Disemboweling technology 

Circuit bending raises noisecore notoriety

There are a limited number of ways to mutilate and reconstruct old Speak ’n’ Spells, but Zach Fisher might know them all.

Fisher — better known by his alias, Baconhanger, in the Indy noisecore scene — has been putting the popular 1980s toys to good use. He’s a circuit bender, part of an underground movement in music that’s been growing since at least the 1960s, in which electronic devices are disemboweled and rewired to produce new sounds.

“Old technology is the most bendable,” Fisher says. “Old toys have bigger circuit boards. When bending, you short circuit the various components on the board, and sometimes get interesting results.”

These short circuits produce sounds anywhere from a low, scratchy growl to a high-pitched whine. (Imagine the static on your radio, but beamed in from another, angrier planet.)

In addition to his solo pieces, Fisher produces music in the band Animals Within Animals with Ben Berg, alias stAllio!. Berg has been experimenting since high school, when he would record music in his bedroom.

“I branched out into electronic and computer music in college,” Berg says. “After graduation, I met up with Dr. Butcher, M.D., head of a tiny local label called Bad Taste. At that point I became heavily involved in Bad Taste and the local experimental/noise scene.”

Berg, like Fisher, prefers circuit bending to using computer synthesized sounds. “Synthesis has developed to the point where you can do almost anything you can think of, the key words being ‘you can think of.’ Good ideas are hard to come by, especially when it seems like everything’s already been done,” Berg says.

But circuit bending goes beyond plain imagination. “Using these kinds of experimental techniques brings a layer of chaos — of surprise — into your art,” he says. “This unpredictability takes you in directions you would never have thought of going.”

It’s also what led pioneer Reed Ghazala to publicize the technique, coining the term “circuit bending” in the early 1960s. “Bending has cracked the ice on the frozen landscape of popular music, and people are falling through and into the pool of experimentalism below. Music needs this to free it from the awful bondage of commercial form,” according to Ghazala.

On the other hand, it may be years before the message is received in popular culture. “It will be a while before a purely circuit-bent piece hits the top 40. But as to a ‘Good Vibrations’-style interlude, I can see a bent instrument taking center stage as a wild solo voice right now,” Ghazala says. “Too, I feel an impatience for musical evolution in society today: a stronger desire for non-corporate music solutions, a greater need for personal control of music. Bending covers all this.”

The need for personal control is one Fisher can relate to. “I used to play guitar, but then something happened. Around ’94, I was 13 years old and started getting into industrial music. After hearing such strange sounds, I really didn’t want to play guitar anymore. I can only get the sound of a guitar out of it,” he says.

Yet after building a few of his own instruments, something unexpected happened. “I keep telling myself I should bend toys and sell them, and make a killing at it, but it’s too hard to part with something that I made. It’s almost like having a baby,” Fisher says. “Once you go through the whole process, you really don’t want to give it up for adoption.”

Zach Fisher and Ben Berg can be heard as their alter egos on the Animals Within Animals MySpace page, found at www.myspace.com/animalswithinanimals. More on Reed Ghazala and his other projects is available at www.anti-theory.com.

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