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Listening to art.
Playing with audio.
Sounding out technology.
Composing in code.

Circuit-Bent MP3

Chachi Jones bends childhood memories into pop music. He takes Texas Instruments Speak & Spell toys, along with other tech juvenilia, and tweaks them until they make sounds for his brand of glitchy, noise-infused electronica. Jones (born Donald Bell) spoke at the Robotspeak store in San Francisco in mid-January at one of its free monthly clinics. He played for half an hour, on a mix of laptop, familiar DJ equipment, and assorted toys, and then took questions.

Among Jones’ lo-tech tools was a plastic turntable for 7″ singles, on which he played a Halloween sound effects record, spinning it back and forth, and letting it come to a slow natural stop. He rubbed two metal spheres on a reconfigured Touch & Tell, which emitted semi-random noises. “That’s the fun of bringing the toys out,” he said. “It’s unpredictable” He pointed out, for example, that the turntable sometimes picks up radio stations.

Much of the audience was drawn to the event thanks to an informative story (“Bed, Math, and Beyond“) in one of the local alternative weeklies; it described the circuit-bending community that has coalesced online, and in which Jones participates, and some lingering issues with an artist, Reed Ghazala, who is understood to have originated the techniques that Jones and others have adopted.

In the discussion part of the clinic, Jones explained the workings of his machines, for example how he added a pitch control to the Speak & Spell (it goes “from Barry White to Barry Gibb”), and the comfort zone in which his bending (not to mention soldering) takes place: “You’re not gonna electrocute yourself, since its battery operated.” His machines resemble Frankenstein’s monster, with the little switches extending unnaturally from their familiar plastic casings.

If the machinery behind Jones’s music seems intriguing, there’s a batch of free MP3 files and streams on his chachijones.com website, notably a remix of “10,000 Gallon Hat” by Big Tex (a fellow Sacramentan, whom Jones credits as a kind of mentor in the ways of circuit-bending); it’s a downtempo-ish bit, with a pleasingly robotic drum pattern, and a blissful repetitive upper-register riff, which occasionally bursts apart — techno on a bender. (More information on Robotspeak at robotspeak.com, and on Reed Ghazala at anti-theory.com.)

By Marc Weidenbaum

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