We had the good fortune of connecting with Jeff Boynton and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Jeff, what makes you happy? Why?
My answer to this is being an artist and a “quasi” engineer. Decades ago, I was in crisis mode. I was very deeply depressed. I had no spiritual component to my life, and I discovered that without it I was clueless as to why I was in such misery, and that without it I had no path out of my despair. Once I discovered this path, which had nothing to do with religious dogma or anything organized but was rather a personal matter, an unexpected consequence was an opening of creative floodgates that continues to this day. I have notebooks full of ideas; more than I have years left in which to realize all of them. I came to believe that when something excites or inspires, you must pay attention to and nurture it, and it will lead you to wonderful places. An example of this comes from the early days of my spiritual awakening. I had developed an obsession with Russian composers in the early 1990s. I would spend $300 on Shostakovitch, Prokofiev, Stravinsky or Mussourgsky CDs, and purchase the scores to follow along. In 1992, I lost a job and I was quite stressed about how I would pay bills. However, by the time I received a job offer, I turned it down because I had an overwhelming sense that something big was about to happen to me, and within a couple weeks, I was hired to compose music for the 1993 Japan tour of the Bolshoi Circus of Moscow. I went on the tour, and upon my return to Los Angeles, I purchased Russian books and studied for 3 months before traveling to Belarus and Russia (I now had many friends there whom I met on the tour). I spent 2 months there and spoke only Russian for the duration of my visit. I felt it was obvious that I had been unknowingly preparing for this experience, and it came as a result of spiritual openness and connectedness. I was puzzled as to why I had become so deeply intrigued by those composers, and looking back, I feel almost like it was none of my business. It presents itself, you follow, and the rest takes care of itself. I have done this repeatedly in the intervening years. I was sitting in a coffee shop one day in 1995, and I noticed an art supply store across the street. I decided right then and there that I was going to go there and buy brushes, paint and canvases, and I went home and started painting right away. Before this time, I would have told myself something like “I can’t buy those things – I don’t know how to paint”. I was in a prison. Instead, I ended up creating dozens of pieces over the next year and a half, stumbling upon new techniques and feeling overwhelmed with artistic ideas. I then decided to get into video editing and 3D computer animation, ultimately creating my own graphics company. I had another epiphany in 2004, when I stumbled upon an article on “circuit bending”. Wikipedia describes it thusly – “Circuit bending is the creative, chance-based customization of the circuits within electronic devices such as low-voltage, battery-powered guitar effects, children’s toys and digital synthesizers to create new musical or visual instruments and sound generators.” I light went off in my head, and I immediately began experimenting with it – part of the appeal was that one doesn’t need to know about electronics to begin, and that described me. 18 years later, I design my own circuitry to add to these devices, and I write code for microcontrollers which I embed in my instruments as well. The short answer to the question “What makes me happy?” is that having an abundance of ideas gives me great reason to get up every day, and I always have something to look forward to, As long as I have control over my time, I will never be bored. My own projects challenge (and frustrate) me greatly, and I know that the mental gymnastics required to manifest these concepts helps keep my brain healthy as the years advance.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
The seeds for my current artistic life were planted in 1964, when I was 8 years old in the form of 2 vinyl LPs. One was “A Child’s Introduction to the Instruments of the Orchestra”. I immediately asked my parents to buy me a ‘cello and I started lessons right away. The other LP was “Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center”, which contained some of the most advanced experimental electronic music of the time. At that age, I didn’t think of it as music initially, but the sounds absolutely fascinated me, and as a result, with repeated listening, I began to understand it as music. It was 11 years later, in 1975 at Northern Illinois University, that I noticed they offered an electronic music class, and I thought about that music again. I enrolled in the class, and my electronic music education began. I purchased my own Mini Moog synthesizer, as well as a Fender-Rhodes electric piano. I began to participate in improvisatory jam sessions (I had been strictly a classical musician prior to that). In 1978, I dropped out and joined I.R.S. Records artist Wazmo Nariz (who, by total coincidence, had also taken the same electronic music class). That grouped eventually toured in support of groups such as The Police and XTC before disbanding in 1981. I relocated from Chicago to Los Angeles in 1983. I continued to work on new material with Wazmo, and we got the attention of film director Jonathan Demme, who was a fan of the band. He put a song of ours in is film “Something Wild” (1986), and we were in the running to create the score for his subsequent film “Married to the Mob” (1988). The gig ultimately went to David Byrne, but they had difficulty scoring one scene. Demme inserted a piece we had submitted as a demo, as is, and it worked perfectly and ended up in the film. In 1993, I was hired to composed music for the Bolshoi Circus’ 1993 3 month, 11 city tour of Japan. It was the first joint Russian-American production of its kind. In 2004, I began creating my own musical instruments through the “black art” of circuit bending. This has been my focus ever since, and my solo performances and my performances with “Circuitry and Poetry” (circuitryandpoetry.com) are done on instruments of my own design and creation (with the exception of ‘cello). After a 24 year hiatus, I took up cello again and began to perform with it, along with my own instruments. This completed a full circle, dating back to 1964 with those 2 vinyl LPs I described earlier. I created my own company, “Bent City”, and I perform under that name as well. As I have grown and learned with the building of my instruments, the challenges have grown along with my ambition. As I learn more, I realize I can create new features, and I often feel that these ambitions exceed my abilities; but as I often say, I have more tenacity than intelligence, and I often persevere long past the point that most sensible people would “throw in the towel”, and as a result, when I come up with an idea, it usually manifests (eventually). The project I am currently working on began with a notebook entry in September 2021. It was a great idea that was not going to be to difficult to execute (I imagine God ruffling my hair and saying “aaww, cute kid”). I am still trying to bring it to fruition. It has been absolutely the most difficult project I’ve ever attempted, and it has put me on a rollercoaster of elation and despair. It is entirely possible that when it is complete, I might feel “meh” about it, but I’ve invested so much time and effort, I cannot turn back. This goes back to what I said about paying attention to what you are drawn to. You do it, don’t question why, and let it take you where it will. I would say that what I am most proud of is that I have created my own musical universe with my instruments. For me, the art of circuit bending is about stirring the pot and creating chaos (by “spelunking” in circuitry), and then finding ways to control that chaos and shaping it into meaningful musical expression. I have been able to cultivate an international reputation over the years, and a typical remark that I hear is that I pursue the art of creating circuit bent instruments with great detail and precision. I am now 65 years of age, and because I have a very rich life, in a wonderful home with my wonderful wife and an incredible workshop, I feel a certain urgency to maintain this life. I became sober in 2014. I was 50 pounds overweight at that time, and not in good shape. I began to focus on exercise, and eventually took up cooking as a way to improve my diet, and then a renewed attention to spiritual matters, particularly through meditation, and reducing negative input by doing such things as disengaging from the news cycle and becoming less upset over things beyond my control. The intense mental exercise of my creative endeavors keeps my brain challenged at all times. The end result is that I feel quite youthful physically, and I feel more mentally acute than I ever have.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
A day’s excursion to downtown Los Angeles might include some or all of the following – Olvera Street, Los Angeles Philharmonic at Disney Hall, MOCA, Bradbury Building, the Broad Museum, and the Bonavista Revolving Lounge at The Westin Bonaventure. A tour of spectacular views would include Mulholland Drive (including the Hollywood Bowl viewpoint), Angeles National Forest/Mt. Wilson, and the Griffith Park Observatory. A west side trip would include the Santa Monica Pier & Venice Boardwalk, the Getty Center, the Petersen Automotive Museum, and LACMA. In the Hollywood area, the Hollyhock House at Barnsdall Art Park, the Hollywood Bowl, the Magic Castle, Hollywood Forever Cemetery, Sunset Strip, and Musso and Frank for dinner. The Huntington Library and Rose Bowl swap meet would be interesting northeast LA destinations.
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
My wife, Mona Jean Cedar, is the primary inspiration for almost all of my current endeavors. She is an ASL interpreter, dancer and choreographer, all of which she combines in her art. In the beginning of our relationship, she told me she wanted to collaborate. I was not artistically active at that time, but I knew I wanted to be with her, so collaboration it was! At the time, she was performing with the Rudy Perez Performance Ensemble. A postmodern dance pioneer, Mr. Perez was a cohort of Merce Cunninham and studied with Martha Graham. Because of my earlier interest in experimental music, and Mr. Cunningham’s relationship with John Cage, I decided that in my collaboration with Mona I would start from that point. I put together a ProTools system and started creating pieces inspired my my early experiments with musique concrète, I began to think about how her movements and sign language might control electronic instruments, but I realized I would have to study electronics, which held no interest for me at that time. I began to research DIY musical instruments, and my search results led me to the strange art of “circuit bending”. Mona and I began to perform together as “Circuitry and Poetry”, and we have performed throughout the US and Europe. Her support and encouragement have nurtured my art immeasurably. Now, I have learned enough about electronics that I am able to have her control sound through her own movement and sound. She has formed her own sign dance company, Pas D’ASL (pasdasl.com).