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Although messing around MacGyver-style with musical machines stretches back to the 1950s (when synthesizer designer Serge Tcherepnin fooled with shorting out and adding body contacts to electronic devices and transistor radios), the widely recognized pioneer in the field is Reed Ghazala, an Ohio tech-head who started his audio experimental efforts in the mid-1960s and coined the term "circuit bending."
Ghazala says he accidentally stumbled on the art when a small battery-powered amplifier in a desk drawer short-circuited after contacting something metallic and "started making these strange noises." After experimenting with bending toys and building homebrew-style synthesizers for decades, Ghazala began writing about his experiences in 1992 for Experimental Musical Instruments magazine and was one of the first to offer instructional information on the Internet in the late '90s. He's constructed hundreds of artfully made devices, such as surreally redecorated Speak & Spells called "Incantors," and alien-like "Photon Clarinets." He says he's given some of his works to members of the Rolling Stones, Blur, and even Trent Reznor (who invited him backstage to a Nine Inch Nails concert in Cincinnati last year).
Ghazala's loath to mention these marquee fans, as he claims the real attention on circuit bending should be on its simplicity and do-it-yourself sensibilities. "Circuit bending is so simple to learn and has stripped the necessity of lengthy study [for] becoming an electrical engineer which is the usual course you take before you can design an original instrument. Its techniques allow anybody to create an experimental musical instrument almost instantaneously," Ghazala says. "Anybody with a curious nature and a few dollars to spend on a soldering iron and secondhand devices could follow the same exploration route that I followed."
Practicing what he preaches, Ghazala's Web site (www.anti-theory.com) contains voluminous how-to info on circuit bending. He's also thrilled at the number of circuit-bending expos that have sprung up around the country in recent years, pointing to its growing popularity. Cities such as Los Angeles and New York have hosted events in recent years, and even this year's annual TapeOpCon in Tucson had a bending seminar. Phoenix is also getting a taste of the action, as the Trunk Space is presenting an event this week that's a combination circuit-bending workshop, swap meet, and concert.
Busboom will be at the event sharing his knowledge, and hopes to inspire others to follow his path. "The great thing about circuit bending is that you don't need a home studio or an electronics degree to create music. You just need some basic tools, a trip to the thrift store, and a Saturday afternoon," Busboom says. "And you can create sounds that would require $2,000 synthesizers to create for only like, three bucks."