How many sounds are more unmistakable and full of childhood memories than the bleeps and bloops of a Speak 'N Spell?

__________________ Click icon to hear sound.

At least until circuit bender Stanley Ruiz got hold of it, and with a few practiced tweaks to its circuit board, gave the familiar toy the electronic version of a personality makeover.

__________________ Click icon to hear BENT sound.

“The results that you get from circuit bending are immediate,” said Ruiz, looking up from his workbench and the guts of the Speak ‘N Spell. “You don’t have to build complex circuitry in order to come up with those strange sounds.”

Circuit bending—the creative short-circuiting of everyday electronic sound devices to make strange new instruments and art objects—is a quirky way to recycle those childhood toys. It’s also a serious art form for professional circuit benders like Ruiz, a member of the performance group gunung sari. And to Mike Rosenthal and Daniel Greenfeld, the brains behind the Bent 2006 Circuit Bending Festival that opens on April 18 in lower Manhattan, it’s also a great way to get people interested in electronic music.

A typical electronic music performance can be downright boring for the uninitiated. “There’s somebody behind a screen all night playing music,” said Rosenthal, artistic director of The Tank, the non-profit performing arts space in Tribeca that sponsors the festival. “And they might be doing very complicated things, or they might just be hitting play in iTunes, and you really wouldn’t know the difference.”

But “bending” requires little technical know-how and lets children of all ages indulge in the nostalgic fun of playing with (and breaking) their toys.

“Even if you don’t know anything about electronic music,” said Rosenthal, “you can get excited about that.”

April marks the third year of the Bent Festival, the first and only performance festival in the country where the curious can see and hear a musical instrument built from a singing teddy bear or a pile of discarded office equipment and earthworms. Musicians, sound artists and tech types from around the world will gather to perform, exhibit and give curious New Yorkers a crash course in bending sound.

The genre dates back to the 1960s, when a self-taught multimedia artist named Reed Ghazala accidentally shorted out a nine-volt transistor amplifier in a metal drawer, producing an unexpected sound. Ghazala has since made a career out of short-circuiting machinery on purpose, creating warped-technology instruments for mainstream artists like Grammy Award-winner Tom Waitts, English composer and singer Peter Gabriel and Japanese-born artist Towa Tei. Ghazala calls circuit bending a “chance art,” unlike programming or hacking electronic devices.

“Hacking is a know-how-to thing. It’s knowledge based,” he explained. “Circuit bending is pure chance. You have no idea what will happen.”

According to Nicolas Collins—composer, teacher, and author of a guide to circuit bending called “Homemade Electronic Music”—circuit benders are just reinventing the wheel. “They’re doing to today’s consumer technology what experimental composers like David Tudor and Gordon Mumma have been doing since the early 1960s,” he said.

But Douglas Repetto, Director of Research at the Columbia University Computer Music Center, relates circuit bending to the “found sound” performance movement.

“It’s the idea that these sounds are almost found objects, and they have their own idiosyncratic sound," he said. "Each thing has its own character and you’re finding ways to exploit it.”

Josh Davis, a chiptunes musician who performs under the name Bit Shifter, agrees. Chiptunes artists, who fall somewhere between circuit benders and software hackers, use Game Boys and other gaming systems as their instruments.

“It takes something ubiquitous and familiar, especially to people of our generation,” he said, “and does something new with it.”

Caitlin Berrigan, an artist in residence at this year’s Bent Festival and one of the few women in the circuit bending scene, suggested that its subervise qualities are what make circuit bending so exciting.

“It’s often taking consumer objects and modifying them into something totally new and radical,” she said. “They become little beasts that can be unpredictable.”

While electronic and experimental musicians argue over the artistic merits of bending, the directors of The Tank use its accessible appeal to lure people in to the Bent Festival each year.

“Digital technology should not only be in the hands of super geeks,” said Rosenthal, who finds circuit-bending both easy and empowering for the technologically challenged. “You can literally lick your finger and touch the circuit board, and you’ll change the sound.”

So grab a screwdriver, dig that old Speak 'N Spell out of the closet, and
start experimenting

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©2006 NYC24 is a production of the New Media Workshop at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism