Noise Night at Willoughby and Baltic

Circuit bending with Jimmie Rodgers
By RICHARD BECK  |  February 18, 2009

JAM BAND: Just a few more rehearsals and those toy guitars and pianos could maybe snag a recording contract.

Circuit benders are people who customize electronics (frequently toys) to make them sound bad. In Somerville, their labors can now be made public at Noise Night, a bi-monthly get-together hosted by the local hacker organization Willoughby and Baltic. When I arrived at W&B's Davis Square space, host Jimmie Rodgers handed me a Talk 'N Learn Alphabet toy, one of those plastic slabs that will speak letters at you if you press the corresponding vowel or consonant. I pressed "N" — for Noise Night — and the thing screamed at me.

I was told that Noise Night is usually a more structured event, with educational talks and then tournament-style jam-offs, but last Thursday's attendance was a little low. Most whiled away the time noodling on various Franken-toys: a talking Smarty Robot with photo-sensors for eyes, a plastic Noah's Ark with animals that shrieked and groaned, a can of ham with a knob on the side. Circuit benders are some handy people. Early on, we realized that a microphone had gone missing. "I could make one," Jimmie said, distractedly, "but that would be ridiculous." The star of the evening, weirdly enough, was an actual music device: a shiny, flashing square whose LED grid lit up in dazzling patterns. Its owner, Fred, told me that the thing is called a Tenori-on, and that I did not have nearly enough money to buy it from him.

At a certain point, jamming commenced, with long-haired recording engineer Bill leading the way on a cracked-out toy guitar. I joined in on toy piano, but the ensemble had trouble getting focused. "This could resemble music if we actually worked at it," said Bill with an encouraging grin. People came and went, testing the waters and almost always eventually joining in. Somebody's mic stand broke, but not to worry. "We've got drills!" yelled Jimmie. "We can fix that!"

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