Culture History

Do It With Others

Hardware Hacking in South America

Florencia Curci, Alma Laprida and Sebastián Rey
Translation by Jazmín Ortiz Ares

A bowl with chipá (a typical food from Paraguay and some regions of Argentina and Brazil) in a hardware hacking workshop

Figure 1 A bowl with chipá (a typical food from Paraguay and some regions of Argentina and Brazil) in a hardware hacking workshop.  Photo © Sebastian Rey, used by permission.


When invited to participate in the new edition of this book, we agreed that what interests us most, and what we want to make visible about hardware hacking, is the nature of meetings and networks that the activity fosters. In our individual experiences as artists, managers, educators and hackers living in Buenos Aires, we share a vision of what these encounters mean to us. For this overview of hacking culture in South America we reached out to self-identified hackers in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, using a "snowball" or chain letter method in which artists invite other artists to participate.1 What follows are some observations from the information collected. Our intention was to track the networks that are born around hardware hacking and reveal those areas of “doing” that are not embodied in objects or works. Our text does not claim to be exhaustive, but rather to offer an account of a scene in vibrant ebullition and permanent change. We will give particular attention to cases in which hacking engages with growing feminist movements in South America.

From being being to being doing 2

For many, hardware hacking is rooted in finding alternative uses for existing devices—transforming a talking toy into an ominous synthesizer for example. For us, it means much more—a collective attitude that expands to create social and artistic networks.

For the last few years, the hacking virus increasingly infected Buenos Aires, fostering crossovers between disciplines and instigating research groups. We have observed three notable phenomena from our experiences in these activities. The first is the free circulation of information as an open source, to quote our friend Jorge Crowe. Information is shared to enhance the projects of others; it is not hidden or protected for personal profit.

The second is a pedagogical approach that contrasts with more traditional models in which it is assumed that to justify standing in front of a class, the teacher must know the subject matter thoroughly. Hacking revels in the potential that exists when teachers know only a little bit more about what they are teaching than the students. Our workshops generate communities of apprentices. Hacking hacks us, makes us use our ability to teach and learn in a different way and to foster new communities.3

The third characteristic of our scene is the frequent emergence, from workshops and other learning spaces, of new artistic groups and collectives. The energy released from newly acquired knowledge unfolds in new forms of aesthetic expression, but also in new means of production, performance and distribution. Buenos Aires has recently seen the emergence of groups such as Corpiños Luminosos y sus Guantes Sonoros (“Luminous Bras and their Sound Gloves”)  and Aureola Electrika, audiovisual projects such as "Ludotecnia" and "Barbados", publishing labels such as MUN DISCOS, and collectives that work around education, art and technology such as Los Aparatos (“The Devices”) and SONIDOC!NICO (“Cynical Sound”)4.

We can think of hacking independent of hardware, as something we use to relate to others and to reconfigure our linkagess. We gather together to learn to solder and build an oscillator or an optical theremin, and to see how we can extract new expressiveness from an electronic toy. A stranger teaches us the differences between components in an electronics store. We exchange knowledge and experiences. We bring fresh air to our daily lives and we disrupt our status quo. What is more, we seem to be "breeding" our machines more than "creating" them.5

A bowl with chipá (a typical food from Paraguay and some regions of Argentina and Brazil) in a hardware hacking workshop

Figure 2 Students at a hardware hacking workshop in Puerto Libertad, Misiones, Argentina.  Photo © Sebastian Rey, used by permission.

This process of constant doing is the essence of the hacker’s work, not as a means to reach a certain end, but as an end in itself. During the process we are forging ourselves and finding hints about how to continue walking the road. It is an open practice in which even mistakes can be included in the creative production.  It is a practice of social emancipation.

Throwing a snowball at a network

To research hacking in South America we sent a kickoff questionnaire to some hackers we knew. We asked each person to answer some questions about their practice, send us a photo, and identify seven additional hackers. We then sent the same questionnaire to these new contacts, and each of them supplied the names of seven more hackers, and so on, and so on. We wanted to utlilize and reveal the affectionate bonding mechanism that is part of hardware hacking at a regional level.6

Several of our contacts associate hardware hacking with creative and critical action that helps us rethink the function of technology and things. Claudia González (Chile) defines it as "rebellion against the domain of knowledge," and maintains that "in Latin America it has always been done, with Third World economy things always end up hacked to give them new uses and to modify them." For OzZu ukumari (Bolivia), hardware hacking is "a way in which we have learned to cope and survive beyond transnational interests and the dominant thought of 'doing things correctly,' which prevails in West.” This hacker says that everyone, especially in Latin America, "has an integrated hacking chip" with which "we have learned to hack all technology and adapt it to our needs [...], it is the day by day, you use it to get free cable tv signal, you use it to modify the exhaust pipe of your car or motorcycle, to evade the ID of your IP."

In the same sense, Giuliano Obici (Brazil) argues that hacking is "a way of gambiarra," a Brazilian term for an informal and improvised way of solving a problem in the absence of proper resources or tools. This hacker and sound artist finds that both hacking and gambiarra "emerge from the need to keep a certain autonomy of the individual in the face of restrictive circumstances" and that both "point to the limitations of an instituted technical and/or ideological system and with that, its action can generate the collapse of the system, be it in a social, political or artistic way."7

We should emphasize that this appropriation of the concept of hacking has political implications and is anchored in the socioeconomic conditions of the region. Hackers position themselves as producers of technologies, and not as mere consumers.

Often in South America, hackers link with the community and with local practices. Many examples originate in education and local communities, such as "la Jaquer Escool," the education program of the Platohedro cultural center in experimental art and technology for young people (Medellín, Colombia), or the electromagnetism workshop for children in Montegrande (Chile) organized by Claudia Godoy.8 Sandra de Berduccy (A.K.A. Aruma), from Bolivia works with local ancestral practices, making weavings on traditional looms and incorporating circuitry, LEDs and speakers. She developed her research independently in rural locations and started hardware hacking "as a weaver, getting to know the depth, structures and processes of Andean tissues, and how energy works inside them."

Hacking technologies are not just electronic. A sort of biohacker, the Argentinian Ana Laura Cantera uses electronics and microorganisms, as she considers nature an interface. Her work Nidos de equilibrio (“Balance Nests”) uses energy generated by microbial cells, while her Utópicas reconstituciones (“Utopian Reconstituions”) uses physical structures created with mushrooms that she builds with GIY (Grow It Yourself) techniques.


Feminist movements have a long history in South America (and worldwide), but have become widespread and more visible in recent years. They usually have a pluralistic perspective and respond to a diversity of demands. They often link to local cultures and problems, and demonstrate different perspectives throughout the continent. In the last decade, feminism’s call was popularized by slogans that reached several previously divided social groups, and inspired them to join in globally growing movements. Massive demonstrations against feminicide and in support of Women's Day, mass campaigns to legalize free abortion, and groups of women demanding more participation and representation in different artistic, professional and political spaces, summoned large masses of women, lesbians and LGBTQ+.

In the work of the surveyed artists we found examples of feminist activism associated with hardware hacking, such as the performances of Corpiños Luminosos y sus Guantes Sonoros (Buenos Aires), a group of female hackers who wired bras with LEDs.9  The Colectivo 22bits (Santiago, Chile), an independent technofeminist group, runs workshops in electronics and "noise" for women. In 2018, they held a workshop on the construction of portable amplifiers installed in purses, backpacks and bags that were used to carry out a collective performance during the Women’s Day demonstration that year. Through the amplifiers, the women played sounds of past demonstrations in Chile. #VIVAS is a transnational collective based in Buenos Aires presenting feminist collaborative projects that began with the creation of a free open sound bank filled with interviews, poetry, conferences and field recordings of demonstrations. Over time it has expanded its scope, always linking to the affective use of technologies, adding multimedia workshops, production workshops and meeting spaces.

A bowl with chipá (a typical food from Paraguay and some regions of Argentina and Brazil) in a hardware hacking workshop

Figure 3 An image from a tutorial to make a luminous bra from Corpiños Luminosos y sus Guantes Sonoros.  Photo © Carolina Andreeti, used by permission.

The Chilean hacker Constanza Piña (A.K.A. Corazón de Robota) has created clothes and accessories with electronics, and blogs step-by-step instructions on how to create a homemade feminine pad, "My blood is my revolution".10 With Claudia Gonzalez she founded ChimbaLab, one of the first entirely female medialabs.


We started our research by positing hardware hacking as a practice of free circulation of information, as a non-formal pedagogical approach and as a contagious energy that can be the basis for collective projects.  The results from our survey surpassed our expectations. Through it we discovered hackers and artists who develop work with a playful and creative spirit. We found and shared some deep and lucid reflections. It's exciting to see how hacking is embedded in context: it thrives on local and regional experiences, it takes "data" from, and dialogues with, very old practices, and it embodies contemporary feminist activism.

We also note that in South America the reuse and resignification of materials considered obsolete is not merely an aesthetic decision, but a political one. In contrast with an economic model that defines wealth as the accumulation of money and new objects, in our local cultures, wealth is often linked to the management of one's own time, of being together, and of reorganizing materials so that they are better adapted for our own purposes. We can think of hacking in the South America as a collective practice that spreads like a virus, that generates networks, that relates intimately to the economic and political situations of the region, and through which we question old inherited models of ourselves in relation to each other and our possessions.

We stop thinking about a definition of hacking based on its technical specificity, and we ask ourselves how the practice of hacking can make systems transform for the better.

The piezoelectric revolution is an eternal dream.

A bowl with chipá (a typical food from Paraguay and some regions of Argentina and Brazil) in a hardware hacking workshop

Figure 4 A piezoelectric mic hangs from a wire for hanging clothes in Montevideo, Uruguay. Notice the faint poster of Che Guevara in the back.  Photo © Sebastian Rey, used by permission.

Consulted texts and links

Alonso, R. (2015). Elogio de la low tech. Historia y estética de las artes electrónicas en América Latina. Buenos Aires: Luna Editores.

Cambiasso, N. (2010). Breve panorama de la experimentación latinoamericana
actual. Experimentaclub LIMb0: Proyecto iberoamericano de intercambio artístico y cooperación cultural. Buenos Aires: Experimentaclub LIMb0.

Campos Fonseca, S. (2013). Giro decolonial y estética. Algunas consideraciones. Available at: https://www.academia.edu/3345739/Giro_decolonial_y_est%C3%A9tica_algunas_consideraciones

Campos Fonseca, S. (2016). Ciberfeminismo y Estudios sonoros. Available at: https://www.academia.edu/27049036/Ciberfeminismo_y_estudios_sonoros
Retrieved on May 24, 2019.

Cantera, A. L. (n.d). Nidos de equilibrio. Available at: https://analauracantera.wordpress.com/2018/01/31/nidos-de-equilibrio/
Retrieved on May 23, 2019.

Cantera, A. L. (n.d.). Utópicas reconstituciones. Available at: https://analauracantera.wordpress.com/2018/02/02/utopicas-reconstituciones/
Retrieved on May 23, 2019.

Cantú, M. (2011). Espacios autogestionados y Artes Mediáticas en Argentina. Available at: https://marielacantu.wordpress.com/articulos/espacios-autogestionados-y-artes-mediaticas-en-argentina/
Retrieved on May 2, 2019.

Castro, J. (2010). La rebelión de los neutrales. Hacklabs en Latinoamérica. Errata.
Cultura Digital Nro. 3. Páginas 224-227. Available at:
Retrieved on May 23, 2019.

Gálvez, A. (2009). Las huelgas del 8M en América Latina. Revista Contexto.
Available at: https://ctxt.es/es/20190313/Politica/24901/Andrea-Ana-Galvez-feminismo-manifiesto-america-mujeres-trans-lesbianas-travestis.htm
Retrieved on May 22, 2019.

Gontijo, J. (2014). Distopías tecnológicas. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Circuito.
Available at: http://arteymedios.org/biblioteca/publicaciones/item/349-distopias-tecnologicas.
Retrieved on May 23, 2019.

Haraway, D. (1984). Manifiesto Ciborg. El sueño irónico de un lenguaje común para
las mujeres en el circuito integrado. Available at:
Retrieved on May 24, 2019.

Krochmalny, S. (2008). Tecnologías de la amistad. Las formas sociales de
producción, gestión y circulación artística en base a la amistad. Available at:
Retrieved on May 23, 2019.

Kusch, R. (2007). La negación en el pensamiento popular. In Obras Completas,
Tomo II. Páginas Rosario: Editorial Fundación Ross.

McLuhan, M. y Fiore, Q. (1987). El medio es el masaje. Un inventario de efectos.
Buenos Aires: Ediciones Paidós.

McLuhan, M. (2015). Inédito. Buenos Aires: La Marca Editora.

Molina, B. y Serrano, M. (2018). Portafolio del Colectivo de arte y tecnología 22bits.
Trabajo seleccionado año 2016 a 2018. Available at:
Retrieved on May 2, 2019.

Obici, G. (2014). Gambiarra e experimentalismo sonoro. Available at:
Retrieved on May, 2019.

Obici, G. (n.d.). Gambioluthery. Revisiting the musical instrument from a Bricolage perspective. Available at:
Retrieved on May 23, 2019.

Piña, C. (2011-2015). Tutoriales. Available at:
Retrieved on May 23, 2019.

Ranciere, J. (2018). El maestro ignorante. Cinco lecciones sobre la emancipación
intelectual. Buenos Aires: Edhasa.

Rodríguez, H. (2016). SubalterNet: Networked Practices from Latin America in Response to the Internet. Media-N. V. 12 Nro. I. Available at: http://median.newmediacaucus.org/mestizo-technology-art-design-and-technoscience-in-latin-america/subalternet-networked-practices-from-latin-america-in-response-to-the-internet/.
Retrieved on May 23, 2019.

Tarducci, M. (2018). Escenas clave de la lucha por el derecho al aborto en Argentina. Salud Colectiva. V 14 Nro. III. Available at:
Retrieved on May 24, 2019.

Trilnik, C. (n.d.). Manifiesto antropofágico. Available at:
Retrieved on  May 2, 2019.

de Ugarte, D. (n.d.). El poder de las redes. Manual ilustrado para personas,
colectivos y empresas abocados al ciberactivismo. Available at:
Retrieved on May 23, 2019.


We want to thank Casa Tomada, CASo, Jorge Crowe, Luciana Fleischman, Soledad Tuñón and all the artists who answered our survey.

1 We based our method on that of the Argentine website "Bola de nieve" (http://www.boladenieve.org.ar/, recovered on May 18, 2019), a project of the visual arts magazine Ramona and the Start Foundation, to create profiles of artists who are invited to answer a series of questions about their practices after being identified by other participating artists

2 “To be being" (estar siendo) is a concept proposed by the Argentine philosopher Rodolfo Kusch, who talks about a way of thinking rooted in Latin America. We propose a wordplay between the ideas of Kusch and the "doing" of hacking.

3 We can associate this idea with McLuhan's concept of environments and anti-environments. He argues that it is important to design a new environment and leave the content free: this is the logic of the anti-environment, in contrast to the ambient. We understand the space of hacking as an anti-environment, as it contains logics that differ from the traditional ones: it allows us to question inherited ways of teaching and learning, of appropriation of spaces and of use of tools and materials.

4 There is a second meaning in the use of the term “cinico (“cynical”) as an acronym for Circuito Independiente de Iniciativas Caseras Organizadas, ("Independent Circuit of Organized Homemade Inictiatives)

5 This idea was articulated by Valeria González, who sees the verb "creating" (crear, in Spanish) as linked to the male creator and individual, in opposition to "breeding" (criar), which she uses to refer to a cooperative or family and mutual work learning.

6 We are interested in the work on "friendship technologies" that Syd Krochmalny (2008) talks about.

7 See also his essay, “Gambiarra: Hacking and DIY in Brazil”, in this section of the website.

8 Claudia Godoy made an interesting artist's book from documentation of the workshop: https://www.claudiagonzalez.cl/publicaciones-all/bitacora-taller-de-campo-magnetico-en-montegrande / (retrieved on May 23, 2019).

9 It is relevant to mention the work of Campos Fonseca (2006, from Costa Rica) on Cyberfeminism, in which she defines it as "a cooperation practice between women, machines and new technologies."

10 https://corazonderobota.wordpress.com/2015/06/29/my-blood-is-my-revolution/ (Retrieved on May 23, 2019).

Hacer Con Otrxs

Hardware Hacking en Sudamérica (Florencia Curci, Alma Laprida and Sebastián Rey)

Por Florencia Curci, Alma Laprida y Sebastián Rey
Traducción al inglés por Jazmín Ortiz Ares

Un bol con chipá (una comida típica de Paraguay y algunas regiones de Argentina y Brasil) en un taller de <em>hardware hacking

Figura 1 Un bol con chipá (una comida típica de Paraguay y algunas regiones de Argentina y Brasil) en un taller de hardware hacking


Al recibir la invitación para participar de la nueva edición de este libro, pensamos que  lo que más nos interesa y lo que queremos visibilizar acerca del hardware hacking es el tipo de encuentros y la red de conexiones que propicia. En nuestras experiencias individuales como artistas, gestorxs, educadorxs y hackers que viven en la Ciudad de Buenos Aires, compartimos una visión similar en cuanto a lo que significan estas prácticas y estos encuentros. Para construir esta mirada general sobre la cultura hacker en Sudamérica, contactamos a hackers de Argentina, Bolivia, Brasil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador y Perú con el método de la “bola de nieve” 1 e hicimos algunas observaciones a partir de la información relevada. Nuestra intención fue rastrearlas redes que nacen en torno al hardware hacking y revelar aquellas zonas del hacer que no están plasmadas en objetos u obras. En este sentido, el artículo no pretende ser exhaustivo sino dar cuenta de un panorama en plena ebullición y cambio permanente. Mencionaremos algunos casos en los cuales el hacking se articula con un fenómeno que está creciendo en América del Sur: los feminismos.

De estar siendo a estar haciendo2

Para muchxs, la definición de hardware hacking consiste en encontrar otros usos posibles para aparatos ya existentes: por ejemplo, transformar un juguete que habla en un sintetizador monstruoso. Para nosotrxs significa mucho más: un pensar colectivo que se despliega en espacios y modos de encuentro y se convierte en redes.

Hace unos años que el virus del hacking se contagia cada vez más en Buenos Aires, propicia cruces entre disciplinas y establece núcleos de investigación. Nos interesan particularmente tres fenómenos que observamos a partir de nuestras experiencias personales en los talleres y laboratorios de hacking. El primero de ellos es la circulación de información, libre, como un código abierto (así dice nuestro amigo Jorge Crowe). La data se comparte para potenciar proyectos afines al propio: no se la oculta ni restringe.

El segundo es un posicionamiento en la prácticas pedagógicas que contrasta con los modelos tradicionales en los cuales se piensa que, para estar al frente de una clase, lx docente debe conocer a fondo el proceso y los materiales con los que trabaja. El hacking evidencia la potencia que existe en crear espacios de investigación acerca de un tema del cual lx docente sólo sabe un poco. De este modo, generamos comunidades de aprendices. El hacking nos hackea, hace un uso diferente de nuestra capacidad de enseñar y aprender, de dar clases y de generar espacios de encuentro 3.

La tercera característica de nuestra escena es la frecuencia con la que surgen nuevos grupos y colectivos sonoros y/o performáticos en talleres y otros espacios de aprendizaje. La energía liberada a partir de los encuentros se despliega y alcanza nuevas formas de expresión estética. En Buenos Aires, hemos visto surgir grupos con un trabajo muy potente como ''Corpiños luminosos y sus guantes sonoros'' y ''Aureola Electrika”, proyectos audiovisuales como ''Ludotecnia'' y ''Barbados'', sellos editoriales como MUN DISCOS y colectivos que trabajan en torno a la educación, el arte y la tecnología como ''Los aparatos'' y ''SON!DOCINICO4".

Podemos pensar el hardware hacking como una terceridad, algo que usamos para relacionarnos con otrxs y que permite reconfigurar nuestros modos de vincularnos. Nos juntamos a aprender a soldar y construir un oscilador o un theremin óptico o a ver cómo podemos encontrar nuevos modos expresivos a partir de los sonidos de un juguete. Unx desconocidx nos enseña las diferencias entre componentes en una casa de electrónica. Cruzamos saberes y experiencias. Liberamos algo de oxígeno en lo cotidiano y dislocamos nuestro status quo. Más que “crear” nuestras máquinas, las criamos5.

Comunidad de aprendices en un taller de <em>hardware hacking</em> en Puerto Libertad, Misiones, Argentina.

Figura 2 Comunidad de aprendices en un taller de hardware hacking en Puerto Libertad, Misiones, Argentina.

Queremos rescatar el proceso permanente de estar haciendo como esencia de la labor hacker. No como un medio para llegar a un fin determinado, sino como un fin en sí mismo. Durante el proceso vamos forjándonos y encontrando pistas acerca de cómo continuar el camino. Es una práctica abierta en la cual el error es parte de la producción creativa. Es una práctica social de emancipación.

Una bola de nieve para evidenciar una red

Para investigar hacking en Sudamérica enviamos un cuestionario como puntapié a algunxs hackers que conocíamos. Le pedimos a cada persona que conteste algunas preguntas sobre su práctica, que nos envíe una foto, un link y que mencione a otrxs siete hackers. Después le enviamos el mismo cuestionario a estos nuevos contactos y ellxs nos dieron los nombres de siete más, y así, y así. Queríamos representar y evidenciar un mecanismo de vinculación afectuosa6 que es parte del hardware hacking a nivel regional.

Varixs de lxs hackers consultados asocian el hardware hacking con una acción creativa y crítica, que permite repensar la función de la tecnología y de las cosas en general. Claudia González (Chile) lo define como “rebeldía hacia el dominio del conocimiento”, y sostiene que “en Latinoamérica se ha realizado siempre, con una economía de tercer mundo las cosas siempre terminan hackeadas para darles nuevos usos y para modificarlas”. Para OzZu ukumari (Bolivia), hardware hacking es ”una forma en que hemos aprendido a sobrellevar y sobrevivir más allá de los intereses transnacionales y, por supuesto, del pensamiento dominante de ‘hacer las cosas correctamente’, que impera en occidente”. Este hacker sostiene que todxs, y especialmente en Latinoamérica, “tenemos un chip integrado de hacking” con el cual “hemos aprendido a piratear toda la tecnología y adaptarla a nuestras necesidades [...], es el día a día, lo utilizas para captar más señales de tv cable pago, lo utilizas para modificar el caño de escape de tu auto o moto, para evadir el ID de tu IP”.

En el mismo sentido, Giuliano Obici (Brasil) sostiene que el hacking es “una forma de gambiarra”, una manera informal e improvisada de resolver un problema ante la falta de recursos o herramientas. Este hacker y artista sonoro encuentra que tanto el hacking como la gambiarra son acciones “que emerge[n] de la necesidad de mantener viva cierta autonomía del individuo ante circunstancias restrictivas” y que ambos “apuntan a las limitaciones de un sistema técnico y/o ideológico instituido y con eso, su acción puede generar el colapso del sistema, sea social, político o artístico”.

Queremos destacar que esta apropiación del concepto de hacking tiene implicancias políticas y un anclaje en las condiciones socioeconómicas de la región. Lx hacker se posiciona como unx productorx de tecnologías y no como unx merx consumidorx.

Nos interesa también mencionar algunas prácticas en las cuales el hacking en Sudamérica se vincula con la comunidad y con prácticas locales. Los ejemplos más numerosos de esto tienen que ver con el trabajo en educación y territorio, como “la Jaquer Escool”, la línea de formación del centro cultural Platohedro en “arte experimental y tecnología” para jóvenes (Medellín). O el taller de electromagnetismo dirigido a niñxs de Montegrande (Chile) de Claudia Godoy7. Sandra de Berduccy (A.K.A. Aruma, de Bolivia), por ejemplo trabaja a partir de prácticas ancestrales locales. Sandra realiza telares tradicionales en los cuales incorpora electrónica, leds y parlantes. Lleva sus investigaciones de manera independiente en espacios rurales y dice que se inició en el hardware hacking “como tejedora, conociendo a profundidad las estructuras y los procesos de los tejidos andinos, y cómo opera la energía dentro de ellos”.

Las tecnologías del hacking no son sólo electrónicas. La argentina Ana Laura Cantera utiliza la electrónica y microorganismos para considerar la naturaleza como interfaz, como una suerte de biohacker. En su obra “Nidos de equilibrio” utiliza energía generada por celdas microbianas y en “Utópicas reconstituciones” utiliza estructuras creadas con hongos que construyó con técnicas GIY (Grow It Yourself).


Los movimientos feministas, si bien tienen una larga trayectoria en Sudamérica (y a nivel mundial), se masificaron en los últimos años. Suelen tener una mirada pluralista y responden a demandas diversas e interseccionales. Están ligados a territorios y problemáticas locales y demuestran diferentes perspectivas a lo largo y ancho de la región. En la última década, no obstante, su convocatoria se popularizó al movilizar consignas que interpelaron a varios actores sociales antes divididos, lo que acompañó el crecimiento generalizado de los movimientos a nivel mundial. Marchas multitudinarias en contra del feminicidio y en el día de la mujer, campañas masivas a favor del aborto legal y gratuito y agrupaciones de mujeres exigiendo más participación y representación en distintos espacios artísticos, profesionales y políticos, convocaron grandes masas de mujeres, lesbianas y disidencias (LGBTQ+).

En el quehacer de algunxs artistxs relevadxs encontramos ejemplos de activismo feminista asociado al hardware hacking8, como las performances de “Corpiños luminosos y los guantes sonoros” (Buenos Aires), una agrupación integrada por mujeres hackers que intervinieron una prenda femenina y la convirtieron en un gesto irreverente. El Colectivo 22bits, de Santiago de Chile, se define como “una agrupación independiente y tecnofeminista” que, entre otras acciones, dicta talleres de iniciación a la electrónica y al “ruido” dirigidos a mujeres. En 2018, realizaron un taller de construcción de amplificadores portátiles instalados en carteras, mochilas y bolsos que fueron utilizados para realizar una acción artística colectiva en la marcha del 8 de marzo de ese año. A través de los amplificadores, las mujeres reprodujeron sonidos de manifestaciones antiguas de Chile. #VIVAS, por su parte, es un colectivo transnacional con base en Buenos Aires de manifestaciones colaborativas feministas que se inició con la creación de un banco de sonidos abierto y de uso libre de registros de marchas, entrevistas, poesías y conferencias. Luego amplió su accionar, siempre ligado a la utilización afectiva de tecnologías, con talleres multimediales, jornadas de producción y espacios de charla y encuentro.

Imagen de un tutorial para hacer un corpiño intervenido del colectivo Corpiños Luminosos y sus Guantes Sonoros

Figura 3 Imagen de un tutorial para hacer un corpiño intervenido del colectivo Corpiños Luminosos y sus Guantes Sonoros.

La también chilena Constanza Piña (A.K.A. Corazón de Robota), hacker que desarrolló gran parte de su trabajo en torno a la creación de indumentaria y accesorios con electrónica, tiene entre los tutoriales de electrónica blanda de su blog un paso a paso con imágenes de cómo crear una toallita femenina casera9, titulado “My blood is my revolution”. Además, fundó junto a Claudia González el ChimbaLab, un medialab íntegramente femenino.


Comenzamos el artículo hablando del hardware hacking como una práctica de libre circulación de información, como una práctica pedagógica distinta a los modelos tradicionales y como una energía contagiosa que puede ser base para proyectos colectivos. Los resultados del relevamiento han superado enormemente nuestras expectativas. A través de él descubrimos hackers y artistas que desarrollan sus trabajos con un espíritu lúdico y creador. También encontramos y compartimos reflexiones profundas y lúcidas. Es emocionante ver cómo el hacking está imbricado en sus contextos: se nutre de experiencias locales y regionales, toma data de y dialoga con prácticas muy antiguas y se encarna en activismo feminista.

También notamos que la reutilización y resignificación de materiales considerados obsoletos no es una decisión que surge solamente desde lo estético sino que encuentra en Sudamérica un posicionamiento político muy claro. En contraste con una organización económica en la cual la riqueza se define como la acumulación de dinero y objetos nuevos, aquí la idea de riqueza se vincula con la gestión del tiempo propio, el estar juntos y la reorganización de materiales para que sean funcionales a nuestros fines. Hackear nos posiciona como productorxs de tecnologías y no como merxs consumidorxs. Podemos pensar al hacking en Sudamérica como una práctica colectiva que se propaga como un virus, que genera redes y que está íntimamente relacionada con la coyuntura económica y política de la región, mediante la cual ponemos en discusión viejos modelos heredados de relacionarnos y de conocernos.

Dejamos de pensar en una definición del hacking basada en su especificidad técnica para preguntarnos de qué modo la práctica del hacking puede hacer colapsar los sistemas.

La revolución piezoeléctrica es un sueño eterno.

Un micrófono piezoeléctrico cuelga de un cable utilizado para colgar la ropa en Montevideo, Uruguay. En la pared se observa un poster descolorido del Che Guevara.

Figura 4 Un micrófono piezoeléctrico cuelga de un cable utilizado para colgar la ropa en Montevideo, Uruguay. En la pared se observa un poster descolorido del Che Guevara.

Textos y links consultados

  1. Alonso, R. (2015). Elogio de la low tech. Historia y estética de las artes electrónicas en América Latina. Buenos Aires: Luna Editores.
  2. Cambiasso, N. (2010). Breve panorama de la experimentación latinoamericana actual. Experimentaclub LIMb0: Proyecto iberoamericano de intercambio artístico y cooperación cultural. Buenos Aires: Experimentaclub LIMb0.
  3. Campos Fonseca, S. (2013). Giro decolonial y estética. Algunas consideraciones. Disponible en: https://www.academia.edu/3345739/Giro_decolonial_y_est%C3%A9tica_algunas_consideraciones
  4. Campos Fonseca, S. (2016). Ciberfeminismo y Estudios sonoros. Disponible en: https://www.academia.edu/27049036/Ciberfeminismo_y_estudios_sonoros Recuperado el 24 de mayo de 2019.
  5. Cantera, A. L. (sin fecha). Nidos de equilibrio. Disponible en: https://analauracantera.wordpress.com/2018/01/31/nidos-de-equilibrio/ Recuperado el 23 de mayo de 2019.
  6. Cantera, A. L. (sin fecha). Utópicas reconstituciones. Disponible en: https://analauracantera.wordpress.com/2018/02/02/utopicas-reconstituciones/ Recuperado el 23 de mayo de 2019.
  7. Cantú, M. (2011). Espacios autogestionados y Artes Mediáticas en Argentina. Disponible en: https://marielacantu.wordpress.com/articulos/espacios-autogestionados-y-artes-mediaticas-en-argentina/. Recuperado el 2 de mayo de 2019.
  8. Castro, J. (2010). La rebelión de los neutrales. Hacklabs en Latinoamérica. Errata. Cultura Digital Nro. 3. Páginas 224-227. Disponible en: https://issuu.com/revistaerrata/docs/errata_3_cultura_digital_creaci_n Recuperado el 23 de mayo de 2019.
  9. Gálvez, A. (2009). Las huelgas del 8M en América Latina. Revista Contexto. Disponible en: https://ctxt.es/es/20190313/Politica/24901/Andrea-Ana-Galvez-feminismo-manifiesto-america-mujeres-trans-lesbianas-travestis.htm Recuperado el 22 de mayo de 2019.
  10. Gontijo, J. (2014). Distopías tecnológicas. Rio de Janeiro: Editora Circuito. Disponible en: http://arteymedios.org/biblioteca/publicaciones/item/349-distopias-tecnologicas. Recuperado el 23 de mayo de 2019.
  11. Haraway, D. (1984). Manifiesto Ciborg. El sueño irónico de un lenguaje común para las mujeres en el circuito integrado. Disponible en: https://xenero.webs.uvigo.es/profesorado/beatriz_suarez/ciborg.pdf. Recuperado el 24 de mayo de 2019.
  12. Krochmalny, S. (2008). Tecnologías de la amistad. Las formas sociales de producción, gestión y circulación artística en base a la amistad. Disponible en: http://www.ramona.org.ar/node/21668. Recuperado el 23 de mayo de 2019.
  13. Kusch, R. (2007). La negación en el pensamiento popular. En Obras Completas, Tomo II. Páginas  Rosario: Editorial Fundación Ross.
  14. McLuhan, M. y Fiore, Q. (1987). El medio es el masaje. Un inventario de efectos. Buenos Aires: Ediciones Paidós.
  15. McLuhan, M. (2015). Inédito. Buenos Aires: La Marca Editora.
  16. Molina, B. y Serrano, M. (2018). Portafolio del Colectivo de arte y tecnología 22bits. Trabajo seleccionado año 2016 a 2018. Disponible en: https://www.docdroid.net/N2QpoQW/dossier2019.pdf#page=16 Recuperado el 2 de mayo de 2019.
  17. Obici, G. (2014). Gambiarra e experimentalismo sonoro. Disponible en: http://www.giulianobici.com/site/archives/2014GambiarraExperimentalismoSonoro.pdf. Recuperado el 23 de mayo de 2019.
  18. Obici, G. (sin fecha). Gambioluthery. Revisiting the musical instrument from a Bricolage perspective. Disponible en: http://www.giulianobici.com/site/archives/2017LMJ27GambioluthieryObici.pdf Recuperado el 23 de mayo de 2019.
  19. Piña, C. (2011-2015). “Tutoriales”. Disponible en:  https://corazonderobota.wordpress.com/category/tutoriales/ Recuperado el 23 de mayo de 2019.
  20. Ranciere, J. (2018). El maestro ignorante. Cinco lecciones sobre la emancipación intelectual. Buenos Aires: Edhasa.
  21. Rodríguez, H. (2016). SubalterNet: Networked Practices from Latin America in Response to the Internet. Media-N. V. 12 Nro. I. Disponible en: http://median.newmediacaucus.org/mestizo-technology-art-design-and-technoscience-in-latin-america/subalternet-networked-practices-from-latin-america-in-response-to-the-internet/. Recuperado el 23 de mayo de 2019.
  22. Tarducci, M. (2018). Escenas clave de la lucha por el derecho al aborto en Argentina. Salud Colectiva. V 14 Nro. III. Disponible en: https://www.scielosp.org/article/scol/2018.v14n3/425-432/es/ Recuperado el 24 de mayo de 2019.
  23. Trilnik, C. (sin fecha). Manifiesto antropofágico. Disponible en: https://proyectoidis.org/manifiesto-antropofago/ Recuperado el 2 de mayo de 2019.
  24. de Ugarte, D. (sin fecha). El poder de las redes. Manual ilustrado para personas, colectivos y empresas abocados al ciberactivismo. Disponible en: http://www.pensamientocritico.org/davuga0313.pdf. Recuperado el 23 de mayo de 2019.


Queremos agradecer a Casa Tomada, CASo, Jorge Crowe, Roger Colom, Luciana Fleischman, Soledad Tuñón y a todos los artistas que contestaron nuestro formulario.

1 Para realizar un relevamiento de hackers que evidencie las redes de contactos entre ellxs, nos basamos en el método de la página web argentina “Bola de nieve” (http://www.boladenieve.org.ar/, recuperada el 18 de mayo de 2019), un proyecto de la revista de artes visuales Ramona y la Fundación Start, en la cual se crean perfiles de artistas que son invitadxs a responder una serie de preguntas sobre sus prácticas luego de ser nombradxs por otrxs artistas participantes.

2 “Estar siendo” es un concepto propuesto por el filósofo argentino Rodolfo Kusch, quien habla de una forma de pensar enraizada en Latinoamérica. Proponemos un juego de palabras entre las ideas de Kusch y el “hacer” del hacking.

3 Podemos asociar esta idea al concepto de ambientes y antiambientes de McLuhan. Este autor habla de que estamos habituados a ambientes indetectables. Para él, es más importante diseñar un nuevo ambiente y dejar libre el contenido: esta es la lógica del antiambiente, que contrasta con la del ambiente. Nosotrxs entendemos el espacio del hacking como un antiambiente en tanto contiene lógicas distintas al de los espacios educativos tradicionales: nos permite poner en jaque modos heredados de enseñar y aprender, de apropiarnos de los espacios y modos de uso de las herramientas y materiales.

4 “C.I.N.I.C.O” aquí es un acrónimo de “Circuito Independiente de Iniciativas Caseras Organizadas”.

5 Tomamos esta idea de Valeria González, quien opone el concepto de “crear”, vinculado al creador masculino e individual, en contraposición con “criar”, que refiere a las tareas del cuidado, el trabajo cooperativo, familiar, y de mutuo aprendizaje.

6 Nos interesa el trabajo sobre “tecnologías de la amistad” de la que habla Syd Krochmalny (2008).

7 Claudia tiene un interesante libro de artista realizado a partir de la documentación del taller, disponible en: https://www.claudiagonzalez.cl/publicaciones-all/bitacora-taller-de-campo-magnetico-en-montegrande/(recuperado el 23 de mayo de 2019).

8 Es relevante mencionar el trabajo de Campos Fonseca (2006, desde Costa Rica) sobre ciberfeminismo, en el que lo define como “una práctica de cooperación entre mujer, máquina y nuevas tecnologías”.

9 https://corazonderobota.wordpress.com/2015/06/29/my-blood-is-my-revolution/ (Recuperado el 23 de mayo de 2019).

Bleep Listening

Ezra Teboul

Handmade electronic music can be thought of as the coordinated production of electronic instruments and electronic sound. An exploration of the "music implicit in technology,"1 it requires attention to the electrical properties of materials, to the sonic consequences of those materials’ evolving interconnections, and to the creation of situations favorable to the exploration of those evolutions. Therefore, any study of the practice should consider both the assembled and the assembler: who and what share responsibility for the resulting ever-changing communities and artifacts?2

The listening associated with hardware hacking focuses on the musical potential of electronics as they operate. This often results in a collapse of the distance that traditionally distinguished the musical score from the instrument: this led Alvin Lucier to consider the viability of the circuit as a score.3 The practice of hardware hacking has continued to build institutional and popular legitimacy as a method of musical composition and creative work, while embracing a fragmented and shapeshifting type of material production.

The standardization of electronic components and industrial practices means that most practitioners are linked, consciously or not, to global production processes. This connection is mirrored in global patterns of consumption, and both phenomena are enacted by the unequal, global connecting tissue of the Internet. Since the publication of the earlier editions of this book, a thousand fuzztones have indeed flowered thanks to Tim Berners-Lee;4 this was quickly replicated ad infinitum for almost every other effect, synthesizer and controller imaginable.  Hacking has only gotten easier (ibid) -- so much so that each electronic music genre now has its own subculture of fetishizing, criticizing and developing or ignoring technological tools. Larger manufacturers monitor potential markets through the public platforms that propagate these do-it-yourself and do-it-together projects, and respond by producing variations of old, nostalgic favorites on a regular basis - for a premium.5 This continues the cycle of over-production, cannibalization and adaptation that fostered hacking practice in the first place.

Tara Rodgers reminds us that none of these instruments are made in a vacuum, and that each instance of handmade electronic music is an opportunity to think about how online and off-line resources have led to the development of temporary, erratic, ad-hoc groups.6 The conditions specific to each project—available parts, information, ideas, individuals—shape the final results.  This dynamic process is, however, is not well-documented.7 Recovering the labor and paths of knowledge in the making of handmade electronic music has become a mission for a number of individuals, online communities and academic subdisciplines, who grapple in different ways with the friction between global technological commodities and small-scale art practices.8

Handmade Electronic Music did not explicitly ask how hacking communities emerged (it was not a sociological study), but it did offer a peek into the extensive body of work these efforts have produced, from the point of view one of the field’s participants. The categories used in the book to distinguish meaningful technological sub-trends—circuit bending, feedback, battery-powered, bands, audiovisual, mechanical, circuits from scratch—reflected the author’s experiences and perspective. The inclusion of a variety of new authors in this third edition is an acknowledgement of the breadth of contemporary activity. In this chapter I discuss recent projects, some of which fit Collins’s earlier categories, while others require new groupings to accommodate their inspirations and aspirations.9


Device and corresponding block diagram for the first half of the circuit (second half is a mirror copy)

Figure 1 David Dunn, Thresholds and Fragile States.  Device and corresponding block diagram for the first half of the circuit (second half is a mirror copy).  Images courtesy of the artist.

Device and corresponding block diagram for the first half of the circuit (second half is a mirror copy)

David Dunn is among a number of musicians interested in chaotic behavior in sonic contexts. His Thresholds and Fragile States (2010-2011) is a synthesizer built around a network of four chaotic "jerk" oscillators.10 He was inspired by listening to the "emergent logic" of shifting sonic balances in Louisiana's Atchafalaya basin, and describes the work as "an attempt at understanding pattern formation in natural sound systems."11 The unpredictable nature of the circuit, which cannot be “controlled” so much as “oriented,” is reflective of a longstanding trend in experimental electronic instrument design to foreground rather than minimize chaotic patterns. Dunn works between the scale of his sonic environment and that of his handmade electronic system, listening to both so one can inform his experience of the other. This type of generative electronic system behavior, which Dunn calls "autopoiesis," has precedents in instruments such as in Salvatore Martirano's Sal-Mar Construction12 and David Tudor's feedback network compositions.13

One of Blonda's Chaos Boxes, built from two clear cassette tape enclosures

Figure 2 One of Blonda's Chaos Boxes, built from two clear cassette tape enclosures. Photo courtesy of the artist.

David Kant, a student of Dunn's, has expanded on this tradition of chaotic hardware with a software model of Dunn's circuits for the audio programming language Supercollider.14  He had earlier built circuits with Madison Heying for their duo, Blonda, including a set of nonlinear feedback circuits based on the 4046 phase-locked loop integrated circuit (see Chapter 23) which exhibited chaotic behaviors. In their iteration of the 4046 circuit, the input and the output of each Chaos Box are routed to piezoelectric discs, both attached to the surface of the enclosures. Blonda performs by manipulating both the control knobs and the boxes themselves—hitting, scrubbing, scraping and otherwise using these enclosures as resonant bodies. In a process not dissimilar to Dunn's use of the Thresholds and Fragile States system, Heying and Kant listen to the patterns that emerge between these electrical and acoustical feedback paths, as mediated by the phase-locked loops, in an attempt to direct the devices roughly down the musical paths they wish to go.15

Part of Philip White's Feedback Instrument. The system includes a number of other modules

Figure 3 Part of Philip White's Feedback Instrument. The system includes a number of other modules. Photo courtesy of the artist.

You Nakai’s and Michael Johnsen’s 2016 paper on David Tudor's Untitled (1972) and Toneburst (1975) inspired composer Philip White to update an earlier mixer-based feedback system for use in his Feedback Instrument(2017). Drawing on accounts of Tudor's electronics experiments, as well as on his own a decade of experience composing with feedback using traditional mixers, White developed a new hardware and software system that could be controlled digitally. It is not a purely chaotic system, but no-input setups such as those used by White and Tudor produce unstable melodic, rhythmic and timbral patterns that White uses extensively in his solo and collaborative recordings. The Feedback Instrument is built with off-the-shelf electrical components, and subsystems such as the VCAs are adapted from an open source modular synthesizer manufacturer.16

Bonnie Jones, digital delay pedal setup

Figure 4 Bonnie Jones, digital delay pedal setup. Photo credit: Dani Restack.

Bonnie Jones's electronic setup offers her perspective on how one might explore the sonic affordances (if not personalities) of electronics. Jones's improvisations reveal sounds produced throughout the circuit board by removing the back cover, flipping the pedal bottom up, and touching a one-eighth-inch jack to various solder joints on the board. In contrast with Vic Rawlings's exploration of multiple types of pedal circuits (see his video in the “Laying of Hands: section of the Gallery on the website), Jones investigates generations of a specific series of digital delay effects. Each revision of the pedal has a different circuit layout, resulting in different feedback patterns that get piped to the P.A. This is not the way the manufacturer intended these pedals to be used, and each effect box reacts differently to the harsh feedback treatment, with some components misbehaving or failing over time. Jones's system thus almost hacks itself, much like the self-destructive cybernetic circuits of Louis and Bebe Barrons, which produced the soundtrack for the 1957 film Forbidden Planet and overheated themselves into malfunction.17 Jones states:

Electronic noise makes audible the hidden, the background, the "unwanted." It asks us to be inside of our bodies, to resonate with our surroundings. To be aware of each other, to listen. Our bodies vibrate with its secret messages, its rich complexity. The circuit board becomes a sonic geography, there are known localities, but also unknowable edges, everything is relation and context.18

For Jones, electronics serve an ethics of listening, realized in each performance and recording.

Anstasia Clarke, Cracklepads

Figure 5 Anstasia Clarke, Cracklepads.  Photo courtesy of the artist.

Adapting Michel Waisvisz’s classic 1970s Cracklebox circuit, Anastasia Clarke's Cracklepads (2018) take the historic, erratic circuit originally designed for finger control, and opens it to full-body interaction. Clarke's circuit differs from Waisvisz’s in a number of ways: it uses an NTE909D IC instead of the original 709, includes eight touch points instead of six (one placed on an empty pin of the 909D, and one on the output of the LM386), and adds a potentiometer after the 386, which unintentionally gave the device the capacity to self-oscillate. As such, it requires its user to touch the instrument to silence it.19 The interface is novel as well—Clarke drew inspiration from Peter Blasser's “androgynous nodes” to add brass nails in place of the Cracklebox's traditional touch points.20 She sees these as "neither input nor output, but cross-puts for making any number of unique connections."21 The design of her instrument includes elements that respond to this concern and affect modes of interaction. In performance, she wires these rods to large copper petals strewn around the performance space. The result is a full-body instrument that only functions when two or more nodes touch the skin.


Artists such as Troy Rogers, Scott Barton or Steven Kemper have developed musical automatons—motors, microcontrollers and handmade instruments assembled in digitally-orchestrated ensembles that extend the long tradition of music boxes and player pianos.

Figure 6 Ragnhild May, The Flute Player (2015).  Photo courtesy of the artist.

Ragnhild May's electro-mechanical systems, both installed and performed, explore the potential of recorders and air pumps as partially automated instruments. Reminiscent of Maryanne Amacher's psychoacoustic compositions, The Flute Player (2015) uses 132 fipple flutes, a vacuum cleaner and five air mattress pumps droning and chaotically generating otoacoustic phenomena. This offers a brute-force contrast with May's more recent, controlled installation system School Harmony (2018), which augments the flutes and air pumps with a microcontroller -automated system to direct the organ pump-bellows and valves to individual flutes of different sizes.

Jeff Snyder, Birl Tone Generator

Figure 7 Jeff Snyder, Birl Tone Generator.  Photo courtesy of the artist.

Jeff Snyder's Birl Tone Generators22 are stepper-motor driven dynamos whose power input is used as an output: as the motor's driveshafts get turned, they produce tones that are used as the basis of a subtractive synthesis system. Pulleys of smaller diameters are used for octaves, which are fed through waveshaper, filter and voltage-controlled amplifier. Thaddeus Cahill's Telharmonium performed additive synthesis and had a constant-speed central drive-shaft for every note and its octaves (see chapter 4), and the Birl Tone Generators are effectively comparable over a century later: electromagnets spinning to generate tones.23

From Scratch?

Although most of the projects described here could be considered to have been made "from scratch," some engage with the usually unchallenged substrate of circuits: the components and the printed-circuit-board themselves.

Hannah Perner-Wilson, Leatherphone

Figure 8 Hannah Perner-Wilson, Leatherphone.  Photo courtesy of the artist.

With her Leathersynths (2013) Hannah Perner-Wilson investigates the possibility of developing electronic components locally rather than as part of a global market. Reflecting her working environment in Austria, the projects explore a variety of culturally and historically informed possibilities. Some employ a local relief embroidery technique (traditionally used to decorate lederhosen) to create conductive traces between components, as well an embroidered coil that functions as both electromagnet and membrane of a pair of Leatherphones. Other instruments are knitted with wool from local sheep that is combined with stainless steel fibers to make pressure and stretch sensors (see Chapter 16), or are woven using a Celtic card weaving technique to make multi-conductor ribbon cables with traditional patterns.

Victoria Shen, dB meter earrings

Figure 9 Victoria Shen, dB meter earrings.  Photo courtesy of the artist.

Victoria Shen and her LED meter earrings extend material exploration in directions suggested by Perner-Wilson, Blasser (see Chapter 26) and Nyler Steiner (Jordan 2015, 44). Shen, who performs under the name Evicshen, worked in the mid-2000s helping Jessica Rylan build chaotic synthesizers as part of her Flower Electronics brand.24 Shen has built flexible vinyl-cut circuits that correlate the sound intensity picked up by a microphone to the brightness and color of LEDs. Presented as earrings, these wearable circuits offer visual feedback for and around Shen's sonic performances, indicating when sounds are reaching potentially dangerous levels of volume. Echoing the wearables and soft circuit work of Kat McDermott's Urban Armorseries, these handmade experiments offer an alternative basis for the assembly of circuits (clear vinyl) to complement a visual interpretation of sound.

Two of MSHR's Nestar instruments, with control glove and LED light controller

Figure 10 Two of MSHR's Nestar instruments, with control glove and LED light controller.  Photo courtesy of MSHR.

MSHR (Brenna Murphy and Birch Cooper) have developed a number of custom audio-visual electronic instruments for immersive performance ceremonies and installations. The distinctive mirror casing of their devices is a functional decision. These instruments are often light-sensitive: the reflections from one enclosure onto another affect the sound. The Nestar is based on the quad NAND gate CD4093 IC. Each gate is wired as a square wave oscillator whose frequency control can be patched to MSHR's numerous light-sensitive controllers (photocells embedded in translucent plastics of various colors and shapes). A ribbon controller “bleeds” the IC’s power source, which extends the range of timbres and behaviors produced by the oscillators as they begin to operate erratically with low voltages. Performing with multiple Nestars, MSHR use a light organ to produce an array of beams aimed at the photosensitive controllers. They explicitly identify the sculptural aspect of their performance setup, focusing on the use of light filters to affect sound, as an opportunity to interact with signals in a unique controllable way that has shaped their output as musicians.

Martin Howse performs Final Session at Solu in Helsinki, 2019

Figure 11 Martin Howse performs Final Session at Solu in Helsinki, 2019. Photo Credit: Solu Bioarts Society.

Echoing Gustav Metzger's auto-destructive art,25 and prompted by precedents as varied as the alchemical writings and illuminations of anonymous medieval scribes (detailed in the work of Deborah Harkness, Charlotte Fell Smith and Dame Frances Yates), Bram Stoker's Dracula, and the work of media theorist Friedrich Kittler, Martin Howse's performance setups and instruments involve heat and acids to transform materials. Citing Shintaro Miyazaki, Peter Flemming and Bengt Sjolen as contemporaries with similar interests, Howse engages with the composition of the components themselves, often using soil and other pulverized, molten or burnt mediums as electrical components, taking advantage of the fact that numerous familiar substances can conduct, resist or store electricity to some extent. His 2019 performance piece “Final Session”uses "earth, worms, burning matter, temperature sensors, violet laser and minerals" alongside custom electronic systems (for which he open-sources the code and circuit designs), to decode "earth and air signals through un-refined electrochemistry and manipulation of earth-bound electrons, air and light."26  For Howse these manipulations reveal the processes that lead to the existence of his tools, and in describing his interests he conveys the role of alchemy in shaping his approach to handmade electronic music:

That which is to be divined in the unfaithful language of replayed temperature change, earthy smoke, dust, glass machines, plant stones, and ear stones are the various past and future depositions, intrusions, compressions, degradations, and gradings of lithic entropy, these everyday deformations of contemporary energy.27

One of the five subsystems in Ralf Baecker's Irrational Computing

Figure 12 One of the five subsystems in Ralf Baecker's Irrational Computing. Photo credit: Roman März.

Ralf Baecker's Irrational Computing(2011) utilizes five interconnected modules based around crystals: silicon, germanium, galena and silicon carbide (all of which are used in microscopic amounts in integrated circuits) as the basis for grotesque, macroscopic mockeries of modern computing systems. Through photoelectric and piezoelectric effects, the crystals convert electricity, light and mechanical vibrations into other forms of energy. Some of these outputs are fed back into a complementary module, creating a complex feedback network. Echoing the concept of the circuit as score as well as the theme of musical chaos, media theorist Ryan Jordan describes Baecker’s pieces as having " no musical or compositional intention as such; instead, these works allow the machines, or rather the elements of the machines, to compose themselves." 28


While some handmade electronic music has a tendency to engage with the more chaotic suggestions of the materials that surround us, a contrarian subcurrent has focused on the development of controllers for digital music synthesis systems. Working with the increasingly programmable nature of digital audio workstations and other software tools, and relatively ease to use standards, from MIDI to OSC, projects offering assignable knobs, switches and potentiometers have multiplied. A number of these are open source, encouraging the sharing of variations adapted by makers/composers/performers.29

Functional diagram for Lia Mice's ChandeLIA instrument

Figure 13 Functional diagram for Lia Mice's ChandeLIA instrument.  Image courtesy of the artist.

Lia Mice's ChandeLIA (2018) is a chandelier augmented with a piezo microphone and an orientation sensor, wired to a Bela open source digital signal processing device (McPherson et al 2016), which adds low-latency audio inputs and outputs to a Beaglebone small Linux computer, as well as the ability to interface with various sensors. The signal from the piezo triggers a Karplus-Strong algorithm, connecting the chandelier to a digital, real-time model of a vibrating string that runs on the Bela-Beaglebone package.30 Various musical parameters of this algorithm are controlled, also in real time, by the orientation sensor in the chandelier. Musical behaviors are then achieved by moving, flipping, tapping and touching the chandelier.

Asha Tamirisa, Matrixharp

Figure 14 Asha Tamirisa, Matrixharp.  Photo courtesy of the artist.

Asha Tamirisa's Matrixharp (2015) is a hardware interface that utilizes a grid of stretch sensors and capacitive sensors to make patch connections and modulate parameters of digital synthesis. This interface and its corresponding software explore the potential of no-plug controllers, inspired by matrix interfaces of the ARP2500 and the EMS Putney. Matrixharp is motivated by a desire to move beyond the gendered and directional connectors of most electronic music hardware.31 In it, patch connections are “felt” throughout the system through the tension of the stretch sensors, resisting the localized logic of modular hardware. In accordance with the idea that all hardware hacking has political meaning (see Kori and Novak, this volume), the Matrixharp joins a growing set of handmade electronic music devices in which political explicitly influence design and, as a result, musical performance.

Figure 15 Quran Karriem and Rebecca Uliasz playing with the Synthball.  Photo courtesy of the artists.

Quran Karriem and Rebecca Uliasz's Synthball developed as part of a wider intermedia project involving dancers, graphic artists and historical research directed by Thomas DeFrantz. It "includes three-dimensional accelerometer data, a gyroscope to measure changes in rotational orientation, [and] a magnetometer to measure gravitational fields."32 The streamed data controls a digital audio/visual synthesis system that can only be partially controlled: humans are not machine-like in their catching and throwing. The Synthball reminds electronic musicians that the motions such as throwing or bouncing a ball—so much more limited in precision than "knob twiddling"33 —have affordances worth exploring.34 

There still is no conclusion35

There are as many visions of electronic music's future as there are instrument makers and designers.  If no particular project from the last decade has emerged as the "next big thing" that Collins hypothesized in the second edition of Handmade Electronic Music (see “The Future Was Then” on the website), the categories and projects discussed above hint at shifts in nature of available materials and conceptual trends. From electro-musical chaos to technologically-mediated semblances of control, and across vibratory mediums, hacking remains a diverse and active mode of composition, responding to local cultural and political contexts. This is clear from my own partial perspective, but also many global case studies and longitudinal analyses (see in this book the essays by Curci et al., Van Gelder and Kelly, or Kori and Novak, as well as writing by Dal Farra, Flood, Gordon, Lerner).36 Given the role that handmade electronic music has come to play in the construction of communities, we can see how important it is to document both the making process and the conditions that enable it, as such documentation can foster further projects and extend awareness of shared values and of the systems of power inevitably at play.

Hardware is just where the hacking begins.

1 Collins, Nicolas. 2007. “Live Electronic Music.” In The Cambridge Companion To Electronic Music, 45. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

2 For a detailed theory of contemporary musical practices as inherently collaborative, see Georgina Born's relational model of musicology (Born 2010).  

3 Lucier, Alvin. 1998. “Origins of a Form: Acoustical Exploration, Science and Incessancy.” Leonardo Music Journal, 5–11.  We can expand the concept here to include all sorts of technical abstractions, from computer code to layout diagrams and interface designs, as they have since all been used to explicitly or implicitly prescribe and describe musical works to various extents.  

4 See Collins 2009. Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking. Second. New York and London: Routledge, p 297.

5The current fuzz pedal market is a good example.

6 Rodgers, Tara. 2015. “Cultivating Activist Lives in Sound.” Leonardo Music Journal 25: 79–83.

7 The philosopher of technology Gilbert Simondon would call that process individuation Simondon, Gilbert. 1958. Du Mode d’existence Des Objets Techniques. Paris: Aubier.

8 There are too many examples to list but see, for example, Holzer, Derek. 2010a. “Schematic as Score: Uses and Abuses of the (in) Deterministic Possibilities of Sound Technology.” In Vague Terrain 19, edited by Derek Holzer.https://web.archive.org/web/20131124040627/http://vagueterrain.net/journal19, the circuit tracing subforums on freestompboxes.org, or the growing field of media archaeology: Parikka, Jussi. 2011. “Operative Media Archaeology: Wolfgang Ernst’s Materialist Media Diagrammatics.” Theory, Culture & Society 28 (5): 52–74; Striegl, Libi, and Lori Emerson. 2019. “Anarchive as Technique in the Media Archaeology Lab Building a One Laptop Per Child Mesh Network.” International Journal of Digital Humanities, April.https://doi.org/10.1007/s42803-019-00005-9.

9 Non-hierarchical electronic instrument taxonomies offer the advantage that they can be expanded to match the self-labeling of these disparate practitioners and ad-hoc communities.  See Magnusson, Thor. 2017. “Musical Organics: A Heterarchical Approach to Digital Organology.” Journal of New Music Research 46 (3): 286–303.

10 In physics, "jerk" is the third derivative of displacement with respect to time, which can also be thought of as the time-derivative of acceleration (Sprott, Julien Clinton. 2011. “A New Chaotic Jerk Circuit.” IEEE Transactions on Circuits and Systems II: Express Briefs 58 (4): 240–243).   Incidentally, Sprott co-authored paper on these type of chaotic oscillator circuits with Jessica Rylan-Piper, mentioned below: Piper, Jessica Rylan, and Julien Clinton Sprott. 2010. “Simple Autonomous Chaotic Circuits.” Circuits and Systems II: Express Briefs, IEEE Transactions On 57 (9): 730–34.

11 See Dunn, David. 2011. “Thresholds and Fragile States.” Unpublished Score.  

12 Cuervo, Adriana P. 2011. “Preserving the Electroacoustic Music Legacy: A Case Study of the Sal-Mar Construction at the University of Illinois.” Notes, 33–47.  Franco, Sergio. 1974. “Hardware Design of a Real-Time Musical System.” Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois. PhD Thesis.

13 Nakai, You. 2016. “On the Instrumental Natures of David Tudor’s Music.” New York University. PhD Thesis.

14 Kant, David. 2017. “Thresholds and Fragile States by David Dunn.”http://www.davidkant.com/thresholds/index.html.

15 Kant, David, and Madison Heying. 2018. “Blonda.” February 23, 2018.

16 White, Philip. 2018a. “Feedback Instrument (Pt 1).”http://prwhite.net/instrument-pt1/.
———. 2018b. “Feedback Instrument (Pt 2).”http://prwhite.net/feedback-instrument-pt-2/.  Gillet, Emilie. 2019. “Veils.”https://mutable-instruments.net/modules/veils/open_source/.

17 Greenwald, Ted. 1986. “The Self-Destructing Modules Behind Revolutionary 1956 Soundtrack of Forbidden Planet.” Keyboard Magazine, February 1986.

18 email exchange with the author, Nov. 8, 2018.

19Clarke, Anastasia. 2018. “Self/Work: Performing Attention in an Exploration System.” Master's Thesis, Mills College, 53.

20 Blasser, Peter. 2015. “Stores at the Mall.” Wesleyan University. Master's Thesis, 32, 67

21 Clarke 2018, 53

22 Snyder, Jeff. “Birl Tone Generator - Close Up of Prototype.” https://vimeo.com/15472241; “Research.” 2010.http://www.scattershot.org/research.htm.

23 Cahill, Thaddeus. 1897. Art of and apparatus for generating and distributing music electrically. US Patents Office.

24 Rylan had herself worked with synth designer Donald Buchla prior to starting Flower Electronics.

25 Metzger, Gustav. 1969. “Automata in History.” Studio International. Wilson, Andrew. 2008. “Gustav Metzger’s Auto‐Destructive/Auto‐Creative Art: An Art of Manifesto, 1959–1969.” Third Text 22 (2): 177–94.https://doi.org/10.1080/09528820802012844.

26 Howse, Martin. 2019. “The Final Session.”http://www.1010.co.uk/org/final.html.

27 Ibid

28Jordan, Ryan. 2015. “DIY Electronics: Revealing the Material Systems of Computation.” Leonardo Music Journal 25 (25): 44.

29 See for example Chang, Kevin. 2019. “Pd Knobs.” Sonoclast: Electronic Instruments for Music. http://sonoclast.com/products/pd-knobs/; or the 16n in Crabtree, Brian, Sean Hellfritsch, Tom Armitage, and Brendon Cassidy. 2017. “16n.” https://16n-faderbank.github.io/.

30 Sullivan, Charles R. 1990. “Extending the Karplus-Strong Algorithm to Synthesize Electric Guitar Timbres with Distortion and Feedback.” Computer Music Journal 14 (3): 26–37.

31 Blasser 2015, 1

32 Karriem, Quran and Rebecca Uliasz. 2017. “Synthball.”http://qurankarriem.com/portfolio/synthball/.

33 Paradinas, Mike and Richard D. James. Expert Knob Twiddlers. Rephlex, 1996. Record released under the name "Mike and Rich". 

34 Evens, Aden. 2005. Sound Ideas: Music, Machines, and Experience. University of Minnesota Press:160, Rovan, Joseph “Butch.” 2009. “Living on the Edge: Alternate Controllers and the Obstinate Interface.” Mapping Landscapes for Performance as Research: Scholarly Acts and Creative Cartographies.

35 Collins 2009: 294

36 Dal Farra, Ricardo. 2006. “Something Lost, Something Hidden, Something Found: Electroacoustic Music by Latin American Composers.” Organised Sound 11 (2): 131–142; Flood, Lauren. 2016. “Building and Becoming: DIY Music Technology in New York and Berlin.” Columbia University. PhD Thesis; Gordon, Theodore Barker. 2018. “Bay Area Experimentalism: Music and Technology in the Long 1960s.” University of Chicago; Lerner, Martín Matus. 2019. “Latin American NIMEs: Electronic Musical Instruments and Experimental Sound Devices in the Twentieth Century.” In Proceedings of the International Conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression.

A History of Japanese Hacking and DIY music

Translation by Sayoko Mundy

Is it unreasonable to start a history of Japanese hacking and DIY music with the year 1924?

That was the year TAKAMIZAWA Michinao, perhaps inspired by Luigi Russolo’s Intonarumori instruments, took some bicycle wheels, metal strings and empty cans and combined them to create his Sound Constructors. (The creator of Japan's first robot manga, Takamizawa later became a famous cartoonist under the name TAGAWA Suiho ). The documentation is sketchy, but it is clear that these devices were used by the Japanese Dada group MAVO in dance and theatre performances where they were played by people with no musical background. They might be the first Noise Improvisations in the history of modern art. Three decades later in 1956, TANAKA Atsuko, a core member of the avant-garde group Gutai, created her Electric Dress—a mass of light bulbs and wires that she wore fully lit, despite the risk of electrocution, on stage. A year earlier she exhibited a work in which twenty bells could be rung in sequence when visitors pressed a button, a very early example of an interactive sound installation.

As in the United States and Europe, in Japan the 1960s were critical years for art as well as politics. Among the members of the Group Ongaku, founded in 1960, were two important pioneers of electronic experimental music, TONE Yasunao and KOSUGI Takehisa (1938–2018). Tone created one of the first artworks using a tape loop for the “Yomiuri Independent exhibition,” a critical occasion for avant-garde art, in 1962, and in 1965 transformed the body of a Volkswagen into an interactive sound object. This interest in the transformation of content through changes in media—audio tape to visual object, automobile to musical instrument—would remain consistent through Tone’s career. Kosugi, who was familiar with electronics from repairing radios in his youth, created ethereal electronic sounds by heterodyning closely tuned radios (see David First’s audio and video tracks on the website). He built his own Theremin and altered his live violin performance through filters and delay pedals to gently transform sound and space.

A unique attribute of Tokyo, essential to the development of Japanese electronic music, was the Akihabara district—the urban temple of electronics. After World War II, Akihabara was the epicenter of the black market in the destroyed city center, and later small shops selling military surplus vacuum tubes and radio parts crowded the area around a local school for electronics. The narrow arcade was so jammed with vendors it was difficult to pass, but how exciting to survey the precisely organized arrays of parts and junk, and chat with the sometimes-difficult shop owners. Akihabara nourished Japanese DIY culture: you could find new or old things at incredible prices, and every Akihabara regular would have had a map of it imprinted in their brain. It offered a mysterious flow of imagination not to be had through catalogs or mail order. You might go to buy things, but you would leave with ideas—a modest collusion of capitalism and creativity. By the 1990s Akihabara had devolved into a purlieu of anime and video-games, but one can still catch a glimpse of older times in a bin of electric parts labeled “new old stock” not found on the Internet. Some have been there for decades.

Several engineers had significant roles in the 1960s development of electronic music in Japan. OKUYAMA Junosuke began as a recording engineer collaborating closely with composer TAKEMITSU Toru (their film work is a précis of the best Japanese film of the sixties) and went on to support and influence many experimental musicians, including international visitors to Japan. He met John Cage and David Tudor in 1962 when they were invited by the Sogetsu Art Centre, then the heart of the Tokyo contemporary art scene (though it strains credibility, Sogetsu was sponsored by the Ikebana flower arranging school Sogetsu-ryu). Okuyama was the resident sound engineer, and his relationship to Cage was cemented when he built in one night a 50-channel mixer for Cage’s 50 contact microphones (the microphones had been made in Japan but, curiously, brought by Cage from America). Perhaps more importantly, for the subsequent history of electronic music, Okuyama, who could not speak English, took Tudor, who did not understand Japanese, to Akihabara. Cage wanted to bring Okuyama back to the US, but this did not happen. Instead Cage took home technology and the spirit of Zen, a form of Orientalism Western intellectuals like; while Tudor brought back a fascination with live electronics that blossomed instantly. Okuyama continued to assist musicians by building multipliers, filters, ring modulators and other devices. Cage’s pupil ICHIYANAGI Toshi used these tools in performing his own compositions, and at times Okuyama himself got up on stage. While the nation’s most important electronic music studio, NHK Electronic Music Studio (under the aegis of Japan’s national broadcasting corporation, NHK,) was mainly interested in tape music, Okuyama’s work greatly expanded the field of live electronics.

It was in Akihabara in 1963 that the engineer ABE Shuya met artist Nam June Paik, who had studied in Japan and was a frequent visitor. Together they built Robot K-456 (1964), who performed in the groundbreaking street performances.  Later Abe designed the Paik-Abe video synthesizer, based on specifications from Paik, as part of a project with WGBH television in Boston.

The tradition of art-oriented engineering in Japan can be traced back to the legendary UCHIDA Hideo (one story has it that he was the actual inventor of the transistor.) In 1962, having previously worked at the NHK research laboratory, he opened a shop in Akihabara (the store remained in the same place with the same name until quite recently). Later he devoted himself to elucidating paranormal phenomena through electrical engineering. Echoes of Uchida can be heard in the work of artists SHII Kei and MURAI Keitetsu . In the 1970s Shii had studied with Kosugi at Bigakko, the base for anti-academic education at the time. He has since provided electronic devices for many artists, and with other Kosugi alumni is a member of Marginal Consort, which employs a wide range of electronic instruments. MURAI Keitetsu assisted Kosugi with electronics in later years, and is known for solo performances, most memorably those using a candle flame to trigger an array of oscillators to produce a resounding roar.

YOSHIDA Minoru, a member of the Gutai group, developed his work using technologies in a psychedelic way, and in 1974 built synthesizer components into a plastic jacket. Wearing this synthesizer jacket, Yoshida suspended himself with ropes and performed mid-air—linking wearable electronics and Sun Ra.

Synthesizer jacket, YOSHIDA Minoru

Figure 1 Synthesizer jacket, YOSHIDA Minoru. Photographer Unknown courtesy of Midori Yoshida and Ulterior Gallery, New York, used by permission.

I would like to take this moment to correct a misperception about Japanese culture common among Western readers—namely the idea that Japan has nurtured its own consistent and continuous culture, independent of the United States, Europe and other places. As already observed, there was Dadaism in Japan in the 1920s, and the Japanese avant-garde of the 1960s was perfectly synchronized with that of New York City. There was always influence from the West, but there is no need to lament “cultural imperialism. ”Dadaism may have reached Japan from Berlin, but it was accepted in Japan only because similar things had already taken shape there. Similarly, the musical work of Group Ongaku commenced without direct knowledge of Cage or of Fluxus, but when their ideas were imported, they resonated with the Japanese avant-garde. In other words, Japan shared in the Zeitgeist of the 20th century.

That said, one possible, and unfortunate, peculiarity of Japanese culture is a dearth of communication between different generations and different regions in Japan. Thus there was little relationship between 1920s Dadaism and the 1960s avant-garde in Japan—somehow the distance was much greater than the (mathematically equivalent) one between Duchamp and Fluxus. The physical distance between Tokyo and Osaka, the two cultural poles in Japan, is only 400 km, but the cultural gap seems greater than that separating New York and San Francisco. The meeting point for Group Ongaku (Tokyo) and Gutai (around Osaka) ran through John Cage’s loft in New York City.

In the 1970s and early 1980s, a new DIY culture, punk, exploded in Tokyo. For better or worse, there was no Japanese equivalent to Malcolm McLaren, and the punk scene remained an underground phenomenon. IMAI Jiro, who was involved in the strangest band, Pungo and the most self-destructive band, Taco (“octopus”), expressed the DIY spirit with honesty and humor. Around 1990 he started Jirox Dolls Show as a solo effort, using dolls and rubbish combined on stage with light bulbs, cheap turntables, electric fans and other household appliances. A performance using an electric mixer to turn a disc placed above a hat conveyed a meaningless purity. Imai died in 2012, but during his final days in hospital, he photographed objects created from hospital food, images that still speak to us about what is hacking, what is DIY, what is art, truth and love.  In Osaka also the punk scene boomed, characterized by the use of effects and unusual explosive sounds that later became common to Japanese noise music1.

Turnhat, IMAI Jiro, and food art

Figure 2 Turnhat, IMAI Jiro, and food art. Photo © IMAI Jiro, used by permission.

Food art, IMAI Jiro

Figure 3 Food art, IMAI Jiro. Photo © IMAI Jiro, used by permission.

Guitarist TAKAYANAGI Masayuki was a pioneer of the free jazz movement in Japan, from which he drew his methodology of “action direct” in the 1980s. Takayanagi placed a number of electric guitars on a desk; these were activated by motors and heard through a ring modulator and numerous effect pedals, accompanied by tape material and feedback, The result was an incredible, roaring sound performance. Takayanagi’s disciple IMAI Kazuo (like Shii, a former student of Kosugi’s), attached springs to a metal plate and performed with it as part of the Marginal Consort and in solo performances. OTOMO Yoshihide, another student of Takayanagi, created a number of “action direct” mechanisms, and had played twisted noise on an electric guitar to which he had added springs.

Action Direct, TAKYANAGI Masayuki

Figure 4 Action Direct, TAKAYANAGI Masayuki. Photo © SAITO Yasunori, used by permission.

Table set-up for Marginal Consort, IMAI Kazuo

Figure 5 Table set-up for Marginal Consort, IMAI Kazuo,. Photo © FUNAKI Kazuyuki, used by permission.

Composer and pianist TAKAHASHI Yuji has had a large influence as a role model for anti-academic composers and performers in Japan.  A student of Iannis Xenakis, Takahashi commissioned and premiered Xenakis’s solo piano piece “Herma” (1961). Though it would be impossible to do justice to his extensive activity in hacking and electronics here, it is important to acknowledge his computer improvisations of the late 1980s and early 1990. Working with Mac and a sampler, he often collaborated with the legendary improviser TOGASHI Masahiko , as well as with the American composer John Zorn, who lived in Tokyo at the time. He used the programming language Max, in which the user connects digital “objects” (discrete processing elements) with lines, mimicking the physical process of connecting components with patch cords: on stage Takahashi would sometimes work with his back to the audience so they could watch the screen as he added or deleted Max objects, clicking and dragging patching cables to connect or disconnect them. These performances could be described as “live coding,” but they might as accurately be dubbed “live cording.”

Bassist YOSHIZAWA Motoharu, like Takaynagai and Togashi, started in free jazz, where he became a leading figure. Always in the forefront of improvised music, he developed in the late 1980s a system in which a homemade vertical electric bass was connected to a DJ sampler and other effects, modified so that they could be delicately controlled with his feet as he played the bass. This enabled him to perform real time sampling and modulation, creating an orchestra-like accompaniment from vertically placed speakers, resulting in very lively improvised electronic music.

In the new millennium, the Internet has linked communities around the globe and facilitated our access to information, in Japan as elsewhere. I would like to mention seven artists among the many who have emerged in this milieu.

ITO Atsushiro had long included fluorescent lights in his installations, but around 2000 he began amplifying the sound of the lights with electromagnetic pickups in audio visual performances. He dubbed this instrument the Optron, and used it in collaborative efforts with other improvising musicians. In 2003 he reduced the system to a single fluorescent tube, held like a guitar.  His performance style mimics rock guitar— the most sophisticated style of musical performance to be developed in the last 50 years. The guitar is abandoned. And the strobe is your own!

ITO Atsuhiro, Optron

Figure 6 ITO Atsuhiro, Optron.  Photo © FUJISHIMA Ryo, used by permission.

Along with Ito, SUZUKI Manabu is a member of IMAI Kazuo trio mentioned above (in this group Imai acts exclusively as an outstanding jazz guitarist). In addition to building electric instruments for other artists, Suzuki performs his own work with a large number of eccentric electric devices, that translate chemical and physical motion data into sound. One performance work amplifies the electric potentials of an electrolysis of water; in he holds both his hands in a horizontal position for around 20 minutes; as the hands start to shake, sensors catch the movements and transform them to sounds.

YONEMOTO Minoru has invented a large number of unconventional electric devices that explore the territory between conceptual art and fetishism. In performance, he manually sends 8-bit commands to an early digital music chip using a combination of switches and buttons, collapsing the distance between the human body and digital technology. With more than 150 modules, his System Y appears to be a normal self-made synth, but it contains a compass, an accessories case and a spring-powered walking toy. Until Handmade Electronic Music was translated into Japanese in 2013, Yonemoto’s book Fun Electronic Musical Instruments: An Introduction to DIY (2008) was the only guide for experimental musicians written in Japanese2.

System Y, YONEMOTO Minoru

Figure 7 System Y, YONEMOTO Minoru. Photo © YONEMOTO Minoru, used by permission.

One of the most prominent contemporary artists in Japan at the moment is MOHRI Yuko. Many of her kinetic installation works employ chains of devices and objects activated by solenoids and motors.  Her projects combine a refined minimalist aesthetic and the unpretentious joy of self-made objects. KUBOTA Akihiro teaches media art at Tama Art University. Active on the “live coding” scene, he also performs on an electric guitar into which he has incorporated a breadboard for prototyping circuitry, an Arduino, contact microphones, optical sensors and a video synthesizer.

Breadboard Guitar, KUBOTA Akihiro

Figure 8 Breadboard Guitar, KUBOTA Akihiro. Photo © KUBOTA Akihiro, used by permission.

TAKESHITA Yuma is a member of the emerging younger generation. He has attached numerous sensors and mechanisms— including one that can rotate a knob automatically—to an electric bass, allowing him to control effect devices and synthesizers in improvisations. He frequently collaborates with NAKADA Kayu who, unlike many of those involved in the Japanese independent music scene, has trained in traditional composition methods at the Senzoku Gakuen College of Music. Nakada regards circuit bending as an extension of the concept of the prepared piano (adding wires to an open can be seen as analogous to placing objects in the strings of the piano). Nakada extracts components from electric keyboards and stacks them in large numbers to make electrical contact, creating unexpected sounds. These performances are representative of the best aspects of the Japanese hacking music scene in Japan today.

Electro-bass, TAKESHITA Yuma

Figure 9 Electro-bass, TAKESHITA Yuma. Photo © TAKESHITA Yuma, used by permission.

Figure 10a NAKADA Kayu, Bug Synth. Photos © NAKADA Kayu, used by permission.

Figure 10b NAKADA Kayu, Bug Synth. Photos © NAKADA Kayu, used by permission.

1See David Novak, 2013, Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation, Duke University Press.

2Minoru Yonemoto, Tanoshii denshi gakki: jisaku no susume [楽しい電子楽器 自作のススメ] (Tokyo: Ohm, 2008).

Thanks to KIM Yohan

日本のハッキング・DIY音楽史 (足立智美

Original Japanese version of A History of Japanese Hacking and DIY Music (ADACHI Tomomi)

A History of Japanese Hacking and DIY Music (without images) A History of Japanese Hacking and DIY Music (with images)

Livening Things Up: Australian Hand-Built Electronic Instruments

Caleb Kelly and Pia van Gelder

Australia is in many ways an outpost for sound practices and experimental music. Works that originate here often look outward to relatively nearby areas such as South East Asia, the South Pacific and East Asia, as well as to the canonical practices of Western experimentalism. But Australians also look inward to their own history of sound art. Larrikin, a common local term for someone who does not observe convention, is likely derived from the verb “lark”—to play or behave in a mischievous way, and many of the artists discussed in this essay demonstrate larrikin behavior. Their style of making welcomes the public with a reflexive, self-deprecating sense of humor. They tinker with found materials and hack toys, microwave ovens, automobiles, bandsaws, breadboards, e-waste and volatile gases. Some are more serious about it than others.

There are three dominant approaches to hand-making electronic sounds in Australia: appropriating everyday electronics through hardware hacking; positioning human bodies as a kind of hardware that can control, or be controlled by, electronics; and investigating cosmic energies of the electromagnetic spectrum. This chapter does not pretend to present a complete list of attitudes or of instruments, only to offer a gathering some examples of how recent artists have developed the ideas and processes of handmade electronic music in Australia.1

It is important first to acknowledge, however, earlier Australian instrument makers who established ways of working with handmade electronics. In the 1970s Joseph Stanislaus Ostoja-Kotkowski (1922–1994) and dancer Philippa Cullen (1950–1975) used the electromagnetic spectrum in their sculptural theremins and experimented with biofeedback.2 Other artists active in this early period include Warren Burt, Ron Nagorcka, David Chesworth, Tsk Tsk Tsk and those who worked at the Clifton Hill Community Music Centre in Melbourne, as well as the Bush Video collective in Sydney.

On an episode of the 1986 Australian TV music show Edge of the Wedge about the electronic post-punk band Severed Heads, the presenter’s head speaks from a cathode ray tube set atop a rack of electronic gear, and remarks: “it’s getting a bit boring in here, can you do something to liven it up?” Band member Stephen Jones obliges by tweaking knobs on his home-made video synthesizer, whose nest of wires and circuit boards is visible beneath the acrylic plastic cover. The presenter’s face is then surrounded by colorful geometries and pulsing, waveforms.3

More recently, handmade synthesizers and hardware hacking continued to motivate by communities such as the record label Clan Analogue (1992–), the Sydney chapter of Dorkbot (2005–), and the Instrument Builders Project (2013–), along with many spaces and collectives, including Lanfranchis (2002-2007) and Serial Space (2007-2013) in Sydney, the Wired Lab in Wagga Wagga (2007–), and Electrofringe Festival (1998–).

Playing with the Everyday

Since 1995, the band Toy Death have been performing on stage in endearingly elaborate, somewhat terrifying toy-like costumes, attempting to play metal music with an array of circuit-bent toys that would impress any child by its sheer number. The interesting contradictions of this task can be heard in their most popular song, “Barby Army” (2012). In concert, they build dance-worthy tunes from layers of sound, emphatically pushing the buttons of toys, quickly scrambling and distorting the farm house noises and buoyant built-in jingles, turning voices from cheerful to scary, converting bovine moos to the groans of some unidentifiable creature. Cathartic endings to their songs are produced when the grown-up toy-people collapse structure and discipline.

Toydeath performing at OP SHOP: TOYDEATH in 2013 at Maitland Regional Art Gallery

Figure 1 Toydeath performing at OP SHOP: TOYDEATH in 2013 at Maitland Regional Art Gallery. 
Photo © Luke McMaster, used by permission.

In Brisbane, Ross Manning and Alan Nguyen formed Faber Castell (2003-2008) with a collection of dodgy instruments. They created rhythms with “records” made of sandpaper and lenticular prints, drums with contact mics connected to effects pedals, and a Synare (an early percussion synthesizer in drum-like form). Volatile feedback erupted from speakers fed from headphones acting as microphones, wrapped around the drums, while Nguyen and Manning attempted to communicate with the audience by laying hands on circuit-bent Walkie-talkies. By shining light through acetate prints on a spinning fan, they modulated photoresistors at rapid speed. Their sets would often end destructively, with the performers playing drums with their heads, sticking pins in Walkmans or pouring beer on the electronic equipment, permanently damaging its sonic character.4 They would then un-clean up the dance floor with an inverted vacuum cleaner, that blew air into a rubber glove fitted with party horns for fingers; shifting the settings of the vacuum would modulate the pitch of the squealing horns.

Figure 2 Faber Castell, Liquid Architecture festival in Melbourne 2004.  Photo © Alan Nguyen, used by permission.

Hirofumi Uchino of the noise band Defektro (1995-) plays home-made instruments carefully crafted from collected metal parts. Uchino often appears with guitar-shaped assemblages such as the QSG2-1 (2006), in which a large amplified spring takes the place of strings, and is vibrated by a rotating disk. Other instruments take less familiar forms: the HBS (1996) looks like a curling wand, repurposed to create harsh metallic sounds. The Discharger (1998)—a portable remake of David Tudor’s Fluorescent Sound (1964)—consists of a small fluorescent lamp mounted on  a compact electronic box in the style of early tube amplifiers. The electromagnetic frequencies generated by the gas-discharge tube and its supporting electronic parts are amplified and modulated by a built-in equalizer. Uchino’s Electric Maraca (1997) resembles an incandescent light bulb, its plastic spherical casing enclosing springs that suggest filaments but are actually pickups played by small phosphorescent pieces of plastic that bump around the enclosure when shaken.5

Figure 3 Hirofumi Uchino’s DC - Discharger (1998) with the light on.  Photo © Hirofumi Uchi, used by permission.

Figure 4 Hirofumi Uchino performing with his QSG-defektro 3 (2011) at the International Noise Conference at Dirty Shirlow’s, Sydney Australia. Photograph by Veronica Evans, used by permission of Hirofumi Uchi.

Playing with Bodies

Co-author Pia van Gelder’s performance work PVG sans PCB (2014–) is not so much an instrument as a potential instrument. The performance begins with a table, a divided box of electronic components, an empty breadboard or two, and a mixing desk. Van Gelder starts by building a CMOS Hex Schmitt Trigger oscillator from scratch (see chapter 13). Sounds emerge as she adds components (capacitors, pots, diodes), gradually becoming denser and more interactive. For example, a photoresistor may be inserted, followed by a strobing LED to “rhythmatize” the synthesized sounds. She also combines conductive objects—a piece of fruit, a cream bun—as variable resistors that can be squeezed and mushed. Often her fingers are integrated into the networks, the conductivity of skin completing electrical connections. A butcher’s glove made of steel mesh acts as a complex switch when oscillators are connected. The provisional nature of the breadboarded circuit facilitates experimentation, and the instrument is dismantled and returned to the tackle box at the end of each performance.

Figure 5 Pia van Gelder performing PVG sans PCB at Liquid Architecture: Rare Earth, Heavy Metal, Westspace, Melbourne 2015.  Video still, Alex Cuffe, © Pia van Gelder, used by permission.

Sydney-based musician and composer Donna Hewitt developed a microphone stand, known as the eMic, in 2003 with the help of Ian Stevenson. The performer’s gestures are mapped by transducers, and various sensors built into the microphone and stand. This data is then manipulated via digital processing in performance.6 Similarly, drummer Alon Ilsar’s AirSticks (2007) take air drumming to a new level by exploiting the gestures of drumming and gaming. The instrument is built from off-the-shelf gaming controllers that are patched into a computer to allow Ilsar to trigger sounds and visuals. Artist Michaela Davies inverts these approaches to gesture and circuitry by circuit bending the body using electric muscle stimulation (EMS). In her best known work, Cyborg String Quartet (2013), the performers are connected to a custom-built EMS machine that choreographs their actions through direct, sometimes painful, muscle stimulation. They attempt to play their instruments while convulsing, producing spasmodic tunes with “prepared arms” rather than “prepared violins.”

Figure 6 Alon Ilsar playing his AirSticks (2007) at Trigger Happy 'Visualised', 2018, the Old Darlington School, Sydney.  Photograph by John Dennis, © Alon Ilsar, used by permission.

Figure 7 Donna Hewitt performing with her eMic (2003) at Vivid Music Festival, 107 Projects, Sydney 2017.  Photograph by Rhiannon Hopley, © Donna Hewitt, used by permission.

Figure 8 Michaela Davies performing with her Involuntary String Quartet at Musicircus, John Cage Centenary Celebration at the Sydney Opera House in 2012.  Photo © Michaela Davies, used by permission.

Since 2005 dorkbot Sydney has sponsored presentations and experiments in electronic instrument building with artists such as Dan Stocks (aka Diode Dan) in artist-run spaces such as Lanfranchis7. Stocks’s Radar Synthesiser (2009) uses a salvaged Gunn diode to generate 24Ghz microwaves that can track moving objects or dancing bodies, detecting range and velocity. In dorkbot workshope groups of people gathered to build instruments together. Artist/engineer Aras Vaichas’s Micropatch Synth (2011), a microprocessor-based, cheap and nasty simulation of a modular synth, provided opportunities for learning about electronics while making instruments. Samuel Bruce’s Ritual Solar Observance Society (2012) created an orchestra from hacked solar garden lamps, with new sound-making components neatly arranged inside the original housing. Bruce conducted performances at sundown to celebrate the turning of celestial bodies; as the sun set, the instruments dwindled and died, until reactivated by light at dawn.

Figure 9 The inside of Danial Stocks’ Radar Synthesizer (2009).  Photo © Danial Stocks, used by permission.

Figure 10 Front panel silkscreen of Aras Vaichas’s Micropatch Synth (2011). Photo © Aras Vaichas, used by permission.

Figure 11 Sam Bruce and participants performing RSOS at Cementa, 2015, Kandos, NSW.  Photograph by Kate Byrne, © Sam Bruce, used by permission.

Playing with Earth Energies

Media artist Joyce Hinterding, who lives in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, has been working with electromagentic waves across the radio spectrum since the 1990s. A reoccurring element in her installations is the antenna, sometimes taking on the familiar shape of TV aerials, as in Purple Rain (2004) (with David Haines), but at other times taking unexpected forms, as in her drawings with carbon smudged and smeared with audience interaction. In 2009–2010 Hinterding produced a series of works entitled Aura in which images, generated algorithmically and drawn with liquid graphite, act as antennae; they pick up VLF (very low frequency) signals from the atmosphere, and also provide a grounding effect, similar to putting your thumb on the end of a guitar jack. The closed circuit creates a hum, and by moving fingers across the drawing, viewers raise and lower the amplitude of the hum. Through carbon-based media and transduction, Hinterding makes audible the energies that surround and bombard the space in which her works reside.

Figure 12 Installation view of Joyce Hinterding’s Aura (2009 -2016) at La Panacée Montpellier, France, 2016. Photo © Joyce Hinterding and Sarah Cottier Gallery Sydney, used by permission.

In Sydney, electronic artist Emily Morandini bypasses the minute, refined components of standard circuitry to build large electrical components out of raw materials The titles of her sculptural Components (2017) series link functions to physical elements: Inductor: copper, magnetite; Capacitor: copper, quartz; and Resistor: copper, bushfire carbonised rock. These works make us aware of the building blocks of electronic components, their geological and industrial histories, usually invisible to consumers thanks to miniaturization and in their encapsulation within the black box.

Figure 13 Emily Morandini’s Capacitor (2017) made ofcopper and mica, exhibited as a part of her solo show Components, Firstdraft Gallery, Sydney (2017).  Photo by Zan Wimberley, © Emily Morandini, used by permission.

Artist and musician Peter Blamey assembles feedback systems from discarded and repurposed electronics, including the motherboards of computers dumped on the street. In works such as Circuit Hut (The future is other people’s garbage) (2012) scavenged e-waste is used to produce computer music that foregoes software. The motherboards are activated by sending a signal through the circuits that are cloaked in an indeterminate fashion by a blanket of thin copper wool. In performance, he coaxes the copper wool across the surface of the boards to elicit various signals. In installations, his systems are run from solar power, but with an implicit critique of the rhetoric of “sustainability”: his solar panels are illuminated by mains-powered lights (clean energy is powered by dirty energy—or at least an unknown source of electricity).

Figure 14 Peter Blamey, installation viewof Circuit Hut (the future is other people’s garbage) (2012) at Gap Year, Artspace, Sydney (2012).  Photo by Silversalt Photography, © Peter Blamey, used by permission.

The electronic systems of media artist Vincent O’Connor interact with vast forests of pine, a non-native species that is crucial to the Australian wood industry. In Millionth Acre (2015) O’Connor records into these state-owned, publicly-operated forests using techniques and equipment derived from both instrument building and forestry. He drills brass screws into the xylem of living pines with a cordless impact driver, clamps piezoelectric microphones onto the exposed shaft of the screw, and records on compact field recorders. In the high wind areas along little-used forestry roads the sounds resemble those of an Aeolian chordophone.8

Figure 15 Vincent O’Connor’s Millionth Acre (2015), detail of recording device, Millionth Acre, New South Wales Australia. Photo © Vincent O’Connor, used by permission.

Finale by Carbon Monoxide

After Lucas Abela wrecked his first Volkswagen Kombi microbus on Mount Tambourine, he has  the motor and the stereo system transferred into another Kombi body, but this new combi-Kombi seemed to act as a giant contact microphone. When the radio was on, all the vehicle’s movements and vibrations were amplified through the speakers, so that closing the door, turning on the blinkers or the windscreen wipers produced distinct noises. Abela’s diagnosis was that the stereo system wasn’t grounded; instead of fixing the problem, however, he made an album—A Kombi: Music to Drive-by (dualpLOVER, 1996), recorded while the car sat stationary at Waverley Cemetery outside Sydney. Abela remembers Sydney’s Harbour Tunnel as a kind of echo chamber that became one of his favorite places to play his Kombi. He developed drive-by performances, pulling up to bus stops by for several minutes while the speakers were on full-blast. For van’s final performance, it was parked in the back-door entrance of Sydney’s Vulcan Hotel, with a microphone in the boot.

Figure 16 Album cover of Lucas Abela’s A Kombi: Music to Drive-By (Dual Plover, 1996).  Photo © Lucas Abel, used by permission.

1 For an overview of earlier work, see Gail Priest, ed., Experimental Music: Audio Explorations in Australia (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2009).

2 Stephen Jones, Synthetics: Aspects of Art and Technology in Australia, 1956-1975 (Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2011).

3 “Edge of the Wedge” (Sydney: ABC, 1986) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MX0goKMpB4Y.

4 Alan Nguyen and Ross Manning, email correspondance with Pia van Gelder, May 16 - June 23, 2019.

5  “Lastgasp Art Laboratories,” Gallery, accessed June 23, 2019, http://lalweb.com/defektro.html.

6 Donna Hewitt and Ian Stevenson, “Emic - Extended Mic-stand Interface Controller,” in Thibault, Francois (ed.), New Interfaces for Musical Expression NIME-03. (Montreal: McGill University, 2003).

7 See Douglas Repetto’s “A brief personal history of dorkbott - NYC” on the website.

8 Vincent O’Connor, “Dark Corner,” Rubble Mountain, accessed June 23, 2019, http://cargocollective.com/rubblemountain.

Gambioluthiery: Hacking and DIY in Brazil

Giuliano Obici


The popular Brazilian expression gambiarra describes an improvised, informal way of solving an everyday problem when needed tools or resources are not available1. Like “hacking” and “DIY” it reflects a way of dealing with the objects and issues that occupy the daily life of post-industrial societies, but gambiarra also denotes specific aspects of Brazilian culture. When applied to visual art, music, sound art and media activism, it describes ways how some artists choose to work with materials, technology and/or local institutions. Activities that reflect gambiarra approaches include instrument building, hardware hacking, cracked media, and other forms of technological activism2> — all suggestive of a re-envisioning of the musical instrument.

Gambiarra's Genealogy

Originally, in the 19th century, “gambiarra” referred to string lights (fig. 1). The word’s etymology is unclear, but it may have derived from gambia (leg) or from the expression dar às gâmbias, meaning "to run, escape, or flee."3 Popularly, the word variously means to fix, adapt, improvise or assemble; it can also refer to a handyman, to patchwork, to tricks, and to DIY. By extension it is describes extemporaneous approaches to problem solving; inventiveness, intelligence and creativity. It may also refer to vernacular, autochthonous, popular art. Or, more negatively, it can suggest taking advantage of a situation, or a behavior that is illicit, dishonest or fraudulent. Gambiarra is scruffy, precarious, rustic, crude, ephemeral, palliative, volatile, imperfect and unfinished.4

This spectrum of meanings makes the term adaptable to various contexts. Gambiarra twists the logic of industrial design, establishing short circuits between a product’s form and its functionality. In principle, it emerges from an existing design but, depending on the degree of interference, it can also result in a new design object.

Extension wire with attached lights

Figure 1 Extension wire with attached lights, gambiarra’s original reference.  Photo © Bruno Figueiredo, used by permission.

Other cultures sport similar expressions, of course: in Cuba Revolico and rikimbili refer to "technological disobedience," or resistance to the scarcity of material resources and technological access;5 in Mexico  rasquachismo, an artistic movement working within technical and material limitations;6 in Uruguay chapuza, arreglo temporal (temporary arrangement) and lo atamos con alambre (tie with wire) represent quick and careless execution; solución parche (patchwork solution) in Chile means a kind of temporary amendment; and the Colombian arreglo hechizo or reparación hechiza have connotations similar to gambiarra.  The practices represented by these terms reveal varied cultural responses to the practical benefits and limitations of technological product design.

Local Context: Carnivalization of technique

Gambiarra, however, carries distinctly Brazilian associations. The idea of a plural culture that aimed to digest everything that comes from outside, incorporating and re-elaborating elements of global culture in their own way was taken by the artistic movements such as the modernist anthropophagic movement in the 1920s and revisited by tropicalism in the late 1960s.7 Cultural icons of local culture commonly related to the gambiarra approach include jeitinho, malandragem and the carnival. Perhaps the most iconic manifestation of gambiarra is carnival, with its characteristic freedom of expression and movement, and its subversion and the temporary inversion of the social hierarchy.8 Carnival’s inside-out, world-upside-down logic does not provide a permanent extinction of hierarchies,9 instead it dismantles the system of social roles for a short periods.10  In art and music, gambiarra similarly subverts subject positions and the form-function of designed objects. The consumer assumes a temporary inventor role, moving from passivity to active creation, and imbuing extant products with new uses and purposes. It reverses the order of artifacts, serving as a carnivalization of technique, technology and design.11

Sound and Gambiarra

Despite radically different cultural contexts, European movements such as Elektronische Musik and musique concrète are similar to gambiarra in their substitution of nontraditional technological tools for traditional ones—for example, using radio transmitters as instruments. Experimental music has other connections to gambiarra: the presence of chance, an emphasis on process and the adaptation of tools such as prepared piano, turntables, or electronic test equipment.

Given gambiarra’s subversion and repurposing of found materials, it is easy to associate it with practices such as circuit bending and hardware hacking. When lack of resources and precariousness are a work’s foundational elements, the risk of failure, glitch and crack is high, as is the need for adaptation and repair. It demands creative openness to error and unplanned occurrences—conditions that permeate cracked media. Likewise, "dirty electronics" emphasize the exploration of invented instruments and prioritize gesture and social interaction.12 "Dirt" here refers not to substandard quality but to the practice of contradicting technology’s supposedly universalizing character to reveal aspects of the dream that lies hidden in it. Along similar lines, Paul DeMarinis has proposed rebuilding obsolete and absurd technologies, an activity that resembles gambiarra’s carnivalization of design.13


“Gambioluthiery” is my neologism for the construction of instruments oriented around the logic of gambiarra, involving activities such as composing, decomposing, inventing, proposing, constructing, collecting, adapting and appropriating materials, objects, artifacts, devices, instruments or system setups.   As such, gambioluthiery intervenes between the form and the purpose of objects and devices, resulting in a new instruments, artworks and experiences.  Gambioluthiery works in peripheral zones pre- or post- musical instrument, between the audible and visible, between musical performance and sound installations, and between musical projects and sound design. Exploiting sound beyond the syntax of traditional musical instruments, it emerges from a tension within the concept of a musical instrument and its material context.  The boundaries between utilitarian object and instrument are confused, dynamic and unstable in gambioluthiery. It can be thought of as a practice of Tato Taborda’s concept of "technology without the edges"14, established via an upending of hierarchies between high and low technology or even between composer and interpreter.

The history of musical instruments is rife with overlaps between everyday tools and musical devices. Consider what unites and separates blowpipe and flute; the stretched rope of a bow and arrow and the string on a berimbau; a crate and a cajón; or a grater and a guiro. What distinguishes the mouth that eats from the mouth that speaks and sings? Gambioluthiery reconnects instrument and utilitarian object.

Gambioluthiery reinforces connections between sound and its materiality as well as the paradoxical gaps between advantage and limitations that techno-consumption produces globally. While I use the term to refers to a particular Brazilian repertoire (examples described below), it can be seen more broadly in the idea of expanding the musical instrument through sound art.15


A precursor on the route toward gambioluthiery is the Brazilian composer, cellist and luthier Walter Smetak (1913–1984), whose search for a new music was entwined with his invention of instruments meant to extend musical boundaries.  Smetak’s musical and spiritual journey is summarized by the wordplay he used to describe the instrument as an object or vehicle that instructs minds: "instru- to instruct; ment- to mind. Instruct minds."16 From experimental luthiery to “plásticas sonoras” (sound plastic), extrapolated music proposed other spaces and methods for experiencing sound (installations, sculptures, objects and actions), which would later be defined as sound art.17

Figure 2 Walter Smetak, Bicho (1972), springs, gourds, wires, spirals, wooden cables and metal bars that are coupled to a wooden base with pickup that amplies the noises and friction of objects.  Photo © Ass. Amigos Walter Smetak, used by permission.

Several of Smetak’s instruments make gambiarra-like use of available materials. These include Piston Cretino (1976), comprising an aluminum kitchen funnel, plastic hose and piston nozzle, and the 1972 Bicho (figure 2), springs, gourds, wires, spirals, wooden cables and metal bars that are coupled to a wooden base with pickup that amplify the noises and friction of objects. There are kinetic instruments such as the 1971 Treis Sóis (wood, metal, Styrofoam and PVC pipe); collective instruments such as the 1973 Pindorama (a 2.2-meter-high wind instrument made of gourds, plastic tubes, bamboo, PVC pipe, wood and metal), and Bicéfalo (figure 3), two guitar arms intertwined over pieces of wood with two pickups attached; and plásticas sonoras such as Caosonância (1972), rectangular metal tray with stones surrounded by barbed wire, metal wire that holds several gourds forming an upward spiral around a long vertical bamboo rod that has on top a wind wheel.

Figure 3 Bicéfalo (1974), Gilberto Gil's conception and constructed by Walter Smetak. Two guitars, pickups.  Photo © Ass. Amigos Walter Smetak, used by permission.

Smetak’s work influenced other Brazilian musicians and sound artists – both those who had direct contact with him, including the tropicalist Gilberto Gil (figure 3), as well as those who didn’t, such as Tato Taborda (figure 4) and Vivian Caccuri (figure 5), among others.

Figure 4 Tato Taborda, Geralda (1988-2001), multiple sound sources.  Photo © Tato Taborda, used by permission.

Figure 5 Vivian Caccuri, Adeus (2004), mini sound system with microprocessor devices, FM receivers and antennas. Photo © Vivsan Caccuri, used by permission.

In the early 2000s Brazilian artists were using the term gambiarra to describe bricollage, an objet trouvé, or a ready-made creative process that engaged different materials, media and artifacts. In sound art, Chelpa Ferro describes gambiarra instruments as "half adapted, constructed in a way ... [and] the sound is also half limited, half raw,"18 while Paulo Nenflidio describes gambiarra as a process he used in creating his piece Polvo (2010) "to modify an original function of these materials,"19  Similarly, the sound art duo En Minus One (n-1) explain that “adapting, hacking, building, programming, improvising, pirating and appropriation were all part of” their process.20 More broadly, in the discourse of visual and media art it was pointed out that the interest in "establishing relations with a political and aesthetic accent" was a feature of Brazil’s technological culture.21

Inspired by Cage’s “Imaginary Landscape no. 4” (1951), Nenflidio created in 2006 Decabráquio Radiofônico (figure 6) which plays ten radios simultaneously. His 2003 work Berimbau Elétrico adapts traditional and nontraditional instruments to an electric context, while his Bicicleta Maracatu (2000) accommodates mechanisms of movement. In other pieces he has used gadgets such as electric razors and solenoids, or his own electromechanical mechanisms such as Lugares Sonoros: Teclado Decafônico Concreto(2005).  Each key on this portable wooden keyboard activates an electromagnetic coil and wooden hammer connected by long cables to different points in the space—a steel beam, trash can, fire extinguisher, etc. The acoustic result derives from characteristics of the objects that are hit and of resonance of the space in which the system is installed.

Figure 6 Paulo Nenflidio, Decabr á quio Radiofônico (2006), keyboard, wood, electronic circuit, radios, speakers.  Photo © Paulo Nenflidio, used by permission.

Chelpa Ferro’s 2009 work Samba uses a table with a sewing machine on one side, a fishing reel on another and a snare drum in the middle (figure 7). The reel connects to the sewing machine through a fishing line stretched. When the machine is turned on, the line hits the snare drum, creating a rhythm similar to that of the samba. The result is a regular and un-regular rhythm with occasional faults, creating a noisy oscillation that adds to the sewing machine noise and spool gears picked up by microphones placed in each source (drum, reel, machine). "Samba is treacherous,” writes Caccuri about Chelpa Ferro’s work, “a machine that wants to have swing (ginga), a kind of gambiarra that wants to be precise."22 Here we see the gambioluthiery characteristics of assemblage, bricolage, trickery, sonorous visual installation, and the unstable procedural rhythm that juxtaposed mechanisms generate.

Figure 7 Chelpa Ferro, Samba (2009), table, sewing machine, shing reel and line, snare drum.  Photo © Chelpa Ferro, used by permission.

Another work that exemplifies gambioluthiery as an expanded sense of the musical instrument is Tato Taborda’s Geralda (1988-2001) (figure 4). A mix of multi-instrument and electroacoustic orchestra, Geralda  s essentially a one-man-band instrument, where the player activates more than 70 sound sources using hands, elbows, knees, head and feet.23 Originally designed in 1992-1993, the instrument continued to evolve over the next decade as Taborda added sound layers and incorporated or abandoned materials and devices. It began with instruments and acoustic objects, to which he later added microphones (1998-1999) and live electronics (2001). "All the technology used in Geralda has a gambiarra way of being,” Tabora says. “It's rounded. It's technology without the edges."24 With its three species of sound — acoustic, electric and digital) — Geralda embodies one possible taxonomy of gambioluthiery.

1 This chapter is a revision version of the author’s article “Gambioluthiery: Revisiting the Musical Instrument from a Bricolage Perspective,” Leonardo Music Journal 27 (2017), pp. 8792, and is based on his PhD dissertation, Gambiarra e experimentalismo sonoro. São Paulo: ECA-Universidade de São Paulo, Berlin: Technische Universität, 2014.

2 See: Lisette Lagnado, “O malabarista e a gambiarra,” Revista Trópico, São Paulo 3 (2003); Ricardo Rosas, “The gambiarra: considerations on a recombinatory technology,” SESC - Caderno Video Brasil 2 (2005): 3653; Reed Ghazala. Circuit-Bending: Build your own alien instruments15 (John Wiley and Sons, 2005); Nicolas Collins, Handmade electronic music: the art of hardware hacking (Taylor & Francis, 2006); John Richards, “Getting the hands dirty,” Leonardo Music Journal 18 (2008): 2531; Caleb Kelly. Cracked media: the sound of malfunction. MIT Press, 2009; Erkki Huhtamo. Thinkering with Media: On the Art of Paul DeMarinis. In: Paul DeMarinis/Buried in Noise (Kehrer: 2010) (2011), pp. 3346; Kim Cascone. Residualism. In: Sound (Whitechapel: Documents of Contemporary Art (2011); Rodolfo Caesar. O loop como promessa de eternidade. In: Anais do XVIII ANPPOM. Salvador (Bahia). 2008, pp. 286-290.

3 Antônio Houaiss. Dicionario Houaiss Online. Acessed 21 September 2019 , 2018.

4 Rodrigo Naumann Boueur. Fundamentos da gambiarra: a improvisação utilitária contemporânea e seu contexto socioeconômico. PhD thesis. Universidade de São Paulo, 2013.

5 Ernesto Oroza. Desobediencia Tecnológica. De la revolucion al revolico. In: Recuperado de http://www. ernestooroza.com/desobediencia-tecnologica-de-la-revolucion-al-revolico (2012).

6 Patricia Zavella, “Beyond the screams: Latino Punkeros contest nativist discourses,” Latin American Perspectives 39.2 (2012): 2741.

7 With allusions to the historic practice of cannibalism by Brazilian aborigines, the anthropophagic movement proposed by the poet Oswald de Andrade in his Manifesto Antropófago (Cannibalist Manifesto) defended a plural culture that aimed to digest everything that comes from outside. See Oswald de Andrade, Manifesto Antropófago" Oswald Andrade. Manifesto Antropofágico. Em Piratininga ano 374 da deglutição do Bispo Sardinha. In: Revista de Antropofagia 1.1 (1928) Tropicalismo exposed the contradictions of modernity in Brazil: On the one hand, the capitalist development and strong urbanization of the 1950s and 1960s (including construction of the capital, Brasília) fueled Brazil's optimism; on the other hand, Brazil was still haunted by its position of underdevelopment and economic disadvantage in relation to Europe and North America: Flora Sussekind. Chorus, Contraries, Masses: The Tropicalist Experience and Brazil in the Late Sixties. In: Tropicália: A Revolution in Brazilian Culture (2005), pp. 31-58.

8 These cultural aspects are discussed in Obici [1] and Rosas [2].

9 M. Bakhtin. A cultura popular na Idade Média e no Renascimento. São Paulo/Brasília: Hucitec, 1987[1977], p.10.

10 Roberto DaMatta. Carnavais, Malandros e Heróis: para uma sociologia do dilema brasileiro. Rio de Janeiro: Zahar, 1979.

11 In Dicionário Houaiss [3], carnivalization is described as "based on a mixture of diverse elements in which the rules or patterns (social, moral, ideological) commonly followed are subverted or set aside, in favor of stimuli, forms and contents more linked to instincts and senses, to the expansion of laughter and sensuality. Or 'condition of something that has such a mixture'" (my translation). The concept was invented by the Russian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin (1895–1975).

12 Richards [2].

13 Paul DeMarinis. Buried in Noise. (Eds). Ingrid Beirer, Sabine Himmelsbach, and Carsten Seiarth. Berlin: Kehrer, 2010.

14 Interview made with Tato Taborda, Berlin, 2013 (personal author records).

15 See Obici [1].

16 Walter Smetak. Simbologia dos instrumentos. Salvador: Associação dos Amigos de W. Smetak, 2001[1980].

17 According to Marco Scarassatti, "Plástica Sonora Silenciosa expands the field of music to the context of space and visuality. The sound is materialized in its own plastic form." See Marco Scarassatti, Walter Smetak: o alquimista dos sons (São Paulo: SESC-SP, 2008), 98. Douglas Kahn notes that artists utilized different terms such as radio art, audio art and sound art between 1970 and 1980. See Douglas Kahn, “Sound Art, Art, Music,” The Iowa Review Web 7.1 (2005): (accessed 9 September 2018).

18 Franz Manata and Saulo Laurardes. Arte e Som no Brasil - Os primórdios. Ed. by Podcast 06 Chelpa Ferro. Online: podcast Arte Sonora. Mar. 20, 2017. url: http://exst.net/artesonora/podcasts/pod-06-chelpa-ferro/2013.

19 Paulo Nenflido In. Fred Paulino. Gambiólogos: a gambiarra nos tempos digitais. Belo Horizonte: Kludgists, 2010, p.12.

20 Giuliano Obici and Alexandre Fenerich. “Jardim das Gambiarras Chinesas: uma prática de montagem musical e bricolagem tecnológica,” Encontro Internacional de Música e Arte Sonora, Juiz de Fora-MG (2011). For more information about En Minus One (n-1), see http://n-1.art.br.

21 See: Lagnado [2] and Rosas [2].

22 Vivian Caccuri. Ouvindo as artes visuais: sonoridades de Waltercio Caldas, Cildo Meireles, Chelpa Ferro e Hélio Oiticica. MA thesis. Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro, 2011, p.58.

23 Geralda is similar to Acustica (1968-1970) and Zwei-Mann-Orchester (197173) by Mauricio Kagel (19312008), in which the instrumentation is a huge array of sound sources, a world of exotic instruments and almost surreal invention.

24 See [14].

A Brief Personal History of dorkbot-nyc

Douglas Repetto

I moved to New York City in the spring of 2000 to start a new job at the Columbia University Computer Music Center (CMC). Having spent the previous three years in rural Vermont and New Hampshire in relative artistic and social isolation, I was excited to jump into the cultural chaos of the city. My background was mostly in “experimental” art and music, which ideally means an openness to creative expression in any form, and an eagerness to explore ideas that are probably not going to take you to Carnegie Hall. I knew hardly anyone in New York, but I knew the place was full of weirdos, and I wanted to know them. I started a series of informal meetings called dorkbot-nyc, with the idea that people from around the city could share their experiments with one another.

In Vermont and New Hampshire I had spent most of my time with my friends and mentors, composer/performers Jody Diamond and Larry Polansky. Years ago they founded the Frog Peak Composers Collective (http://frogpeak.org), a small press and distributor of musical scores, recordings, and whatnots (including bottles of inedible artist-produced olive oil). I was moved and inspired by Frog Peak’s somewhat fuzzy mission statement:

Frog Peak Music is … committed to the idea of availability over promotion. Member artists determine which of their own works are included in Frog Peak, and how they are included... the collective… provides an example of some of the ways that artists might control their own work in a non-commercial, non-hierarchical fashion, erasing distinctions between artist and publisher.

So when I arrived in New York, I had collectives and sharing on the brain. It was a time in Internet culture when online sharing and collaboration were really taking off, as well as generating a lot of debate and controversy (remember “file sharing”?). The heroic solo hacker culture seemed to be waning, and the “sharing economy” was emerging.

In 1996 I had started, with Tom Erbe, then at CalArts, an email list called “music-dsp” for people interested in learning about musical digital signal processing. Managing that list and the strong personalities that emerged was a challenge for me, but the payoff was engaging with many people who shared my interest in exploring the possibilities of combining code and sound. I liked helping people connect and share their ideas, but now I wanted to do it in person!

New to the city, knowing no one, but hungry for in-person sharing of ideas and energy, I went to Brad Garton, director of the CMC, and proposed a series of monthly meetings where creative people from around New York City could share what they’re working on. Brad gave an enthusiastic yes. A couple years earlier the CMC had hosted what were called “bark meetings,” where composers associated with the Center would share their computer music work with one another, but that it had run its course. He was game to try again, and the CMC agreed to provide space and tech (speakers and a projector) for the meetings in crumbly Prentis Hall on 125th Street in West Harlem.

I needed a name for these meetings—something fun and casual, nerdy but not too specific. At some point I remembered “dorkbot,” a word made up by my friend Joel Fox when we were in grad school at CalArts. It stuck. I added the tag line: “people doing strange things with electricity.” That was a mistake: it should have been just “people doing strange things”— the word “electricity” made many people question whether what they were doing (with code, with bio-hacking, with live performance, etc.) qualified. Over the years I would trot out an iffy explanation that pretty much everything in our world relies on electricity in one way or another, but I wish I had rethought that phrase at the outset.

I set up a couple email lists on the CMC server: “dorkbotnyc-blabber” for general discussion of making things in NYC, and “dorkbotnyc-announce” for publicizing meetings. My prior experience running the music-dsp mailing list made me think that having a discussion list to go along with the meetings would be valuable. I imagined people sharing tips on where to buy motors on Canal Street, instructions on tapping into power on a subway platform, or asking for help with a flash mob (remember those?). It turned out that in NYC the blabber list was never super active, but later in some other cities it became an essential resource.

I put up a quick website, invented a bunch of FAQs, and we were off! I asked around a bit to see who would like to present at the first meeting, and found Brian Whitman, then a graduate student in Natural Language Processing at Columbia, and Michael Goggins, a composer and friend of the CMC. I would be the third. On December 6, 2000, we had our first dorkbot-nyc meeting. I think there were about ten people in the audience; unfortunately, no one thought to take any photos or video!

The first few meetings were small (I recall that there were seven people at one). But I was getting to know more “people doing strange things” in the city, and I was starting to build up a list of those who said they’d like to participate, so I kept organizing monthly meetings.

I was announcing the meetings on various art/tech mailing lists, which tended to have international subscribers, and from the start strangers from elsewhere in United States and from around the world emailed to say they thought dorkbot sounded interesting. At some point in that first year I received an email from Alex McLean and Ade Ward in London, who I had met at an algorithmic art conference in Milan. They had been doing similar geeky social events in London and suggested that going forward they might use the name dorkbot-london. I was amazed—it hadn’t occurred to me that dorkbot might spread! We set up a webpage and mailing lists for dorkbot-london, and they had their first meeting in November of 2001. In the next few months I received similar email requests from Jan de Pauw and Guy Van Belle in Ghent, Belgium, and Karen Marcelo in San Francisco—more dorkbots! Over the next several years nearly 80 independent dorkbots spawned around the globe. We had a mailing list called dorkbot-overlords for people organizing the various dorkbot events, and from there were hatched all manner of projects.

At the same time, attendance at dorkbot-nyc meetings was growing, and lots of people were interested in giving presentations. The small room we used at the CMC was overflowing, and I started looking for larger spaces we could use at Columbia. At each meeting I would say: “If you’d like to give a presentation, just contact me, and I’ll put you on the schedule.” Lots of people responded, but for the first several months all the presenters were male, and nearly all white.

My earnest “open to everyone” spirit was good, but the effect wasn’t what I hoped for. I learned something important that has served me well ever since: if you ask a question and the answer seems off, then maybe it’s time to rethink your question. The answer to “who will come up and tell me they should be on the schedule” was “almost no one but white men.” It was time to change the question. In addition to making my “just contact me” pitch at each meeting, I started actively reaching out to people who popped up on my radar and seemed interesting—recommendations from friends, artists whose work I admired, quiet people who came to meetings and sat by themselves. Some of my very favorite dorkbot presentations came from those invitations—like the time the very shy members of the band Neg-Fi sat at a stark black table for 20 minutes while their little feedback boxes crackled, or when Caitlin Berrigan poured chocolate into her Viral Confections molds and shared hepatitis C virus-shaped bonbons with a slightly nervous audience (yumm!).

As word spread about the meetings, people started contacting me asking if dorkbot wanted to do events, or write articles, or be on panels. I was hesitant to do too much personally as “dorkbot,” since I didn’t really feel dorkbot was anything other than an open spirit and a simple format.  I always encouraged presenters to keep things informal, “as if someone at a party asked you what you’re interested in.” This helped make the presentations more accessible to a broad audience (although there were plenty of blanks stares and awkward silences), but these were by no means TED talks.

In early 2004 Claire Montgomery and Heather Wagner from a non-profit SoHo gallery called Location One contacted me to see if dorkbot and Location One might work together. It was a perfect match, since their mission was to support experimental art through installations, performances, and other public events. They had a beautiful, conveniently located space, and a friendly staff happy to help make dorkbot happen every month. It was dreamy. We had our first meeting there in April of 2004, and for the next decade Location One hosted nearly every dorkbot. Putting on events is a lot of (often thankless) work, and we would have never have survived 13 years without the support of the lovely people at Location One.

SoHo is a highly visible neighborhood, and after some friendly press exposure (including an article in The New Yorker), we started getting larger crowds, up to 150 people or so. Even when meetings got big, we still followed the same basic plan: we’d play a dorkbot theme song (people would send new ones occasionally); I’d give a quick introduction to dorkbot culture, and invite people to contact me to give presentations in the future; then we’d have three 20-minute presentations separated by short breaks. Bleep bloop blorp, we’d be in and out in 90 minutes. Afterwards I’d head to Chinatown with some friends for dim sum. What a wonderful time that was!

At the same time, dorkbot meetings continued to pop up around the world. Some really took off and had regular meetings for years. Other never quite got off the ground, or had one or two meetings and then petered out. I always said “yes” when someone asked to start a dorkbot—it was an experiment in giving up control. I’d send a document that outlined the basic concept: short, informal presentations on interesting topics; everyone is welcome; everyone can give a presentation; avoid money if possible.  I’d set them up with a website and mailing lists, add them to the dorkbot-overlords list, and that was that.  While dorkbot meetings in each city tended to share that basic format, there were no rules, no dues to pay, no contracts. Dorkbot was not a legal entity of any sort, and anyone could use the name. We relied on good will to keep the dorkbot spirit pumping. Sometimes I got the chance to visit meetings in other cities, or organizers from other places would come to New York and we’d get to meet in person.

There is nothing particularly original about the idea of dorkbot. People have been getting together to share work and ideas with one another for ages, whether in a cozy cave, an ornate salon, or a shabby co-working space on Broadway. Various themed meet-ups became popular in New York during dorkbot-nyc’s run, and several other sharing/social/arts organizations appeared around the same time. Something was in the air.  I’m sure I’m forgetting a few, but in particular I remember share.nyc (open audio-visual jamming nights), The Upgrade! (art and technology forum), and Madagascar Institute (public art collective). There was so much happening in New York City that we never wanted for presenters or audience.

Over its thirteen-year run, dorkbot-nyc featured hundreds of presentations (as of summer 2019 at least two other dorkbots, London and San Francisco, are still semi-active.) Sometimes we attracted mainstream press or big crowds, and sometimes we managed good documentation. Often we were just 20 people in a room talking about things that seemed important. I was so fortunate to meet many kind and creative people through dorkbot, and to make several life-long friends (hi LoVid!). I ended dorkbot-nyc when I no longer felt I could do a good job of running it. Rather than try to pass it along to someone and preserve the “institution,” I preferred to make room for another idea to bubble up and take things in new directions. Our creativity is boundless—let’s share the worlds we create.

Image of dorkbot.org homepage

Figure 1 dorkbot.org homepage.  Figure by Douglas Repetto, used by permission.

The Contact Microphone: a cultural object

Daniela Fantechi


A contact microphone is a microphone that senses audio vibrations through physical contact with a solid surface or immersion in liquid, and converts them into an electric signal. It is an old, often inexpensive technology that has stimulated the creativity of several generations of musicians and sound-artists, precisely because of its peculiar property of activating a different way of listening. Contact microphones have been widely used to turn everyday objects into “musical instruments,” as an alternative to synthesis. Sonic exploration of the acoustic characteristics ofdifferent objects uncovered new ways to conceive sound material while revealing a different perception of the materiality of sounds. A contact microphone can be intended as a cultural object if one takes into account the connections and relationships arose between musicians and composers who have used this technology, even when their purposes and aesthetics differ.

Brief historical overview

The history of the contact microphone is related to the history of piezoelectricity, since most contact mikes have been made with piezoelectric materials.1 Piezoelectricity was discovered in 1880 by the Curie brothers, who observed changes in the surface charges of different crystals—tourmaline, quartz, topaz, cane sugar and Rochelle salt—when subjected to mechanical strain. They named the phenomenon “piezoelectricity” (from the Greek word πιέζειν piezein = press, squeeze). The inverse piezoelectric effect—mechanical strain resulting from the injection of an electrical signal—was discovered soon after. The first practical applications of piezoelectric principles appeared during World War I, most famously sonar, based on research by the French physicist Paul Langevin (previously a doctoral student of Pierre Curie) and the British/Canadian Robert William Boyle. An electric pulse was sent to a piezoelectric crystal, which produced high-frequency mechanical vibrations that were transmitted through the water. Upon encountering an object, these signals reflected back. A second piezoelectric sensor detected this reflected energy and converted it back into an electrical signal. The distance from the ultrasonic source and the reflecting object was determined by the elapsed time between transmission and reception. This technology was of strategic importance in both world wars. Years later musicians and sound-artists began using underwater microphones (hydrophones) with far more peaceful intentions.

The trickle-down of sonar technology stimulated the development of many other kinds of piezoelectric devices. After World War I, more familiar piezoelectric applications – such as microphones, phonograph pick-ups and signal filters – were invented and put into practice. During World War II, researchers in the United States, Japan and the Soviet Union replaced naturally-occurring crystals with ferroelectrics – new discovered artificial materials that exhibited stronger piezoelectric properties; these were incorporated into more powerful sonars, ceramic phonograph cartridges, piezo ignition systems, the sonobuoy (sensitive hydrophone listening and transmitting buoys for monitoring ocean vessel movement), miniature sensitive microphones, and ceramic audio tone transducers.

After World War II, Japan dominated the international market for piezo materials, manufacturing several types of piezoceramic signal filters that addressed needs arising in television, radio and communications equipment, as well as piezoceramic igniters for natural gas/butane appliances. The market for piezoelectric applications continued to grow, with the emergence of audio buzzers (such as those in appliances and smoke alarms) and ultrasonic transducers (used in motion detecting intrusion alarms and early television remote controls). More recently, piezoelectric technology has been applied in the automotive domain (wheel balancing, seatbelt buzzers, tread wear indicators, keyless door entry, and airbag sensors); computers (microactuators for hard disks, piezoelectric transformers); a wide range of other commercial and consumer devices (inkjet printing heads, strain gauges, ultrasonic welders, smoke detectors); and medical, biomedical and bioengineering applications, including insulin pumps, ultrasound imaging and therapeutics, piezoelectric and biomedical implants with associated energy harvesting.

Musical applications

Piezoelectric innovations played an important role in the development of electronic music, especially in the experimental scene from the late 1950s onward. One of the main reasons can be found in the possibilities unfolded by amplification, as Michael Nyman observes:

Amplification may reveal a previously unheard, unsuspected range of sounds, drawn out of the hitherto mute or near-mute instrument of whatever nature, bringing about both quantitative and qualitative changes in the materials amplified.2

As Nyman suggests, an amplified sound — a sound transduced from the acoustical to the electronic domain — is perceived differently not only because quiet sounds can be made very loud, but more significantly because the proximity of a microphone captures features of the sound source that were previously unheard. This shift in perception is even stronger when the microphone is a contact mike. Vibrations picked up directly from a surface sound different from the same vibrations after they travel through the air. The resonant material acts as a filter, and the contact microphone picks up the object’s “inner sound,” like a heartbeat heard through a stethoscope. Through piezoelectricity, composers and musicians started to grasp the full potential of amplification as a creative tool.

Cartridge Music – John Cage

John Cage was one of the key figures in the musical application of contact mikes and extreme amplification, as exemplified in his Cartridge Music (1960). In this early piece of live electronic music, all sounds are produced through the amplification of very small sounds, primarily using piezo-ceramic phono-cartridges from record players. Performers replace the cartridge needles with different materials—twigs, pipe cleaners, springs—and manipulate the objects by scraping, plucking, etc., to elicit different sounds, which are amplified and sent to the speakers.3 The phono-cartridges act as contact microphones used to extract new sounds from familiar objects. Cartridge Music embodies several concerns that, over the following years, would become axiomatic in much experimental electronic music. One, already noted, is the role of amplification in the production and discovery of new sounds. The sound production, moreover, is strongly connected with gestures performed on everyday objects instead of traditional instruments. Finally, Cartridge Music is representative of a certain DIY approach to electronic systems—in 1960 few could afford oscillators and tape recorders, but everyone seemed to own a record player that could be “hacked” to play this piece. These concerns were present in Cage's research before Cartridge Music. As Nyman points out, “Cage's Cartridge Music had its roots in his pre-war Imaginary Landscape No.1 (1939) which introduced a number of proto-electronic instruments, and, more relevantly perhaps, in the category of 'amplified small sounds' of William Mix (1952).”4 Indeed, Cage had experimented with amplification before Cartridge Music.5 He had also previously imported non-musical objects into the concert hall: Water Music (1952) uses whistles and radios, while Living Room Music (1940) invites musicians to use “any household objects or architectural elements” as instruments.6 But with Cartridge Music especially, Cage pointed out a different way of conceiving electronic music, bypassing the equipment of the electronic studios, and inventing and adapting portable electronic devices for improvising or performing indeterminate music.7 Cartridge Music exerted a profound influence on the younger generation of composers who started making electronic experimental music in the 1960s and ‘70s.

David Tudor and Composers Inside Electronics

With regard to the development of live electronic music David Tudor was truly a pioneer: after a pivotal role as a virtuoso pianist in the development of the post-war musical avant-garde, Tudor became one of the first live electronic performers, with a very personal approach to electronic technology, strongly influenced by his collaboration with Cage8. After assisting in the development and performances of Cartridge Music, Tudor continued to experiment with similar setups in other pieces by Cage, such as Music for Amplified Toy Pianos (1960) and Variations II (1961).9 For each of these pieces, Tudor used a set of phono cartridges to amplify the piano sounds. He gradually acquired enough knowledge and confidence to design his own electronic circuits for use in conjunction with the cartridges, and came into his own as a composer (as distinct from a performer) of electronic music.

A few years later another group of musicians – Composers Inside Electronics – expanded Tudor’s "hands-on" way of working with electronic means10. The group came together on the occasion of a workshop that Tudor gave in 1973 around his composition Rainforest in the “New Music in New Hampshire” conference in Chocorua, NH. (David Behrman, Gordon Mumma, Frederic Rzewski and several others also gave workshops at the conference). John Driscoll, Paul De Marinis, Phil Edelstein, Linda Fisher, Ralph Jones, Martin Kalve and Bill Viola were among those who attended Tudor's workshop. As Driscoll remembers:

David was holding a workshop on the idea of Rainforest and processing signals through an acoustical transformation. So he introduced us to this idea of taking a sculptural object and putting a transducer on it, holding directly to it, and vibrating that material, then a contact microphone on the object to re-amplify the signal that was in the material. It's very common now, but at that time it was not. And the idea was to discover the signals that the object like to resonate with.11

Rainforest was originally conceived for choreography by Merce Cunningham in 1968, and by 1973 the piece had already been performed in several different versions. Driscoll recounts that during the workshop the piece took a slightly different form—using bigger objects such as a wagon wheel, a wine barrel, bed springs, etc.12 The objects had to be suspended in order to resonate freely, so they were hung from the beams of a barn, creating an environment of sounding sculptures through which the audience could walk. At the end of the workshop, the piece was performed, and several of the participants asked Tudor if he would be willing to continue the project.13 The Chocorua version, later titled Rainforest IV, was subsequently performed over 125 times, in more than 45 cities.14  The group was officially dubbed Composers Inside Electronics in 1976, when Tudor was invited to the Festival d’Automne in Paris. He wanted the musicians from the Chocorua workshop to assist him on Rainforest, and in the course of the festival they also performed Cage's Cartridge Music and works by Takehisa Kosugi, as well as pieces by various members of the ensemble. The name was chosen to represent Tudor's ideas, around which the group was shaped:

David thought most music focuses on the idea that you have a musical concept and then you find the instruments to realize it, and he believed in the reverse of that: when you start with an instrument, you explore it and that suggests the music that you make. So, that was the reason behind the name Composers Inside Electronics: the ideas start inside the electronics and then became musical, the instrument suggests the music. When he was building his electronics, it was never the “normal” use of the electronics: he was making this no-input mixing, and for him, this was just a new concept to generate sounds. In the early '60s, nobody had computers, nobody had access to the labs of electronics, nobody had synthesizers, and David sort of explored that world trying to use the electronics to make the music he was interested in.15

In the beginning, crystal phonograph cartridges were used as contact mics in Rainforest's realizations. Tudor was familiar with them from his work on Cartridge Music. Driscoll remembers the Astatic 12u (figure 1), whose the needle was inserted in a hole in such a ways that it could be replaced by a piece of steel wire, creating a less fragile contact point. Later, when this type of cartridge became hard to find, the group started experimenting with other kinds of contact-mics, such as throat-microphones and bone transducers (put against the jaw to conduct sound via bone to the inner ear)—often used by people with hearing. The group’s collection also included disk cutterheads (devices for cutting records, here used in reverse as microphones) and microphones used for listening to the heartbeat of a foetus (figure 2). Using so many different types of device created challenges, Driscoll recalls. “Each kind of microphone needed a specific pre-amplifier, with a specific circuit.”16 When piezo disks became available, they were used as well, though they usually have a peaked resonant frequency, whereas the cartridges were have a gentler curve and when you put a reverse curve in your pre-amplifier you could bring out a lot of the bass.

Figure 1 Astatic12u, phono cartridge.  Photo © John Driscoll, used by permission.

Figure 2 Different contact microphones from the collection of John Driscoll.  Clockwise from top left: small throat mike; piezo piano pickup; homemade piezo pickup; Frontline pickup. Photos © John Driscoll, used by permission.

Richard Lerman

Richard Lerman contributed significantly to the research on the musical use of contact microphones. He began experimenting with different kinds of contact microphones in the mid-1960s, using them to record sounds made by “wind harps, plants, boat anchor ropes, rocks, cactus thorns, heat expansion in metal, spider webs (with limited success). He attached them to many kinds of self-built and traditional musical instruments, and even used them as loudspeaker drivers to induce sound into metal and glass sculpture.”17 Lerman was studying at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, when Alvin Lucier was running the electronic studio there (with Anthony Gnazzo). When Lucier left Brandeis for Wesleyan University, Lerman — “vastly unprepared but really curious” became the technical director of the studio by default.18 According to Lerman, during that period John Cage and David Tudor were often around, as well as Gordon Mumma, from whom he learned to solder. Lerman remembers Tudor telling him, "Richard, if you want to do electronic music, you have to learn some electronics." Taking the words seriously, Lerman was “early in the game” using piezo disks both as microphones and loudspeakers (or, as he puts it, “soft speakers”). The first versions of his piece Travelon Gamelon (1977) used “phono cartridges between fender washers, housed in the plastic box that [the cartridges] were packaged in.”19  Suggesting the percussive, metallic timbre of a gamelan orchestra, the sounds in Travelon Gamelon were produced by the rhythmic movements of bicycles captured by contact mics. The cartridges were fragile, and even in protective plastic housings, they often broke. So Lerman started experimenting with piezo materials:

I was researching a lot of different sources about phono cartridges and discovered that ceramic cartridges (EV 81T's) were piezo devices and were usually made from something like barium titanate. Seeing the word “piezo” with “disks,” maybe from a company in Massachusetts called Meshna Electronics, I started buying up different kinds of disks. These were much easier to work with than with the phono carts. So I began using the piezos probably in '78 / '79 or so. They were much more rugged once I figured out the best way to solder them. I began in earnest to work with the disks and to construct preamps for them using various op-amps that were around.20

Materials for such DIY projects were available from electronic surplus dealers, as well as from hobby retailers such as Radio Shack, and manufacturers such as Electro-Voice, Kent, Astatic, and Barcus Berry (figure 3).

Figure 3 Contact microphone 805-ElectroVoice, pictured in a 1957 Electro-Voice catalog 1957). In the catalogue the microphone is described as “Contact—For guitar, banjo, any vibrating-string instrument. Hi-Z. Sealed crystal. Chromium finish. 15-foot cable. List Price ...$20.00”.

At the same time, European avant-garde composers were developing electronic works, mostly recorded onto tape in radio studios, such as WDR (Köln, Germany), ORTF (Paris, France), Studio di Fonologia (Milano, Italy), and BBC Studio (London, UK).21

Mikrophonie I – Karlheinz Stockhausen

Karlheinz Stockhausen explored live electronic processing in his pivotal work, Mikrophonie I (1964).22 The only sound source is a large tam-tam gong that is excited with objects of different materials—glass, cardboard, metal, wood, rubber and plastic. The performed actions are amplified with a strongly directional microphone and then processed in real-time. The six performers are divided into three groups: the first two play the tam-tam, the second two manipulate the microphone, while the third pair modulate the microphone's sound with a filter and a potentiometer. The distance and location of the microphone affect the clarity and the timbre of the sound, in much the same way physical location affects the sound heard through a contact mike. With the help of Jaap Spek, the technician at Cologne’s WDR radio, Stockhausen had started using contact microphones (figure 4) to amplify the metal and string sounds in many of his pieces, including Mixtur (1964), Prozession (1967), and Kurzwellen (1968).23 The latter two were performed several times by the composer and violist Johannes Fritsch, who was part of the Stockhausen Ensemble (1964-1970), together with Rolf Gehlhaar. Fritsch and Gehlhaar continued to experiment with contact mics after they left Stockhausen's group and formed the Feedback Studio (active between 1971 and 2001). Gehlhaar remembers Fritsch using a piezoelectric contact microphone manufactured by Schaller for Fritsch’s piece Partita (1966) for amplified viola and tape delay:24

Normally, when he played, he had the microphone attached either to the bridge [of the viola] or to the soundboard very close to the bridge. The position varied with what quality of sound he wanted to produce —on the bridge, brighter, sharper sound; on the soundboard, slightly more muffled, rounder sound. . . The Schaller contact microphone was very useful for installations and theatrical applications, where, for example one could be attached to the clinking chains that an actor was wearing as a part of his costume . . . In the Feedback Studio we experimented a lot with the contact microphone and various instruments as well as surfaces in our installations of the early 70s, where we would turn whole rooms and all the objects with them into musical installations. For this purpose I often found the contact microphone too sensitive or difficult to employ. I began to research other ways of amplifying objects, for example by hanging them on steel strings passing over an electromagnetic guitar pickup. This produces very interesting sounds. Another technique I developed for installations was to employ piezoelectric emitters as microphones by placing small weights on them, one edge on the piezo, the other on the object to be amplified. This works very well.25

Figure 4 Contact microphone used by Stockhausen Ensemble. Photo © Sean Williams, used by permission.

Hugh Davies

Hugh Davies (1943- 2005), a British composer and early advocate of live electronics, invented more than 130 concert instruments, sound sculptures and site-specific installations, many of which made use of contact microphones of various types. He was strongly influenced by his experiences as Stockhausen's assistant between 1964 and 1966, including his participation in the first performances of Mikrophonie I under Stockhausen’s direction.26 The role of amplification and everyday objects in this piece had a profound effect on Davies, marking the point from which he abandoned tape music to concentrate on live electronic music. When he returned to the UK in 1967 he began building his own instruments, recycling everyday objects, applying contact microphones, and foregrounding sounds that were not usually part of the musical realm.27  In these projects, Stockhausen’s influence was balanced by that of Cage and Tudor, especially in regards to the low-fidelity aesthetics and DIY ethos employed in realizing his instruments, as well as the freedom to combine more diverse sound sources. 28 In 1968 Davies created Shozyg I (figure 5), which consists of a book whose pages had been hollowed out to make space for objects mounted inside its back cover. The objects—a ball bearing, three fretsaw blades of different lengths and two different springs—were grouped in two areas, each group amplified by a piezoelectric pickup, chosen according to its filtering characteristics. The objects were played using fingers, fingernails, screwdrivers, needle files, toothbrushes, small electric motors, etc.29

Shozyg I (1968), self-built electro-acoustic musical instrument by Hugh Davies

Figure 5 Shozyg I (1968), self-built electro-acoustic musical instrument by Hugh Davies.  © Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library, used by permission.

Between 1968 and 1975 Davies was a member of Gentle Fire.30 Beside performing compositions by living composers such as Stockhausen, Ashley, Cage, Cardew, Feldman, Wolff, etc. Gentle Fire performed collective pieces composed by the group between 1970 and 1973, which further explored live processing of sound as well as invented instrumentation. In Group Composition III and IV the ensemble shared a single instrument invented by Michael Robinson, the gHong, which was made up of three metal oven racks and a wooden crossbar on the fourth side from which four large springs were suspended.31  Each side of the gHong was connected to two contact microphones: one of high-quality, such as a stethoscope or transducer, the other a contact microphone with a reduced frequency response. By varying the balance for each pair of microphones on a mixer it was possible to obtain substantial filtering effects, so the use of microphones was crucial in the playing of the gHong.32

The Artaudofoon – Peter Schat

The idea of amplifying metal sounds with contact microphones was also applied by the Dutch composer Peter Schat (1935-2003). Early in his carrier, with the help of sculptor Frans De Boer-Lichtvelt and technician Jo Scherpenisse, he designed an instrument called the Artaudofoon. In the '60s Schat was part of a group of politically engaged young composers that included Misha Mengelberg, Louis Andriessen, Dick Raaymakers, Jan van Vlijmen, Reinbert de Leeuw and Konrad Boehmer, who founded the Studio voor Elektro-Instrumentale Muziek (STEIM).33 Nico Bes, who began working at STEIM in 1971, recalls one of his first experiences with contact microphones was the Artaudofoon.34  Inspired by Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty, it consisted of five metal sculptures whose sound was amplified by contact microphones attached to them. According to Schepernisse, Schat used the throat-microphones used by helicopter-pilots.35 The exact origin of this huge instrument is unclear. According to Schat's biographer, Bas van Putten, the idea first arose in 1965 while working on his opera Labyrinth, when he thought of building a huge electro-acoustic percussion instrument, equipped with many “contact microphones, a filter, a modulator, an amplifier and a set of loudspeakers.”36 In September 1966 Schat tried to get funding from Philips because of technical problems and the high cost of electronic parts, and he received a commission that year from the Rotterdam Art Foundation for a theatrical work, Electrocution, which would use the Artaudofoon as a percussive instrument, but the work was never written. Van Putten, however, mentions the 1966 movie by Frans Weisz, The Gangster Girl (Het Gangstermeisje), which includes a concert scene filmed in the Kleine Zaal of the Concertgebouw and featuring a composition played by the Artaudfoon and three double basses (figure 6). 37, 38

Figure 6 Artaudofoon,Peter Schat standing in the middle.  Presentation of the new percussion instrument in the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, 1966.This picture appears with this caption in the online Memory of the Netherlands Database, with the date of 14 March 1966. A similar picture was published in the San Francisco Examiner on 17 July1966, mentioning the Artaudofoon as the percussion instrument “unveiled last week,” but without specifying the occasion in which the picture was taken. It remains unclear whether the picture was taken during the shooting of the movie - since the location seems to correspond – or during another occasion.

It is possible that the bit of music played in the movie was an improvisation or an open-form composition, such as the one published in 1967 by Donemus. The latter, titled First Essay on Electrocution, for violin, guitar and metal percussion instruments (three players), seems to have been a work in progress, as can be deduced from Schat's request to settle the fee, unusually written in the score, right before the technical notes.39 In the technical notes Schat wrote: “it is the best to use the Artaudofoon for the performance […] it is, however, also possible to use cymbals and other metal percussion instruments, the sound of which is scanned with contact microphones,” suggesting that he was becoming aware of the difficulties in using the Artaudofoon. Indeed, the project was soon abandoned and the Artaudofoon forgotten.40 One instrument is still archived at STEIM (figure 7).

Figure 7 One part of the Artaudofoon archived at Steim. Photos © Nico Bes, used by permission.

Figure 7 One part of the Artaudofoon archived at Steim. Photos © Nico Bes, used by permission.


The diverse experiences described are united by a shared interest in the possibilities of amplification and of new ways of experiencing sound through the use of contact microphones. The 1960s, ‘70s  and '80s were a time of lively circulation of ideas. Long before the Internet made this kind of sharing effortless, international festivals and concerts offered occasions for musicians to meet and share each other's work and technical research. American composers travelled throughout Europe, bringing new ideas from the New World. Cage and Tudor were among the earliest, and had a profound effect. Tudor in particular acted as a bridge between American and European communities. Beginning in the 1950s, he premiered works by composers including Stockhausen, Maderna and Boulez, building strong connections with the European avant-garde.41 At the same time, he often toured with Cage, introducing new music from other American composers as well. It is worth noting, that the premiere of Cartridge Music took place in Germany (with Stockhausen present in the audience) at Mary Bauermeister's Cologne atelier, on 6 October 1960.42

In the following years, a younger generation of American composers participated in festivals and concerts in Europe, contributing to the development of an international community. Richard Lerman recalls that his first trip to Europe was in 1979 for the Muzicki Biennale Zagreb, where he performed Travelon Gamelon. At the 1981 Spiel und Klangstrasse festival in Essen, Germany, run by percussionist Michael Jüllich, he met Godfried-Willem Raes.43  A Belgian artist who worked extensively with piezoelectricity, Raes had been running Logos, a venue for experimental music in Ghent, since 1968.44 Lerman had his first performance there in September 1981. 45  Hugh Davies also had contact with Raes, who purchased a Springboard from Davies' collection of self-built instruments in 1974 (figure 8).

Figure 8 Springboard by Hugh Davies, owned by Godfried-Willem Raes. Photo taken at Logos Foundation by the author (20/03/19).

Figure 8 Springboard by Hugh Davies, owned by Godfried-Willem Raes. Photo taken at Logos Foundation by the author (20/03/19).

In such an interconnected community, the exploration of new possibilities of amplification contributed to new attitudes and practices of music making. As John Driscoll noted, Tudor's idea of inverting the role of the instrument in the process of music creation had a profound influence on the development of experimental music. The instrument was no longer the means to realize a musical idea, but became itself the starting point of a whole creative process.  The possibility of amplifying the previously inaudible encouraged new perspectives, contributing to more creative approaches in the development of DIY practices and collaborative works. Because of its relevance to this process, a technological artifact—the contact microphone—became a cultural artifact, contributing to the cross-pollination between different artistic disciplines. In this context the gradual shift of David Tudor from his role as the representative pianist of the avant-garde, to that of creator and ambassador for a personal, exploratory way of dealing with electronics, exemplifies the path of a musical movement—enriched by experimentalism, through personalities such as Hugh Davies and Richard Lerman, and the collective activities of groups such as Gentle Fire, Feedback Studio and Composers Inside Electronics.

Figure 9 Timeline of the contact microphone.

1Other contact microphones are electromagnetic, employing the same principle of a guitar pickup with the difference that electromagnetic contact microphones include a metal diaphragm to transduce any physical vibration into a distortion of the electromagnetic field, while the guitar pickup is merely a coil detecting the field distortions induced by the vibrating ferric material of the string.

2 Nyman, Michael (1999). Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond, Cambridge : Cambridge University Press, p.92.

3Cartridge Music has an open form. The score consists of a number of transparent sheets, and the patterns drawn on them provide only the means to determine a time structure. Each performer has to superimpose the transparencies and work out the time structure by observing the ways in which the drawn lines and patterns on the sheets intersect. The choice of objects and means of manipulation are left entirely to the musicians.  See sidebar “John Cage – The Father of Invention” in chapter 7.

4Nyman (1999), op. cit., p.90.

5See also Imaginary Landscape No. 2 (1942) in which both instruments and electronic devices are amplified through contact microphones.

6In the performance notes Cage offers examples of objects that might be employed: “1st player — magazines, newspaper or cardboard; 2nd player — table or wooden furniture; 3rd player — largish books; 4th player — floor, wall, door or wooden frame of window” (Cage, John (1940) Living Room Music, Peters Edition).

7See Nyman (1999), op. cit., p.89.

8See sidebar “David Tudor and Rainforest” in chapter 8, and You Nakai’s and Michael Johnsen’s essay on the website.

9See: Iddon, Martin (2015). John Cage and David Tudor, Correspondence on interpretation and performance, Cambridge University Press, pp.187-186.

10See sidebar “Composing Inside Electronics” in chapter 15.

11Skype interview with John Driscoll, 25 March 2019.

12As Driscoll explains, in the early iterations of the piece, Tudor used small objects on a table top, and specific homemade electronics with feedback oscillators. “The acoustic output of those small objects was not very loud, but the signal that was sent to the loudspeakers was quite loud” so listeners were hearing through the loudspeaker system, rather than hearing the object itself. (Driscoll, Skype conversation – 25/03/2019).

13“Bill Viola made an arrangement in Syracuse with the Everson Museum, and Ralph Jones found an opportunity in Buffalo”. Ibid.




17In A Guide for working with Piezo Electric Disks to introduce Children to Issues of Acoustic Ecology and Sonic Creativity http://www.public.asu.edu/~rlerman/PDF%20Files/Children%20&%20Piezo%20disks.pdf accessed 15 April 2019.

18Email from Richard Lerman (26 September 2018)



21In France in the 1940s, Pierre Schaffer had already started the Groupe de Recherches Musicales at the Radio Diffusion Télévision Française (RTF), where he been working almost ten years. A few years later, Karlheinz Stockhausen was working in the WDR studio in Cologne, and Luciano Berio at the Studio di Fonologia in Milano, etc. Cage worked at Studio di Fonologia in Milan from November 1958 until March 1959, and composed Fontana Mix (1958) there.

22Mikrophonie I was premiered on 9 December 1964 in Brussels. The piece resulted from Stockhausen's experiments in the summer of 1964 on the large tam tam that he had previously bought for Momente.

23These contact mics might have come from the WDR Studio, as did most of the equipment Stockhausen used.

24Schaller contact microphones are still produced today. The most popular model is the Schaller Oyster S/P https://www.thomann.de/gb/schaller_oyster_723.htm accessed 13 May 2019.

25Email from Rolf Gehlhaar 28 April 2019.

26The collaboration started because Davies was writing about Stockhausen. The book was never published, but Davies maintained a working relationship with Stockhausen lasting several years. He continued to correct Stockhausen’s scores and perform his works in the UK.He may also have been aware of Fritsch and Gehlhaar’s experiments with contact mics, as they were in Stockhausen’s ensemble at this time.

27After Cologne, Davies moved to Paris and then New York, working on compiling the Répertoire international des musiques électroacoustiques (International Electronic Music Catalog) (RIME), published in 1968. Back in the UK he founded the electronic music studio at Goldsmiths College, which he directed until 1986. In 1982, Davies set up a small studio at Oxford University, helped by Daphne Oram, one of his mentors as a student. [For further info see also Palermo 2015, op.cit.]

28Davies recalled a remarkable concert in London by Cage, Tudor and Mumma in November 1966 during a visit by the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. They may have performed Music for Amplified Toy Pianos (1960). [See Davies, 2001]. About Davies’ own materials, Fiorenzo Palermo remembers: “The first magnetic pick up he used was around 1969 and came from ex-RAF microphones, which he claimed had been used in Spitfires during the Second World War. Subsequently, when the supply of these diminished (he got them from stores in Denmark Street in London), he turned to old telephone handset earpieces or headphones used by the military or by telephone operators. I don’t think Hugh built his own microphones, but rather salvaged and repurposed them. Nonetheless, I have found in my research that in the occasion of a performance of Sternklang by Stockhausen in Bonn in 1980 Hugh played an A clarinet with a self-made contact mike and pre-amplifier.” Email from Fiorenzo Palermo (25 May 2019).

29For a more detailed description and pictures see Palermo 2015, op.cit. Palermo specifies that Davies had begun using piezoelectric microphones “at least since the establishment of the Goldsmiths Electronic Music studio in 1967, which had two piezos in its initial equipment, and he used these to amplify all kinds of objects (combs, broken light bulbs, springs), recording Galactic Interfaces as a result.” Email from Fiorenzo Palermo (25 May 2019). In other works Davies used magnetic pickups: Concert Aeolian Harp was built from egg slicers “by mounting the fine fretsaw blades on an aluminium frame, which would have then been fixed to a stand. The blades were arranged in parallel and microphones placed at the extremity of the aluminium frame that ran perpendicular to the blades. To play the Concert Aeolian Harp, the performer blew on the fretsaw blades, producing a quality of sound similar to an Aeolian harp. [Palermo 2015, op.cit., pp.191-192].

30The other members were Richard Bernas, Patrick Harrex, Graham Hearn, Stuart Jones, Richard Orton and Michael Robinson. The name Gentle Fire arose from consultating the I Ching about the path they should take: “hexagram No. 37, the Family, came up’ the two trigrams of which are Sun and Li, meaning Gentle Wind and Clinging Fire respectively—indicating clearly to the group that they should continue these activities and supplying the name Gentle Fire” (Davies 2001, op.cit. p.54).

31In Group Composition III the gHong was the only sound source, while in Group Composition IV each member chose another additional instrument to play.

32According to Palermo [Palermo, op.cit., pp.138/140] the gHong was originally meant to satisfy the score instructions of Christian Wolff, the score instructions read: ‘Construct an instrument, or find something, or use an instrument as part of a construction which can make 5 different pitches, or 11 or 3 different pitches; 6 different qualities of sound (they can be made to depend on the manner of performance), or 2; and which can sustain sounds at least somewhat before they begin to fade’, and the different microphones placed on the instruments allowed for an extension of the sounds produced.

33See Otto, Andreas (2008). Die Entwicklung elektronischer Musikinstrumente am Steim (Studio für elektro-instrumentale Musik) im Amsterdam seit 1969. (MagisterArbeit), pp.14-15. https://docplayer.org/2117578-Die-entwicklung-elektronischer-musikinstrumente-am-steim-studio-fuer-elektro-instrumentale-musik-in-amsterdam-seit-1969.html accessed 18 April 2019.

34Email from Nico Bes,  5 February 2019.

35Email from Jo Schepernisse, 9 April 2019.

36See Bas van Putten (2015). Alles moest anders. Biografie van Peter Schat, Amsterdam: Uitgeverij De Arbeiderspers, 2015, p.381. Labyrinth was premiered at the Holland Festival 1966, conducted by Bruno Maderna, then guest director of the Concertgebouw

37According to van Putten, Schat played two roles in the movie: “the Stranger," who falls in love with the title character, and the conductor of his own music for Artaudofoon (see Van Putten 2015, op. cit., pp.386-389).
The Gangster Girl (Het Gangstermeisje) is available at the Eye Filmmuseum (info about the movie at: https://www.eyefilm.nl/en/collection/film-history/film/het-gangstermeisje) and the instrument Artaudofoon is shown in the above-mentioned scene between 16'30'' and 18'30''. According to van Putten, Schat played two roles in the movie: “the Stranger," who falls in love with the title character, and the conductor of his own music for Artaudofoon (see Van Putten 2015, op. cit., pp.386-389).

38Fig.6 was found in the online Memory of the Netherlands Database, with a date of 14 March 1966. It is possible that the picture was taken during the shooting of the movie, since the location appears correct. The caption of a similar photograph published in the San Francisco Examiner on 17 July1966 mentions the Artaudofoon as the percussion instrument “unveiled last week,”  but does not specify the occasion in which the picture was taken.

39“Here is the composition written as result of your commission. I hope that you will in the near future pay the second half of my fee, namely 750 guilders, into my transfer account (No. 122,747) Thank you very much.” (In Schat, Peter (1967) First Essay on Electrocution, for violin, guitar and metal percussion instruments (3 players). Donemus [score]).


41Tudor premiered, for example, Stockhausen's Klavierstück XI, in New York on 22 April 1957,(to the disappointment of Wolfgang Steinecke, who had agreed to a world premiere in Darmstadt a few months later), and Bruno Maderna's Piano Concerto on 2 September 1959 with the Heissischer Rundfunksymphonic orchestra. See: Iddon (2013), pp.181-183.

42See Iddon (2015), p. 166. The performers included Nam June Paik, Hans G. Helm, Benjamin Patterson, William Pearson, Kurt Schwertsik, Cornelius Cardew, alongside Cage and Tudor.

43Email from Richard Lerman (12 May 2019).

44Raes focused on piezoelectric elements in systems using ultrasonic motion detectors, but he also made works using piezoelectric microphones to amplify objects. In Holosound, from the early 1980s, piezoelectric elements were used to build an ultrasound system of gestural sensors, and also in the sound-producing component: the ultrasound demodulated trigger objects such as springs and chimes attached to piezoelectric microphones, so that the movements of the objects could be amplified, producing sound.

45http://users.telenet.be/stichtinglogos/concerts/concerts1981.html and http://users.telenet.be/stichtinglogos/concerts/concerts1968.html accessed 24 June 2019.last access 24 June 2019.

David Tudor

You Nakai and Michael Johnsen

David Tudor (1926-1996) was thirty-two years old when he began delving seriously into electronics. He already had an extraordinary career by that time, first as a brilliant young organist in his native Philadelphia, then switching his instrument and establishing himself as the most prominent pianist of the avant-garde in both America and Europe throughout the 1950s. His virtuosity was to such an extent that composers started writing specifically for him rather than for the piano, while his love of puzzles motivated them to explore new forms of graphic notation that required the performer to determine the specific details of the performance. After engaging in such activity for seven or so years, however, Tudor grew weary of the same kind of works composers around the world were sending him. Following a brief instruction that the Swedish composer Bo Nilsson had almost inadvertently included in the score of Quantitäten, he began amplifying his piano in 1958.

Incorporating electronics shifted the nature of piano from a percussion instrument to a resonant chamber whose characteristics could be explored especially through the use of feedback. Tudor became fascinated at the new possibilities. He began to peruse popular electronic magazines, collect amplifiers and record cartridges, and taught himself to read schematics and to solder. Soon he was amplifying many other things besides the piano. His friend John Cage followed suit and started writing pieces that involved amplification for Tudor to perform. Tudor on his part became friends with younger musicians who were more well-versed in technology, most importantly with Gordon Mumma, who he later acknowledged as having helped him get over his fear of electricity.1 By the mid-1960s, Tudor had developed a distinct kind of live-electronic music in which modular devices , homemade and commercial electronic gear as well as acoustic instruments and objects, were tentatively assembled to form a compound instrument of his own design for each performance. The modular nature allowed Tudor to “compose” the degree of control he had over the set-up, and as a consummate virtuoso, he preferred to push things to the edge of control and keep the situation indeterminate. In addition, it was customary for Tudor to switch some components from one performance to the next so that the configuration was always new and challenging.

This approach influenced a whole generation of younger musicians, as Alvin Lucier recalled: “Tudor made all his devices with inexpensive electronic components, everything he used was home-made. That was very inspiring. The development of experimental music in the United States, that phase of it anyway, started with David Tudor’s table of electronics.”2 At the same time, the specifics of what was happening inside each component on the table remained hidden, for Tudor tended not to discuss how he made his music even to his closest collaborators. Although inspired by his instruments, Lucier also admitted, “nobody knows what they are!”3

But Tudor did leave behind an enormous amount of materials which are now archived in different institutions. The bulk of his paper materials and recordings are kept at the Getty Research Institute (Los Angeles, California), while Wesleyan University (Middletown, Connecticut) houses the instruments which number up to approximately 500. About half of these are commercial equipment, mostly guitar effect pedals which he began using in the 1970s, but the collection also includes many transistor mixer-amplifiers from the late 1950s. The rest are homemade instruments, built either by Tudor himself (around 150 of these) or by acquaintances and friends. His own instruments are shrouded in mystery since almost none of them carry any labels explaining what they are, or what each of the jacks and knobs does. But since he kept notes of everything, it is possible to figure things out by matching the instruments at Wesleyan with the schematics at the Getty as if they were pieces of a giant inter-coastal puzzle (an oddly pertinent research method given Tudor’s devotion to puzzles). This procedure has indeed revealed many things about Tudor’s instruments and his music that was unknown until now.

For one thing, Tudor never designed circuits from scratch. Similar to how he used other composer’s scores as “material” (which is how he called them) in his pianist days, all the electronic instruments he built had a source, according to which they can be largely grouped into three types: (a) articles from popular electronics magazines and books, (b) schematics from friends, most importantly Mumma and Lowell Cross, and (c) rehoused kits. And just as he was known to be meticulous when realizing the graphic scores, it was customary for Tudor to follow precisely the instructions given to him when building an instrument.

The period Tudor made his own instruments was limited roughly to the ten years between 1965 and 1975. The particular things he built was always tied to some specific interest he was pursuing, which in turn was connected to a specific work or a series thereof. It is therefore possible to group his instruments into families that share related purpose, function, or style.

A) Simple circuits and kits housed in plastic cases (many soapboxes). These were the first series of instruments Tudor made, and they include several amplifiers, a clipper, a harmonic generator, a reverb, and a square wave oscillator. Most of them were made for Bandoneon ! (read as“Bandoneon Factorial”), Tudor’s contribution to 9 Evenings: Theatre and Engineering in October 1966. In this seminal piece, the first one he signed his name as a composer, Tudor aimed to make a giant noise generator using the network of instruments that processed and distributed the sound of his bandoneon (an accordion-like free-reed instrument central to Argentine tango music) across the 20,000 square feet space of the 69th Regiment Armory serving as a massive resonant chamber. His electronic set-up indeed focused on imparting additional harmonics and inharmonics to the sound of the acoustic instrument, multiplying its spectrum density to approximate white noise. The same sound was also used to control the lights and visualized on magnified oscilloscopes made by Lowell Cross. In addition, remote-controlled carts moved around objects which had been converted into “instrumental loudspeakers” with distinct resonant characteristics by attaching transducers to them, a development of his initial interest in the conversion of piano into a resonant chamber through electronics.

B) Oscillating amplifiers. Soon after Bandoneon !, Tudor purchased amplifiers (at least three Roundhill AA-100 with a gain of 70 dB), which he housed in black phenolic boxes and brought its inputs and outputs (a selection of two impedances for each) out to the surface of the panel. By wrapping feedback around these ports, and inserting resistor and capacitor substitution boxes and other passive components in the route, Tudor obtained a variable oscillator. These were originally made for Rainforest, Tudor second piece premiered in March 1968 which developed the principle of “instrumental loudspeakers” into a separate piece for Merce Cunningham’s choreography of the same name. They were subsequently used in many different configurations throughout the 1970s.

C) Phase-shifters and splitters. Tudor started building many of these in 1968, soon after the premiere of Rainforest. It appears that this was an effort to reproduce the two out-of-phase signals of the bandoneon with electronics for his collaboration with Cross where he continued to work on the visualization of sound, first with a converted television set and later with a laser system. Towards the end of the decade, the same phase shifters were inserted into the feedback path when Tudor enlarged the mechanism of the oscillating amplifiers to create entire configurations of modular electronics arranged in a loop. This “giant oscillator” became central to the lineage of no-input feedback works in the 1970s including Untitled and Toneburst. Tudor’s approach to feedback was inherited as the core technique of the later movement of “no-input mixing” and certain Japanoise.4

As the number of components kept increasing it became a burden for constant touring as well as performance. Tudor solved the problem by replacing a part of the set-up with the recording of its output. But this shift of instrumentation yet again shifted his focus. Instead of sculpting the sound that the giant oscillator spews out semi-automatically through feedback, he became more concerned about the parallel processing of a sound source which made one sound appear as many. To pursue this interest, Tudor began purchasing commercial guitar pedals in the mid-1970s, whose market was in bloom around then. He consequently made fewer instruments of his own.

As the term “instrumental loudspeakers” suggests, Tudor’s approach to any instrument was focused on its specificity. Feedback was a good method of exploring these specific principles, as returning the output of a system to its input brings out and intensifies the inherent characteristics of that system.

At the same time, Tudor opted for modularity, creating miscellaneous networks of instruments mixing old and new ones, as well as those made by himself and others. Therefore, the specific nature of any component was also influenced by what it was connected to in the set-up. For Tudor, this compound instrument also included the particular space where music was being performed. Here we can detect the influence of organ, Tudor’s first instrument, which is always coupled with the architecture of the church in which it is placed, and which enwraps the performers and listeners. This influence also led Tudor to enlarge the mechanism of specific electronic device to a large scale, as with the giant white noise generator of Bandoneon !, or the giant oscillators of no-input feedback works. The instrumental loudspeakers of Rainforest can also be regarded as giant filters, and Tudor likened his later endeavor of making one source appear as many to a “giant reverb.” In 1970, Tudor worked with the Experiments in Art and Technology to turn the entire Pepsi Pavilion into an instrument at the Osaka Expo, and he subsequently spent more than a decade trying to transform an entire island into an instrument in order to examine the maximum scale for feedback to occur. This proposed piece, Island Eye Island Ear, was never realized, but Tudor appears to have regarded it as his most important work.

1 “I am a person who is terrified of electricity. I knew nothing at all about it. And Gordon [Mumma] helped me get over that. Now I have a lot of experience related to that but I’m still terrified, you know. In a way, it’s always going to terrify me. But it doesn’t deter me from working at it.” (Charles Amirkhanian, John Cage, Takehisa Kosugi, Gordon Mumma, Michael Pugliese, and David Tudor, “A Kind of Anarchy: Merce Cunningham and Music (September 19, 1989) [videorecording],” MGZIDVD 5-469, Merce Cunningham archives, New York Public Library.)

2 Lucier, “Thoughts on Installations,” kunstradio.at, accessed December 15, 2018: http://kunstradio.at/ZEITGLEICH/CATALOG/ENGLISH/lucier-e.html

3 Alvin Lucier, Private conversation with You Nakai, June 1, 2012, Wesleyan University.

4 David Novak, Japanoise: Music at the Edge of Circulation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 156-8.

Pixel Artists

LoVid (Tali Hinkis, Kyle Lapidus) and Jon Satrom


Following audio synthesizer approaches of the likes of Moog, artists began envisioning and creating video synthesizers in the late 1960s and early 70s. Closest to the Moog concept was Dan Sandin’s Image Processor, which was a “general purpose patch programmable analogue computer” used to mix and manipulate video signals. Dave Jones and Matthew Schlanger built tools in collaboration with the Experimental Television Center and Bill Hearn created the EAB Videolab as “The Personal Tool For Video Production”. The Rutt Etra Scan Processor by Steve Rutt and Bill Etra was a “raster manipulation device” that manipulated scan lines that make up a video signal on CRTs. The Paik-Abe synthesizer was a “mess of equipment chained” together in a studio at WGBH, Boston to facilitate real-time manipulation and live broadcast of video art. Woody and Steina Vasulka also were attentive to manipulating video at the signal and systems level.

Retro Game Hacking

Retro game consoles provide a wealth of potential hacks. From hacking the consoles to the cartridges, from developing custom software to remixing the controllers, artists have been playing with systems like the Atari, NES, Xbox and more as long as they’ve been in production. Archangle Constantini (AKA atari-noise) rewired an Atari 2600 to be an instrument and art installation piece. Jeff Donaldson (AKA notendo) has performed at a myriad of 8bit events with his patch chord bent NES. David Musgrave found the texturing brains of PS1 and 2, creating infinite glitch renditions of any game played.

Jeff Donaldson AKA Notendo, bent NES

Figure 1 Jeff Donaldson AKA Notendo, bent NES.  Photo © Jeff Donaldson, used by permission.

David Musgrave, bent Playstations

Figure 2 David Musgrave, bent Playstations.  Photo © David Musgrave, used by permission.

David Musgrave, bent Playstations

Figure 2 David Musgrave, bent Playstations.  Photo © David Musgrave, used by permission.

Artists like Rachel Wile (AKA partytimehexellent) and Don Miller (AKA no-carrier) have written software inspired by bends to intentionally corrupt and feed the NES’s RAM back into itself.

Don Miller, AKA no-carrier, glitchNES

Figure 3 Don Miller, AKA no-carrier, glitchNES.  Photo © Don Miller, used by permission.

Stephanie Boluk and Patrick Lemieux have hacked the controller of an NES to split every function out to its own controller. The OctoPad splits a single player experience into an 8 player metagame.

Figure 4 Stephanie Boluk and Patrick Lemieux, OctoPad.  Photo © Stephanie Boluk and Patrick Lemieux, used by permission.

Artists like vaudio signal, botborg, and Billy Roisz perform with elaborate systems they've developed that pass signals between the audio and video domains. Vaudio signal even went as far as to “release” a cable that goes from ¼” to BNC (a common video format -- see figure S10.1)). Performances often utilize audio and video feedback and can feel like you’re in the stomach of a unicorn who’s sick from eating an expired rainbow (that’s a compliment).

Figure 5 vaudio signal (Ben Baker-Smith and Evan Kühl) album release as cable, ¼” to BNC.  Photo © Ben Baker-Smith and Evan Kühl, used by permission.

Circuit Board as Design

Eduardo Rosario

The main job of the copper traces on a circuit board is to route signals from one point to another, typically with a minimum of fuss.  But artists often lay out boards differently: why should a printed circuit board be any different than an etching or a silkscreen, an opportunity for creative expression?  Why not embrace the fuss?  Here’s a small gallery of recent circuits that deviate from the usual straight lines.

Thessia Machado is a Brazilian sound and visual artist based in New York. Her work is mainly concerned with the material aspects of sound production. The sonic presence in each of Machado’s pieces is the result of the complex rearrangement of a series of simple components, one part of which is the PCB’s she designs for many of these.  Connectors (figure 1) shows the artist’s awareness not only of the aesthetic qualities present in arranging traces but also in their arbitrariness, which is further enhanced by the irregularities in the seemingly hand-drawn lines. Translux (figure 2) and Interference (figure 3) both inhabit an area between sculpture and instrument that permeates most of Machado’s practice. Translux echoes Connectors in its traces for photocells. Interference is stricter in its ordering of space.

Thessia Machado, Connectors

Figure 1 Thessia Machado, Connectors.  Photo © Thessia Machado, used by permission.

Thessia Machado, Translux

Figure 2 Thessia Machado, Translux.  Photo © Thessia Machado, used by permission.

Thessia Machado, Interference

Figure 3 Thessia Machado, Interference.  Photo © Thessia Machado, used by permission.

Over the years John Richard’s Dirty Electronics project has centered on both designing instruments and developing an ensemble practice whose performers are drawn from workshops on building small synthesizers. It is a highly collaborative activity. One recent work, Polytik (figure 4), was designed by John Richards and Jack Featherstone in collaboration with other artists and engineers. Polytik is comprised of four modules, each of a different shape and color, and displaying a creative layout of components on the board. They resemble elegant fabric patterns, or a beautifully presented dish. Functionality is a priority, but so is the way design mediates or informs the decisions of the performer. Other projects Dirty Electronics projects include a collaboration with Chris Carter and a project based on William Morris’ designs.

John Richards and Jack Featherstone, Polytik

Figure 4 John Richards and Jack Featherstone, Polytik.  Photo © John Richards and Jack Featherstone, used by permission.

Addie Wagenknecht’s piece Data and Dragons: Cloud Farming (figure 5) is a good example of how the design of PCBs can reflect the ideas that are being explored in the creative work incorporating the instrument. Custom-designed boards are displayed in a form that resembles a 3d modeled cloud, and the resulting artwork addresses the perplexing nature of the internet cloud and the infrastructure that supports it. Wagenknecht is the director of Deep Lab, a cyberfeminist collaborative group focused on critically engaging digital culture, including matters of surveillance, hacking, anonymity, race and more.

Addie Wagenknecht, Data and Dragons: Cloud Farming

Figure 5 Addie Wagenknecht, Data and Dragons: Cloud Farming.  Photo © Addie Wagenecht, used by permission.

Martin Howse is an artist based in London and Berlin whose work unfolds in the region of scientific research and technological experimentation. Howse calls his practice “micro-research”, for which he has developed multiple instruments for which the creative aspect of PCB design is essential. Characteristic projects include The Dark Interpreter (figure 6), Wormed Voice and the earthboot USB device (figure 7). These instruments reveal the somewhat esoteric domain that serves as a substrate for Howse’s practice.

Martin Howse, The Dark Intepreter

Figure 6 Martin Howse, The Dark Intepreter. Photo © Martin Howse, used by permission.

Martin Howse, earthboot

Figure 7 Martin Howse, earthboot.  Photo © Martin Howse, used by permission.

Figure 6 Martin Howse, The Dark Intepreter. Photo © Martin Howse, used by permission.

Figure 7 Martin Howse, earthboot.  Photo © Martin Howse, used by permission.

How many times we have heard that a circuit board looks like a city? In Tube Map Radio (figure 8) Yuri Suzuki’s use Harry Beck’s London Tube map as the layout for a PCB, evoking Pynchon’s character Oedipa’s comparison the insides of a radio to the cityscape of San Francisco. Tube Map Radio takes two complex systems and mirrors them in a way that might clarify understanding of both.

Yuri Suzuki, Tube Map Radio

Figure 8a Yuri Suzuki, Tube Map Radio. Photo © Yuri Suzuki, used by permission.

Yuri Suzuki, Tube Map Radio

Figure 8b Yuri Suzuki, Tube Map Radio. Photo © Yuri Suzuki, used by permission.

Figure 8 Yuri Suzuki, Tube Map Radio. Photo © Yuri Suzuki, used by permission.

Folktek, established in 2007, has designed some popular instruments such as Mescaline (figure 9). In their earlier work one can find pieces such as the Electric Hands (figure 10), in which two hands are etched into the playing surface of the instrument (evoking the legendary Cracklebox – see sidebar in chapter 12), and the Time Machine (figure 11) whose patchable surface features pads to which connections are made magnetically.

Folktek, Mescaline

Figure 9 Folktek, Mescaline. Photo © Folktek, used by permission.

Folktek, Mescaline

Figure 10 Foltek, Electric Hands

Folktek, Time Machine

Figure 11 Folktek, Time Machine.  Photo © Folktek, used by permission.

In the Netherlands Gijs Gieskes has designed some exotic boards, including one based on Futurama’s Hypnotoad. Gieskes works mostly with circuit-bending, producing objects for both video and sound, but he is well-known as a chiptune artist. Notable is his series of boards named Dirty Express (figure 12), whose parts are arranged in a disturbingly arbitrary fashion, with traces, holes and outlines overlapping, and parts connected to nothing.

In the Netherlands Gijs Gieskes has designed some exotic boards, including one based on Futurama’s Hypnotoad. Gieskes works mostly with circuit-bending, producing objects for both video and sound, but he is well-known as a chiptune artist. Notable is his series of boards named Dirty Express (figure 12), whose parts are arranged in a disturbingly arbitrary fashion, with traces, holes and outlines overlapping, and parts connected to nothing.

Gijs Gieskes, Dirty Express

Figure 12a Gijs Gieskes, Dirty Express. Photo © Gijs Gieskes, used by permission.

Gijs Gieskes, Dirty Express

Figure 12b Gijs Gieskes, Dirty Express. Photo © Gijs Gieskes, used by permission.

Circuit Bending

Nicolas Collins

Traditionally, making functional electronic objects has necessitated a fair grasp of theory and a pretty clear idea of what you wanted to make before you picked up your soldering iron. David Tudor, Gordon Mumma, Composers Inside Electronics, and other musical designers began chipping away at these assumptions in the 1960s and 1970s. Being self-taught, they had only piecemeal knowledge of electronic theory and were less concerned about doing things “properly” than about making something that sounded cool. Immersed in a musical ethos that valued chance, they were highly receptive to accidental discoveries—in the pursuit of the “score within the circuit,” they relished wandering down side paths, rather than race-walking toward a predetermined goal.

Then in the mid-1990s Reed Ghazala pushed serendipity back to the fore of electronic practice with his fervent advocacy of what he dubbed “circuit bending.”1 Like Waisvisz (see “The Cracklebox,” chapter 12), as an adolescent in the late 1960s Ghazala encountered the sounds of accidental circuit interaction: an open amplifier left in his desk drawer shorted against some metal and began whistling. After some experimentation, Ghazala added switches so he could control the shorting, and Circuit Bending was born. He developed a series of techniques for modifying found circuitry—especially electronic toys, whose sonic sophistication grew in direct response to the boom of semiconductor technology in the 1980s—without the benefit of the manufacturer’s schematics, or any engineering knowledge whatsoever. In 1992 he began publishing instructive articles in Experimental Musical Instruments (an influential journal for instrument builders) and acquired a cult following2. In 1997 he launched his Web site and today a cursory Web search will reveal news groups, festivals, and workshops for circuit bending all over the world.

Circuit bending is freestyle sound design with a postmodern twang—the perfect escape for artists bored by the powerful, but often stultifyingly rational, software tools that increasingly dominate music production, yet still hooked on the digitally inspired cut-and-paste aesthetic of scavenging, sampling, and reworking found materials. With its defiantly antitheoretical stance and emphasis on modifying cheap consumer technology, bending has a natural egalitarian appeal (as well as some odd orthodoxies: looking at my instruments as I was setting up a demonstration at the “Bent 2004” Festival at The Tank Gallery in New York City, an audience member inquired, “Are they bent or hacked?” When I looked baffled he elaborated: “‘Bent’ means you have no idea what you are doing when you open up the circuit; ‘hacked’ means you have some idea”). But bending’s try-anything extreme experimentalism can produce wonderful results never anticipated by the original designers of the device being bent.

Some benders specialize in particular adaptations: German musician Joke Nies has made a specialty of hacking an early digital instrument called the “Omnichord” (see figure 1); my ex-student Jon Satrom has based his VJ career on a specific V-Tech children’s toy (see his video in the “Visual Hacking” section of the Gallery on this website).  Texas Instrument’s “Speak and Spell” has been a favorite from the day it was introduced in 1978, long before the term “bending” came into use.  Web sites abound with detailed instructions for specific cuts and jumpers on the boards of particular toys.

Figure 1 Bent Omnichord, Joker Nies.  Photo © Joker Nies, used by permission.

Phil Archer (UK) and John Bowers (UK) are representative of the recent generation of hackers, who effortlessly combine bending with Tudor-era contact mike technology and sophisticated computer programming. Archer did the “classic” bend to his Yamaha PSS-380 keyboard: exposing the circuit-board, placing the inverted instrument on the performer’s lap, and making arbitrary connections between components on the board with a stripped piece of wire (see figure 11 and his audio track in the “Circuit Bending” section of the Gallery on this website). “These connections,” he writes, “induce tones, bursts of noise and corrupted ‘auto-accompaniment’ sequences from the device which are unpredictable in their details but generally ‘steerable’ overall with practice. The precision and control afforded by the standard keyboard interface is eschewed in favour of direct contact with the circuit, and the performer is continually forced to rethink and re-evaluate their relationship with the instrument in light of the sonic results.”3 Most of his other instruments have a Frankenstein quality: a midget Hawaiian guitar whose single string is played by the sled mechanism from a CD player (see figure 2); a set of small percussion instruments whacked and scraped by motors from a dot matrix printer; a music box mechanism activating bent electronic keyboards.

Figure 2 “CD Player Slide Guitar,” Phil Archer.  Photo © Phil Archer, used by permission.

John Bowers, in an ongoing struggle against his training as a computer scientist, “reinvented” what he has dubbed the “Victorian Synthesizer” (see chapter 3 and audio track in the “Laying of Hands” section of the Gallery on this website): it produces sounds with speakers animated directly by batteries, bereft of intervening electronic circuitry. Corroded metal, mercury-filled tilt-switches, and a handful of screws and washers complete instruments that could indeed have been built in the nineteenth century. His other “Infra-Instruments” combine similar electro-mechanical technology (mixing bowls filled with motors, magnets, contact mikes and guitar pickups (see figure 3); microphones embedded in a plank of wood; strings, stones, and guitar pickups strewn across a table with computers and rock effect boxes)4.

Notable younger Benders include Knut Aufermann (Germany/UK), Xentos “Fray” Bentos (UK), David Novack (USA), Vic Rawlings (USA), Sarah Washington (UK), Chris Weaver (UK) and Dan Wilson (UK)5. Britain’s particularly vibrant bending scene (including an “all bending ensemble,” P. Sing Cho— see their audio track in the “Doing It Together” section of the Gallery on this website) has roots in the prevalence of toys as affordable, alternative noisemakers among improvisers in the 1970s—most significantly Steve Beresford.  As Sarah Washington says, echoing Tudor from four decades earlier, “I am an improvising musician…the choice of sounds is down to the circuit – whatever it comes up with is fine with me” (see figure 4)6.

Figure 3 “Mixing Bowl,” John Bowers.  Photo © John Bowers, used by permission.

Figure 4 “Mao Tai,” Sarah Washington. Photo © Sarah Washington, used by permission.

1 Reed Ghazala: http://www.anti-theory.com.  Reed Ghazala, Circuit Bending: Build Your Own Alien Instruments. New York: Wiley Publications, USA, 2005.

2 Experimental Musical Instruments: http://www.windworld.com/

3 The Phil Archer quotation is from personal correspondence, 2003.

4 Bowers, J., and Archer, P. “Not Hyper, Not Meta, Not Cyber but Infra-Instruments.” In Proceedings of NIME‚05 (New Interfaces for Musical Expression), May 26–28, 2005, Vancouver, BC, Canada. Downloadable from http://hct.ece.ubc.ca/nime/2005.

5 Rawlings, Vic.  “The Boss GE-7 E.Q. and Flexible Speaker Array as Tonal Filters”. Leonardo Music Journal Vol. 17 (2007). Pp. 37-38.

6 The Sarah Washington quotation is from personal correspondence, 2003.  Leonardo Music Journal Vol. 17 (2007), My Favorite Things – The Joy of the Gizmo, features articles and artist’s statements by many Circuit Benders, as well as a CD, curated by Sarah Washington, with 17 tracks by various artists.

Visual Music

Nicolas Collins

Electronics have pervaded and altered our visual world as profoundly as our sonic one and, furthermore, allowed us to link the two in peculiar, causal ways. In his 1965 work “Magnet TV,” Nam June Paik sat a large magnet on top of a television set to distort its image; although technically rather crude, this piece presaged the considerably more “sophisticated” electronic image processing that would come to typify much subsequent video art1. “Magnet TV” established a hacker precedent that would remain a consistent presence in Paik’s work, as well as in that of many multi-media artists who followed him.

Before lightning-fast personal computers with massive amounts of memory made digital video processing as commonplace as word processing, Paik-like hacks were the only affordable way to manipulate visual images in real time, or to create linkages between video and audio. Video feedback was as common a tool for early video artists as audio feedback was for electronic music composers: Bill Viola (USA) made extensive use of it in the 1970s; more recently Billy Roisz (Austria) has VJ-ed with video feedback, modifying it through simple video mixers and keyers, and splitting the video signal to feed the PA as well, so that the bursts and jitter of the images are heard in parallel as glitches and hums (see figure 1).

Four stills from a video feedback performance by Billy Roisz

Figure 1 Four stills from a video feedback performance by Billy Roisz.  Photo © Billy Roisz, used by permission.

Cloud Music is a video/music installation developed by David Behrman, Bob Diamond, and Robert Watts between 1974 and 19792. In the earliest version, a camera was pointed at the sky and connected to a video monitor. A number of photoresistors were affixed to the screen. The light values of the passing clouds changed the resistance of the photoresistors, and, in turn, affected the sound score. Yasunao Tone (JP/USA) used a similar approach in his Molecular Music (1982–85): photoresistors are taped to the surface of a screen onto which a film is projected; each photoresistor controls the pitch of an oscillator (similar to those described in chapter 18), and the resulting sound mass responds directly to the change in projected images (see figure 2). Today Tone is best known as the “grandfather of glitch”: he began “wounding CDs” in 1985 by applying Scotch Tape punctured by pinholes to the underside of the disks; the resulting frenetic digital error-fest was the first documented music made with intentionally damaged CDs (see his audio track in the “Circuit Bending” section of the Gallery on this website)3. The intertwining of light and sound are central to Tone’s work: the deflection of lasers through pinholes is a miniaturized, but nonetheless logical, extension of film interrupting the projector’s light before it strikes the photoresistors.  Similar experiments in controlling circuits through photoresistors reacting to projected light have been done more recently by Jeffrey Byron and Jay Trautman, Joe Grimm, Kyle Evans, and Infrason (see their videos in the “Visual Hacking” section of the Gallery on this website).

Two stills from Molecular Music, Yasunao Tone

Figure 2a Two stills from Molecular Music, Yasunao Tone.  Photo © Yasinao Tone, used by permission.

Two stills from Molecular Music, Yasunao Tone

Figure 2b

In 1969, long before planetarium laser shows, Lowell Cross (USA), a frequent collaborator of John Cage and David Tudor, created the first sound-modulated laser projections for his work VIDEO/ LASER II: the laser (enormous at the time—see figure 3) was reflected off mirrors mounted on transducers called galvanometers, which vibrated in response to sound input to create curving Lissajous patterns on the wall. (Lowell Cross also built a beautiful photoresistor-based matrix mixer embedded in a chessboard for the famous 1968 John Cage/Marcel Duchamp chess-playing performance, “Reunion”)4.

Lowell Cross (left), Eugene Turitz (center) and David Tudor (right) setting up for the first laser light show to use x-y scanning, Mills College, Oakland, CA, May 9, 1969

Figure 3a Lowell Cross (left), Eugene Turitz (center) and David Tudor (right) setting up for the first laser light show to use x-y scanning, Mills College, Oakland, CA, May 9, 1969.  Photo © Baron Wollman for the Tape Music Center, used by permission of Lowell Cross.

Laser-projected image from VIDEO/LASER II, December 1969, Lowell Cross

Figure 3b Laser-projected image from VIDEO/LASER II, December 1969, Lowell Cross.  Photo © Lowell Cross, used by permission.

In 1999, when Stephen Vitiello had an artist’s studio on the ninety-first floor of the World Trade Center in New York City, he and Bob Bielecki (see “The Luthiers”) hooked up a photoresistor to a battery (as shown in the “Video Music” chapter in the Circuit Bending section  of this website), placed it on the eyepiece of a telescope, aimed it down at New Jersey, and sat together listening to the flashing lights on a police car across the Hudson. Vitiello has made a beautiful series of recordings using this “audio-telescope” (see his audio track in “Visual Hacking”). Norbert Möslang and Andy Guhl of Voice Crack (see “Composing Inside Electronics,” chapter 15), have used similar circuits to extract surprisingly rich rhythmic and harmonic textures from the light patterns of bicycle flashers and LEDs on toys (see their audio and video tracks in “Visual Hacking”).

Computers finally caught up with video, but visual hacking hasn’t stopped. The disparity between the $100-portable LCD TV and the $5,000-video projector offended the sensibility of the Dutch electronic performance trio BMBCon (Justin Bennett, Wikke ‘t Hooft , and Roelf Toxopeus), so in the mid-1990s they took the screens from cheap TVs (which have the same dimensions as 35mm slides) and dropped them into old slide projectors from the flea market—voilá: the home-made, low-budget video projector (see figure 4 and their video in “Visual Hacking”).  In my installation Daguerreotypes (2006) high intensity LEDs shine through LCDs from toys and games, projecting a sort of miniature wayang shadow play onto the walls of a gallery (figure 6 and video in “Visual Hacking”).

Figure 4 Homemade LCD projector, BMB Con.  Photo © BMBCon, used by permission.

Figure 5 Detail from Daguerreotypes installation with LCD screen and LEDs, Nicolas Collins.

Jon Satrom (USA) has built his VJ career on transforming a child’s “video paint box” into an instrument he calls the “Vitch” (see figure 6 and his video in “Visual Hacking”). By inserting Circuit Bending-style jumpers between various points on the circuit board, Satrom is able disrupt the toy’s functions to produce a remarkable range of fragmented, frozen, superimposed, and digitally warped images (essentially a video equivalent of the keyboard malfunctions described by Phil Archer in “Circuit Bending”).  Similar video circuits have been bent by Jordan Bartee (USA), J. D. Kramer (USA), Phil Stearns (USA), and the trio of Abbot, Archer and Tombs (UK) – see their videos in “Visual Hacking”.  Tali Hinkis and Kyle Lapidus of the video hacking duo LoVid (USA) have created wonderful homemade video synthesizers, occasionally built into soft sculpture and wearables.  Their “Kiss Blink Sync Vessel” is a collection of modules, embedded in tabletops, that can be patched together to synthesize both video and sound (see figure 7 and their video in “Visual Hacking”).

Figure 6a “The Vitch”, John Satrom, left.  Video image from performance, right.  Photos © Jon Satrom, used by permission.

Figure 6b “The Vitch”, John Satrom, left.  Video image from performance, right.  Photos © Jon Satrom, used by permission.

Figure 7 “Kiss Blink Sync Vessel”, LoVid.  Photo © LoVid, used by permission.

And in a pseudo-Victorian twist that would make John Bowers proud, Dutch artists Arthur Elsenaar and Remko Scha attach electrodes to Elsenaar’s face and electrically stimulate the muscles of expression to provide an “emotional display” for their computer (see figure 8 and their video in “Visual Hacking”)5.

Figure 8 Portrait of Arthur Elsenaar’s face displaying an electrically-induced artificial facial expression.  Photo by Josephine Jasperse, used by permission of Arthur Elsenaar and Remko Scha. © Josephine Jasperse.

1 http://www.nydigitalsalon.org/10/artwork.php?artwork=27

2 http://www.vasulka.org/Kitchen/PDF_Eigenwelt/pdf/152-154.pdf

3 Yasunao Tone (Asphodel Ltd., Asphodel 2011), 2003. Solo for Wounded CD (Tzadik, TZ-7212), 1997.

4 Lowell Cross, “‘Reunion’: John Cage, Marcel Duchamp, Electronic Music and Chess.” Leonardo Music Journal, Vol. 9 (1999). Pp. 35-42.

5 Arthur Elsenaar and Remko Scha, “Electric Body Manipulation as Performance Art: A Historical Perspective.” Leonardo Music Journal, Vol. 12 (2002).  Pp. 17-28.

The Future Was Then

A View From 2009

Nicolas Collins

In 2009, the original text of Handmade Electronic Music was expanded and updated. In addition to adding further projects for readers to execute, the new book included an overview of the hardware hacking music and sound art scene as it seemed configured at that time. Circuit bending was the dominant trend, and the power of hacking as a social glue and global tool of resistance and capacitance was only beginning to be felt. For the third edition of the book, I have invited scholars, artists, musicians and activists from around the world to bring us up to date on the cultural impact and creations of a broad range of contemporary scenes.  In the interest of history, however, I am also reprinting that earlier essay from 2009, lightly edited for flow and fact, but in content a snapshot of that moment.

In the second edition of Handmade Electronic Music (HEM) I have attempted to correct errors and oversights, to satisfy readers requests for more projects, and to respond to developments in the seven years since I started this project in 2002. At that time, younger artists working with technology were largely focused on computers and the multitude of newly available programs; the contrarian remainder was under thrall to circuit bending.  Accordingly, I took basic bending as the center of my workshops and of the resulting text, extending the bending methodology backwards and forwards, so to speak. We started with alternate ways of listening: making and using contact mikes, coils, tape heads, electret elements and other alternative microphones; playing radio circuit boards with naked flesh as a way to sensitize our hands to circuitry. Then, when it seemed that the students, like children at Christmas, would burst if they couldn’t open up their toys RIGHT NOW, we moved on to hacking clocks, shorting circuits, and indulging in the other heady, pseudo-random practices that fell under the rubric of Circuit Bending.  When boredom set in, or students tired of subsidizing toy stores and Goodwill shops, we took up our first oscillator. From there our silicon future unfolded, and as the years passed I was pressed to keep adding to the collection of circuits, as reflected in the expanded content of the second edition.

Subsequent to HEM’s initial publication in 2006 I came into contact with a vast sea of benders and hackers. Every few weeks I received a request for assistance on a recalcitrant project, or someone would send me a link to a YouTube clip or a web site demonstrating some cool thing whose connection to my book they felt compelled to point out. My correspondents all shared a “whatever it takes” attitude toward technology. This wave of hackers was not fixated on any particular technology or methodology, instead they moved with grace from hardware to software, from soldering to sawing, from audio to video, from stage to gallery, from adaptive re-use to spontaneous creation, from happenstance to intent, from idiocy to genius. If there was any unifying trait, it was the desire to disrupt technology’s seemingly perfect inviability.

As I wrote in the Introduction to the first edition of this book, the sticker advising “no user serviceable parts inside”—whether affixed to a toy, a TV, a computer, a motor, or even a single integrated circuit—should be taken as a challenge. And for that challenge we must all, hacker and non-hacker alike, be grateful: today’s “breakers” become tomorrow’s “makers1 .” Behind a goofy YouTube video might lurk the next Steve Jobs, Limor Fried or Sergey Brin, or alternatively the next John Cage, Daphne Oram or Nam June Paik. If technology’s evolution, like that of snails or finches, follows a pattern of punctured equilibrium, hackers are holding the pointed sticks. And while we wait for the NEXT BIG THING, we can enjoy the delicious din of all the now little things.

Another addition to second edition was a DVD gallery of 87 now things, each squeezed into a 60-second package (my daughter, then nine years old, maintained that no video should ever be longer than one minute). Taken together, these videos [now available on the website for the third edition] provide an overview of diverse activity of the early 2000s. Though it is hard to categorize in a meaningful way, seven threads seem to weave through the collection: Beyond Bending (the state of circuit bending); Feedback (the guitarist’s friend grows up); Off The Grid (abandoning batteries); I’m With The Band (making music together); Sound and Vision (an art school style); Mechanics (getting very physical); and Swashbuckler (some truly virtuosic iconoclasts). 

Beyond Bending

Circuit bending has changed since Reed Ghazala coined the term.in the 1990s. One factor has been the shift in electronic toy production toward greater integration of functions in a single chip. At the end of the last century, control of a toy’s various functions (making sound, blinking lights, reading switches, defining the clock speed, etc.) was typically distributed among several different integrated circuits and associated components, and benders delighted in messing around with the myriad connections between them. In the 21st century integration has reached the point that everything is controlled by a single malevolent-looking black blob. There are no exposed connections to rearrange, and with more and more on-chip clocks, not dependent on an external resistors, even the most basic changing-the-clock-speed-bend is impossible. With new toys defiantly bend-resistant, today’s bender is condemned to wander the aisles of thrift shops, garage sales and eBay continually confronting the same stock of vintage toys.

The frustration is compounded by ennui. Bending celebrates the first rule of hacking— ignorance is bliss. It shuns theory (Ghazala’a web site is aptly named www.anti-theory.com) and encourages instead the sharing of empirical observation: insert a jumper between these points and this will happen, don’t worry about why.  In contrast to the laborious analytical work that had previously characterized electronic engineering even in hobbyist and musical circles, this philosophy is tremendously liberating for the first-time hacker.  But after the thrill of “how” wears off, some of us ask “why?”  Accordingly, while an artist may gain access to circuitry through classic bending activities, she may move on to diversify her electronic portfolio: interconnecting toys, combining handmade circuitry with bent toys, hacking other found technology (effect pedals, video circuits, mechanical devices), writing software, etc.

Rather than bending toys, for example, Neal Spowage (UK) built his Electro Magnetic Wands, a responsive performance instrument, from metal detectors and security wands (fig. 1). Kaspar König’s (Netherlands) Musguitear uses hacked mosquito killers, and Chris Powers (USA) has modified guitar effect pedals, bringing touch-sensitive contact points from the circuit board out to a set of electrodes he plays with his bare toes (figure 2). Charles McGhee Hassrick (USA) takes a strategically ecological approach, creating audio-visual installations using only the discarded trash of the museums, galleries and other venues where he exhibits.

Electro Magnetic Wands

Figure 1 Neal Spowage, Electro Magnetic Wands. Photo © Neal Spowage, used by permission.

Hacked guitar effect pedal with electrodes for toes

Figure 2 Chris Powers: hacked guitar effect pedal with electrodes for toes.

Many artists extend their bends with computers or scratch-built circuitry.  For his After Math, Chester Udell (USA) hacked a TI Speak & Math (one of the most popular toys for bending) so that it could be manipulated by flight simulator controllers through a computer and MIDI (fig, 3). Ian Baxter (UK) fabricated external body contacts to control a voice changer toy for a performance instrument he calls the Masher. Haco (Japan) modified an electric organ kit so it could be controlled by electrodes for body contact and a combination of pencil lines on paper.

Electro Magnetic Wands

Figure 3 Chester Udell, After Math Hacked TI Speak & Math showing MIDI interface board.  Photo © Chester Udell, used by permission.

Several musicians have “bent” electric guitars and other acoustic instruments by embedding circuitry. Jeffrey Byron (USA) installed bent toys in his electric guitar. Zach Lewis (USA) replaced the neck pickup in his Fender Toronado with photoresistor-controlled oscillators, that are “played” by the shadows cast by the pick-wielding hand (fig. 3). Peter Blasser’s (USA) Radiothizer resembles a koto but contains Theremin-esque circuits that transform the sound of the plucked strings in response to movement of arms in the spatial field of the instrument. Ben Neill (USA) added switches and pots to his trumpet in order to control a computer music system via MIDI.

Oscillators embedded in electric guitar

Figure 4a Zach Lewis, Oscillators embedded in electric guitar. Photo © Zach Lewis, used by permission.

Oscillators embedded in electric guitar

Figure 4b


Interest in live performance and interactivity led many musicians and artists to experiment with one of the most basic electronic sound resources, feedback. For her Speaker Synth, Lesley Flanigan (USA) placed contact mikes inside the cones of five open speakers to control their feedback (fig. 5). Minoru Sato (Japan) embeds microphones and small speakers at the opposite ends of glass tubes and adjusts the gain to create a feedback organ. For their performance work Crude Awakening, Chris Black and Chris White (New Zealand) use an array of speakers and contact mikes to resonate common objects (metal pans, grills, coils of wire, etc) that are physically twisted to affect their feedback pitch. Frederick Brummer (Canada) filters feedback through drum heads, and  Gert-Jan Prins (Netherlands) continues to do amazing things with radio-frequency feedback between homemade transmitters and receivers.

Speaker Synth

Figure 5 Lesley Flanigan, Speaker Synth (2007).  Photo © Lesley Flanigan, used by permission.

Matrix feedback amongst multiple circuits, as pioneered by David Tudor, came back into popularity in the 1990s through the work of Toshimaru Nakamura (Japan) and other advocates of “no-input mixing,” in which mixers and arrays of circuits are transformed into oscillators by patching cables from outputs to inputs. Vic Rawlings (USA) configures naked circuits and numerous small speakers in complex feedback loops, which he manipulates by rubbing wire brushes across the circuit boards.

Off The Grid

Well before the first Teslas rolled off the assembly line hackers began experimenting with alternate sources of energy. Both Daniel Schorno (Switzerland/Netherlands) (fig, 6) and Fred Lonberg-Holm (USA) harnessed solar power for performance instruments and installation projects. The Music Boxes of Phil Archer (UK; fig. 7) and the Synthinetic of Ithai Benjamin and Alex Abreu (USA; fig 8) incorporated hand-cranked generators as power sources whose instability becomes a defining characteristic of the circuit’s performance. Emir Bijukic (Italy) listened to various points on the circuit board of a solar-powered calculator while varying the light level and brushing his fingers across the exposed traces (fig. 9). Lorin Edwin Parker’s steam-driven synthesizer is described in chapter 4 (see figure 4.2). And in a tour de force of engineering, M. R. Duffey (USA) designed Solar Thermal Automata, based on plans and descriptions dating back to classical Greece and Rome; these utilize heat engines to generate organ-like sound directly from solar heat without the need for any electronic circuitry.

Desert Scorpio

Figure 6 Daniel Schorno, Desert Scorpio (2007).  Installation on solar chargeable battery in Erg Chebbi Desert, Morocco. Photo by Susanna Bachmann, © Daniel Schorno, used by permission.

Music Boxes

Figure 7 Phil Archer, Music Boxes with hand-cranked dynamo power.  Photo © Phil Archer, used by permission.


Figure 8 Ithai Benjamin and Alex Abreu, Synthinetic using motor as a generator. Photo © Ithai Benjamin and Alejandro Abreu, used by permission.

Solar powered calculator touch synthesizer

Figure 9 Emir Bijukic, Solar powered calculator touch synthesizer. Photo © Emir Bijukic, used by permission.

I’m With The Band

Among the many bands formed by benders and hackers is NotTheSameColor (Billy Roisz and Dieter Kovacic, Austria) which combines live manipulation of sound and video (fig. 10). Japan’s (e)-bombers are a bending big-band: six guys with bent toys and homemade circuitry, each wearing his own PVC-encased speaker system. Oscillatorial Binnage (Fari Bradley, Toby Clarkson, Chris Weaver and Dan Wilson) and Owl Project (Simon Blackmore, Antony Hall and Steven Symons) and P. Sing Cho (Knut Aufermann, Moshi Honen, Sarah Washington, Chris Weaver and Dan Wilson) are all electronic ensembles active in the UK. Other British combos include Grace and Delete (James Dunn and Chris Cundy), who mix hacked electronics (including bent keyboards and, appropriately enough, a tinnitus analyzer) with bass clarinet; and the Bent Radio Orchestra (Stewart Collinson and Duncan Chapman), which—building on the grand tradition of the Scratch Orchestra and Portsmouth Sinfonia—invites the public to bring, open, and lay hands upon radios (as demonstrated in chapter 12) for mass performances. The rgb.toysband, formed after a workshop I gave in Brussels in 2005, took electronic music into the streets, train stations and other public spaces; its members published a manifesto of sorts encouraging others to create satellites of the original group (similar hacking bands have sprung up out of workshops in Cuneo and Padova, Italy, and Zurich, Switzerland.)

Four stills from video feedback performance by Billy Roisz

Figure 10 Four stills from video feedback performance by Billy Roisz.  Photo © Billy Roisz, used by permission.

Several ensembles make a point of building circuits in front of their audience, rather than bringing completed instruments to the stage. The Swiss Mechatronic Art Society gives regular performances that feature live soldering—once with all members of the group linked to a central master clock powered by dripping water. (This group also conducts workshops and publishes circuit designs on-line). The members of New York-based Loud Objects (Tristan Perich, Kunal Gupta, Katie Shima) program microcontroller chips to produce and process sound, then solder them together on top an overhead projector in front of the audience, who can watch the connections proliferate on the big screen (fig. 11). My own workshops usually end with a public event in which the audience wanders among the busy hackers as they assemble and test their last contact mikes, bent toys and noisy circuits—a sort of factory floor concert. In my recent piece Salvage–Guiyu Blues, seven players use test probes to make a dozen connections between a simple circuit of my design and contact points on a defunct found circuit board (which might come from a computer, cell phone, fax machine, mixer, etc.), reanimating the dead circuit and transforming it into a complex oscillator (fig. 12). At the NIME Festival in Brooklyn in June 2007 I battled my young British dopplegänger, Nick Collins, for the Nic(k) Collins Cup (the cup itself was commissioned from British potter Nic Collins) in a concert that pitted live SuperCollider programming by Nick against live circuit building by Nic.

Live soldering performance by Loud Objects, showing overhead projection of work surface

Figure 11 Live soldering performance by Loud Objects, showing overhead projection of work surface.  Photo by astrobelle, © Isabelle Sigal, used by permission of Loud Objects.

Salvage—Guiyu Blues

Figure 12 Nicolas Collins, Salvage—Guiyu Blues (2008). Control circuitry, probes and dead French Telecom circuit to be re-animated.

Sound and Vision

To state the obvious: sound is more than music. This has always been true, but the traditional distinction between “found” sound (produced in the world but living its life outside human intent) and “constructed” music (the imposition of human genius upon selected, designed sounds) is increasingly moot. Not only is music often “found,” sound is often “designed.” This is true in the rarified realms of art, the globalized realms of commerce, and the erudite realms of science.

Perhaps I’m attuned to this by virtue of having taught in an art school for the better part of a decade, but my ear tells me that museums, galleries and artists’ studios just keep getting noisier: it’s not that there is so much more Sound Art now than ten years ago, but rather that so much more art has sound. There are myriad reasons for this, from the high-falutin’ and theoretical to the incidental and pragmatic. For many artists the digital camera (often in a phone) has become the new sketchbook, and because it is so difficult to defeat the cameras’ built-in microphone, most video footage has sound by default.  And, just as a camera often redirects the artist’s eye, so the constant presence of a soundtrack, whether intentional or not, draws attention to sound. My students shoot video for the sole purpose of gathering sound, and they play back the file without bothering to hook up a video monitor.  When it comes time to edit, video and sound are cut and pasted using the same keystrokes and mouse clicks, with neither media privileged over the other.

As a result, music (or sound art, if you prefer) is emerging from art schools, utilizing many of the same materials and tools found in music schools, but often with a very different set of skills, aesthetic concerns and historical baggage.  Some of this work takes the form of “pure sound”—digital files, vinyl, even cassette—but frequently it is characterized by a heightened sensitivity to visual implications of the technology of its production. That technology can be pretty diverse, since artists today tend to be “multi-instrumentalists”: the majority of my students don’t identify with a specific medium—they flit with ease between paper, film, videotape, wood, metal, computers, canvas and circuits.

As materials go, electronic toys with their lurid plastic casings, and homemade circuits packaged in cigar boxes and Pringles tubes, are more seductive to the eye than laptops and software. Moreover, for those who want to work with sound but lack traditional musical training, the learning curve is easier than that of most musical instruments.

Brett Balogh, Adrian Bredescu, Kyle Evans, Alex Inglizian, James Murray, and Aaron Zarzutzki—all former students of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago—are typical of this new generation. Balogh works extensively with radio technology, adapted as a creative medium, rather than a source of news or existing music (see chapter 27, in which he explains how to build a radio transmitter). Bradescu and Evans have built rich extensions of the circuits featured in this book. Inglizian is very active on the Chicago bending scene, conducting workshops as well as performing regularly, bending toys and building his own circuits (see figure 13 and chapter 21, his tutorial on advanced circuit bending). Murray draws on his background as a DJ to design homemade circuits, developing instruments for cutting and mixing, as well a multiple touch-radio synthesizers.  Zarzutzki built a wonderful instrument from crystal oscillators intended for computer clocks: the crystals oscillate at frequencies in the megahertz range, well above human hearing, but the difference tones that result from non-linear diode mixing yields unstable tone clusters that we can hear (fig. 14).

Various homemade circuits by Alex Inglizian

Figure 13 Various homemade circuits by Alex Inglizian.

Multi-crystal beat-frequency oscillator

Figure 14 Aaron Zarzutzki: multi-crystal beat-frequency oscillator.  Photo © Aaron Zarzutzki, used by permission.

This trend is not limited to trained artists, of course. A visit to YouTube makes it clear that video cameras (especially those built into phones) have supplanted not only the sketchbook, but the Brownie, Instamatic, Polaroid and Super-8 as well – the documentary tools of previous generations of amateurs. And the content on YouTube demonstrates the international popularity of bending and hacking as musical forms.

Some of the most interesting work to come out of the new audio-visual sensibility involves circuitry that either generates simultaneous audio and video signals, or allows the two to interact. Americans Jon Satrom (see his chapter 22 on video hacking) and J. D. Kramer (fig. 15) have independently hacked children’s video paint-boxes to generate fractured digital video and glitch-laden sound. The British trio of Phil Archer, Luke Abbott and Dan Thomas, as well as the American Jordan Bartee, use hacked Sega game consoles for live video and sound. Phillip Stearns’ (USA) Pixel Maelstrom is a video synthesizer constructed by radically bending an old TI99/4a microcomputer; Stearns has also created a series of pieces using an array of analog electronics to process sound and video through feedback loops.

Permutator video synthesizer

Figure 15 J. D. Kramer, Permutator video synthesizer.  Photo © J. D. Kramer, used by permission.

In the spirit of Yasunao Tone’s Molecular Music (see sidebar “Visual Music” on website), Jeffrey Byron and Jay Trautman (USA), Joe Grimm (USA) and Infusion (USA) have built oscillators and signal processors that respond to film and light projection or sensors taped to a video screen. Michael Dudek (Germany) has connected oscillators and a bent keyboard to LCD TVs to disrupt the video sync and thereby modulate the broadcast images. Several artists—including BMBCon (Netherlands) and myself—have built simple video projectors using LCD screens from small TVs and handheld games.

At the more sophisticated end of the technological spectrum, the New York-based duo LoVid (Tali Hinkis and Kyle Lapidus) designed the Syncarmonica, a system of circuit modules, set into a table top, that can be patched together like an old-fashioned analog synthesizer to generate sound and video (see their chapter 22 on video hacking). LoVid has also embedded video and sound circuitry into soft sculpture such as their Ghoti (the title comes from the variant orthography for “fish” first suggested by William Ollier in 1855 as a comment on the irregularity of English spelling, though often misattributed to George Bernard Shaw). Ilias Anagnostopoulis (Greece) built an analog video synthesizer that harkens back to the Sandin Image Processor and Paik-Abe video synthesizer of the 1960-70s.


Alvin Lucier once said that circuitry didn’t interest him because if was “flat,” while sound in space was three-dimensional.2  Lucier’s student at the time, I bristled, but 33 years later I’m inclined to accept his analysis as a simple non-judgmental fact. Several contemporary artists have reacted to the flat, static nature of circuits and computers by incorporating mechanical devices in their hacks. In Leah Castleman’s (USA) installation Compose, Construct, Control, visitors press organ pedals with their feet to activate a beautifully crafted array of motors, cams, levers and cables animating an automated percussion ensemble composed largely of trash (fig.16). Martin Riches’ (UK/Germany) elegant “Motor Mouth” (1998-99) is an acoustic speech synthesizer, a mechanical version of the human mouth, with moving lips, teeth, tongue, tongue tip, larynx and a blower that serves as the lungs; its controlling computer is programmed with a few sentences and can also speak individual vowels, semi-vowels, nasals, labials and fricatives (fig. 17).

Compose, Construct, Control, detail

Figure 16 Leah Crews Castleman, Compose, Construct, Control, detail.  Photo © Leah Crews Castleman, used by permission.

Motor Mouth

Figure 17 Martin Riches, Motor Mouth (1998-99). Photo © Martin Riches, used by permission.

A vaguely erotic physicality drives the work of Catalan musician Ferran Fages, who presses cones of styrofoam against the spinning platter of a cheap record player; the result sounds electronic but is produced purely acoustically, through friction, in a nod to the record player’s pre-electronic, gramophone roots.  Similarly, Chris DeLaurenti’s (USA) Flap-o-phone is a manually activated, acoustic turntable: folded cardboard, a needle, and a stick exhumes sound from 78 rpm records; this is a variant of the CardTalk record player devised in the 1950s by Christian missionary Joy Ridderhof for playing back Bible recordings in unwired locations.

The historicism implicit in mechanical devices is knowingly exploited by Guillermo Galindo (Mexico), who describes his MAIZ as a “cybertotemic instrument”: an assemblage of trash (wine crate, street sweeper parts, credit card, cigar box) and instrument parts (guitar neck and three strings), all whacked by a powerful motor controlled by a computer in response to various sensors. The MAIZ merges pre-Colombian imagery, hurdy-gurdy mechanics and digital interactivity. Marc Berghaus (USA) chose gears over computers, and uses Newtonian technology to create “chance machines” for generating haikus, throws of dice, and permutational music on tiny acoustic pianos (fig.18).

Mechanized dice thrower

Figure 18 Marc Berghaus, Mandala #2 (2000), mechanized dice thrower.  Photo © Marc Berghaus, used by permission.


Driven by the desire to hear a world just over the horizon, more and more artists are building circuits from scratch, either to aid and abet the transformation of found technology, or in its stead. Sebastian Tomczak and Christian Haines in Australia; Tuomo Tammenpää in Finland (fig.19); Alejandra Perez Nuñez in Chile; and Douglas Ferguson and Steve Marsh in the USA have all developed extensions of the sort of circuitry featured in this book. In addition to his beautiful spring-and-piezo gamelans, as shown in the Piezo Music sidebar in chapter 7 (figure S3.3), ADACHI Tomomi (Japan/Germany) has been building and selling quirky Tupperware-encased music circuits since 1994 (fig. 20). Florian Kaufmann (Switzerland) and Osamu Hoshuyama (Japan) are both serious fans of CMOS audio, and have set up web sites with designs that go well beyond those I discuss.

 NANDsynth (2007), oscillator group

Figure 19 Tuomo Tammenpää, NANDsynth (2007), oscillator group.  Photo © Tuomo Tammenpää, used by permission.

Assorted Tupperware-encased instruments

Figure 20 ADACHI Tomomi, assorted Tupperware-encased instruments.  Photo © ADACHI Tomomi, used by permission.

Todd Bailey (USA) incorporated numerous contact points and an open area for extra components in his audio sampler kit, Where’s The Party At, to encourage customization by the user (fig. 21). Beavis Audio Research has produced a guitar effect kit for those who fear solder: preamps, distortion circuits, filters, tremolos, etc. can be plugged together on a breadboard that connect to jacks and pots on a sturdy metal base (fig. 22).

Hacker-friendly audio sampler kit designed by Todd Bailey

Figure 21 “Where’s The Party At?” Hacker-friendly audio sampler kit designed by Todd Bailey.  Photo © Todd Bailey, used by permission.

Figure 22a “Beavis Board” (left) and parts kit (right), designed by Beavis Audio Research.  Photo © Beavis Audio Research, used by permission.

Figure 22b

Hans w. koch (Germany) has created a series of pieces based on the physical idiosyncrasies of specific computers: in Bandoneon Book he opens and closes the lid of an Apple Powerbook with accordion like gestures to affect feedback between the computer’s built-in mikes and speakers; the feedback is further processed by software running on the computer, controlled from its keyboard. In Electroviola koch bows the case of another laptop; the sounds of rosin on plastic are picked up by the internal mikes and again transformed by his code. And in the melancholy tradition of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder, koch’s Core-sound offers listeners the death rattle of an old PC as he drips water onto its motherboard.

In addition to the hand-generator-powered music boxes described earlier, Phil Archer uses the sled of a CD player to move the bottleneck on a tiny slide guitar (fig. 23). Gutting another pair of CD players, Archer connected the sled of each to the circuit board of the other, causing the lasers to chase each other’s tails and play back a torrent of glitches. Like koch, Archer has experimented with the heretical interaction of moisture and electricity, dripping water onto a Yamaha keyboard in his blithely-titled installation, What’s the Worst That Could Happen?. He has also incorporated growing plants in his circuits as components that react to human touch and presence in a distinctly spooky fashion, reminiscent of Tom Zahuranec’s experiments in the 1970s.3 Archer’s compatriot Dan Wilson has used a discarded dot matrix printer as the core for an instrument: he amplifies the printer’s internal springs, motors and coils, as well as some added strings, in his Printar (fig. 24).4  Wilson has built instruments out of floor sweepers, used the principles of the Victorian Oscillator (chapter 3) to pluck strings and springs, employed worms to play Cracklebox-style electrode-controlled circuits, resonated objects large (lampposts) and small (mbiras) with electromagnetic feedback (fig. 25) and, very briefly, persuaded a pair of hedgehogs to play a zither in his back garden.

CD Player Slide Guitar

Figure 23 Phil Archer, CD Player Slide Guitar. Photo © Phil Archer, used by permission.


Figure 24 Dan Wilson, “Printar”.  Photo © Dan Wilson, used by permission.

Thumb piano with electromagnetic drivers

Figure 25 Dan Wilson, thumb piano with electromagnetic drivers. Photo © Dan Wilson, used by permission.

Alex Baker (UK) created a number of pieces that explore the interaction of sound and mechanical forces. His Wind Powered Record Player (fig. 26) is an acoustic gramophone whose platter is turned by the wind. In Catch a ping pong ball is tossed into the air by a speaker cone pulsed with sound. Transducers attached to the heads of his Autonomous Drum Kit transform the skins into reversible microphone/speakers: first they are used to record sticks striking the drums; then they are reversed to play back the recorded sound through the heads, evoking a ghostly, phantom drummer.

Wind Powered Record Player

Figure 26 Alex Baker, Wind Powered Record Player (2007). Wood, tissue paper, bearings, silver wire, record.  Photo © Alex Barker, used by permission.

Douglas Repetto (USA) was instrumental is setting up dorkbot “for people doing strange things with electricity to get together to talk about their work” (see his history of dorkbot on the website) in New York City in 2000. Similar groups have since sprung up around the world. For years he was at the radical fringe of hacking culture as an educator at Columbia University’s Computer Music Center, an organizer, an inventor and an artist.  In his Crash and Bloom, 42 identical small circuits emulate the cycle of growth and collapse of certain biological systems (fig. 27).5  For Fuseboxes Repetto built miniature noisemaking circuits into 20 tiny tin boxes from fuses. Slowscan Soundwave attempts to make sound waves visible by translating air pressure patterns in a room into the movement of suspended plastic sheets.

Crash and Bloom

Figure 27 Douglas Repetto, Crash and Bloom (2001-2). Detail: three of forty-two circuits.  Photo © Douglas Irving Repetto, used by permission.

Like Repetto, Phillip Stearns evokes the biological world in his impossibly complex AANN:Analog Artificial Neural Network (2007). Stearns soldered up 50 identical neuron-simulation circuits, interconnected them, and ended up with a “squid baby” that responds to sound and light by "lighting up like a Christmas Tree" and "shrieking like so many dying seagulls” (fig, 28) (see chapter 31 for information on building your own neural networks). For his Burlap series (2006) Stearns wove circuitry into fabric for exhibition on a gallery wall (fig. 29). Stearns’ video work, using both digital and analog technology, was described earlier in this chapter.

AANN:Analog Artificial Neural Network

Figure 28 Phillip Stearns, AANN:Analog Artificial Neural Network (2007). Series of neuron subassemblies.  Photo © Phillip Stearns, used by permission.


Figure 29 Phillip Stearns, Burlap-II (2006). Circuits sewn into fabric (detail).  Photo © Phillip Stearns, used by permission.

Electronic components, as small as they are these days, are not quantum—they are things, and with a change of scale, the mysteries of what had previously been the lowest level of operation become tangible, touchable, hackable. Some artists experiment at this component level. Patrick McCarthy (USA) makes his own potentiometers with cardboard, safety pins and pencil lines. Nyle Steiner’s (USA) website, sparkbangbuzz.com, guides viewers through making their own diodes from zinc, using a flame as an amplifier, listening to a drop of salt water, building TV picture tubes and lasers from scratch, and other unusual projects. Substituting cozily familiar materials for the arcane can have a humanizing effect: Peter Blasser (USA) builds circuits on sheets of paper, rather than fiberglass circuit boards (see his chapter 26). Grégoire Lauvin (France) has created gallery installations that use live plants as capacitors in oscillators, causing the pitch world to change as the plants grow (fig. 30); he also built a Potatoes Organ whose notes are tuned by impaling vegetables and fruits on nails emerging from the instrument’s housing (fig. 31).

Bio Oscillator

Figure 30 Grégoire Lauvin, Bio Oscillator. Plants and electronics.  Photo © : Grégoire Lauvin, used by permission.

Potatoes Organ. Vegetables and electronics

Figure 31 Grégoire Lauvin, Potatoes Organ. Vegetables and electronics.  Photo © : Grégoire Lauvin, used by permission.

There is no conclusion

There is no conclusion, but there are anecdotes. Here is one: a few years ago I was conducting a hacking workshop at a very high-tech European music research institute.  The group was made up of composers, computer programmers, acousticians and electronic engineers. One student got very confused as soon as we started breadboarding our first oscillator. I asked if he was by any chance either dyslexic or a conservatory-trained composer (two population groups for whom matrix topology seems unusually vexing). “No,” he replied cheerfully, “I’m an Electronic Engineer.  I designed a complete Digital Signal Processor for my senior thesis, but I did it all with software on a computer -- I never actually touched a chip before today.”

My engineer is not alone. Sociologist Richard Sennet has observed that after computers became ubiquitous in the 1980s, “we tended to forget the importance of physical senses.” Or, as Bill Burnett, Executive Director of the Product Design program at Stanford University, put it: “a lot of people got lost in the world of computer simulation.” Burnett goes on to add the all-important truth that “you can’t simulate everything.” That simple and obvious idea—that there is a world before and beyond simulation—has become ever more important as the virtual has snaked its way into more and more of our waking hours.6

But the material world is making comeback. Make magazine, the de-facto journal of record for hackers of all stripes, boasts a paid circulation of 100,000 and 2.5 million visits per month to its web site. Bug Labs in New York sells Lego-like components that let the user snap together GPS receivers, cameras, LCD displays, motion detectors and other sub-modules to design and build their own digital products; the company “envisions a future where CE stands for Community Electronics [and] the term ‘mashup’ applies equally to hardware as it does to Web services.”7 A West Coast activist who goes by the name of Mr. Jalopy drafted a “Maker’s Bill of Rights,” insisting that “meaningful and specific parts lists shall be included . . . batteries shall be replaceable” and so on.8   “I want companies to start thinking about shared innovation,” says Jalopy, “to realize that they’re not selling to customers, but to collaborators.”9 The software giant Adobe invited Gever Tulley, who normally teaches children at his Tinkering School in Montar, CA, to get their designers to put down their mice, pick up their screwdrivers and make things.  “The physical act of making things helps the whole person,” says Tulley.10

The first edition of Handmade Electronic Music was intended as an invitation to reach out and collaborate with commodities, and as an introduction to those pioneers who had been doing so since the dawn of the silicon age. All puns intended, it seems to have touched a chord, or at least to have bumped one string of an ongoing arpeggio. Today there’s more to listen to, more to look at, more to learn, more pages in this book.

There you have it: a plethora of circuits, suggestions, and glimpses of the work of some of the most interesting artists ever to confront a clip lead or soldering iron. The rest is up to you. Run outside and play.

1 When my son was around 11 I demonstrated to him a hack that I thought he might enjoy.  He sighed, shook his head, and said, “Dad, in this world there are Makers and there are Breakers.  You are a Breaker, Steve Jobs is a Maker.”

2 Alvin Lucier’s comment on the flatness of circuitry was made during the videotaping of Robert Ashley’s series of portraits of composer, “Music With Roots In The Aether” (Lovely Music, 1976).

3 Tom Zahuranec was one of the first artists to experiment with the musical application of plant response to human presence. He was active in the mid-1970s, primarily in the San Francisco Bay Area. He appeared in the Walon Green’s 1976 documentary film, “The Secret Life of Plants”, which is available on Google Video.

4 No mention of the musical use of printers would be complete without The User, a Canadian artists’ collective (Thomas McIntosh and Emmanuel Maddan) who send synchronized, specially-programmed print commands to dozens of obsolete printers in order to create their massive “Symphony for Dot Matrix Printers”.  See: http://www.theuser.org/dotmatrix/en/intro.html

5 Douglas Irving Repetto.  “Crash and Bloom: A Self-Defeating Regenerative System”.  Leonardo Music Journal Volume 14 (2004).  Pp. 88-94

6 Sennet and Burnett quoted in: G. Pascal Zachary.  “Digital Designers Rediscover Their Hands”.  New York Times. August 17, 2008. Sunday Business section, p. 4..

7 Bug Labs company website, 2008.

8Maker’s Bill of Rights (2006). https://makezine.com/2006/12/01/the-makers-bill-of-rights/

9 Quoted in: Lawrence Downes, “Mister Jalopy Wants to Make a Better World,” The New York Times, 25 Aug 2008: A20. https://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/25/opinion/25mon4.html

10 Quoted in Zachary, op. cit.