon Clarinet is like a sparrow born with an instinctual song. The friend of the sparrow is able to influence the sparrow's mood, coax it to join the celebration for a moment, as happy to listen as to let it fly home.

Deep-end circuit-bent aleatoric instruments like the Incantor (Speak&Spell series), the Trigon Incantor (Touch & Tell) and the Aleatron (SA-2 keyboard) can all produce unpredictable chance music as well as chartable sequences of unusual events to trigger. In the recording studio things can be assembled from saved outings with the instruments. The chance wordings and abstract ramblings might ask for accompaniment, just as it is with any instrument's message. So the process here is pretty standard once inside the sensibilities of aleatoric music and having decided where you want the piece to go.

Live performance is similar once both the performers and audience understand the experiment that's happening. The first time I tried this the audience was not prepared at all. Late 60's, Elvis on the juke', me on the shorted-out toy amplifier now attached to a crude array of switches, body-contacts and tiny spinning speakers. Bass guitar, lead guitar, Farfisa organ, and me on the circuit-bent toy plugged into a big amp. On the little stage of a neighborhood church. This crowd, who we were already at odds with in those times, blocked the doorways to bar our exit so as to get the little instrument from me and destroy it! We decided not to play there again.

The instrument did survive and still exists today, now built into a sturdy wooden case.

At any rate, if the audience understands that they are to experience chance music born of a rather radical design approach all will be well. In a sense these instruments produce alien music and can be appreciated as such. The final manifestation of the instruments is certainly alien to the original, both in audio response and electronic sensibilities. This unique form of distance from expected audio technology is an obvious constant behind the voices of circuit-bending. A straight-forward approach to striking a balance with these instruments in performance might be to combine a floating mix of several purely aleatoric voices drifting about as a backing to a more highly controlled lead voice from a less aleatoric device, or visa-versa. If the musicians are monitoring/controlling their own levels in the mix, such an immediate ensemble of chance can weave many wonderful ways.

Never can enough be said for musicianship. And a good composer can compose exquisite works from the most improbable rag-tag sounds. Circuit-bent instruments such as Incantors are capable of producing endless inspiring sounds and rhythmic phrases to work with, but due to their complexity they definitely require study. Given this study, I'd be tempted to say that the balance between control and desirable non-control can be had with any of these instruments.

Of course, just as it is with standard problems of orchestration, groupings of instruments, since all individually have both benefits and limitations, may ultimately be the answer to striking this balance. I certainly take this route with my results of circuit-bending. In the end, I find these instruments ask for a degree of room to create in, like another performer whose skills are evident and whom you work both with and off of. A strange concept I guess, that an instrument can be like an eccentric individual whose personality you know, but whose next statement you can't predict. If accepted, this can prove to be a fine catalyst.

PSF: Some of your instruments conduct electricity through the performer. What's the thinking behind this? Making them one? A kind of biofeedback? A man-machine interface?

These are wonderful concepts that grew from the process. As mentioned earlier, I found points on that very first circuit within the toy amp that changed the sounds when I touched them with my fingers. Such spots are very common in this low-voltage circuitry. In most cases these contacts will affect pitch or volume, your body having become a variable resistor in this bio-modulation scheme. Electricity flows through you from the spot of higher potential voltage to the one of lower, the degree of current passed (and the change in sound) adjusted by finger pressure.

In devices that contain certain electrolytic capacitors, voltages may be increased to the point that a mild shock might be felt. But this is rare. A little reading on circuit building will let you know what to watch for, though I truly haven't found it to be a concern.

Body contacts are one of many accessible electronic realities illustrated through circuit-bending. They're found by means of searching the active sound-making circuit with a metal jeweler's screwdriver in each hand. This turns YOU into the wire that I discussed earlier... the wire that bridges arbitrary circuit points in search for changes in sound. When two points are discovered, one at the tip of each screwdriver with you in the middle, the points are then noted to later have wires soldered to them which, in turn, will lead to the metallic body-contacts of your choice at the other end.

Another interesting feature of the body-contact is that it enables you to modulate an instrument by touching ANOTHER PERSON'S body. If one of two contacts on an instrument is held by one person, and the other contact is held by the other person, electricity will flow through both people at any point where the two bodies touch. In this way you can play, in a sense, a person's body as an instrument, affecting frequency or other changes through various types of contact.

Of course, I ponder the aspect of being that close to the instrument, being electronically one with it. Where does the instrument begin and end in that sense? Where do I? Which is extended? If both are extended equally, then is this a living instrument? Or even a new life-form?

Circuit-bending is full of paradox. Full of tumbling concepts. An anti-theory portal into a world of alien music to explore. These instruments and their backing concepts have launched hundreds of people into circuit-bending's orbit, which is why I continue to donate instructive articles to any publisher that asks. For the person tired of the music store, the radio, the record shop, and for the person who simply would enjoy traveling a new sonic frontier, this art offers solace. I hope to continue to open these strange doors to people just as they were opened to me. It's the most exciting and fruitful way I know of to inspire new musical thought, uncover unique sounds as well as build a truly singular personal orchestra. I hope everyone will try.


Reed Ghazala


Realization Recordings, 9452 Telephone Rd., #116, Venture, CA 93004

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