(Check it out! Hope to see you there Friday.)
Program Note: Fuzzy Logic
One night several years ago, having waded out into the far reaches of Wikipedia, I found myself struck by the inexplicable urge to find out what happened to the Furby. I had one when I was younger—it was black and white, I believe—and I remember being fascinated by it. I was thirteen when Furby-mania hit the United States, which meant that I was just young enough to want a stuffed animal for Christmas but just old enough to understand (and be enthralled by) its engineering. It was a remarkable little thing.
It also had some sort of prion disorder that prevented it from sleeping, apparently. It wound up in a crate in our basement.
Anyway, back to that night several years ago: I scanned the Furby page on Wikipedia and saw the usual, mind-boggling statistics. Forty million sold in the first three years. Co-invented by a former street mime. What “wee-tah-kah-loo-loo” means (“tell me a joke”). Towards the end of the article was a brief aside: Furbys had become popular within the “circuit bending” community.
I clicked the “circuit bending” link and fell down the proverbial rabbit hole.
Circuit bending was born in the 1960s when Reed Ghazala, a teenager with no formal technical training, accidentally dropped a metal screw onto the exposed circuit board of an old Radio Shack amp that’d been left on. The resultant shriek intrigued him, and his experimentations yielded instruments, which yielded performances, which yielded colleagues, which yielded a movement.
“Bent” devices are essentially toys, instruments, and electronic appliances that have been disassembled, modified, and reassembled in ways that produce new sounds unintended by their original manufactures. There are hundreds of modifications a circuit bender can make—some of the most common are toggle and pushbutton switches (to connect/disconnect circuits), resistors and potentiometers (to resist current, thereby changing the pitch of a sound and/or protecting sensitive components), and capacitors (storing and releasing electrical current, often used to modify the tone of a sound). These electrical components are then soldered to the circuit board at various points, often located by trial and error (I used tiny alligator clips). If you can keep the current flowing at sustainable levels, you can basically have a fully functioning, long-lived device that works completely normally until you push a button or flick a switch.
The title of my piece, Fuzzy Logic, is a reference to three things. First is the concept of “fuzzy logic,” a many-valued form of logic that uses approximate reasoning in which variables can have truth-values between 0 and 1. It’s been used in various disciplines over the last half-century or so, allowing robots to behave more naturally and trains to run more smoothly. It basically allows for an amount of uncertainty within a system—much like circuit bending, where one may control variables only to a point. After that point—which is impossible to predict—the variables are governed only by chance. This piece doesn’t actually adhere to any fuzzy-logic principles, mind you, but the goals are similar—seeking control in a sea of chaos.
The title’s second meaning is simply a reference to the fact that Furbys are furry, and rather adorable.
The final reason I titled the piece Fuzzy Logic is that it was outrageously difficult to complete, and undertaking it was probably a bad idea (at least without having a couple of years’ worth of electrical engineering experience). I had to learn everything from the ground up, and it turns out I’m really, really bad at soldering barely-visible wires to contact points. I’ve now got a veritable graveyard of burned electronics components in our apartment (my wife is very patient). Luckily, I was able to get some help online—a couple of the instruments you’ll see were purchased on eBay from considerably more gifted benders than I (especially “GhostFire Electronics”). Another difficulty, as one might imagine, was notating the piece. Because of its inherent randomness, I used temporal, graphical notation. I created a “tape” track by recording the instruments and processing them, and over that placed snippets of a radio interview with the co-inventor of the Furby, Caleb Chung.
This has been a crazy experience—but aren’t those always the ones most worth having?