MUTANT DATA ORCHESTRA

MEET THE ORCHESTRA..........SHOWS..........RECORDINGS..........TEXTS...........CONTACT...........SIMULUX

Interview first published in the Tentacle Magazine, spring 2001....................................................Tablet article

 
 


Northwest Creative Instrument Builders:
A Survey

John Bain

Instrument:

The Mutant Data Orchestra is a project centering around an analysis of digital culture through the elucidation of hidden sounds within cheap electronics. Through the act of circuit bending, or the extreme modification of electronic devices, I am able to produce completely alien sounds from apparently benign devices.
I find most of my devices at thrift stores for very little money, looking mostly for toy keyboards, digital answering machines or sound-making toys. When I get a device home, I'll open it up and look at the circuit board and try to determine where I should put switches and potentiometers, using my fingers to run the circuit through my body or using a clip lead with two needles to select specific shorts. Generally, I tend to look for the biggest, juiciest chips on the board, since they usually are the digital ones, which only deal with two voltages, +5v and 0v, which represent high/low or 1/0 in digital parlance.
I tend to shy away from the analog sections, but these areas can be fruitful as well. The area I avoid is the amplifier section, since this area has a specific function that I need and usually only causes problems. After determining the relevant contacts I'll be using, I decide what type of switches to use and how they should be placed on the surface of the instrument. The internal design has a direct relevance to the external interface, so often I'll be using switches in arrays, or program switches layered with throw switches. I also install a banana jack into each device so that they can communicate with each other. It's a one-channel buss that is very flexible due to the wonders of banana plugs; I call it the NDB, or the Naïve Data Buss, and it has proved quite interesting in the generation of autonomous sound organisms.
Packaging is also important, so I usually go for appropriate casings. I have one briefcase that houses two interconnected Casio SK-1 samplers and four digital answering machines with 15-minute recording times each. I'm working on a larger flight case to house several keyboards and other devices as well. Coupled housings with internal power and mixing make setup at performances a lot easier. One thing I really try to do is make sure that when all of my new switches are in the off position, the device plays the way it was originally intended. Sometimes this is impossible, which is fine as well.
I have about 15 different instruments in the orchestra, each one having its own unique voice. I am always looking for more instruments to work on, and even hacked an analog test oscillator, homemade by someone else. Soon I will begin work on a telephone voice scrambler used for secure conversations. Anything is possible, and with the current and growing electrosphere, more and more different devices will surely be available in the future. I usually avoid pro gear due to the cost. And a lot of work can happen within the software realm, so it's pretty pointless to hack it.

Sounds:

Shards of digital noise. When I interconnect all of the separate instruments, I often get waterfalls of layered sound working as an autonomous organism. At other times transient signals have a completely alien nature, surprising one of the possibilities within the realm of synthesis. Whenever I tune into an interesting rhythm, I'm usually attracted to it through an interest in discovering patterns that aren't available elsewhere. The sounds and patterns seem endless, so whenever I am working with these units, I like to have a tape deck available because I usually won't be able to reproduce any interesting sounds I come up with. They become highly potent sound objects, just waiting to be turned on and reveal totally new sounds.
I usually use this system in a live context, whether performing or recording. Recorded works can later be assembled into compositions, but I'm really more interested in live sound and real-time composition, with a close interaction between the performer and the instruments. It's a real-time balance between the machines surprising me while I surprise the machines through the selective pull of a switch or an added connection to another device. Ideally, I attempt to build living organisms in front of the audience where my brain has an integral place within the network. Every performance is different and encodes a certain state of mind relative to that moment.
I basically designed the Mutant Data Orchestra devices for my own use, and since I don't label any of the switches, it would be hard for other performers to use them. I have performed on them with my brother, Mark Bain, but I trust his aesthetics so it worked out well. It was at my first show with my extended kit at the 1998 Dutch Electronic Arts Festival (DEAF) in Rotterdam (www.v2.nl). He was vibrating the V2 building with a computer-controlled motor system, and I invited him to collaborate on the performance as well. The theme of the festival was "The Art Of The Accident," which seemed appropriate to both projects. Another show we did, in 1999, was at the Het Paard, a large night club in Den Haag, with me on stage controlling the MDO and him on vibrating building being fed back through the mains from several arrays of geophones. Some destruction happened as well, but that was the point of the exhibition. So his vibration projects do work well with the MDO since it adds a rhythmic element to the proceedings.
I enjoy collaborating with others but end up gravitating to those who have sensitive ears and are able to direct their consciousness appropriately. Currently I'm working with Ffej Mandel on analog synthesizer and Mishka Morris on cello and effects, which is working out well. When they are around, I also work with Tero Nauha, a Finnish throat singer who has the uncanny ability to sound like a machine, and David Ledogar, a dancer who dances to be felt and not to be seen. He channels energy from the sound and projects it into the audience as subtle energies. I don't know ... it works for me, but I tend to suspend disbelief. Eventually I want to hook him up to the NDB with an EEG device.
The sound of the MDO isn't for everyone. The first show I did was a rave at the old Eyedrop studio, and in the middle of the set a person announced that there was belly dancing in the next room, so everyone left, pretty funny for a first show. I've also worked with the (Boston-based) out-jazz group nmperign, including Bhob Rainey on soprano sax, Greg Kelley on trumpet, and James Coleman on theremin; it turned out pretty well. It was at a defunct cold war lab at MIT that had isolation pads in the middle of the room for testing gyroscopes, part of Draper labs. We had the two horn players on each pad, and surrounding them was a suspended floor of 1/2" aluminum that my brother was vibrating. It was interesting, because at the beginning of the sets the audience would be sitting against the wall, but as the sets wore on the audience would slowly move out onto the vibrating floors, some completely sprawled on their backs, like testing the water with your toe.
There are a lot of other people who circuit bend, and I would be into performing with them, especially if they could incorporate the NDB so that it would be a networked performance, but so far I am the only one who utilizes a network in this medium. I also would want to make sure that the voltages other performers send are safe for the devices.
Basically I'm performing without a net. It is very easy to flip a switch and crash all the devices, so I do have to be careful about what decisions I make. This is what makes it interesting to me the fact that I always have to work against failure. I'm working with broken gear, so failure is always part of the equation.

Inspirations:

I've been interested in producing electronic music since the late 1970s. Eventually I got into the whole sampler/MIDI reality, but became less than enthralled due to its lack of "liveness." Samplers have their uses, but the sound is still prerecorded and dead to me. And MIDI? There's nothing worse than seeing a MIDI band set up their complete studio on stage, press one button and then proceed to remix a prerecorded sequence that's deader than dead. I think liveness within electronic music is important these days because so many people pass off prerecorded electronic music as being live, especially within the electronic dance community.
Modular analog gear has always been influential, especially the Buchla stuff as well as the EMS Synthi with its matrix patch board and briefcase packaging. The whole history of electronic musical instruments is of interest to me, and I especially appreciate the more odd devices like the Mixtur-Trautonium played by Oskar Sala, or the behemoth built by Thaddeus Cahill called the Telharmonium. (www.obsolete.com/120_years). Recently, I've been impressed by the work of Raymond Scott at the Manhattan Research Inc. (www.raymondscott.com).
Eventually I gravitated to researching electronic sound circuits and then discovered the plethora of cheap sound circuits in the thrift stores. I began working on the dual SK-1 briefcase when I found an issue of Experimental Musical Instruments (EMI) with an article on bending the SK-1 by Q.R. Ghazala. I tried out a few of the bends and was hooked. I ended up writing to the author expressing my excitement with the possibilities of his techniques and he even responded with a letter on his amazing stationery, covered with his drawings. He seems like a great person, and he's been doing this since the late 60s, starting out on old transistor radios.
The Japanese noise scene was also very influential. I saw a great Merzbow show in 1994 at the Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco, which clued me in to the spiritual potential of pure noise and the fact that some noise is good and other noise can be bad. Noise can have a quality that goes against the common belief that all noise is the same, and that it annoys. A lot of noise projects utilize interconnected pedals and effects that I can also appreciate from a network sensibility. One of the first people to utilize these ideas of interconnected electronics was David Tudor. I really liked his algorithmic approach to live work the composition is the setup, the algorithm.
Finally, I would have to mention the first circuit benders, Bébé and Louis Barron, who did the soundtrack to the 1956 film Forbidden Planet. For this they built several types of sound circuits and then proceeded to distress them through overpowering; then they recorded the resulting sounds for the film.
Locally, I really like the work of rebreather, who use similar techniques but produce a completely different sound than mine. Paul Rubenstein also makes some great string instruments that are auto-activated through motorized magnets. He also has a great ear with his devices and winds his own coils as well. I'm always interested in checking out what others are doing with homemade or modified electronics, since it usually reveals truly new sounds that you might not find with commercial gear.

Advice for instrument inventors:

First of all, I would check out www.anti-theory.com and Q.R. Ghazala's excellent articles on basic circuit bending techniques and the sample shuttle article on bending the Casio SK-1. Then I would just start messing around with shorting circuits in cheap electronics. Of course you have to take precautions when working with electricity, so if you are unsure of what you are doing, either give up or just use batteries. I'm pretty much self-taught on electronics, but that is why I started this work: to demystify the workings within electronics, especially digital electronics.

John Bain has two degrees in architecture and currently is working in sound, video, and interactive lighting devices. To Bain, working in sound is "like practicing architecture blind." Sound samples of his Mutant Data Orchestra can be heard at (206) 736-7300.