Early experiments in technology as music led to various artifacts, such as the theremin, an early electronic musical instrument that senses the position of the player’s hands. It was named after the Russian inventor Professor Leon Theremin, who patented the device in 1928. It produced an eerie sound that was featured in such movie soundtracks as The Day the Earth Stood Still and led to a school of audio experimentation known as circuit bending, pioneered by Reed Ghazala in 1967.
Reed was interviewed in 2008 for the circuit bending DIY website GetLoFi – Circuit Bending Synth DIY where he explains his first accidental bent encounter "[there] was a mini-amp, 9V, shorting out in my desk drawer. The result was a series of electronic sounds rising in pitch, over and over, like a modern police siren. But back then, of course, sirens were purely mechanical. So there was nothing really to compare this to! I immediately thought, “If this can happen by accident, what might happen if I started blindly short-circuiting the amp here, there and everywhere? Are there more hidden sounds?” The idea of “toy” or “garbage” never came into my mind. This was magic."
From accident to art, Circuit bending is well accepted as the imaginative practice of short-circuiting electronic devices, such as low-voltage devices and children’s toys to create repurposed sound generators that ultimately gave way to synthesizers, samplers, and other mainstream embodiments. Electronic musical instruments married perfectly with the parallel development of video production tools, and the mixing of audio, video, and interactive gear quickly grew.
While the strict definition of circuit bending involves some kind of mod or short circuit to a device or toy, the meme has expanded in its popular definition to include a broader technology bending definition through off-label or re-purposed artistic usages of technology in ways never intended by the original purpose or function. One example of this is the notion of Dial Songs where songs can be played using the tone dialing function of phones. Machinima (a portmanteau word combining machine and cinema) is a spectacular and extremely popular example of current technology bending for art. Machinima is the repurposing of game machines, such as Xbox, into film-creation tools which is covered in depth on the tabTV Machinima page.
Software can also change the intended use of a device, for example an app named Ocarina turns your iPhone into a flute; by holding the iPhone’s microphone perpendicular to one’s mouth with the touch screen facing up, it enables the user to blow into the handset’s microphone to play flute-like music. It creates sounds in real-time based on gestures, tilt, wind input, and finger placement on the four graphic “holes” displayed on the touch screen. On YouTube, there is an official concert video by the makers of the Ocarina app, iPhone App by Smule: Ocarina Led Zeppelin—Stairway featuring an acoustic guitarist playing the Led Zeppelin Stairway to Heaven riff and accompanied by five flutists who remarkably reproduce the flute chorus using only their iPhones. In the true spirit of circuit bending and the Fluxus art movement of the 1960s, Ocarina embodies the modern indefinable and perplexing interdisciplinary mashups that occur between genres—such areas as those found somewhere between illustration and spoken word, or between sculpture and written word, or, as in this case, telephony and musical instruments.
A rather amazing work by Malcolm Arnold from 1956 was dedicated to President Hoover and written as a send-up of the 19th century musical style known as an overture. Typically overtures serve as the instrumental introduction to an opera but this work titled A Grand, Grand Overture, Op. 57, was a stand-alone piece scored for a huge orchestra with obbligato parts for four rifles, three Hoover vacuum cleaners—two upright vacuums in B♭, one canister vacuum with a middle-C sucker attachment—as well as an electric floor polisher in E♭.
Also be sure to check out the tabTV playlist CircuitBending that has many of the above works as well as many more not found here.