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Students deconstruct circuits, redefine music

‘Circuit Bending and Hardware Hacking’ course allows students to create, present original music

Loud fleeting beeps and soft humming whirs, pulses of static, autotuned voices, knocks, ticks and pitch-bent tones make up the describable sector of the myriad sounds emanating from the Grant Recital Hall on Thursday night. At this one-of-a-kind concert, student performers showcased the instruments they created during the first half of their semester in MUSC 1240F: “Circuit Bending and Hardware Hacking.”

The class, which meets twice weekly in the Perry and Marty Granoff Center for the Creative Arts, explores musical expression through manipulating circuitry and applying these simple circuits to new objects. This is the second year that this course has been taught.

Once a week, 12 students and one professor gather in the Granoff Center to take apart technology that produces sound, tinker with the noise-making parts and then “perform” on the material product of their creativity.

“It changes your idea of what is music,” said Benjamin Shack Sackler ’16, one of the students, about the course material. “I’d call (what we produce) more organized noise that could be pleasant to the ear,” he added.

Pleasant or not, the class stresses creative exploration of sound through rewiring of basic sound technology and experimenting with ways to alter these pre-existing sound producers, said John Ferguson, visiting assistant professor of music, who designed and teaches the class.

The class cycles through different phases, Ferguson said. First, he taught basic circuitry, introduced necessary techniques such as soldering and described how different pieces of a circuit board alter sound.

The class is now in the process of turning pre-existing objects into new instruments, he said. Eventually, students will build a sequencer and integrate it with other devices, he added. A music sequencer is a recording device offering a complex way to alter sound by recording in different formats.

For the first hour or so of a class meeting, Ferguson introduces a new concept or demonstrates a new technique, and person then works individually on that skill.

“I thought we would just be opening up circuits and altering the way they produce sound,” said Rachel Murai ’17, another student in the class. “What we’re doing is more exciting.”

While last year’s class had several Rhode Island School of Design students enrolled in the class who had greater prior knowledge, this year, students’ abilities are much wider,” Ferguson said.

The most challenging part is teaching the importance of waiting to understand the underlying logic of a technique or piece of technology before you try to work with it, he said.  “If you do make a mistake and it doesn’t work, you have to start over. It’s all about making things work.”

In modern society, many people are focused on creating new technology, Ferguson said. “My class questions: What can we do with the things that already exist?”

“We all follow a basic model, and then do some alteration to it — some little hack,” Samantha SaVaun ’17 said. SaVaun’s  altered version of a Hex Schmitt Trigger — a type of circuit that converts analog to digital — may not have made the noises she originally intended, but they “came out to be a happy accident.”

“There’s a lot of unpredictability with what we’re doing, and that adds to the excitement,” she added.

The hardest part is making the sounds, deciding what to do with them and then determining how to perform them, Shack Sackler said, adding that students are largely left to their own devices and projects can become obsessive and time consuming.

Students must complete a lot of work outside class. This can sometimes be frustrating because they have to have another individual in the lab when working, for safety reasons, he said. But because the students work so closely, they become a tight-knit community, allowing them to share sounds and collaborate, he said.

Thursday night, students showcased the sounds they created in pairs and larger groups. Working with materials on tables cluttered with circuit boards sprouting wires, microphones and vintage toys such as the FisherPrice Speak and Spell, students turned knobs, flipped switches and slid faders, visibly engaged in their performances.

Despite the lack of verbal communication between the performers, the compositions evoked as much shape and character as their unique titles proposed. Alongside classmate Crystal Rosatti ’15, SaVaun presented “Citrus and Literature,” performed on a Del’s Lemonade container and a circuit constructed on a hardcover novel. Another piece, “Hex on Meth,” was characterized by a Speak and Spell’s pitch-bent mantra.

Shack Sackler said he and Granger Smith ’16 had an idea about what they wanted to do for their piece “Leadless,” but that the performance still included improvisation. There are no “notes” to write down with this kind of music, he added.

According to Ferguson, the course’s emphasis on experimentation and creation has taught the importance of applying maximum creativity in any practice, a critical lesson in many disciplines.

A pre-dental student, SaVaun said the skills she learned are relevant to her future career, as denistry relies on hand-eye coordination, precision and attention to detail.

Shack Sackler, a multimedia and electronic music experiments concentrator, hopes to go into music production. “This is the most far-out class that I’ve taken so far at Brown,” he said. The fundamental understanding of circuitry as well as the unique sounds that it can produced have added to his arsenal of musical techniques he can employ in his work, he added.

“More sound is always a good thing.”



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