As a general rule, Angelenos don’t leave home before 9 on a Saturday night without good reason, let alone to go crouch and sit on El Rey Theatre’s heavily trafficked floor at 8:30. But down here on the ground is a pile of enticements. Promising objects in myriad colors snake out from the laptop hub around which 50 or so curious kids are gathered. They have completely forgotten the old theater’s stage; The guy who would normally be up there, Luke Fischbeck, scuttles around on the dance floor handing out instruments and wordless direction like some fired-up, mute shaman.
He offers me a long, brown pod connected by cables to a hot-wired mixing board, stares at me and shakes his hand like an evangelist until I understand how to use the thing. Others bang on small drums. Fischbeck’s partner Sarah Rara sings, or plays amplified thumb piano. But most of the excitement surrounds a metal box to which 10 or more audience members are connected via four yarn-covered electrical leads. Each time somebody grabs or lets go of this human chain, the music shifts. And each tonal aberration sounds remarkable.
Earlier in the week at the Lucky Dragons studio in Chinatown, Fischbeck gave me a lesson in how it all works. He built this device himself, along with the software that converts four channels of feedback variegated by “live people resistors” — human bodies as conductors — into so much aural manna.
“There’s something to be said for the collateral benefits of making the tools yourself, then sharing them with other people,” he says. “There’s this dialogue, where you’re not just, like, ‘Where’d you get that?’ It’s more, ‘How’d you make that?’ It’s the thing and the concept together.” Because, though Fischbeck is clearly an expert at what he does, he’d wager that you or I could do it too. He’s even taught classes to prove it.
The local music scene’s current bleeding digital edge is twofold, encompassing the kind of experimental rock-ish output of groups like Lucky Dragons and their more lo-fi counterparts (namely, other Smell-frequenting bands), and the “beat music” of Flying Lotus and the Low End Theory crew. While sonically separate, these camps share a lot of the same technology, not to mention a DIY spirit that trickles down to their fans. It should come as no surprise, then, that against a backdrop of growing urban interest in local food, handcrafted goods and self-sufficiency, it’s become quite easy for all comers to learn the basics of harnessing sound through homemade electronics.
Fischbeck himself has led workshops on the subject at one of the city’s chief do-it-yourself institutions, The Public School. Located in Chinatown, the small space plays host to a huge knowledge-share and works on a simple, community-generated principle: A student or teacher proposes a class online, and if there are enough takers, the Public School gives that class a bricks-and-mortar home. Echo Park’s Machine Project operates differently (seminars are decided on by a board of directors), but also offers affordable, hands-on lessons with everyday applications — everything from kimchi-barreling to converting toy keyboards into hardcore skronk machines.
Circuit-bending is the easiest of the audio arts, and it typically involves tearing open a second-hand battery-operated sound device — that toy keyboard, a megaphone, or, for the more sadistic, a Furby — and making it do things it was never designed for. Circuit boards have a certain logic to them that’s easy enough to grasp (just follow the wires) and easier to derail. Santa Monica–based musician Daedelus — who’s recorded for nearly every beat-oriented label in town — meets me before a mid-August show at Señor Fish, and he quickly demystifies the technique: “You just lick your fingers and touch stuff.
“Your body is electrically conductive,” he continues, “but not as much as metals are, so you add resistance to the circuit, or create bridges between points that weren’t there before. A lot of record diggers, we’ll go to the Salvation Army for old albums and wind up finding a toy with low batteries. You see the potential really quickly, because suddenly it’s making the wrong right sound.” This partially explains the strange magic gushing out of that box at El Rey. Fischbeck’s own bent device — factory-conceived to convert analog sounds into digital signals — is being warped by a pileup of clammy hands.
What isn’t explained by basic, spit-powered circuit-bending (classes often focus on soldering knobs, pressure sensors and other inexpensive add-ons) is that a Lucky Dragons show includes nary a bum note. There’s a high chaos factor inherent to bending. Artists like Daedelus sample the good stuff and toss out excess noise. Others bask in the squelch. In Fischbeck’s case, the dissonance is mitigated by a program he wrote using a popular form of software called Max/MSP. “The basics of Max are pretty easy to pick up, which is why it’s fun to use,” Fischbeck says. “It’s just connecting different boxes.”
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.
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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.
“I’ve been using the same circuit-bent Roland TR-606 drum machine since 2000,” says Daedelus, “and I never know what I’m going to get when I turn it on. It does these miraculous things — it has huge amounts of colors and shapes in it, and nothing else I own, certainly no ready-made studio synthesizer, has given me that kind of longevity. There’s still something else in there — I know it.”
“I like the idea of getting away from wanting things that cost more than you have,” says Fischbeck. “Sort of simplifying the chain of the economy where it’s no longer about some specific object that you fetishize, and instead you wind up learning about how electronics work or how sounds are made. Whatever materials you’d need, you can find pretty locally, and if you just ask questions, you can acquire the knowledge. Any of this stuff is just as satisfying when you abstract it and pass it around as when it’s visceral and you experience it.”
But there is something about experiencing it. At Señor Fish, Daedelus conducts the crowd through his Monome, flipping his arms out sideways from the device as the 256 buttons light up and move to their own rhythm — a beat orchestra in a box that oscillates between wild jitters and thick groove. He tilts a smaller, handheld Monome to the side, and the song slides off the table. When he rights it, sound returns. In the small crowd, as many dance to the music as study his every move, and it suddenly seems very fitting that these same brick walls, in a previous life the Atomic Café, once housed this city’s homegrown punk movement.