Glitching The Circuit
How imperfections make beautiful music.
We don’t have enough Dada in this world of too much data. Something is needed to break through the over-curated simulacrum that is the online world in order to let in a bit of non-artificial light. One way to make a break is through the deliberate cultivation of the glitch.
The exact etymology of the word glitch is not known, though it may derive from the Yiddish glitsh, which means a “slippery place.” It first showed up in technical texts concerning sudden surges of voltage causing electrical circuits to overload, and today refers to all kinds of malfunctions. In the 1990s, glitch music became a kind of subgenre of electronic music found at the meeting points of the avant-garde noise, and sprinkled into popular forms. This type of music, and the methods surrounding it, including circuit-bending, can provide a window, cracked as it is, for looking out at adjacent electronic worlds, including the internet.
Circuit-bending is the art of recycling, reusing, and repurposing old consumer electronics, sound-making toys, drum machines, and synthesizers. The item to be bent must be low voltage because the art involves opening these castaways up, tinkering on the exposed circuit board while turned on, and making connections that weren’t originally part of the design, all to see what kind of new sounds might be created.
If a person bends higher-voltage electronics, they run the serious risk of electrocution. In addition to de-soldering and re-soldering pathways that weren’t originally connected, new elements can be added. These often include sensors, controllers, potentiometers, switches, and the like slipped into existing circuit paths.
Sometimes a metallic surface is added to a spot on the bent instrument that allows a human’s natural electricity to create voltage changes within the device, making an electrical loop with the player. They become part of the circuit.
Circuit-bent instruments emphasize the aleatory, and can be seen as an extension of the fascination with randomness that started gaining prominence in Western music in the 20th century under the influence of Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage, and others who followed in their footsteps. With regards to Cage, circuit-bending can be seen as an extension of a “prepared” instrument. Like Cage’s prepared pianos, circuit-bent instruments alter devices in ways that make them sound different than before the intervention, although something of their original voice remains present.
The process of circuit-bending was discovered and developed by Cincinnatian Q. Reed Ghazala. Ghazala cultivated a whole suite of instrument types from the detritus of junk he found in thrift shops and other places. Bending existing circuits offers the electronic musician and tinkerer a chance to play with chance, creating artful errors that allow the unknown to slip into what was previously predetermined.
Digital natives need chance, like a body needs water. Algorithms have taken the fun out of what was once unplanned and unstructured; internet surfing has been made accident-proof, as if insurance agents ran it. A similar environment prevails for electronic musicians. The hardware and software more often than not make it difficult to fail. Sound libraries, instrument and effect presets, and samplers pre-loaded with perfect pulsing patterns, make it hard to even play in the wrong pitch. These fully loaded tools make it possible to become a producer of music in a matter of minutes.
Preconfigured musical gear may make it easier to get grooving right off the bat, but the gift of instant gratification steals the sense of accomplishment and intimacy that comes from knowing every inch and crevice of an instrument. And while an encounter with a run-of-the-mill modular setup might initially cause sparks to fly, the slow burn of excitable electrons grows even further from long association. The nuance and subtlety available to those who explore in depth comes across in the very sounds. Circuit-bending is one way to go down to the wire into those depths.
Prefab music is low-risk music. Something might be made from it that could be used as a backdrop to a car commercial or fit into a DJ set at a dance club as filler, but without investigating the underlying assumptions of a piece of gear, or software, the things that come out of it will tend not to have the rewards associated with riskier behavior. Disfigured musical gear gives the gift of decomposition and recomposition to electronic composers. With their materials mangled and mutilated, the equipment becomes a mutt, with all the natural advantages over a thoroughbred, store-bought, off-the-shelf kit. The system may be less predictable, but that is the point.
There are stories that tell of how Richard D. James, better known as Aphex Twin, modifies nearly all of his gear, with special regard given to changing the tunings. He gives his gear a personal workover. This accounts for his music’s longevity over the decades since the first songs and albums came out to the public. Kim Cascone has written (after Roland Barthes’s “The Grain of the Voice”) of a sense of hearing the “grain” inside certain musical works.
In his view, this grain is in part unconscious material bubbling up as expressed through the imagination, and the grain is what makes music that can touch a listener in their core, beyond mere intellect. Circuit-bending doesn’t necessarily create grain on its own; any technique can sound cold and uninspired when it is used as just another part of a checklist for cultural production. Circuit-bending can make room for the glitch, slippage, or an error where something other than the pre-programmed is liable to manifest.
Worship of the glitch
The word gremlin has been used as a synonym for the word glitch. It’s as if, in using that word, there is a subconscious acknowledgment that non-material beings or forces of some kind get off on messing with humans and their tech. In 1994 post-industrial giants Coil made a series of recordings that included the use of the moniker of ELpH, and could be considered as their encounter with gremlins. These releases reveled in malfunction, and started their life unplanned. While working on material that would eventually become the Black Light District release, A Thousand Lights In A Darkened Room, they were plagued by difficulties with their equipment. Tape machines messed up, digital media was mangled, mechanical issues crept into the workflow. Lucky for us, the recording machines were on when many of these errors happened.
John Balance and Peter “Sleazy” Christopherson were both at home with things metaphysical; to them it felt like some kind of extradimensional entity was manifesting through the glitches. The band called these unintended transmissions from their equipment “ELpH,” a being they conceptualized as part equipment, part something reaching out from another realm. Often snatches of random composition came from the gear, and other accidents occurred. As they rolled with the obstacles being thrown at them, they realized it was better to accept these errors and mistakes. So they shelved the Black Light District project for the time being to focus on the new energies that were slipping through their defective gear.
Drew McDowall, who had played with the band before, but was now a vested member, furthered the notion, “It really felt like we were channeling something. Or at least that’s the idea we allowed ourselves to play with.”
Balance said of these experiences, “For a week it really felt like something opened up above and poured into us. We were constantly inspired and then, just as abruptly, it finished transmission. We felt it go.”
One album and one EP came out of these sessions. The album Worship the Glitch by ELpH vs. Coil, and the Born Again Pagans EP were billed as Coil vs. ELpH. Even across a discography as varied as Coil’s there is something very different about these two releases, compared to their other works. They tend towards the sparse and minimalist, the failures given their due and showcased as portals to something beyond.
After these Coil records came out in the mid-’90s, a new electronic genre started to erupt on the scene. As progenitors of new styles, this wasn’t unusual for Coil. Others had followed their pioneering steps before. They certainly weren’t the only ones in that time frame who had used the errors of technology to shape a new aesthetic, but their album helped give it a name, and a style or subgenre called glitch began to emerge. Glitch had its home on the outskirts of more popular electronica, with underpinning strategies borrowed from the techniques and obsessions of 20th-century art music masters.
Glitch exploded for a time. What had once been heard in the most outré and underground of cultural settings was now being mixed on dance floors, in chill rooms and played as a background for late-night trips all across a conceptual black light district.
One signature technique of glitch music from the time was using scratched or beat-up CDs to make them purposefully skip or stutter. Circuit-bending was another. Accessible computer software for making music was also reaching more artists at the time, and digital artifacts from heavily altered sound files came to be incorporated into the style. A standard practice was to sample these artifacts in shortcuts, which became the basis for building up beats, rhythms, and textures. This latter template became the de facto sound of “glitch” as a genre. The Clicks and Cuts compilation released on the Mille Plateaux label in 2000 remains a high-point watermark of the genre, with contributions from many of the leading artists involved during its heyday.
Yet after it had evolved, it became easily copyable, just as many other musical styles that preceded it had been, and just as easy to be co-opted by market forces and musicians who wanted to try to cash on this next big thing.
Kim Cascone pointed out in his inspired essay “The Aesthetics of Failure” that glitch had just been the latest way of investigating the creative misuse of technology. Yet as the internet grew, the process by which those techniques spread happened much faster than in previous decades. In sharing the technique of glitch, some of the imaginative grain within the music was lost as it became just another commodity. With the widespread availability of digital music software, “the medium is no longer the message in glitch music: the tool has become the message.”
Failure had reached a point of failure.
Logic circuits and automatism
If our own thinking can be glitched, then perhaps it is still possible to create systems that embrace the slippage. If we don’t want the “tool to become the message,” then a third element beyond the digital must be added into the mix.
The technopoly runs on data. Is there a way to make it more Dada? The artists of the Dada movement rejected many things, but logic and reason were chief among them. Where was the logic in the atrocities of World War I? The founders of the movement had lived through the war and, in reaction against it, sought to elevate nonsense and the irrational above cruel, cold logic.
In our own time, reason and logic have failed to deliver. The technotopia promised and promoted by Big Tech’s advertisers and neuromarketing PR specialists perpetually remains just around the corner. The things manifesting now seem to have more in common with our collective dystopian nightmares. Perhaps part of technology’s failure is due to the fact that the digital world is built on binaries.
Logic circuits or gates are the brick-and-mortar of digital systems. They are electronic circuits that have one or more than one input, but only one out- put, and turn ON or OFF depending on what the user does. The gate checks the information, and determines outputs based on rules. A gate is ON when a specific condition is true, and OFF when false.
While variations from these basic circuits have been used to build complex systems, they still have, at their core, the binary which undergirds the entire technosphere. It is rather difficult for the unknown to break through when only two outcomes are possible. A third position between ON and OFF is never arrived at. This would require ternary logic, and as far as I know, only one line of ternary computers has been built, the Setun in 1958 at Moscow University. About fifty units were produced before a halt in production. In 1970 a new architecture was developed called the Setun-70, and a 32-bit version came out as a research project in 1989. The dream of expanding into ternary computing has yet to catch on.
In lieu of accessible ternary computing, a third element needs to be added to digital systems: the human component. This is also where I think modes of artistic creation in the spirit of Dada can help. By moving away from pure logic and reason, by letting a bit of nonsense or irrationality slip into the bits, the human tendency to also think in binaries can be glitched.
So much of the creative process is automated when working with digital tools, but it has little in common with the methods of automatism that came out of the Surrealist milieu. The various methods of automatism developed by the Surrealists put a person in touch with the unknown, whether it be the unconscious or from beyond the fragile borders of this world. Bringing these techniques back into play could give a sense of humanity to the sounds of dead electricity emitted from programmed machines.
Automatism came partly from the method of automatic writing or spirit writing, when mediums and others of their psychic ilk were said to be in touch with disembodied spirits. The writing came through them from the other side. For the Surrealists tapping into these forces became a source of creativity. The results were often startling as they bypassed logic and reason.
In artistic creation, logic is rarely the principle that needs to be abided. Automation needs to be bypassed in favor of automatism. In electronic music, strategies and interventions need to be used to work around and supplant the built-in binary biases of the tools, otherwise the music being made on them ends up just sounding like a commercial for the tool.
Whatever the source, if we are to glitch the circuit, we need to open ourselves up to the slippage that comes in from the unknown. Otherwise, people might as well just let AIs design the music for them.
Circuit-bending is one way to bring a sense of automatism back into the studio. Musical dice games (musikalisches würfelspiel) are another. These go back to the 18th century, and exist in a variety of forms. Today there is a set of Musicians Dice that look like they were stolen off a D&D table. They are handsome twelve-sided dice that have the chromatic scale engraved on them in silver. They allow composers to easily work at writing twelve-tone music, or can be tossed around as a basis for improvising in jam sessions. While a computer is capable of generating random numbers in various sets, using something outside of the digital workstation for composition creates a new zone for creative insights to occur.
Guitarist Ben Chasny of Six Organs of Admittance developed what he calls the Hexadic system, using common playing cards. Chasny needed to break a creative funk he had felt he was in, and he developed his system as a way out of the rut. The cards are related to the notes on a guitar, and through playing games with the cards, players can arrive at new tonal territories they might not have come up with on their own. Chasny has put out three albums worth of Hexadic material, and other musicians are now putting it to work.
The painter Max Ernst used the technique of decalcomania, where a texture or pattern is transferred from one surface to another. Ink, paint or other medium is applied to the final surface, and while still wet, other materials such as glass, leaves, patches of cloth, aluminum foil or pottery are pressed or rubbed against it. Musical decalcomania can be achieved by incorporating found sounds into the texture of a piece. These could be samples, field recordings, or the use of unconventional acoustic material.
Whatever the source, if we are to glitch the circuit, we need to open ourselves up to the slippage that comes in from the unknown. Otherwise, people might as well just let AIs design the music for them. And while generative music systems can be built that produce startling beauty, such as Wotja and Brian Eno’s “Bloom,” they leave too little for unintended influences from outside the confines of the system. For that, a human really has to put themselves into line with the flow of the circuit path. To create something new, we need to become conduits, connect and plug into an outside source.
Justin Patrick Moore is a writer and radio enthusiast. His fiction has appeared in Flurb: a Webzine of Astonishing Tales and in the anthology The Flesh Of Your Future Sticks Between My Teeth. He lives in Cincinnati.