Chaos reigned—conceptually, anyway—at the fifth annual Bent Festival, held over three days in DCTV’s converted Chinatown firehouse. It is at the literal core of circuit bending, music made by tinkerers who’ve ripped open children’s toys and other cheap electronics and prodded sound from the innards. While there was a joyous unpredictability in what emerged from 24 acts worth of cross-wired Speak & Spells and Omnichords (the twin vintage axes of bending), singing flowers, home built synths, there was maybe less actual music than one might want. Though one can someday imagine a waif-like bender in a flowing dress finding a completely original voice and doing for the Omnichord what Joanna Newsom did for the harp, there wasn’t much at Bent 2008 that one might want to listen to later, without being able to observe the technicians themselves hunched over their hand assembled gear.
First presented in 2003 by the Tank, then at their 42nd Street location, Bent has grown tremendously. Along with its kissing-cousin festival, Blip (devoted to more involved mutations involving Gameboys and 8-bit units), the two have become miniature franchises. After a Blip touchdown in Prague in March, Bent hit Los Angeles last week and will make a second return to Minneapolis, at Intermedia Arts, from May 1st through 3rd.
Fundamentally freeform, the benders channeled their chips’ noises in various ways, some successful, some not. Perhaps for offering familiar signposts, some of the best were those that at least nodded to pop structure. Playing Friday, Computer at Sea from Portland, Maine actually had vocals. “Sullen lamp lighters, they visit from the shadow towns,” they sang on “Sullen Lamp Lighters” over a nu-New Wave bleep grid. Using a pitch-controlled tape deck and a Speak & Spell, they urged out ghost voices beneath 8-bit pastorals. On Saturday, New York’s Alias Pail had a guitar and a kickless drum kit and harmonies. (Judas!) This didn’t stop them from twisting weirdness from a Casio SK-1 on “My Being As A Bomb,” aided by moaning voices and a martial Shaggs beat that combined into something not far from Animal Collective. “We’re looking to bend it out,” they announced before a cover of Brian Eno’s “Here Come the Warm Jets,” a song whose warbling guitars dreamt of being bent in 1974, and a perfect choice for the trio, who deconstructed the melody before stating it more explicitly on the guitar.
For all the various bits of stage aesthetics the acts practiced, the name of the festival might also refer to the myriad creative positions required by the various non-traditional instruments. Delivering a squall that was outright Hendrix-like, Missouri’s Spunkytoofers—a portly Asian dude—spazzed across the stage while wearing an intricate drum-toy around his neck, ending on his back. But his catharsis was the exception that proved the rule. Nobody smashed anything, despite all the moving parts.
Loud Objects, who assemble electronics on an overhead projector while outputting the sound produced by the soldering irons, triggered receptors attached to a pair of dancers on Thursday, making their muscles contract and twitch. The next night, in a small downstairs area, Bent regular Tristan Perich sold the band’s live-assembled circuits as lush $50 art pieces, along with a collection of his own gizmos, including his one-bit generators. Nearby, Make magazine sold back issues and open source electronics kits, including TV-B-Gone!, a one-purpose remote. A merch table included the first single by dance crew Burnkit 2600 (who closed Saturday) in the form of a $20 Atari cartridge. Elsewhere, Casper Electronics sold $5 raffle tickets for a vintage Speak & Spell and a Speak & Math. Afternoon workshops included Phil Stearns’ “Sensors – op-amps, comparators, and digitally controlled switches” and Ed Bear’s “Intro to video bending.” As befitting any good lo-fi arts fest, there was also cheap (and, occasionally, free) beer.
As show and tell for a burgeoning community of circuit benders, one could practically see the light-bulbs popping above the heads of the electro-craftheads in the audience.
“What the hell is that?” one asked F4RM, a duo from Mexico. Framed by antennae, they’d extracted phantom radio signals from a white mound at the center of the stage that looked, from some angles, like a mass of cotton.
“Salt,” one F4RMer said, slightly accented. “Salt conducts electricity!” Cue light-bulb.