Circuit benders

Bent Festival returns to Intermedia Arts


Bianca Pettis and Jacob Roske are circuit-bending evangelists, traveling the country to teach others how to reveal the musical potential hidden inside old consumer electronics.

“Bianca likes to say it’s the sounds the manufacturer never intended you to find,” Roske said. “But they’re in there, which is what’s so neat about it.”

The Minneapolis couple — who perform together as Beatrix*JAR — are part of a thriving subculture of circuit benders who creatively short-circuit electronic toys, keyboards and drum machines to create strange new sounds. When the fifth annual Bent Festival arrives May 1 at Intermedia Arts, 2822 Lyndale Ave. S., they’ll teach you how to do it, too.

Their Intro to Circuit Bending workshop is just one of the events packed into three days of performances and classes during the festival, which stops here on the way from Los Angeles to New York.

It’s a workshop the couple has refined over the last few years since they decided in 2006 to become “full-time circuit-bending sound artists,” as Roske put it. In that time, they’ve held circuit-bending sessions for both children and adults at libraries, museums, and colleges.

If you plan to attend, dig through the old toy box. Electronic toys and cheap keyboards from the 1980s are some of the easiest and most popular gadgets to modify. Roske plays with a bent Casio keyboard, as well as some modified Speak & Spell toys.

Pettis said it was easiest to explain what they do by comparing a circuit board to a tiny city crisscrossed with little circuit streets. Circuit benders look for shortcuts between those streets — short circuits, really — that produce new sounds and effects.

“You touch different points, a point A to a point B, and you see if there’s a sonic change being made,” Pettis explained.

Sometimes a bent circuit will cause the machine to produce a looping or repeating sound. Other bends produce “fuzzy, glitchy (or) garbley” effects, Roske said.

“It’s very trial-and-error based,” he added, noting that some shortcuts lead to dead ends. “You just kind of go around the machine, touching different points and listening for what happens.”

When one of those shortcuts turns into something interesting, a circuit bender makes a permanent connection and solders it to a switch, which is mounted on the outside of the machine.
“You can forever keep that cool sound you found,” Roske said.

There are some safety concerns. To avoid a serious zap, most circuit benders stick to low-voltage battery-operated devices. Still, Roske and Pettis said circuit bending was the type of science experiment (or art project, whatever you prefer) that both children and adults enjoyed.

It was the accessibility of circuit bending that inspired Mike Rosenthal of The Tank, a nonprofit arts organization in New York City, to hold the first Bent Festival five years ago.

“Within five to 10 minutes of an introduction workshop, you could be circuit bending to some extent,” Rosenthal said.

“You see this light go on in their eye when they get their first crazy sound,” he continued, “and then, after a couple of hours (or) a couple of weeks … if they come up to you and say, ‘But why does this happen?’ Then you’ve got them.”

Rosenthal found circuit-bent instruments were also an easy way to introduce people to the electronic and experimental music he regularly booked at The Tank, where he works as both music curator and artistic director.

“It’s sort of bright and pretty and weird, right?” he said. “There’s all these toys up there (on stage.) You see people mashing on buttons and turning knobs.”

Some of the better-known knob-pushers and button-mashers in the world joined the Bent Festival this year. The Minneapolis stop features both local performers and circuit benders from the Netherlands, Japan, Italy, and the U.K.

Roske and Pettis, who curate the Minneapolis portion of the festival, said they received more than 100 entries from interested performers this year, which they took as a sign of circuit bending’s growing popularity.

“It’s like a new sound is emerging or something,” Pettis said. “People are trying to find new ways to express themselves.”

These days, it’s not too uncommon to see circuit-bent instruments in the hands of local musicians, especially those that specialize in noise, electronica or out-there rock.

Roske picked up his first lesson in circuit bending from local musician Ryan Olcott, who now plays with Mystery Palace. After one Sunday afternoon poking around inside a Casio SK-1 keyboard, he said, “I was immediately hooked.”

Watch out — he might get you hooked, too.