Before we talk with Beatrix*JAR, a Minneapolis duo making largely improvised electronic music on an array of instruments that include keyboards, a laptop and a Speak and Spell, let's familiarize ourselves with a little jargon. Warning: A couple of these definitions are informed by Wikipedia, but when it comes to terms that haven't yet hit the dictionary, sometimes an open-source database is the best (and most authoritative) place to find information.
: short-circuiting or otherwise modifying electronic devices such as synthesizers and children's toys so that such devices might function in ways that weren't intended by the manufacturer. These alterations could be understood to alter the original device into a unique musical instrument that produces sounds far different from those produced by the original.
: an electrical circuit in which the current travels along a different path from the one originally intended. Also a 1986 comedy starring Johnny 5.
Fuzzy sound collage
: how Beatrix*JAR describe their music, which they hope inspires a warm, fuzzy, upbeat feeling in a listener, as opposed to the chilliness that's associated with some electronic music.
Now let's take it from the beginning: Bianca Pettis (Beatrix) and Jacob Aaron Roske (JAR) met about five years ago while both were taking video classes at a community college. Roske worked at the video editing lab at the school, and one day, he handed Pettis a CD of his work, which he was then recording under his solo moniker JAR.
Roske was already working with electronic instruments when a friend taught him how to circuit bend.
"I've always been interested in what sounds could be - in being a sound and audio explorer, in trying to explore analogue tape, or AM radios with multiple flash cameras," Roske says in a phone interview the week before the duo's show at the Indianapolis Museum of Art's Tobias Theater. "I learned about circuit bending, and it was cool because it's a way to alter the overall sound of any electronic device or sound-making device; you can totally change it and make sounds that the manufacturer never intended."
When Pettis made a video for one of JAR's songs, she says that their relationship changed, and she learned how to circuit bend as well. (And she and Roske now pass along their knowledge to their audiences; a three-minute segment for Make Magazine
almost convinced me that I could solder - an essential skill in the circuit-bending process - without burning my fingernails off.)
What began as what Roske calls a "hyper-creative collaboration" started in the visual arts and eventually moved towards sound art, culminating in the March 2005 formation of Beatrix*JAR.
The two have since become full-time sound artists, traveling around the country teaching how to circuit bend - thereby recycling toys and giving them a new life and usefulness - and giving performances, which they call "Fuzzy Sound Collage Dance Parties."
The shows are a hybrid of electronic and analogue sounds. On the electronic side, Pettis brings along her G4 notebook computer and CD turntable, working from an "electronic roadmap" of sounds - or a pre-selected library of electronic beats and found sounds - in order to give the show some shape and make it into a proper dance party. Thus, while Beatrix*JAR certainly has one foot in the noise community, a little planning before the show ensures that there will still be beats and structure for a dance-happy audience to hold on to.
On the analog side, Roske brings along a battery of circuit-bent toys: two Speak and Spells, a Speak and Read, a Speak and Math, AM radios that turn into mini-theremins when they interact with flash cameras and two keyboards. All of the instruments above have been modified to make different sounds: The Speak and Spell speaks in a low or garbled voice; the Speak and Read spits out a non-narrative word soup; the keyboard plays a drum machine beat or low note when you press a key that would typically sound a high note.
Roske finds the indeterminacy involved with working with circuit-bend objects appealing. Pettis likes to think about circuit-bending as toy recycling.
"In these economic times, it's cool to take things that already exist and make them a new musical instrument - to take an already existing item and transform it into what you want it to be," she says. "It's about taking items that exist in our environment that maybe we would just throw away and actually transforming them into something useful.
Pettis and Roske hope to construct a world in which people are free to experiment, dance and break down perceived boundaries - how to play any one instrument, how to use any one tool or toy, what music we should expect to hear, what sounds are musical.
"I think people approach toys in a different way than they would a real musical instrument," Pettis says. "We actually see people pick up a keyboard and start playing it, where if it's a grand piano, you might have a different relationship to it. The toys really do bring out the kid in people. Also, they're so mass-produced that it's a great tool to show people how they can use electronics, solder and make changes to them without harming them."