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This is, in fact, what he teaches, and along with circuit-bending, it’s the other most commonly instructed tool of DIY electronics. In his studio, Fischbeck’s more the patient sherpa than the fiery mystic. He pulls up a Max window on his computer to show me what he means. Instead of endless strings of esoteric code, the screen contains friendly little rectangles connected to one another by straight lines. Each one serves a purpose within the greater function. It’s surprisingly graspable, and not unlike a circuit board.
Fischbeck incorporated Max’s open-source cousin, Pure Data, into his most recent class at the Public School in May. They are powerful programs. “Since the class only met for two sessions, I only had one real concept I wanted to distill,” he says. “Which is that you can treat anything as a stream of data that you can then interpolate, mediate or manipulate however you want. These things that seem so distinct in the world — any sense: sight, touch, temperature, sound — once you put them into software like this, they become very malleable.”
It’s a Friday night on Hollywood Boulevard, and everything’s malleable, from my eardrums to my ankles to the room itself, which seems capable of shattering — or swallowing itself — at any moment. Hardcore circuit-bender XDUGEF is performing at Relax Bar, and, distorted as my senses are, they tell me he’s not using a lick of software. From behind a tower of gear and wires, he conducts a maelstrom of white noise and black burble, of screeching feedback that mimics wind — that is wind — of small electrical explosions, hijacked radio chatter and his own rasping demon roar.
Funny that the same guy, dressed in skulls and crossbones, should lead a packed annual circuit-bending workshop at Echo Park’s Echo Curio arts space. XDUGEF is part of a more traditional bending community — the types who trek east to New York’s Bent Fest each spring, and eschew not only computer programming but also well-known circuit-bending techniques like those repeatedly applied to vintage Speak & Spells (used by everyone from Beck to Venetian Snares). In conversation, XDUGEF is generous enough to refer to Max/MSP’s applications as “data bending,” but for the true bender, spontaneity, randomness and severity of sound rule the day.
The spirit that drives DIY programming is different. Both Max and Pure Data are fueled by a communal brain trust — users who freely trade their homemade schematics online (the essential kernel of “open-source”). Ideas are constantly being compounded, meaning a brand new sound can be built out of dozens (hundreds even) of smaller existing functions and reconfigured to interact in unexpected ways. Hence, a newcomer can start from scratch or experiment with what’s there. More seductive still is the very real possibility of contributing to the conversation.
“The last iteration I had done on the software was by a random fan in Rotterdam,” says Daedelus, who’s pioneered the use of Max/MSP with an open-source device called a Monome. “He was a Monome user too, and I was out there for a performance and there were a few things I’d been looking to have programmed. By the end of the afternoon, the kid had done it free of charge — just a little work and a big smile on his face.”
The Monome belongs both inside and outside any good discussion of DIY electronics and music-making. It’s a salable, premade item, which should disqualify it. But on its own, the thing is pretty useless — just a handsome wooden box covered with buttons. Coupled with user-made software, however, it can be a lot of things: a game controller, a calculator, a one-bit video screen (an animated Lite-Brite), a really trippy clock or, most often, an instrument.
Monome creator Brian Crabtree has taught at Machine Project. In fact, he took his first CalARTS electronics course in 2001 from Machine’s director Mark Allen, and a handful of local workshops have been developed around Crabtree’s circuit kits. Allen himself frequently heads a seminar that teaches participants to solder by way of constructing a basic synthesizer (parts designed by Crabtree). A band plays “music to solder by” throughout, then invites the students up to jam on their new instruments. Such nonbent devices represent a third category of easy electronics education. In my first two hours at Machine Project, with no relevant experience, I’m able to build a working underwater microphone.
Likewise, Public School founder Sean Dockray co-hosts a recurring class on Arduino chips — low-cost, customizable circuit boards that can be told what to do via programs like Pure Data. And the entire curriculum — Fischbeck’s programming, XDUGEF’s bends, the kits and components — is predicated on the same principle at work on the floor of El Rey: Be not daunted by the arts, nor the sciences. You, too, can create. Students in Dockray’s most recent Arduino class ranged in age from 25 to 65. Allen’s mission statement dictates that Machine Project exists to “encourage heroic experiments of the gracefully over-ambitious.” The only real prerequisite is what Daedelus calls a “questing” personality, and it’s the same trait that keeps the experts enthralled as well.
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