Galen Richmond may work in the best tradition of Maine craft artisans, forging functional creations out of everyday materials most might consider junk, but there the comparison stops. Richmond is very much a craftsman for the 21st century, perhaps something of a refugee from one of those far, far away galaxies that populate the Star Wars saga.
FIGURES BY BEN BISHOP OR BEN ASSELIN
He creates new musical instruments out of old electronics, such as a Casio SK-1 synthesizer keyboard that looks quite normal until your gaze expands to encompass the matrix of toggle switches attached to its right end and the Atari joystick (complete with button) on the left. The switches and joystick are so seamlessly integrated, so tightly put together, that for a moment it becomes hard to envision the keyboard without those add-ons, all wired into the keyboard's internal circuitry, allowing the instrument to produce music far beyond what its manufacturers intended. Sure, the keys and pre-recorded drum rhythms are still there, but flipping switches and playing with the joystick morph the sound into new realms, warping standard keyboard tones into warbles, groans, creaks, and screeches. (If you still haven't gotten the picture, go check out the setup — and its music — at one of Richmond's numerous local club gigs; he performs as Computer At Sea.)
The term "nerd-crafting" has emerged in the popular culture to apply to work like Richmond's, which goes beyond traditional crafting (think the knit hats and handmade jewelry that are also so popular in Portland) into something related to geek- or nerd-dom, like electronics, comics, or video games. Richmond says his work is part of "the increasingly visible maker culture." It's more than traditional crafting (think knit hats and handmade jewelry), also popular in Portland.
Another of his devices is an OmniChord, an '80s-era electronic instrument with a touch-sensitive strip of metal a player can use to "strum" it. Not satisfied with that capability in a machine made a couple decades ago, Richmond pierced the case with several dozen furniture tacks and then opened it up and wired each tack to a different area of the internal sound-creation or -modification electronics. Now, pretty much wherever you touch the device, the sound it is making changes. (Richmond does wire those and other instruments into an un-modified MPC 2000 drum-machine/sampler/sequencer, in an effort to create music from these sounds, rather than simply making different noises.)
He started this sort of work, called circuit-bending, in 2007, modifying existing — often obsolete — electronic devices to create new sounds. Inspired by a circuit-bent Speak & Spell he spotted on eBay but could not afford (it was selling for hundreds of dollars), he decided to figure out how to make his own and discover what he calls "unheard sounds in the universe.""The idea is that there's these other sounds just lurking in the hardware that weren't designed by anyone and weren't made to be heard," he says. As recently as a few years ago, it was possible to discover entirely new sounds. As more people have gotten involved — and as an online community has gathered to share techniques and recordings — it's rarer to make a new discovery totally outside an existing "family" of sounds (made from similar modifications to particular devices).
But it's still tantalizing, Richmond says: "There's always the chance that you could uncover a totally never-before-heard sound."