Vancouver New Music’s Circuit Cabaret bends sound

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On Davie Street, it’s just another Friday afternoon, with haggard office workers streaming home and the first of the weekend revellers following the siren call of the Granville Entertainment District. Inside the Canadian Music Centre, however, the scene is far stranger. The air is full of bleatings and shriekings and chirpings and pulses, most emanating from an array of repurposed toys, presided over by the owlish eyes of a skinned and mutilated Furby.

The overall effect is disturbing—and stimulating, too. At this “circuit bending and electronics hacking open house”, a precursor to Vancouver New Music’s Circuit Cabaret festival of experimental music, virtuosity has given way to an almost Bacchanalian spirit of play, as a small crowd pokes and prods at childrens’ toys rewired to burble and fart, or at long-obsolete Casio synthesizers encrusted with bonus toggles and switches.

Leaning against a wall, Tyson Haverkort smiles. The instrument builder and Vancouver Hack Space board member’s Blipatron 3000 is a definite hit: spliced together from an Atari Punk Console and an online-sourced synth circuit, this cheap-and-nasty noisemaker is a perfect example of circuit bending, or the art of wringing new sounds from old electronics.

“In its simplest form, circuit bending is a way of taking a toy that makes some kind of sound and modifying it in some way so it makes a different kind of sound—something you can use in music,” Haverkort explains in a later telephone interview from his home.

An admitted nonmusician, he’s excited that local electronic experimentalist Goldfish (aka Ryan Smith) will be using the Blipatron 3000 in Circuit Cabaret. But he’s just as hyped by the notion that he’s also saved some useful chips and filters from becoming landfill.

“The older the toy, the better it works for circuit-bending,” he says. “You know, the more rustic the components are, the easier they are to access. So, yeah, there’s definitely a recycling component to this—and a component of doing something you’re not supposed to!”

It’s the social dimension of circuit bending that most intrigues Vancouver New Music artistic director Giorgio Magnanensi, a highly skilled musician and composer who’s as handy with a soldering iron as he is with a conductor’s baton.

“The democratizing aspect of hacking electronics or digital exploration is really important,” he says, in a separate phone interview. “In Garageband, people think that they’re doing the most beautiful things, but they’re not making their own pasta, their own mix; they’re just assembling precooked stuff and it’s pretty much crap. I mean, I don’t want to sound harsh, but I think there is more value in exploring yourself.”

And what better way to get intimate with the creative process than to build your own tools? Whether you’re up for some hacking of your own or just curious about how circuit bending sounds, now’s the time to dig in and explore.

Circuit Cabaret runs at the Scotiabank Dance Centre from next Thursday to Saturday (October 18 to 20). The truly curious might want to attend Vancouver New Music’s Noiseshop instrument-building session on Saturday (October 13); email tyson@newmusic.org for details.

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