I don't get to tour the entirety of Darcy Neal's house, but there are no working televisions in the space. She leads me through the back door of the house she shares with her roommates on Bernard Street, one block east of UNT, and into a small living room area. Here, along with other temporarily dead electronics, there is a television, but it resembles the T-100 in the second-to-last scene of the 1984 classic, Terminator. Its black casing is stripped all along the body, waiting to be transformed into a more artistic electronic medium.
"Everything that's in here is art projects that are going on," she says. "My roommate is circuit-bending this TV right here. He's a new media student, so he does a lot of weird, electronic stuff as well."
She leads me down a narrow, long hallway made heavier by her paintings, and into her room. Her work table and the adjacent shelves are a graveyard for the guts of small, old electronic, more specifically, microcontrollers. She's not completely fluent in the language, but has been studying it, so she designs the hardware and and a programmer takes care of the coding aspects. She points out items with names like PBASIC, Propeller, Arduino; prototyping boards with built-in potentiometers.
She randomly stumbled upon the art of circuit bending one day when a friend told her about an article in Make magazine about a circuit-bent Speak & Spell. "I just so happened to have one," she says. "So I was like, 'Oh, let me go home and try it out.'"
Neal successfully bent the Speak & Spell in 2006, and since then, she's been hooked. She says it slaked the dissatisfaction she had playing standard instruments like the piano and cello as a child and adolescent. "It was just perfect. And it's technical, so it keeps my mind busy. It's challenging. It just... it makes me happy."
Her new hobby has taken just about all of her free time within the last six years, despite possessing deep interest in music and painting. She landed a production artist job in 2007, painting and working on airbrushing life-sized animatronic dinosaurs for a company called Billings Productions. Because she now paints for a living, the need to do so outside of work has understandably diminished, so she only creates around two or three large abstract pieces a year.
She keeps the modified Speak & Spell on a shelf in her room and pulls it out to give me a demonstration. The robotic, creepy atonal voice penetrates my ears with a brief stab of nostalgia, and then she switches a lever that makes the voice even creepier. She grins big. Since her first electronic reassignment, she has converted scores of other little gadgets and gizmos into noise machines, which has led to many commissioned pieces from artists and musicians around the region.
Her most famous client remains Wayne Coyne, lead singer of the Flaming Lips, who heard about her work from mutual friend Daniel Huffman, of the band New Fumes, who showed Coyne some of the demo videos she had posted on Twitter. Coyne was immediately enamored, got in touch with Neal from Oklahoma City, and asked if he could come down to Denton to experience her unique product in person. She offered it to him for free, but he refused and eventually commissioned her for a second one.
She doesn't want to say how much he paid for it, but she mentions that he used it for solos during a string of concerts. "There are videos on YouTube of him using the instrument," she says. "He used it for a noise solo during a song called 'Sleeping on the Roof,' off The Soft Bulletin." The model he bought from her is now in retirement, replaced by a newer model, and Neal is currently working on turning the design, which consists of a small box with several pliable, light-sensitive tentacles jutting out from the top, into a kit that can be made by people who purchase it.
The niche world of electronic circuit bending and creating interesting sounds with found objects has been around for a while, and Neal points to some particularly bright cultural beacons within the subculture, like Dorkbot, a collective of electronics enthusiasts that have chapters all over the world (Denton is supposed to have a Dorkbot community in progress). Local chapters hold informal meetings once a week, or every month, in which two to three half-hour presentations are given by members, highlighting various breakthroughs in the craft of electronic manipulation. She lists Lars Larsen of Neon Indian fame as someone whose work she respects. "I also had a really good mentor when I lived in Austin. His name was Eric Archer. He's a circuit designer and does really amazing stuff."
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On her website, aside from photos and descriptions of her pieces, there is a page that cites all of the books she has read, from The Forrest Mims Circuit Scrapbook to 30 Arduino Projects For The Evil Genius. "By having that suggested readings page, that's for other people who are interested in learning," she says. "It's also my way of saying, 'Hey, this is what I know. This is my degree right here.'"
Currently, along with her full-time job at Billings Productions and her side business selling technological creations, she also moonlights playing the cello in Bludded Head, her band with Nevada Hill, and making noise in ULNA, a two-piece project with Lily Taylor, in which she plays both the cello and her noise instruments.
This Friday, April 27, she is playing with ULNA at a venue called The Jackrabbit (which is really just a house on Moncayo Drive), as part of the International Home Theater Festival. The show costs $5 and starts promptly at 8:30 p.m. So promptly, in fact, that late-comers will be denied entrance.
As for the instrument Wayne Coyne purchased from her, she agrees to demo it for me in her room. She plugs it in to her Roland JC-120 on the floor, and the photo-sensitive tentacles scream into the light, all six of the tones just slightly out of tune with each other. She blocks all of the tentacles with her hands and the noise stops. She releases them to the light again, and slowly elevates her machine toward the bright bulb. The amp sounds close to exploding as the instrument sings louder with each new inch toward the bulb.