In the glitchy, garbled, sonic universe of Beatrix*Jar, anything that makes a sound can be channeled into a song. The band's favorite source of found sounds is recycled electronic toys.
Hidden in the layers of "Paint by Numbers," a track from Beatrix*Jar's 2006 release "I Love You Talk Bird," is the crackling voice of the Texas Instruments learning toy Speak & Read. It's one of a multitude of electronically and digitally generated elements that make up a Beatrix*Jar soundscape.
Co-founder Jacob Roske says too many musicians, especially in the Midwest, are still trapped by the traditional set-up of guitar, bass and drums.
"We're trying to open people's minds and kind of broaden their horizons by saying, 'But this Speak & Spell and this kids drum machine and this old keyboard have a lot of value too,'" he says.
The process of manipulating the sounds in these toys is called "circuit bending." It's kind of like performing a simple surgery on the toy's circuit board to redirect the currents that produce the sound.
But circuit bending may be too clinical a term. Somewhat jokingly, Beatrix*Jar co-founder Bianca Pettis considers the process of discovering the submerged, organic voices in these machines an act of liberation.
"We always say that the machines themselves have a song to sing and we kind of release," she says. "We do a little surgery on them and suddenly they're like, 'Ahhhhhhhh,' whereas they maybe couldn't have done that before because of the way they were set up."
To demonstrate, Jacob Roske taps on the keys of a 1980s-era Casio keyboard. Then he throws a switch he's wired into the instrument.
"And that switch raises the overall tone or it randomizes it and makes it go into a sort of chance operation," he says.
Roske looks at the circuit board inside one of these toys as an electronic city. Within that city, says Roske, are the circuits or the roads, and at the end of those roads are what he calls cul-de-sacs.
According to Roske, circuit bending takes place when you use a hard wire to make a sonic shortcut between two cul-de-sac points. "And by making that sonic shortcut," he says, "you've just added a sound, you've just enhanced the voice, you've given it a new dimension."
Using circuit bending, Roske says a toy that has five voices can easily be expanded to 25.
The possibilities, especially for musicians and sound artists, are endless. Which is why Beatrix*Jar has gotten into the habit of conducting circuit bending workshops in the Twin Cities and wherever they tour. The next tutorial will be held Thursday night at Art of This Gallery in Minneapolis. Beatrix*Jar encourages participants to bring their own battery-operated toys, which are widely available in thrift stores or at yard sales, and be prepared to tinker. Beatrix*Jar will supply the tools, including a soldering iron.
For those who are intimidated by electronic gadgetry, Roske offers reassurance: "Once you learn the technique of bending, once you get into that machine the first time and you make that first connection, and you change or alter that sound, it's very addictive," he says.
Roske and Pettis say they're teaching people not to fall into what Roske describes as "one box of sound."
"We are accustomed to traditional instruments," Pettis says. "So how cool is it to open up that box and hear different kinds of sounds and appreciate those sounds for what they are, as opposed to the same old thing that we always hear, you know? It's time for something new and I think we're evolving as a culture and maybe we need music to go along with it."
In this case, Beatrix*Jar's music of the future is being manufactured by machines of the past.