Interview by Rodney:
Qubais Reed Ghazala has been circuit bending since the 60’s. He’s credited with documenting the first known bent device as we know it. Short circuiting an electronic device more than likely happened before, but Reed saw it’s potential as something more. I sent him a few questions a couple weeks back. I wanted to do a piece that lets new and old readers inside Reeds mind. So we take it from the beginning and also try to find out what tomorrow holds…if the theory stands… the theory of a tomorrow. (Que the Doctor Who theme now)
Q: How did you come about in your mind the concept of Circuit Bending? What went off inside that triggered the imagination process, to switch on to the fact that a glitching toy could be seen as something more than a broken piece of garbage?
QRG: The sounds that came from that first short circuit back in the mid 1960’s were just so interesting! This was a mini-amp, 9V, shorting out in my desk drawer. The result was a series of electronic sounds rising in pitch, over and over, like a modern police siren. But back then, of course, sirens were purely mechanical. So there was nothing really to compare this to! I immediately thought, “If this can happen by accident, what might happen if I started blindly short-circuiting the amp here, there and everywhere? Are there more hidden sounds?” The idea of “toy” or “garbage” never came into my mind. This was magic.
I’ve been a chance artist since a little boy (neighbors thought I was strange, freezing colored liquids in the winter back yard to see the forms they’d take). Recognizing another chance art here was easy. Bending sonically explains chance the way Suminagashi and dye migration explain visually. All of these “sound” the same to me – see if you don’t think so.
How about chance flavors? Here’s my Captain Beefheart cake whose inner fruits are swirled not to blend, but to randomly distribute. Will the next bite be tangerine or blackberry? Chance is fun.
Q: Was your pulse racing as you thought to yourself, maybe someone else out there could be turned on to this? What at that time did you think you had to do to achieve getting the idea out there?
QRG: But I was 13 or 14! Getting the idea out there wasn’t a concern. All I wanted to do was experiment with the chance-found circuit paths. I put pots in these new circuit paths. Caps. Photo cells. I extended the touch-sensitive circuit points to body-contacts. I was so totally swamped with ideas to expand this circuit that my concentration was soaked.
It became obvious that people were interested in how this had happened. And as time passed I began to answer editor’s requests, and began to explain my processes and thoughts.
Really, I never wondered whether people would want to explore the techniques or not. I knew, as time passed, that the technique was special within the field (this is after doing it the “right” way [time-consuming kit building, chart and schematic studying, math tables to learn, etc.] for many, many years only to end-up with the same thing anyone else does). Circuit-bending breaks this monotony and can empower anyone.
Q: For those who may not know, you’re considered in most peoples’ minds as the founding father of Circuit bending, if you will. What if anything does that mean to you?
QRG: Dedicating one’s life to art presumes an unsure future. Lots of work, sacrifice, and even bruising result (literally in my case: I was attacked more than once for being an experimentalist – it seems that any time you have something really cool, someone will try to take it away from you).
So, if one does keep at it, tries hard to teach, plus all the rest like coining terms, developing usable instruments, releasing recordings, writing and publishing, puts in decades of work developing a vision, creates “firsts,” then sure – it’s nice to see your work recognized.
Still, I’m by nature a recluse, not an attention seeker (I’m asked to speak all over the world – I don’t usually go). I’m in it now to turn people on, not to spread my name (my last public appearance was many years ago). And, so, the book does that, turn people on. But yeah – when people recognize where it came from, that’s fair. Fairness is good.
Editorial: (Rodney) Very nicely put…”Fairness is good”. It is why we are all reading this today.
Q: You have written on the subject as a published author, being a leading guide to many first time benders. What literature is available to those that may want to get their hands on some of your work?
QRG: My book, Circuit-Bending, Building Your Own Alien Instruments, will get anyone into bending. It’s entirely original (unlike many electronics authors, I didn’t re-package other people’s ideas and terms to sell a book). So it’s the Real Deal, complete with history, soldering techniques, exploration guides, parts sources, three appendixes (including a super-powerful collection of diagrams of the best generic bends), and pictorial (as opposed to schematic) diagrams that anyone can understand.
All 20 of my EMI articles are still available as reprints. People like these – this is the series of writings that introduced circuit-bending to the world. But other than SK-1 and SA-2 Aleatron articles, the remaining are general in nature – exploring various bent instruments, but in a historic/philosophical way. Not this-wire-goes-here instructions. Still, they’re popular. And I did push the limits a few times centering on imaginary instruments or phenomena, outside the realm of bending.
Electronic Musician and MAKE (among others) have published my how-to articles. WIRED, Smithsonian and other well-knowns cover my work (often leading the interested to the work bench). And just tons of smaller press.
But the most powerful writing, believe it or not, was the free online how-to on anti-theory.com. This was the first how-to online, and it fed all the rest, either directly or not. Still there, still free, still super-powerful.
Q: Did you ever think Circuit Bending would be such an art form that it would inspire others (such as myself), to make this a sort of lifestyle? I mean…people across the world are using bent devices in their music, throwing workshops teaching the process. There have been festivals celebrating the art, web pages dedicated to the progression. Record labels have been formed that only put out artist that use circuit bent gear in their songs. There are even people selling their homemade instruments at profit.
QRG: I watched this technique explode into the mainstream in a way that no prior electronic process ever has. Not the academics (so much better published and supported!), nor the work of the theory-struck private designers ever “crossed the blood-brain barrier” like bending has. Why? I designed it that way!
For the general public, the layperson, the kid like me, at 15, who had no college access or money to get there, not much was available. What little there was (kits), again, were cool, but contained no surprises. And didn’t really teach you how to take-off instantly as a unique instrument designer with an endless range of immediate possibilities.
So – my technique was meant for the other 99% (real figure) of the world that the professors didn’t (can’t?) touch – all those persons who’ll never make it into a collegiate electronics class.
I guess I remember how empowering it was to begin designing unique, surprising-sounding instruments with no money or theory. I knew there were other people like me. This was for them… the other 99% of the world. It worked.
Q: How did the term “CIRCUIT BENDING” fly off? How did the art get the name that we know now as “CIRCUIT BENDING”?
QRG: Well, ya know, I named my process “Circuit-bending” back in 1992, in EMI, to open the art to discussion (naming things gives them life). Prior to that there was no “circuit-bending” happening under such name (though persons other than myself were exploring the creative short circuit, or so I figured, and said so in my first EMI article – the one where the term was first seen in print). And, truth be told, it was no easy term to coin. But it ended-up at the top of the stack. I liked it, and it did the job in the end.
Q: Do you sell any of your original circuit bent pieces?
QRG: Sure, but I also gift, which I enjoy much more. I do Bare Bends (unpainted – they’re economical and popular), as well as standard painted and top-end one-offs. I chrome metals, use tons of vintage parts, and sometimes employ unusual optics, and even incorporate client’s favorite parts (like the recent Steampunk Incantor with Plymouth Fury detailing).
Q: Do you yourself record any Music using circuit bent instruments?
QRG: Of course. The Secret Garden music (first Incantor music recording on planet earth) is being re-mastered and new material is being added to flesh-out a 2-LP set in heavy white audiophile vinyl. People can still obtain my Threnody CD (from-scratch Vox Insecta instrument).
And I’m being encouraged to release a number of early bent albums (Artifacts, A Watch in the Sea, Three Rings on the Ground, and many others). Too, I’ve just re-vamped my recording studio and more new work is on the way.
I’m always building new instruments…
Recording is more demanding – I’m pretty picky about composition.
Q: You’re still pretty active in the art. Coming up in September is an event in Cincinnati called Circuitastrophe. You’re scheduled to be there for that, right? What are you planning on doing for the event? I heard maybe a workshop and lecture. What is this going to be like, what are attendants to expect?
QRG: “Lecture” is too cold for what this will be. I’ll be showing a multi-media “slide” show: “The Folk Music of chance Electronics,” or, “How to Start an Art Movement Without Really Trying.” It’s a behind-the-scenes you-are-there look at the hidden history of what brought the art to me, and what then brought us here. I start with the press runs (early exposure in underground music magazines) that ran the public course. And then you see what really happened to me and the art (both good and bad!).
I’m also handing-out to the first 100 people through the door a funky little chunk of circuit-bending history, sure to become one of bending’s most sought oddities. There will be puzzled expressions.
Editorial: (Rodney) I won’t ask what it is, to not spoil it for anyone…but now I’m sure this might push people off the bubble and get there.
Q: What other events are you scheduled for in the future? Any art shows or programs you might be taking part in besides Circuitastrophe?
QRG: I’m capping-off the Circuitastrophe! event with my first Bent Be-In. The public is invited to this meeting of Circuitastrophe! performers, organizers and friends.
America’s Stonehenge, the 2,000 year-old earthen mounds here are arranged as celestial calendars, built by woodland American Indians. The Be-In camp is in this area, at a woodsy bend of the Little Miami River, out in the country 30-min north of Cincinnati. See the website for info and camping reservations if staying overnight. This is a not-to-be-missed event for benders everywhere. Not that I’m expecting a humongous crowd. Just a good, important one.
Q: Do you make yourself available if people wanted you at their next workshop for a special insight?
QRG: Sometimes. But I travel a lot, often to remote areas. I can be hard to find.
Q: Are you open to individuals contacting you with questions about the art and if so how may one contact you?
QRG: Sure – I answer questions all day long here. I just ask that people look into the standard sources first (my book, the online how-to, and my published charts and etc). If the answer’s not there, I’ll do my best to help. I’m at: email@example.com But as said, I’m often away. And when things pile up, regrettably, I can’t get to all the requests that arrive. I feel bad about that. All teachers would. That’s why we try to get our writings out there – to answer when we can’t.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?
QRG: In one of your questions you mentioned that circuit-bending can become a lifestyle. This is true. With these new concepts swirling in your mind, and the music spinning new stories in your ears, you change. Your consciousness is expanded. Understanding widens.
This was considered a threat during my teen years, in the 1960’s. An expanded consciousness might (and did) result in people questioning the capitalist goal of “a color TV and two cars in the garage” – the American Dream. But people do wake-up.
The bender lifestyle you recognized might be larger than is obvious. I recognize it as a social nuclei – a center of introspect whose reach, fertilized by this expanded consciousness, extends way beyond bending.
A common mind is emerging in the bending community. I’m reminded of the brightest futurists of my pivotal era, 40 years ago, when I talk to today’s benders. They’re the new philosophers, poets, art & civic leaders. I hope this will come-out at the Bent Be-In, at the open mic areas and fire circles.
Thanks for the interest here! Hope to see everyone at Circuitastrophe! and the Be-In!
Edit: The “be-In” website is being built, and to try again if it’s not up. It will be soon!
COOL! Thanks so much Reed for doing this article with us! I loved reading your answeres, as I thought I would. I guess it leaves me asking myself…Does the Man bend the Art, or does the Art bend the Man? My answer is I find the Art bends the Man… it takes you there, it gets inside your brain. But it almost seems obvious too. I look at artist I’ve known and how it takes a toll on their souls…Reed was right about it taking dedication. So as one who admires the art of Circuit Bending…I just have to say FORWARD!
Edit Edit: Thank you Rodney and Reed for your hard work on this article. More information on the Be-In will be available shortly. There is also an interview with Reed up on Gearwire, more awesome info! -CM