Masters Project: 6. Circuit-Bending Toys (Part 5)

Notation Experiments for Circuit-Bent Toys

As I move onto my PhD it is high-time that I complete this series. After all, the Master’s Project is now complete.

It became clear in the middle of the project that I had bitten off more than I could chew regarding the installation. There was not enough time to both learn and implement the techniques I had been learning over the last couple of years into a large interactive installation. Therefore it was necessary to pop this concept aside (for now). However, all was not lost: I could still use what I had learnt, but instead have them feed into smaller pieces of work.

Over the year I composed pieces for; Solo Viola, a Concerto, Woodwind and Multimedia, as well as exploring some possible notation that could be used when scoring for Circuit Bent instruments. It is the latter that I will be talking about today.

N0t4t10n 3xp6r1m6nt5 f0r C1rcu1t-B6nt 70y5 (Notation Experiments for Circuit-Bent Toys) was created to work with and against the definitions and contradictions that appear when exploring Circuit-bending. This technique requires little foreknowledge of electronics, nor does it require you to know what it is you desire out of the toy; instead, the hardware hacker need only improvise with the internal circuitry of the toy in the full knowledge that the short circuiting may not work; often this process renders the toy useless. The overriding aim was to create approaches to making sounds that are foreign to the toy company’s original intention.

Prior to the decision to explore notation, I discussed creating scores for circuit bent toys with a number of delegates at the Performing Indeterminacy Conference I attended in the Summer of 2017. The idea was largely dismissed as irrelevant, impossible and doomed to failure.

I am in semi-regular contact with Reed Ghazala, who is closely associated with the invention and promotion of circuit-bending, and upon discussion, Ghazala has encouraged me to write these scores and invited me to share the results with him.

For Ghazala the toy is a living instrument whose inner nature and potentiality can be discovered (Ghazala, 2018). The score that I was intending to create, therefore had to explore concepts of  finding a balance between over- and under-notation. This process involved my having to
move beyond the notion of scoring sonically precise results.

I am not the first to explore possible notation for Circuit Bent Toys. Two scores already existed prior to my own exploration; Strutz by Jesper Pedersen (2011) and the Untitled for violin, circuit bent toy, and electronics by Nicholas Knouf (2008). Both of these use open score notation and encourage audience participation during performance, respectively. The notation I used employs my understanding of action notation, which is a notation that does not specify a sonic result since the nature of circuit-bent toys is that they rarely behave in a predictable way.

The structural concept of my score is borrowed from Stockhausen’s Momente für Sopran, 4 Chorguppen und 13 Instrumentalisten (1961/62). Stockhausen used moment form to create a certain type of drama. The moments of silence in N0t4t10n 3xp6r1m6nt5 f0r C1rcu1t-B6nt 70y5 became a compositional tool in their own right; while it was a practical solution to allow the performers time to regroup between moments, the silence determined the structure of the piece. For example, these silences may be heard as a build-up of dramatic tension between each moment. The order of the moments is chosen by the performer, the only proviso being that a sound instruction must be followed by a silent instruction. These moments are represented either graphically or textually; only rhythm, where it appears, is notated traditionally. The elements of play are in the toys, or instruments, themselves, while the exact order of the moments is left to chance. The fact that the circuit-bent toys rarely make the same noise twice, nor can the sound be predetermined provides the element of indeterminacy. In conversation with Johnathan Cott (Stockhausen: Conversations with the Composer London: Robson Books Ltd, 1974), Stockhausen raises the idea of building your own instrument if the existing ones do not do what you want them to. In practice, circuit-bent toys are not so much built as partially destroyed in the discovery of sounds.

I was lucky enough to have these scores workshopped by a local improvisation group called Athelstan Sound. They are a mixture of various types of artists, and most of the performers had little to no traditional score reading skills,
and therefore had few pre-conceptions about what a score should look like. As a consequence, the rhythmic moments were challenging and were not successfully executed. The members did not make any suggestions for how to improve this notation, but they did express a preference for avoiding musical notation. As a result, further consideration as to the rhythmic aspects of this score is needed.

– Jason Hodgson (17th August 2018)

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Masters Project: 5.2. Circuit-Bending Toys (Part 4 and a 1/2)

Circuit-Bending Toys UPDATE

This is a quick update to the Masters Project Series, which will now continue into my PhD as a reflection on what has happened in the first part of my postgraduate studies.

However this is not truly a new post, but a notification that the documentary I had to create for my Creative Project, is now available to watch on YouTube (see below). This video also contains the concert in which the toys were first demonstrated.

 

Featuring the Scratch Orchestra of Canterbury Christ Christ Church University’s School of Music and Performing Arts.

Scratch Orchestra Director: Sam Bailey
Musicians Featured: Natalie Perdu, Abbie Isabelle, Carl Emery

Filming and Editing: Nathanial Beddall

Poems by Natalie Perdu

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LIPAaTqzf6k[/embedyt]

– Jason Hodgson (10th August 2018)

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Happy New Year (2018)

I’d thought I’d start this year off with a post about what fantastic things have happened in 2017, and what awaits me in 2018.

2017

We can all agree that 2017 was a turbulent year. However, with that being said, there a few things that are positive about the year:

January saw the start of my blog as I started to focus on my main project for my Masters. A lot has changed in regards to the project. Whilst I will still be utilising various electronic and aleatoric means of composition and performance (the latter being a constant in my career), the installation plan had to sadly be bottom-drawed for another time. It was to ambitious for the time, skill, and tools available to me at this moment in time. Nevertheless I have learnt a great deal of new skills, or at least started to…

Having this blog also allowed to evaluate past work I have done to both document and guide my progress. And although I am unable to do weekly or monthly posts as my career guides me down a busy path, I will endeavour to keep posting as often as I can in the coming year.

In February my Circuit Bending adventure also began. I learn skills I would never dream I would ever learn, whilst learning more about the concept of Noise music and Collage/Bricollage music. During this time I killed a fair few toys, and my first success, which promptly died when I attempted to add an audio-jack to it. It also gave me the chance to run a few workshops, something that I have never had a chance to do before. I’m not going to lie, I was nervous. However, it was an invigorating experience. It also prompted me to create my first electronic track!

April 24th saw the premiere of my first commissioned piece ‘LionHeart1189′ by the wonderful Chris Brannick and Sara Stowe in the Hay-on-Wye Festival. A truly enlightening experience. I’m truly appreciative of my grandmother who drove the 10 hour (gasp) round trip in order for me to be able to see it.

In July I attended my first conference in Leeds with the CageConcert. A truly knackering but marvellous time! I’ve learnt so much, recorded more, and hopefully the links and contacts I have made will bare fruit throughout my studies and career.

July also saw the start of the process towards creating and devising the Adventurers & Artists Concert Series. For want of jinxing it, I have a fabulous team who I can only say have worked their tails off, (and it’s about to get busier).

The end of July/beginning of August saw this website become LIVE! It wasn’t until at this point, when I could see all the views, that I knew I had such a large audience. I am truly grateful. Thank you.

On October 24th I stripped down into a lion onesie while presenting at my first Research Seminar at Canterbury Christ Church University’s Work in Progress Talks. As odd as this sounds, it was all part of my demonstration of my compositional technique of ‘play’ and asking yourself ‘What happens if?”.

In the beginning of November I had my first paper I’ve ever submitted accepted at the BFE/RMA 2018 Student Conference in Huddersfield. I am still gawping at the fact that I have be accepted, and can not wait to present it!

In December I had a few of my pieces performed at the Free Range Concert Series Holiday Special. I’m looking forward to hearing the results.

 

2018

2017 was full of academic and career firsts. I can’t say much about 2018 as it has yet to happen (well to us linear time-line experiencing folks anyway). All I can tell you is what I have planned for upcoming year:

On 4th – 6th of January I will be attending the BFE/RMA 2018 Student Conference in Huddersfield where I will be presenting a paper titled ‘Neuro-Diversity as a Compositional Tool’.

A few days after that I will be presenting my Analysis Presentation for my module. Whilst not a significant event beyond gain marks for my Masters Degree, I have managed to base it around my favourite topic: Doctor Who! I will be looking at the development of the 11th Doctors theme ‘I Am the Doctor’ during the Series 4 Specials to Series 5. I also aim to contextualise this development both within the context of the shows plot, and the changes in the shows cast and crew.

April – May will also see all the hard work of the Adventurers & Artists team pay off. We will be beginning rehearsals soon, and I am intrigued to see where it will take us musically.

This is very much a year that I want to keep an eye on….

– Jason Hodgson (1st January 2018)

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Experiments and Explorations Part 2

Below is a link to the second entry in a series of blogs titled ‘Experiments and Explorations’ that I write for Canterbury Christ Church University School of Music and Performing Arts:

When I last posted a few months ago, I provided you with more of a general overview of how I compose, and why. In this entry however, I am going to be looking at one of my earlier experiments in more depth.

Today the focus is on the first piece I composed while studying at my Bachelor of Music, Chaotic Control (or C.C.for short). Though I was unaware of it at the time, this piece would be the spark to my exploration of using chance and indeterminacy as compositional tools. … CLICK HERE TO READ MORE …

Inside the Machine Concert Part 2

A Throne of Games

On the 28th April 2016 I put on a concert which featured a mixture of some of my favourite open-scored, chance-based, and quasi-composed/quasi-improvised pieces to both celebrate and summarise the three years I spent studying my Bachelor of Music at Canterbury Christ Church University.

The second entry in this series focuses on an award winning piece A Throne of Games. In two parts, this spoken-word sound-poem explores the fickle nature of language (not unlike that of Language is a Fictitious Fact). However, instead of allowing the performers to create their own content, I meticulously selected the sounds and words I would use in both of the forms.

If you are a fan of the show, or even the books, you might have already guessed that this piece is inspired by the book series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R R Martin, which spawned the HBO television series, A Game of Thrones. In fact, this piece takes text selected directly from the first book in the series of the same name. However, it is only in the second form, and if you are already aware of the series that this becomes apparent.

I am always the first one to admit that the written word is not my forte, in particular the ability to manipulate the written language to my whims. So, I needed a way that could counteract this. The answer was simple:

At this point in my studies, I had only recently discovered my love for using sequences and aleatory (chance) to generate material for a composition, but I was bored with applying it purely to the sound elements of music. Applying it to the text elements of a piece would open up more opportunities. After much consideration of other sequences such as Pi, e, and Fibonacci, I concluded that  Prime Numbers would prove more useful. This provided a gradual, steady rise in the digits (like page numbers), but was random enough to the naked eye, and (even to a point in mathematics), to avoid predictability. Though there was no  fear of predictability from an audience perspective as I had no desire to use it to determine pitch.

Certainly for me, even before I had discovered the world of experimental music, music is not all about sound. For example, in choral pieces the text can be just as important as the musical aspect. In Operas the staging, costume, props, backdrops, acting etc. are just as important to fully portray what the music is trying to say or do, or even a particular interpretation of the music. To an audience how the piece is performed and the other visual aspects are just as important. The latter was something I was already thinking about, but I wouldn’t start exploring this element specifically until my final year. For this project I wanted to solve the problem of how I could select text.

Another element I wanted to eliminate was any implied, implicit, or inherent emotive aspects within the final text.

Being on the autistic spectrum (Asperger’s Syndrome), this is yet another hurdle to overcome. Thankfully, my compositions tend to eliminate any inherent emotive notions, and instead explore the wacky, weird, and wonderfully unique take I have on life and the sound world.

This does not mean that I believe emotions are not important. Nor does it mean that I think that they don’t have a place within the Arts. Quite the contrary. Instead I believe that, for the majority of occasions,  the emotional aspects of a piece should be open to interpretation for either the audience, or the performers to decide or discover on their own. I feel that any prescribed notion of emotive elements on my behalf would be counter-productive. I have discussed this in a little more detail on the Canterbury Christchurch School of Music and Performing Arts blog.

At this stage I now have a sequence, but no method or source material.

Source material was relatively straight forward: Books! It had to be a large one meaning that I could gather enough material from it. At the time I had just started reading the second book of George R R Martin’s series (A Clash of Kings), which is pretty large. However, I didn’t want to spoil the plot for myself. Ton the other hand I had finished the first book, and it was just as big.

Now I have a sequence, source material, but no method.

The method had to be random enough that the text would produce nonsense, but use little enough of the book that I couldn’t fall under copyright infringement. Ultimately, much less than even 1% of the book was used. However, even at this point I’m still not certain whether I breach any copyright laws. This is why whenever I talk about the piece I make no attempt to hide the source material, and why the rest of the pieces in the larger series A Work of Fiction (which remains to be seen at this moment in time), will be shared free of charge. In short, the processes I used are available for others to use, the end result (the composition) is mine but free to the public to use, and the source material remains with George R R Martin.

Eventually I decided to use the page numbers as a key, and only select text from the Prime numbered pages. I then chose to use the corresponding words to that of the number of the place of the prime number in the sequence.

I promise you that is the best way I could think of to describe it in words. I have racked my brain for a few years now trying to figure out a way to coherently represent what my methodology was in words. Like I said, language is a fickle thing.

Let me try with numbers:

In a sequence that ascends through all the primes available to me by the number of pages in the book, 2 is the 1st Prime. Therefore I went to page 2, and selected word 1. This produced the word ‘had’. Page 3 is the 2nd prime. This produced the word ‘reflected’. Then again with page 5 and word 3, ‘did’. Therefore by using this method I had generated the words; ‘had’, ‘reflected’, and ‘did’.  By doing this I had removed the context from the words. This process went on until I reached the last prime numbered page in the book.

Along the way I discovered that if I read them in a row, my brain tricked me into thinking that there was meaning in the phrase, even when I knew there wasn’t one. Try it: ‘had reflected did rustle’. (What exactly did this ‘rustle’ reflect??)

I now had my material to work with, and although I chose to leave them in the order they appeared, I decided that I wanted to play with this fake meaning. One of my Grandmothers then introduced me to the idea of trying to use Shakespeare’s famous iambic pentameter. Unfortunately, I was unable to fit the words perfectly within the meter. Therefore, it became more of a guide.

To further play with the fake meanings within the text,  I read it out loud so I could feel where I needed to separate lines to trick the listener into finding  meaning where there was none.

Before I move onto the next step I want to point something out: I had no idea, no outline, nor a plan of what my end result was going to be. Instead I found a problem, looked for ways around it, and saw where it took me. Though there was a lot of work involved throughout each step, I let the results of each step guide me to the next.

I am a big advocate of using play as a compositional tool. Even if I know what the end piece needs to be (for a commission as an example), I believe that if you attempt to force the piece, you can overcompensate, overthink, and where once you could create something wonderful, you instead create something ‘because you had to’. This in turn can lead to a half-hearted composition which you cannot enjoy. You should never not enjoy your compositions. That’s not to say that the process can’t be tedious (like when I have to throw my dice hundreds of times), but I make an active attempt to write pieces of which I enjoy at least one element.  Of course this is not 100% successful. Nevertheless, it is something I strive for.

One way I do this is by playing with ideas, letting them tell me what they want to do. And if they don’t fit the purpose, no problem! Just put them away for another day. You’ll thank yourself later when you really are stuck for ideas.

My problem now was that it was a great nonsense poem, but I didn’t feel that it was musical enough. The question now was how could I make it musical without writing a tune? Whilst I could have created a melody for the text, this would have defeated the purpose of the piece, as this composition was for my technical portfolio in my second year of study, meaning that I had to follow some guidelines and link the piece to a technique outside of my own, which is a common practice when studying composition. I am honest, this is quite difficult for me as at this time in my practice I tended not to research specific methods and techniques before I began a composition. I tend to work more on my gut-instinct. Researching for a piece is something I am learning how to do more and more as I get further into my studies, though it is still a weak area for me.

As it so happened, there was an area of composition that we had learned about, that, on closer inspection, was akin to what I was doing more or less by gut-instinct: Oulipo.

In short, without going into too much detail, Oulipo is style of poetry pioneered by Raymond Queneau and François Le Lyonnais in 1960, which uses mathematics to generate text. Sound familiar? You can read more about Oulipo in a journal article The beginning of Oulipo? An attempt to rediscover a movement by James Kurt in 2015, which unfortunately for my work, came out after my piece was submitted.

Fascinating as this was, this still didn’t solve my problem. It wasn’t until my personal tutor at the time, Lauren Redhead, asked me to consider the possibility of extending the sounds, and adding dynamics, to make it more of a score, rather than just a poem, that the solution was apparent.

I vaguely remember a lecture in which Redhead  introduced the class to a piece by Alistair Zaldua called Solo Speaking. I was struck by how he could differentiate between ‘e’, ‘ee’, ‘eh’ and other more complex variations. The score itself, on the other hand, whilst written clearly, was not quite in the format I wished to use. Zaldua had created symbols with a list of instructions for each individual sound that needed to be produced. My aim, on the other hand, was to compose a score for someone of no to little experience at performing pieces such as A Throne of Games, was able to pick up, and to have ‘a stab at it’. I wanted to lay out the score in such a way as to not scare away the uninitiated (i.e. me a couple of years prior). Unfortunately I can’t find a clip online.

I spent the next few days playing around with how each individual word could be changed. Picked my favourites, and tried to think of the best to present them. The results of this can be seen in the score in Form 2, and the instructions. Along the way I discover one process of the words that I wanted to exaggerate further. I had experimented with removing the vowels from words, and found that it produce a loose vocalised rhythm. I separated some of the consonants, keeping them within the original sentence/paragraph layout. Some of the extended sounds in Form 2 were also used. My favourite of which is the one on ‘K’ where the performer is to extend the sound, elongating it, which in turn creates something similar to white noise. I also spaced out some of consonants, further variating the rhythm.

The reason I chose to use the rhythm form as Form 1, is simply because I wished to leave an element of mystery around the text. Form 2 then reveals the words, but not the meaning.

One of the elements I spent a while on was to play with the spacing, and in turn; pacing. In the instructions I explained that “a semicolon ( ; ) is a shorter gap than a full stop ( . ), but longer than a comma ( , ). Spaces are also gaps, yet vary in length.”

I have already selected my material for the next piece in the collection. Interestingly, if you apply the process to a Mills & Boons book, or at least the one I purchased from a  local charity shop, the text reads as if it were a basic car manual, whereas Artemis Fowl, comes out a bit more like a Mills & Boons. I can’t wait to see what the sound world will be for these materials.

I have been fortunate enough to have A Throne of Games performed multiple times. Unfortunately the performance during the competition is lost. The first time it was performed was when I was a member of the Canterbury Christchurch Contemporary Ensemble. The second was a Solo that I recorded using the university facilities, and the latest (as of August 2017) is a performance my Grandmother Jane CoomberSewell, (the same that mentioned iambic pentameter), and another Award Winning Composer (same festival, but in 2016) Hannah Firmin performed during the Inside the Machine Concert. Below is that playlist.

The next entry in this series will focus on What If? A Hansel & Gretel Tale.

– Jason Hodgson (5th August 2017)

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Masters Project: 5. Circuit-Bending Toys (Part 4)

Concert Reflection
19th April 2017
St. Gregory’s Centre for Music

That’s it. This part of the project is over. It’s seems like no time at all has passed since I first introduced you to the Circuit Bending section. Before I go on to discuss the concert, I just wanted to say a huge thanks to the Canterbury Christ Church University Scratch Orchestra for being my guinea pigs. Without them the project would not have been as successful as it was.

As part of the CCCU’s Music and Performing Arts Lunchtime Concert series, the Circuit Bent instruments were presented in front of a small but enthusiastic audience. I had contemplated to write some programme notes, however time got the better of me, and I also wanted the audience to be attentive to the actions on the stage. Having reading material that explained it would have been a distraction. Instead I opted to provide a brief explanation of the project, and the poem descriptions that Natalie Perdu had written as each solo instrument was presented, including that for Gallatronia (the T.A.R.D.I.S. toy).

Unfortunately Gallatronia was only 97% complete by the time the concert came around (The only thing that needed doing was the putting back together of the toy). With that being said, the fact you could see the wires added an element of sci-fi to the whole performance.

Like the other instruments, there was a poem description of Gallatronia. Unlike the others, the poem was written a mere hour before the concert began:

Many times mysterious
Makes you go delirious
Study her star crossed brow
She’s so serious

Doctoring temporal flow
See the places
That she goes

Super Nova bright
Keeps the tempo tight

 

Overall I felt that the concert was a success. I babbled a bit more than I would have liked, but I put this down to pure excitement about the climax of the project. The Audience were also perceptive, and were amazed at how much sound you could get from so little movement. A couple members of the audience even came up to the stage to have a play with the toys after I had invited the audience to do so before the performance began. My words were roughly “Don’t worry, you can’t break them because I already have”.

In an earlier post I posed seven questions or criteria to evaluate whether this project was successful beyond that of a personal feeling, and intend to take a stab at answering them before I type up my official evaluation for the project module.

Did those involved learn a new skill?

To an extent.

Unfortunately due to the dreaded Health and Safety I was unable to allow them to actually bend their instruments with the soldering equipment. They did however get the chance to explore for potential sounds before I went home to bend the toys, and they also had the opportunity to learn how to play a new instrument.

Were the workshops engaging?

Without asking the members of Scratch directly, I can not 100% answer this. I can however base my answer upon my observations. (The answers may be somewhat biased, and I hope to reconcile this in the near future.)

During the first workshop the members were completely engrossed with discovering the potential sounds, and I had to almost force them away from their toys in order for the workshop to finish up in time to tidy up.

The second workshop involved them discovering ways of performing with these toys, and I had to actively stop them from coming up with a list the size of my arm, and start trying them out, and start finding the most affective ones for the upcoming performance. One such idea was that of creating circuits with the toys and our bodies. However, this was too unpredictable for the performance, although I do hope there is an opportunity that arises in the future to explore this  particular idea further.

The third workshop was more of a rehearsal, and was thus more focussed. Therefore engaging is probably not the word I would use for this session.

Did the musicians enjoy the process of chance-based instrument creation?

This is a question I can answer completely honestly without any bias:

Yes they did.

They were enthusiastic and willing to try new things, including things that were out of my comfort zone, such as body touching to create circuits, and the use of saliva on instruments that were shared. Therefore, the fact that they were willing to try these things, and push further than I had previously conceived, surely says that they were enjoying the process. In fact, I don’t think that we went over the allotted time for our part of the concert purely because I waffled a bit, I also believe that it was because they enjoyed playing their instruments so much they forgot the time.

Have the musicians come away from the project with a new look at electronic music?

I believe they have. But once again, this is a tricky question to answer fully. I certainly have, but this does not guarantee that they have.

Have the musicians over a short space of time, become confident on the new instruments?

Right from the start their learning began. They began out with not knowing what Circuit Bending was, and then managed to have full discussion on techniques they could use to play the instruments within 2 workshops. If this doesn’t show that they became confident on the instruments in a short space of time, I’m not sure what would have.

Did they present a coherent performance?

This question goes hand-in-hand with the last 2 questions.

In addition to all the work prior to the performance, which of course helps towards the coherency of the performance, is also how it was presented to the audience. Instead of presenting full and complete ideas, we presented the performance as a demonstration, showing off what the toys could do rather than compositionally sound ideas (whatever they are). In doing so, members of the audience could see what was happening, and what was generating the sounds. Nothing was hidden (except maybe the wires inside… not the case for Gallatronia).

So in essence, because some of the audience members came up afterwards to have a closer look and a play, I believe this shows that the the concept of my project was coherently presented.

 

At the end of this Creative Project, I can truly say that I have thoroughly enjoyed my myself. I look forward to applying the skills I’ve gained (technical and people based) to my Main Composition Project.

For my Main Project, without repeating what I said in an earlier post, the Circuit Bent toys will be presented as part of what I have called (for now at least) ‘an interactive console ensemble’. This ensemble will hopefully consist of; Circuit Bent Toys, an Atari 520 STfm, a GameCube, an Arduino, a Raspberry Pi, and possibly more. In addition, my tutor Alistair Zaldua has set me with a task of writing a composition specifically for Circuit Bent Toys, which I have to say has been a task-and-a-half, as this hasn’t really been done before. Not helped of course by the chaotic and unpredictable nature of Circuit Bent toys. They almost fight against being composed for, and instead prefer to be played with. Nonetheless I am taking on the task. I may even talk about this within this series of posts.

Keep checking this blog for updates on the Main Composition project, discussions on past compositions, and maybe even a review or two thrown in for good measure.

– Jason Hodgson (14th May 2017)

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YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/JasonMusicallyMe (I’m working on changing this URL, but to do so I need at least 100 subscriber. Which is where you lovely readers can help by pressing the subscribe button).

Masters Project: 4. Circuit-Bending Toys (Part 3)

What’s in a Name
/Workshops 2 & 3

In this mini-series I will talk about circuit-bending as part of Creative Project, as well as occasionally, how it will relate to my Main composition project.

In the last post, I introduced you to the instruments by how I bent them. But now it’s time to Name and Fame them!

There are now three circuit bent toys being used in my Creative Project, I shall introduce them in the order of their naming.

(The descriptions of the instruments were written by Natalie Perdu, a member of Canterbury Christchurch University Scratch Orchestra, and fellow Masters Student).

Without further adieu, here are the instruments the Scratch Orchestra helped to create:

First of, let me introduce you to Lady Penelope.

Pink whiz, heart attack girl.
Plastic face, no disgrace.
Living the life rarefied,
no second place.

Higher and higher the doyenne of cool.
Refined sugar sweetness,
distinctly old skool.

With vim And with vigour,
and clipped elocution,
she’ll draw you right in for your execution.

This is the game she loves to play.
The more you hold on,
the more you will pay.

Right to your core her electricity flows.
You’ll be bound in her net,
and trussed with pink bows.

 

Secondly, there is 8 Bit Guitar:

A Garrulous and dynamic individual.
Naïvely enthusiastic. 8 Bit Guitar gallivants
into situations where angels fear to tread.

Attention span of a washing machine on full spin,
with the hear of a tiger.

Always tries hard,
and the results never fail
to bring a mile to the stoniest of hearts.

Needs to be watched over or may try too hard and exhaust themselves.

 

And lastly, but by no means least, Farmageddon:

Bright, breezy, bubbly!
Who wouldn’t be drawn to the cheery soul of Farmageddon?
When you find the online, you will be drawn into their
sweet, cheery, and oh so polite persona.

There is nothing Faramgeddon won’t do for you.

You will be made the center of their world.

Until you’re not.

Until their darkness begins to show.

You always though the darkness was there,
but you brushed that thought aside.

Now you know.

Now you see the sociopath that is Farmageddon.

 

All three of these instruments, along with a fourth named Gallitronia (no points for guessing the influence of the name or what toy was circuit bent) which is in it’s prototype stages were showcased as part of a concert at Canterbury Christchurch University on the 19th April.

As mentioned, this instrument was presented in its prototype form during the performance, therefore its full potential has yet to be realised. But don’t despair, I will talk about it more in detail at some point in the future.

Throughout this process, my good friends and Videographers Michael-Paul Thompson, and Nathaniel Beddall are creating a short documentary-style video of this project which whilst its main purpose is to document the project for my Creative Project Module, it will also be available to you lovely people via my YouTube Channel at a later date.

– Jason Hodgson (21st April 2017)

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YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/JasonMusicallyMe (I’m working on changing this URL, but to do so I need at least 100 subscriber. Which is where you lovely readers can help by pressing the subscribe button).

Masters Project: 3. Circuit-Bending Toys (Part 2)

The Death of the Radioscramaphonia
/First Workshop

In this mini-series I will talk about circuit-bending as part of Creative Project, as well as occasionally, how it will relate to my Main composition project.

When I started planning this entry I had completed my first Circuit Bent instrument and gave it the name ‘Radioscramaphonia’. I then made the mistake of adding things to it. In particular I wanted to increase my potentiometer, and to add an audio jack socket to allow for an easy way to amplify it. However, at that stage I did not have the skills or dexterity required to make these changes. As a result, I had to pronounce the death of Radioscramaphonia.

I even went to UKC to ask the computing department if they could help, but even they were unable to resurrect Radioscramaphonia.

Although, yes I was saddened to see my instrument give up its life, its sacrifice was not in vain. Instead, I had to see this as a learning opportunity. What could I have done differently? What can I take away and learn from this experience?

Firstly, I’ve learnt the hard way that ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it!’.

Secondly, I learnt not to over complicate the task when you don’t have the skills (yet). I could have easily just replaced the speakers with the audio jack socket, instead of attempting to find a way to bypass it when an audio jack was plugged into it. Whilst I know this is possible, I am now aware that I do not have the skills or dexterity yet to achieve this.

Thankfully, however, this happened after the first workshop I ran as part of my Creative Project, in which I tasked myself with introducing the members of the Canterbury Chirst Church Scratch Orchestra to Circuit Bending.

The first workshop consisted of a potted history, followed by a demonstration of Radioscramaphonia, which led into them opening up toys to discover potential sounds that they could produce. Unfortunately, due to health and safety (and time scale to some extent), I was unable to allow them to use a soldering iron. To compensate this, I discussed with them about the built in failure to a project such as this. I warned them that the sounds they think could happen may change when wires and buttons are added, and new sounds may be discovered in the process. I also made it clear to them that there was a chance that the instruments may give up during the soldering process. I have had personal experience of this, but had no idea at the time that this was going to happen to my Radioscramaphonia. As an attempt at a backup to this problem, I advised them to explore more than one toy each.

The main toys they wanted to be bent were; a Pink Mini-Keyboard, a Pink Guitar, and a Leap Frog French/English Language toy.

The only one to survive from the main choices was the Pink Mini-Keyboard.

During the exploration of sounds in the first workshop, the speakers of the Pink Guitar were knocked and disconnected from the main circuitboard. After multiple attempts which included; replacing the batteries, replacing the wires, replacing the speaker, removing the speaker and connecting it directly to an audio jack socket; my attempts proved futile. Sound was still being made, but after a few seconds at full volume, it would decrease and end with it being barely audible, even with amplification.

I did not have time to continue trying to fix this. So as the person who was playing the Pink Guitar had their heart set on a toy guitar, I popped to the local charity shops and found another toy guitar to circuit bend instead.

This attempt at circuit bending proved successful.

The second toy that did not survive this process was the Leap Frog French/English Language toy. Simply put, during the soldering, I must have accidentally connected something I shouldn’t have, and it just stopped working. So instead, a Farmyard Barn toy was circuit bent.

In the workshop we had discovered that hands-on was the best approach for this ensemble. The group weren’t over fond of the potentiometer, instead favouring the wires that used the body (and some spit) as a method of resistance. They also decided that they wanted a simple bend with resistant contact wires, and only a couple of buttons if possible that maybe triggered a new sound to be emitted from the toy.

With this in mind I’ve bent the toys with very little adaptations.

The Pink Keyboard had the contact wired added, and one button. The best way I can describe what the button does is to say that it makes the current audible. I’m not entirely certain this is the case, but for the sake of being able to imagine the kind of sound it produces, we’ll stick with that description. The contact wires on all the devices change the resistance of the sound produced. Commonly this decreases the speed, which lowers the pitch. But occasionally it can increase the speed and pitch.

The replacement for the Pink Guitar, a White Guitar, also has these features. Another button was also added which sends a current via two connections which trigger sounds to be played. However, the connection isn’t clean, so instead you hear a quasi-random sound in terms of where the playback is cut with each pulse of current. Again, as my expertise do not lie within the fields of electronics or circuitry, I can only, certainty at this point, hazard an educated guess at what happens with the new connections I make.

The Farmyard Barn toy was an interesting and very simple bend. No connections I tried sent any signal like those of the previous two bends. So this one would have no added button. Once again I added the contact wires, but in terms of additions, this was the only one. Instead, by shear chance I discovered by making contact with the workings of the metal strips that were underneath the plastic animals that acted as trigger buttons for the relevant sounds, the velocity at which the sounds were played was vastly decreased. With the addition of the contact wires, this dark and sinister sounds of an alien machine or creature emanated from this innocent looking toy.

So far this was all the bending I had done in the time scale available between the first and second workshop.

In the next blog entry, I will talk about the second workshop, the naming of the instruments, and the plans for the rehearsal leading up to the performance. As well as some photos of the finished instruments.

– Jason Hodgson (10th March 2017)

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YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/JasonMusicallyMe (I’m working on changing this URL, but to do so I need at least 100 subscriber. Which is where you lovely readers can help by pressing the subscribe button).

Masters Project: 2. Circuit-Bending Toys (Part 1)

An Introduction and the Plan

In this mini-series I will talk about circuit-bending as part of Creative Project, as well as occasionally, how it will relate to my Main composition project.

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9n8TfAJfcY[/embedyt]

As corny as it sounds, the first question that has to be asked is ‘what is Circuit-Bending?’.

The term Circuit-Bending was coined by Qubais Reed Ghazala in 1992 in Experimental Music Instruments Magazine after his now 50 year old technique of creatively short circuiting battery operated, noise making devices to discover sounds beyond the devices original intentions. Consequently, Reed is commonly referred to as the Father of Circuit-Bending.

[foogallery id=”183″]

Since then videos on YouTube, and forums discussing the technique have popped up all across the internet. I will be adding to this half a century old tradition, by creating my own circuit-bent instruments for both my Creative Project and my Main Project.

Now I’m not going to bore you with a long and arduous essay about the history of circuit-bending (I’ve already done that for one of my essays). Even though there is the potential for some history to be dotted throughout this mini-series of posts, the focus, will be on the process of this particular part of the project, thoughts I’ve had as I went along, and possibly a mini how-to for the less-so dexterous like myself (no promises on this one).

This series as a whole may also be accompanied by videos demonstrations of each element.

As mentioned earlier, in this mini-series I will talk about circuit-bending as part of my Creative Project, as well as occasionally, how it will relate to my Main Composition Project. The two are not dissimilar, however this academic year I have chosen to use one element of my Main Project for my Creative Project so I can learn more about the topic without the distraction of it within the wider context of my Main Composition.

The basics are the same in so far as they both require me to create some circuit-bent instruments. The application on the other hand is slightly different. For my Main Project, circuit-bending is a small part of a larger collection of devices. For Creative Project, circuit-bending is used in conjunction with workshopping, and composition creation with an ensemble. Therefore, because they share so many elements and discussions in the process, it seemed excessive to have separate posts for these projects, which is why I’ve chosen to combine them.

The outline for the practical side of the circuit-bending project is:

Step 1:

Research Circuit Bending (this part is already done).

Step 2:

Watch and Reed (…see what I did there…) some tutorials on the basics techniques for Circuit Bending – this can be done with Step 3.

Step 3:

Open up a toy and discover its hidden sounds. (Repeat this step for each toy).

Step 4:

Fix/Circuit Bend 1 Toy. This will inevitably end in me breaking something. However, the aim at with this step is to learn, rather than to succeed at my first attempt. If I do succeed I would consider this more of a failure, because it would have meant that nothing was learnt.

Step 5:

Create a short recording of me experimenting and improvisation with the Bent instrument.

The Creative Project:

The current purpose that Circuit-Bending has in my Creative Project, is to facilitate musicians in the act of improvisation, exploration, and discovery of chance based instrumentation.

There will be 3 workshops designed to introduce these musicians to Circuit-Bending and the its sound-world. At the end of the project, I do not aim to have created a coherent and reproductive composition using the circuit-bent toys, instead I am hoping to create a discussion about the possibilities of how the techniques used in the project could be used in other parts of music creation.

While writing this I’ve been pondering how at the end of this project I could evaluate whether or not the project was a success. The potential criteria I have come up with, are:

Did those involved learn a new skill?

‘New skill’ does not only refer to the technical aspects of circuit-bending. It also encompasses skills for the creation of music, ways to tackle the difficulties that arise when faced with new or unusual material, how to tackle collaborative composition, among others.

Were the workshops engaging?

During the workshops, did the musicians feel included within the process? Were they active in their participation? Did they find the process/workshops interesting?

Did the musicians enjoy the process of chance-based instrument creation?

As self-explanatory as this question is, this one relates a lot to the last question but is more focused on whether the musicians had fun. Due to the nature of the project, the circuits can break or simply give-up. Because of this unpredictability, and potential failure that is built into a project such as this, and as frustrating as it is, it is important to me that enjoyment is counted as part of the success of this project. Thus ensuring that if only one circuit bent instrument still exist at the end of the project, that the process is taken into account.

Have the musicians come away from the project with a new look are electronic music?

It is important to me and this project for people to have learnt something new about electronic music. I have in the past been guilty of almost dismissing the importance of electronic music. Already, over the course of this project, I have gained a new love an respect for the art.

Have the musicians over a short space of time, become confident on the new instruments?

Again, another self-explanatory question. Simply put, are they as confident at exploring the circuit-bent instruments as they are their own instruments?

Did they present a coherent performance?

I’m not looking for a perfect performance, or even to have a complete score for a composition by the end of the project. Instead I’m looking for a performance where they engaged with both the instruments, sounds, ideas, and the other musicians. Really, everything you look for in a normal free improvisation performance.

The Masters Project:

I don’t have a huge amount to say in this section as of yet, however I can say that how the Creative Project turns out will affect how I present the Circuit-Bent toys in my Masters Project.

The final words I could say in this introduction could easily be a list of items you need, but there’s no point reinventing the wheel. Instead I provided you with a link to the list that Reed has on his website Anti-Theory.

– Jason Hodgson (11th February 2017)

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Twitter: https://twitter.com/JasonHComposer
Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/jason-hodgson
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/JasonMusicallyMe (I’m working on changing this URL, but to do so I need at least 100 subscriber. Which is where you lovely readers can help by pressing the subscribe button).

Masters Project: 1. Introduction

An introduction to the series about my Masters Project.

For roughly the next 18 months, I will be studying my Master of Music at Canterbury Christ Church University, with a focus on Composition.

My aim for my Main Project as it stands at this point in time, is to create and develop an installation which gives the majority of compositional decisions to the audience (or users… this term may change). This installation will use and utilise an eclectic mixture of electronic devices, whilst allowing for a variation to the level of control given to the audience.

My initial reason behind doing this project, is not one that I could justifiably say was academic…. (apologies to my personal tutor Alistair Zaldua)…. I want people (non-musicians) to be able to get stuck in, and be able to explore the more experimental side of music, without the fear that comes with attending a normal or more traditionally presented concert or performance.

Overall, this comes out of an impression that I get about a lot of experimental music, and the lack of accessibility for non-musicians. I have found that the way most of these experimental pieces are presented to the public beyond academia can come across as being very cold, very dry, and highly academic. This can be off-putting for those not used to the format, traditions, and more technical aspects that come with the art. It can also come across that if you don’t understand the music, or even appreciate its finer aspects, then you are lower than those who do. I have yet to hear this said explicitly, nevertheless it certainly feels that way to some, including myself. In addition, where and how these pieces are presented can also have an affect on its perception by an audience. For example, conferences, though open to the public, the audience that attend tend to be those already interested in the style or discussions that are being presented. And new audiences whose main focus in life is not to search for ‘new’ music may miss opportunities to widen their knowledge and to experience a new world that they may have not been previously aware of.

Therefore, when it comes to my projects, I try to think about how I could present my work to those who are not accustomed to the strange sounds that can occur in such an experimental world. I also try to look at how music that has already been successful in this, and which have unusual (or non-traditional) elements have been presented, and represented successfully to a wider audience outside of the academic world. I hope to help progress this further. This does not mean I can guarantee that I will be successful in doing this myself, but an exploration is needed. In addition, this way of thinking about presenting new works to a wider audience does not mean “dumbing down” the end work, but instead looking at how these works are represented to the wider community.

In the past I haven’t always achieved this successfully, and even I will admit that sometimes I do enjoy the odd piece that explores a technique in a purely academic and explorative fashion. But I do feel that new music needs to also be for the wider community, not just for the academic musicologists in their ivory towers.

In fact, last year I put on a concert titled Inside the Machine, which contained pieces from across my three years of studying Bachelors, to test out one idea about how to present my work outside of academia. I discuss the pieces in another blog series.

I do have a list of devices I would like to use in this piece already, however I will not write it on here for the moment. This is for one reason and one reason only: it will change, and probably drastically over the coming months. What I can tell you is that they spread throughout the past century.

The style of these posts will be one of documenting the processes throughout the development of the project, as well as discussing about how each part fits in both my end installation, and its context within other realms of art and music. Most of the time this will focus on the positive, but I will also talk about the difficulties, (and frustrations), I discover along the way. The posts may also be accompanied by videos, photos, and audio clips. I may also discuss how particular parts of the project fit into my wider studies.

In addition, nearer the end of project there will be shameless plugging of the final event, and possibly beta-tests prior to this.

That is all for this post. There is much more to say about this project, and I have even started on one and a half parts. Keep an eye out, and don’t forget to like my Facebook Page or my Twitter Page where you will see shorter and quicker updates.

– Jason Hodgson (27th January 2017)

Don’t forget to share this blog.

You can find me on:

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Twitter: https://twitter.com/JasonHComposer
Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/jason-hodgson
YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/user/JasonMusicallyMe (I’m working on changing this URL, but to do so I need at least 100 subscriber. Which is where you lovely readers can help by pressing the subscribe button).