Strum und Drang
Handmade Music Night makes some noise.
Thu Sep 20 2007
Bright lights, tricked-out machinery and more wires than a Hollywood bomb—that’s Handmade Music Night.
The monthly show-and-tell–cum–social gathering attracts engineers, computer programmers and tinkerers who build synthesizers, drum machines and other instruments from the ground up. (One dude even turned a Ritz cracker box into an amp.) They give demos, share tips and encourage newbies to bust out their own DIY works.
“The Web is a breeding ground for oddball technologies,” says Peter Kirn, founder of Create Digital Music and cosponsor of Handmade Music Night (along with Brooklyn’s Etsy Labs and Make magazine). “It’s a way to take something that’s global and virtual and make it local and personal.”
A noble endeavor, sure, but we’re mostly interested in what a theremin made from crutches and baking pans sounds like. Here, four inventors share their wares.
Jeff Hoefs’s work-in-progress wasn’t, well, working when he showed it, but there is an enticing clip of the from-scratch sequencer on his website. A collaborative project with codesigner Stijn Schiffeleers, Beat Blocks turns kid-friendly building blocks into a “tangible interface for a rhythm sequencer.” In other words, it’s a drum machine any idiot could use. But good luck getting it through an airport. “I once had a typewriter with switches embedded under the keys, and they were like, ‘What the fuck is this thing?’ before they even saw the circuitry,” says Hoefs, 28, of Greenpoint. “People watch too much MacGyver.”
The wind-up box
Ranjit Bhatnagar, 39, of Park Slope, recently quit his job as a video-game programmer to pursue photography and teaching. Students in his “Mister Resistor” class at Parson’s customize their own instruments and perform hard-rock covers. “My last group did ‘War Pigs’ with a theremin, modified bass and lots of percussion,” says Bhatnagar. As for his own circuit-bending work, this wooden box was constructed using noisemakers and rubber-tipped doorstops. As complex as it looks, he says it only took him two hours to build. And it sounds like the ultimate Wolf Eyes accessory—lots of start-and-stop lawn-mower action.
Here we have a reverse-engineered, open-source reproduction of the Roland TB-303, a synthesizer that was used on early electro tracks and discontinued in 1989. The squishy alien sounds that burst from Manhattanite Limor Fried’s revisionist take recall old-school raves and the acid-techno works of Richie Hawtin. As it turns out, Hawtin was one of the first producers to purchase x0xb0x’s $300 build-your-own kit. Thinking of buying one and pitching yourself as the next Plastikman? Before you join Fried’s waiting list, heed her warning: “Just because you built an Ikea desk doesn’t mean you can start building cabinets.”
Beyond white noise, some Handmade projects are rife with symbolism. Take Eric Johnson’s twist on the theremin, for instance: two crutches with circuitry hidden inside cake-pan bases. “The crutches are about injury as incompleteness,” explains Johnson, 32, also of Greenpoint, whose original idea was an abstraction of the Venus de Milo statue with antennas tucked in each arm stump and a ring modulator where her heart would be. He changed his mind when a friend trashed two crutches from an old skiing accident. What results is a maddeningly schizophrenic soundalike of R2D2.