A sweeping overview of work to-date

A project log for Hacking Nature’s Musicians

An artistic ecosystem of analog electronic sound generators

Kelly HeatonKelly Heaton 09/24/2018 at 20:460 Comments

I've been building analog electronic circuits to generate the sounds of nature for about a decade, and I have some finished artworks to show for it. My first project log is an overview of my work to-date and is intended to give you a sense of what this project is all about. In future logs, I will dig into the details of how to build many of the circuits that you see (and hear) here.

In my earliest works to generate electronic sounds, I did not use perfboard or printed circuit boards. Instead, I punched holes into paper or canvas using a dental tool, inserted through-hole components, and soldered them together in a freeform way. This worked just fine, but it's hell to fix problems if they arise. Here's video of some panels I made to frame a piece called "Night Tree," 2012

Note that early in my practice, I was not making my own speakers. I relied heavily on piezo buzzers from RadioShack, which are now hard to find... but more on that in a later project entry. 

In a related work, "Summer Insects" (2012), I explored the buzzy sounds that cicadas make on a hot day in Virginia. I'm including video of this piece to give you a feeling for the acoustic variation that can be achieved with the same basic circuit designs.

To see other electronic works from this time period, please refer to my project "The Parallel Series" (2012). 

In 2013, I made my first foray into printed circuit board design and built a sculpture called "Electrolier (Summer Night)," 2013. The electronics are soldered on flexible printed circuit boards that I designed and etched myself using ferric chloride. While the circuits sound like tree crickets, I designed my boards to look like moths and tree leaves. The sculpture is an arboreal night scene under the moon and starry sky.

While these works were well-received, I was frustrated that hardly anyone seemed to understand my use of analog electronics to generate natural sounds. Most people assumed that I recorded the audio, and when I tried to explain otherwise, I got blank stares. I got many more questions about whether the electronics would break and how I proposed to handle this problem --which overwhelmed me with anxiety, since my early freeform circuits are pretty much guaranteed to "die," just like living organisms. So, for several years, I stopped making electronics about nature and focused instead on paintings and sculptures about electronics and nature. These projects are documented on my website: Pollination (2015), Anthropocene (2015-17), and The Human Electric (2015-ongoing).

Death, ignorance and anxiety be damned, an artist must make her work. In early 2018, I started building circuits again and I'm working on several new "electrolier" sculptures. Because my larger artworks are complex and time-consuming, I like to make small, painterly studies of my animal circuits to compliment the longer development process. These studies help me to mentally connect a circuit to its natural subject, so I figure it will help others to do the same. Some recent examples include Unafraid Field Cricket (2018), Gray(fish) Tree Frog (2018), Bluebird with Cricket (2018) and Hawk Got Its Own Cry (2018).

In my upcoming project logs, I will show you how I build some of these elements starting with how to make your own piezo electric speaker.