Where do new musical instruments come from? Usually from musicians who seek unheard sounds and innovative ways to make music. With his unparalleled instrumentarium of Cloud Chamber Bowls, Kitharas, Chromelodeons, and Harmonic Canons, Harry Partch (1901–1974) remains the lodestar of all instrument inventors. He built unusual instruments, modifying and subverting old designs, as well as constructed new creations from surplus junk and obsolete refuse. Great musicians not only steal, they recycle.
In recent years, a handful of avant improvisers have explored circuit bending, trolling thrift stores for sound-emitting toys like Speak & Spells, cheapie Casio keyboards, and anything else that bleats, talks, or squawks at the push of a button. Pioneered by instrument inventor Reed Ghazala and home-brew circuit guru David Tudor, circuit bending entails intuitively exploring electronic circuits and rerouting the sonic result to speakers.
Some circuit benders treat their instruments like an occasional special-effects unit or as a one-note synth. Bolder musicians make the hiss, spiky chirps, subterranean bass tones, and the muttering chatter of internal circuitry into music.
I caught the Eubanks/Sundstrom duo at last year's Jyrk Jamboree. Sundstrom's turntable, contact microphones, and other garage-sale electronics meshed elegantly with Eubanks's suitcase stuffed with gutted, circuit-bent guitar pedals.
"It's a living thing," suggests Eubanks after describing how he has augmented sampler pedals into an aural ecosystem of strewn wires and exposed, networked circuit boards.
And what will it sound like at the show? Eubanks tells me, "It's going to fill the room with a huge range of frequencies." Reflecting on the mercurial nature of making freely improvised music with unpredictable devices, he laughs and adds, "It might not be that either. We'll find out together."