Interview with Nicolas Collins
Czar Nicolas, the Tunguska Fireball; ŒDIPUS NIX
Kalvos & Damian’s New Music Bazaar, Show #58/59, 29 June and 6 July, 1996. Kalvos & Damian on the road in Amsterdam at the home of the composer. Listen to the interview from the original broadcast: Audio Part 1 [0:37:23–2:01:57] / Audio Part 2 [0:33:33–1:22:33].
New York born and raised, Nicolas Collins studied with Alvin Lucier at Wesleyan University. He lived most of the 1990s in Europe, where he was Visiting Artistic Director of Stichting STEIM (Amsterdam), and a DAAD composer-in-residence in Berlin. Since 1997 he has been Editor-in-Chief of the Leonardo Music Journal. He is a Professor in the Department of Sound at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Recent recordings are available on PlateLunch, Periplum and Apestaartje. His book, Handmade Electronic Music — The Art of Hardware Hacking, was published by Routledge in 2006.
Audio Part 1 [0:37:23–2:01:57]
[Kalvos] We’re at the flat of Nic Collins, in Amsterdam. It’s the 77th episode of The Kalvos & Damian New Music Sesquihour. Welcome!
[Nicolas Collins] Thank you. Your timing is perfect, because you’ve arrived on March 26 [Ed.: date the interview was recorded], which, as musical cognisenti know, is the birthday, of three musical luminaries of this century.
[NC] Diana Ross, Pierre Boulez, and Nick Collins. So, there you go. Perfect timing.
[Damian] Birthday celebration.
[K] So, we’re here, and we’re going to say we’re running kind of auditorially blind, so we’re going to ask you to introduce yourself as if you were making a pitch, as a mature composer from the first time, saying, “Here’s my stuff, I want you to understand what I do, and love what I do.”
[NC] I’m old, I’m hungry, I have a family to feed… buy my records.
[K] [Laughter] Sorry, try again.
[NC] Okay. By way of background — I suppose we might as well begin there — I was a student of Alvin Lucier’s, as Wesleyan University, and I worked for many years with David Tudor’s group, Composers Inside Electronics. A lot of my own interests as a composer can be traced immediately to those two influences. From Lucier, I developped my æsthetic, one might say, which comes out of a kind of minimalist cant, and I do pieces that tend to be rather simple. I work a lot with acoustical phenomena, one way or the other, in pieces, but I’m also of that generation of American composers who learned to make circuits, because we were at that threshold period where the technology was available, but it was available at a very high price, in terms of that which you could buy synthesizer equipment.
It was before MIDI, before standardization, we were sort of wandering in the wilderness, and coming up with all kinds of idiosyncratic ways of making noise. Of course, Tudor was a great influence to a number of people, as I said my generation of people, like Paul DeMarinis, or John Bischoff, the west coast composers associated around Mills College. The other strong influence (though I never was a student of his) was Christian Wolfe, and from the early days of doing electronic pieces, I was always interested in these ideas of social co-operation between players, and using circuits as a way to co-ordinate player activities. I used to look at those Christian Wolfe scores from the 60s, For One, Two, or Three Players, and they looked to me like diagrams of logic states, and logic algorithms, in terms of binary processes, you know, “if this happens and this happens, then this should happen.” My 20-year unrealized project is to actually do a computer version of some of those scores, so that, you know, two people would plug into it now, and become a Christian Wolfe piece. He seems vaguely interested in it, but I think we’re all just happy the world has not seen that, or heard it yet.
I was born in Manhattan and I returned to Manhattan after being a student, spending a year in Europe, with the Thomas Watson Fellowship, and then living in the west coast for a year. So, basically, I’ve been New York-based for most of my life. I moved over here in ’92, to Amsterdam to become the co-director of a foundation called STEIM, which is sort of a music research institute. I called it “IRCAM with a human face.” It’s sort of a much scruffier approach to some similar problems about using technology in live performance. The emphasis at STEIM has always been live performance, and keeping things as cheap and portable as possible, it’s sort of for the working musician, the person who has to get on and off trains with equipment, rather than watch the roadies take the semi- down the road, while you go up in the helicopter.
[K] Let me start with a question about the grey area between someone dragging around a keyboard, or a guitar, and the area in which you begin to use computers in what starts to be an autonomous way, where they have been given sets of instructions, or you had circuits working, but they have kind of a life of their own. There is a strong sense in many among the general listening audience, that something happens at that point, that makes it hard to get at what’s going on.
[NC] Well, actually, I think that’s a relic of a slightly earlier era, the crossover point making it difficult for an audience. Rich Gold, who is a composer, and one of the profound thinkers of modern musical, technological æsthetics, he coined an expression “ubiquitous computing,” for his vision of what was happening in the late 80s and early 90s, in terms of computers basically being everywhere. They’re in your phone, your answering machine, you know, they’re everywhere… in a teacup, you know. This is something that’s been echoed a lot in the industry. Mitch Kapor from Lotus also once predicted that the next market for the computer — this was in the mid-80s — was going to be the telephone, which of course, predicted the flourishing of the Internet culture, and everything else. That it would become a communication tool, rather than a data tool.
So, it’s clear that technology’s infiltrating everywhere, I mean, the moniker of electronic music, which had some significance at the time that I started doing it, has none really at the moment, because it’s a cliché. But, electronics are everywhere, from editing an aria, to any pop band, and, again it’s a cliché, but the lead-lag relationship between the so-called avant-garde and the commercial, or popular, music, has shifted clearly in the last 10 years; where, it used to be that the so-called avant-garde was at the cutting edge of sound design, technological innovation, everything else, and now, it tends to be the other way around. In other words, the muscle and money for research and development of music technology clearly lies in the commercial sector now, not in academic or independent music. So, a lot of the sounds and techniques, and algorithms — to use the fussy Computer Music Journal view — are actually being broken by low-level, street-oriented, you know, dance production, rather than at Stanford, or some place like that.
[K] I guess the question I’m asking is more towards, If you set in motion processes, rather than direct them at the, shall we say, the organ-stop level… is there something that has changed there that makes it a little bit…
[NC] Oh, yeah, clearly. I mean, the technology flourishes at a number of different levels, and the most visible, or audible level, is clearly the one of sound design. I mean, that’s where the average person is most aware of it. What I maintained when I started working with microcomputers in 1978 or ’79, was that the great advantage of them over, say, a “traditional electronic music circuit,” is that the computer has memory, and that the computer can make certain types of decisions, where electronic circuits, analog circuits, tended to have a kind of instantaneous property to them, in terms of their behaviour, that they did not have intrinsically, a time-varying structure to them. With computers, this was the natural thing.
Well, in this, you take the interest in Tudor, and the interest in Wolfe, and you get fertile ground for a young dweeb like myself to fabricate a new musical stream based on the confluence of the sonic palette of Tudor and, say, organizational ideas of Chris Wolfe.
We listen to two excerpts from Devil's Music, I, by Nicolas Collins [0:47:05–0:49:42].
[NC] You know, perhaps I was blindsided because the development of MIDI sequencers and algorithmic compositional tools were clearly along somewhat similar lines, in terms of what do you harness from the computer’s energy. So, the fact of the matter is, a dance music production is completely dependent on sequencer technology, and on digital editing capabilities, which are a little bit more invisible. Now, the main distinction, I think, between commercial pop music, and let’s just call it “experimental music” for want of a better term, is the element of risk and chance. At least, in the United States, and with ex-pats and émigrés to Europe, or Europeans who have sort of immersed themselves in American culture, the legacy of Cage is pretty nefarious, and far-reaching. But, chance is one of the most profound lessons we’ve learned from him, just how do you incorporate this in your work? And there are many different ways in which you can do it.
When there’s a lot of money resting on every sound you put down in the studio that’s ticking off at $160/hour sometimes you’re not so interested in chance, and I think that commercial pop music is basically about control. I mean, there are areas of improvisation, clearly, but I don’t think machines are allowed to run amok as often in commercial as they are in experimental music, and this is a nice, broad generality, for someone to call up the station and shoot me down on but, you know, I feel reasonable safe from my relatively myopic standpoint of drawing that conclusion. Now, in terms of what it means for the audience, is that I feel that audiences are getting more receptive to more variation, and more stylistic experimentation, than they were when I started out, for example. You know, one can look at few, either indications, of this, or examples, traces, where you might see this. On the one hand you have a rate of change in pop stylism that is, if not accelerating, has certainly gone up several plateaus in the last ten years, without actually being fadism, per se. In dance music, you get a much more rapid change. I mean, if you think about, say, how long, in our childhood, the Motown R&B æsthetic held sway over the dancefloor, versus the number of crazes we’ve been through since mid-70s disco… and, there’s a lot of money changing hands in this area, too. It has also established itself as a very definite stream apart pop, for want of a better term. I mean, you get diversity, and you get a rapid rate of change, and obviously this cannot be artist-driven entirely. […]
We listen to an excerpt from Devil's Music, II, by Nicolas Collins [0:53:25–0:55:40].
[NC] I think it’s market-driven, that clearly artists make decisions in this, but these records don’t sell if they don’t sell, right? And the second thing is, if you look at the increasing interest in non-western pop music, in other words I think the market for so-called “world music,” has grown tremendously in the last, say, eight years. And there was an early wave in the 70s, I mean, when I went to Wesleyan, it was a hotspot for ethnomusicology, and for world music wannabes, you know, percussionists in particular, from numerous pop bands, would be studying briefly with Indian and African drummers at Wesleyan, to try and get a little of that under their belt. Steve Reich and Phil Glass were sort of coming into prominence and they had definite connections with that culture. But, the world music thing has obviously taken a big pump in the late 80s and early 90s. Well, people are listening to it with a degree of intelligence and breadth of style that they certainly didn’t in the early days of the, sort of, post-Norwegian Wood, you know, sitar revolution. So there’s a proliferation of styles, and what I think it means is that — to get back to your point a long time ago (where there’s this practice schism with the audience, where they suddenly say, “Ooh, technology’s in here, let’s question what’s going on,”) — I would have to say that I don’t find that to be the case when I tour and perform and put out records these days. I do not see as many reviews that simply dismiss an artist for being off the wall, compared to what happened 15 years ago. Perhaps it’s a nice antidote to the Jesse Helms’ of this world that in fact, the public is becoming more culturally-aware, even while the politicians are essentially going in the opposite direction.
[K] To point this out, a piece of yours. Maybe we can listen to something that will illuminate that.
[NC] Well, I don’t know if that’s… [laughing] I don’t know if that works, because, that being said and done, all I can say as a composer, all I can do is what I do. Which sounds like one of the great insights of all time, but the fact is that I do what I do, and have continued to fall on my own peculiar obsessions for a long time now. You know, basically about 20 years of performing publicly and recording. And, observation such as the ones I just spouted are just that, they’re observations of, “Oh, you know, I guess a little bit does change now and then,” but I can’t ever say that it has directly influenced what I do.
[K] I guess I’m not asking “influenced what you do,” but, is there a piece we can hear that in fact was not, shall we say, missed by the reviewers and was received by the audience with enthusiasm, that employs technological means that are somewhat at the surface?
[NC] Well, I can point to a couple of examples that actually, probably if anything, satisfy better the rubric of “a little too soon,” which tends to be what goes on. When I did my first record for Lovely Music (in 1980, I think), I did a piece called Is He/she Really Going Out With Him/Her/Them?, and this was, sort of, the first wave of disk jockey virtuosos in New York, and there was a guy named Grand Master Flash, in particular, who did very beautiful virtuosic cueing, from cut to cut to cut. And, it was this obsession of the time, making these mellifluous transitions between materials, and in fact, there would be DJ competitions, where a DJ would be given two minutes, and the winner was whoever managed to slip in the most records in that period of time. You know, of course, the more difficult it was for anyone to keep count, the better off you were in style points.
This piece that I did, which was sort of inspired by that use of the record player as an instrument, was based on a typical avant-garde obsession of, “Well, if two turntables sound good, what would twenty turntables sound like?” The idea was I made a small, automated mixer, the world’s most budget SSL. Each channel had a circuit that looked for the rhythm of the sound material coming through, and the idea was that you had a 16-channel mixer, and the mixer would cut back and forth between the channels whenever they were on the beat, you know, just like a DJ does. But, it was obviously factorially more, in terms of permutations, because you might get seven or eight things intercutting at the same time. And yet, it had that very odd psychological property that the mix was always changing, but you could never put your finger on when, or how, it changed, because essentially it tried to synchronize un-synchronizable material. Again, me being this sort of malcontent, I didn’t put in 16 dance tracks of vague different beats per minute, but I put in completely unrelated materials — sound effects, little electronic toys, tape loops, live radio, somebody playing guitar — and would just try to make things seamless. It was nice, performing it you would put together different material for each performance, and it was a little like satisfying the appetite of some horrible monster, because it was there, and you had to just keep plugging things and unplugging things to keep the texture going. This I thought was right in the pocket for the developments in music at the time, but I gather that the buying public for Lovely Music in that year was not exactly identical to that of South Bronx hiphop record shops. Well, that was pre-hiphop, but whatever. But, if you go a few years later, like 1985, I think, I put out this record called Devil’s Music, and this one’s an interesting case in point at this time in history, because Devil’s Music is based on using live radio transmissions, and sampling them in real-time with some very crude sampling devices. They were basically small boxes made by Electro-Harmonix, at the time, they would let me sample a couple seconds of sound, loop it, and re-trigger it, so you could get that stuttering, *da-da-da-da*, *ding-dong*
[K] That became actually, a popular thing for a while, everybody was doing it, and now it’s gone beyond cliché, and is almost a period identifier.
[NC] It’s like Bach.
[K] Yeah. [Laughter]
[NC] But, in this case, the setup worked that I had a number of these small samplers (I think it was about three), and I would load something off the radio by listening and scanning through the radio dial, and when I thought I had something good, boom, it would go in, and it would make a loop, but the loop was always being re-trigged by what was coming out of the radio at the time. So, you had the original material, and whatever was unheard by everyone but me, re-triggering it, so it had this sort of stuttering quality, I mean, it’s probably one of the [indecipherable] points in my life. Then, I could load up the three samplers with different loops to make a sort of polyphony, or I could transfer the loops from one to the next, to the next, so you would get the sort of multi-voiced variations, these dense of iterations of one material, which would be sort of like taking a random walk through the tape material of the Steve Reich phase pieces. You could have these two delays of the same material going against each other, but they would never make this nice phase cycle, they would be jumping from one position to another.
Well, I performed this piece hundreds of times, literally around the world, and my image was that of the wandering minstrel. You know, you come to town, you go to the market, you find out the dirt about who’s sleeping with whom, the King has a bit on the side, and the Queen is drinking too much, and this and that. And then you set yourself up on Sunday afternoon at the square, and you start to sing these songs, and everyone says, “Oh, another minstrel,” and then you say, “Oh, the King has a Welsh rarebit, and it smells of cheese all day,” and they say, “Ooh, that’s about our King, how did he know about our King, where did he get all this inside dirt?” Well, when I would do this piece on the road, it would be a little music, a little talk, and then suddenly it would be like a local sporting event. People would say, “I don’t get it,” even though everything is in front of them, you know, the radio. They still didn’t believe it was live. And then, it got to have a nice, cozy quality when people started to notice, “Hey, that’s one of my local DJ’s, I hate him,” or, “It’s the weather… what it’s gonna do tonight. Oh, you missed it, he was just gonna say if it was gonna snow or rain, could you go back?”
We listen to an excerpt from Devil's Music, I, by Nicolas Collins [1:07:00–1:08:43].
[NC] It was this sort of wandering through the landscape everywhere I went. It was quite nice, because it would change character. I’d do it in Hungary, and people would say, “You made this very funny pun in Hungarian, when you took this newscaster in one loop and a weather girl in the other, and it made it sound like socialism was raining. Socialism is raining, you know, it’s a pun. Where did you know so much Hungarian?” I’d be like, “Well, chance, chance…”
[K] So, 10,000 monkeys…
[NC] 10,000 monkeys and Nick! But, the point is that it was a very nice road piece, it had a very nice extemporaneous quality, and when I wanted to do a recording, I was thinking, “Well, how should I… I can’t just take one good performance and put it on, I should really think about it.” So, I made a record, where one side was basically a dance record, where I did a multitrack version when I just ran through late-night New York, sampling dance sessions. Wonderful, infectious, rhythmic stuff. Then, I did vocal lines by taking soundbytes from commercials, ham-radio communication, and some cellular stuff, phone calls. Then, for the B-side, I wanted materials that… and by the way, the nice thing about doing the dance stuff, is the kind of rhythmic intensity of the regular dance groove would be all twisted by this re-triggering. It got to be these very complicated cross-rhythms, but basically keeping this funky feel.
[K] You felt it was the same.
[NC] Yeah, it was somewhere in there. Robert Poss used to say it was like an intro that never settled into a groove and it did it for 20 minutes, which is probably too irritating for most people, but I’ll get back to that. And [for] the B-side, I’d discovered in the course of all these performances that certain types of sound material worked much better in this system than others. Dance stuff was great, and speech was wonderful. The cutup of speech was like instant Kurt Schwitters or something.
We listen to two excerpts from Devil's Music, II, by Nicolas Collins [1:11:04–1:12:27].
[NC] Mainstream pop, for some reason, always fell flat through the system. It’s like, the Rolling Stones came on and went through it and it just sounded like everything our parents told us about pop: “I don’t know, it all sounds the same to me.” But what worked beautifully was easy-listening music. It was something about the richness of having a real string section instead of a string synthesizer, and real brass… And yet, compared to classical music, the part divisions in easy-listening music, they tend to be very clear, like it’s either strings, or it’s winds, or it’s brass. So, it was a little clearer than actual so-called classical music.
[K] Something that also compresses nicely, for marketing to make it good, yeah.
[NC] Yeah. So, those were the two things. The B-side of the record was an easy-listening record. It was just samples of easy-listening, and it has a wonderful Phil-Glass-on-qualudes quality to it or a little like the early Terry Riley pieces. I was always quite straightforward about there being a definite death to the phase music of the 70s, Reich pieces, some of the Glass, simple keyboard music. In any case, I made this record, and thought, “Finally,” after, how many, tender six years in the business, ten years in the business, “this is a record that everyone will buy. Everyone will buy it, because between dance music and easy-listening, I’ve got 75% of the buying public of America sewn up,” right? It was a great comeuppance to realize that these were very tight genres, and I had strayed a bit too far, and not everyone in America was going to buy it. I took it to a few DJ record shops in New York, because one of my ideas was that on the dance side, there must have been, conservatively, 150–200 samples of different material on it. I thought, at that time people had these breakbeat collections, it’d be a disc of just a lot of rhythm breaks that people had thrown in, like as an accident on top of a dance record, or to fill between one and another. I thought this is like an encyclopedia of breakbeats, you can just go through it and pick, and take a piece of masking tape on it, saying, “This, this is two seconds that’s perfect.” And, in twenty minutes, you have a lot of perfect two seconds. So my feeling was that, with the proper marketing, every DJ would buy it for a few hits here and there. A couple dance stores took a couple copies, but basically, it didn’t move.
Now, the piece is sort of “out of repertoire,” I’m on to other things, we’ve sold a couple thousand of the records, and the rest are sitting in my attic, I’m not thinking about it too much, I’m on to the next project, and five years later, these rumours start filtering back. This guy says, “I was in an acid house club in Berlin, and they were playing Devil’s Music,” and I said, “Oh, that’s interesting.” And I get these little trickle backs from DJ flea-markets, record swaps, where this record is changing hands for 30 bucks, 40 bucks. Considering I was selling it for five out of a suitcase when I was touring, I thought, “Great, more power to me, but I got eight hundred in my attic,” you know, “Just call the record company and I’ll send ’em to you, I mean Christ, they’re not doing me any good.” So first it was the acid house thing, and the DJ’s were buying them, and then in the last two or three years, easy-listening has become a big thing again. You read that Elevator Music book, you see these easy-listening club in New York now, in London it’s a big thing, they’re reissuing all the old Space-Age Bachelor Pad music on CD, Burt Bacharach is a god, he’s replaced Darius Milhaud as the principal element of that relationship. And then, there’s this young guy, Scanner, in the UK, who’s gone back to the same idea of taking live radio in live performance. He takes a scanner that’s picking up phone calls, puts it on the table, and just lets it ride, and puts an ambient or techno beat on it, according to the situation.
We listen to Devil's Music, I, conclusion, by Nicolas Collins [1:17:04–1:21:15].
[NC] So it’s now basically ten years after the fact, it’s in the pocket, and he’s doing quite well by it. So, maybe there’s hope for my 800 LPs in my attic, I don’t know.
[K] [Laughter] Earlier you used the self-descriptive terms, “malcontent,” and “irritating,” and a few things like that. Does your early-ness in producing some of these ideas result in irritation, or is it a result of you…?
[NC] You mean, am I twisted and bitter?
[NC] I’ve always been twisted and bitter! No, I don’t know. I always go on record saying this, and I think people must think I have incredible delusions, but I think of my music as being extremely conservative, and very unadventurous, rather timid, music. I tend to do small-form works, I mean, I’ve done some ensemble pieces, but a lot of it is solo performer, or two performers. It tends to have a very thin texture. I usually make what is kind of a monophonic music. I think it’s a music that grows out of being a solo performer. Perhaps in one’s youth on an instrument, and then in the sort of composer-performer tradition of American experimental music, this idea of, “Well, I’ve only got two hands, what do you expect out of me?” If you can get the counterpoint of a Bach cello piece, you’re lucky. It tends to be ephemeral, it sort of does something to you while you’re listening to it, but it’s not like you leave humming a tune, or saying, “What a powerful message.”
I think that I’ve never tried to push what I do in any particular direction that would possibly lead me to a crossover audience, in an intentional way. You know what I’m saying? In other words, that when I was doing the Devil’s Music, it was clear to me all along that with a little tightening up of the thing and, say, overlaying the stuttering of the parts against a good solid loop, I might be able to play more into the hands of the dominant musical ideology of the day, but it just wasn’t interesting to me. I’m not independently wealthy, so clearly the possibility of having a 100,000-selling record is not something I would spurn. I’m not prissy about what I do, I just didn’t interest me. And, I have a terrible self-image, I’ve always felt that there are only a few things that I do well, and I’m very hesitant to try to do something that I don’t do well, and I have immense respect for pop songwriters, and pop producers, and their ability to craft in that idiom. I have been listening to it since my childhood, and I can say “that’s good,” and “that’s not,” and “that’s what I like,” and “that’s not what I like,” but I would be woefully inadequate at trying to produce — as in, write the music for — a piece of pop music. I would not be able to compose the fetchy drum pattern that would make the difference between yay or nay.
That being said, I did in the 80s spend some time producing pop records for other groups, but I think in many cases, it was the death knell of their career. Even though it garnered them good press in the more avant-garde circles, it certainly didn’t help my anthem on the desk of Warner or Elektra.
[K] Why do you say your incapable of it? Are you really, or is the incapability driven by different kind of a vision, or a lack of desire to do what is in some ways contemporaneous, rather than looking ahead? Are you racing ahead of yourself, in other words, saying, “I don’t have time to do that?”
[NC] No, actually, I’ve never been interested in the predictive quality of what I do. In other words, I don’t sit there and say, “I’m doing this with these materials. These same materials are being used by this band down the street, but I’m miles ahead of them, I mean, I’m doing what they’ll being doing in four years, if they’re lucky.” That’s not the issue.
[K] I’m not asking whether or not it’s a conscious drive, but rather, you find yourself doing it and saying, “How did I get here?” you know, you don’t sit back and reflect and say, “Uh, yes, I don’t want to do that because it’s been done,” but rather, you tumble past it.
[NC] Yeah. You know, I work very slowly. Different composers and different musicians work at different rates. For example, when I was living in New York, Elliott Sharp was a good friend of mine, we did a number of projects and tours together, and I was always amazed at the speed with which he produced stuff. He seemed to be putting out a record every week, and he had all these different projects going on, he had this group, he had this group, he had this solo thing, he was working on computer here, was working on a string quartet here, blah-blah-blah. And, it just dazzled me, because I produce stuff very slowly. I don’t know that I can put my finger on anything. I mean, computer programming is tedious. Building circuitry is tedious. But, at the same time, I think I have very few ideas. I work within a very small number of ideas, and I’m essentially poking at the boundaries of the set, and looking to either see, “Well, what are the variations within it that I have not explored yet,” or “Where is there a little breakthrough point, into the next step?”
We listen to Broken Light, II: Locatelli and III: Torelli, from "It Was a Dark and Stormy Night," by Nicolas Collins [1:27:53–1:31:33], followed by It was a Dark and Stormy Night [1:35:04–2:01:57], by Nicolas Collins, before moving onto the second part of the interview.
Audio Part 2 [0:33:33–1:22:33] (Picks up in last paragraph)
[NC] But, it seems rather inefficient, and sometimes I work months and months and months on, sort of, the methodical end of a composition, because there are things you can do methodically. Computer programming can be very methodical. And, nothing becomes of it, and then in literally an Augenblick, in two seconds, I have a complete new piece, it just plops on my desk. And, I have to say, that those are infinitely superior to the ones that have been laboured over, you know? I think the serendipity plays a very big part in work that I do.
But to get back to the issue of the relationship to the dominant musical trends, I think that I work very much on instinct, and I have come — after a long period of not trusting my instincts— to a period of my life where I will trust my instincts in certain areas of my musical work. I will not trust myself in other areas. I end up in this kind of Cageian situation of not being able to evaluate something. This I’ve always said was my dilemma: if — as Cage said — “any sound can be a musical sound,” how do I make a value distinction between them? Well, he didn’t make value distinctions, and that’s how he was able to create a large body of work, based on chance procedures. I want to make a value decision, but I find it very difficult to do. And, I think that very often, put me in a pop context, play me twenty records, and instantly I’d be able to order them in terms of which I like best and which I like worst. But, if you gave me those materials, and said, “Make something with this” — not the records themselves, but the materials which were used to make those records — I’d be hard-pressed to trust my own instincts.
We listen to the beginning of Pet Sounds, from “Inverse Guitar”, by Nicolas Collins [0:36:10–0:38:40].
[K] The word “instinct” is a new reappearance in the vocabulary of composers. Not something that I would have expected to hear, even ten years ago. It was a fear of using words like “instinct,” and another word that has returned in some of the people we’ve spoken to has been “emotional context,” and things of that sort. What’s going on, that makes it possible to shamelessly [laughter] use those words, once again?
[NC] Actually, for me, that’s probably the most interesting discussion at the moment in music, because I think it has to do with Zeitgeist, but I think it also might have to do with the demographics of composers. As a student I was involved in a scene where there was an æsthetic of minimalism, which was defined differently by different people. No one wanted to use the word, but to an outsider, or to someone who’s not fully immersed, it was very clear to say, “Oh, well, by that you mean these composers, these sorts of methods, processes,” you know? I think of it as being the first system for making music to come up and be accepted in any broad way since serialism. Indeterminancy of the Cageian sort didn’t spread far from him in its true method. Minimalism not only gave composers a system they could work with, that was a very useful crutch, like serial technique was, or is. But the other thing is that compared to serialism and Cageianism, it was immediately intuitive to an audience. And that, I think, was critical to the resurgence and popularity of the avant-garde in the 70s. It was from listening to people like Reich, and Philip Glass that people — the general public that, say, went to Carnegie Hall — [were] able to broaden their taste into other spectrums of contemporary music.
Now, just after moving over here, I started listening to Webern again (this is going to sound extremely pompous…) and I was shocked. I picked up a recording of the Guarneri Quartet doing one of the Webern quartets, and I was shocked at how romantic the music sounds, because when I was a kid — well, no, when I was a teenager — and I was saying, “Oh, you’ve got to listen to this new Webern he’s got.” It was one of the Robert Craft recordings and it was pointy. That’s certainly serialism, it was *eehn-in*, you know? It was this kind of stuff. Two things hit me about this. One was sort of a personal trauma issue, which was, of course, this is one of the great things about producing a score. It can be interpreted in so many ways, it has this life beyond you as a composer. It’s not like making a record, you know? Or, like making a piece for yourself as a performer. The second thing was, of course, something I should have known about all the time, I was aware of, but it wasn’t in my frontal lobe, which was that these scores are obviously interpreted according to the ideology of the time. Coming back to that word, but, you know, styles come in and out of fashion. What was hip in the 60s was a sort of academic view of serialism, post-Boulez — or immersed in Boulez — but a sort of dragging out of the dead dog of serialist practice. But, by the time you get to the late 80s, romance is in the air, and you look at this and you say, “Oh, Webern was, yes, the first serialist, but also he was the last Viennese, you know? So, you cry when you listen to those Webern pieces, you cry. And, I mean, you may have cried in the 60s, but it was for a very different reason, like “Ouch! Get it outta here.” So, I think there may be a kind of life cycle to structural forms, where — dismissing for a moment the very first instance of its appearance — that early popularity of it probably focuses on the technique, per se. At the very beginning, when it’s born in the mind of the composer, and in the later part of its life, it is not the end all of writing music. And I used to say this about the fugue, that the point of Bach’s writing fugues was not to demonstrate the structure of the fugue, but rather, it was a structural tool for getting at a particular kind of music that he wanted to write. I’m one of those people who does not want to operate with an open field in front of me, I want obstacles, I want limitations, and I want to give myself those limitations before I begin making a piece of music. So, I choose a particular form of technology not because it makes a thousand sounds, but because it makes one sound. Or, because it won’t let me do certain things, and it tends to go in this direction. I don’t go into a studio with a million machines in front of me and say “I have this idea for a sound,” I like to work with limitations, and I think this is actually something that a lot of composers have.
[K] Well, acoustic instruments, by their nature, are that way as well. There’s kind an [analogy] perhaps, to what acoustic instruments do: they have their limitations, they have their way of working.
[NC] Right. But, it happens on two levels. Clearly, the sort of reduction of instrumental resources in western music over, say, the 19th century had to do with those sorts of issues. “Let’s have a nice codified set of instruments constant to the orchestra, and then I know what I’m dealing with.” But what I’m also talking about is giving yourself a time-variant limitation. In other words, things like the fugue, sonata form, and serialism, address issues of time which, in a sense, become more disturbing to the composer, than simply the choice of instruments. But, clearly the choice of instruments is the first step in that set of limitations. Ah, quartet: there’s the great tradition of “How does the quartet sound?” You know? This composer is a wonderful quartet writer, this person has no idea how to write a quartet.
We listen to Broken Light III: Torelli, from “It Was a Dark and Stormy Night,” by Nicolas Collins [0:45:55–0:51:03].
[NC] If you look back at the development of fugue writing, or you look at serialism, you can see that there were those composers who saw it as an end-all, and those composers who used it as a point of reference, a point of limitation, and as a kind of sparring partner, for making a piece of music. I’ve listened to much more Webern than Schoenberg, and I know that I can hear that in Webern, and now I have to get on with Schoenberg, to see if this stands the test. I’ve been reading some stuff by Glenn Gould in which he talks about exactly the same thing, both for Bach, and then for Webern and Schoenberg. So, I know that I’m not, I mean, totally off the ball.
I think that basically the same thing has been happening with the minimalist æsthetic, which is that you had a lot of very mechanical pieces in the early and mid-70s, and some of which, despite the fact that they were essentially mechnical, happened to be absolutely brilliant math pieces, will stand the test of time. I mean, Reich’s tape phase piece, It’s Gonna Rain, is going to live on forever. Some of those early instrumental pieces that he did as well, music in parallel fifths, the La Monte Young pieces, I mean, these are classics. But at the same time, there were a lot of mechanical and very flat-sounding pieces produced at the time, because there were people who thought you can make music with a system, and that’s always a dangerous position to be in. I think that what happened both for the first-generation minimalists is very clear, you look at Glass’s and Reich’s music now. Also, for the younger people, the method — the system — receded in the background and became æsthetic framework, and something you work with, but not, as I say, the end-all of music. So, I think that, indeed, that’s where intuition rises up to the surface, that you don’t become a slave to satisfying the rubric. Again, this Glenn Gould quote, where he has a masterclass with Ernst Krenek, and brings a Schoenberg score to him, and says, “I found six instances of violations of the row in this piece. It must just be that he made a typographical error. He can’t have actually violated the row.” And Krenek laughed at him, and just said, “Well, what do you think?”
There’s two sides of that equation, and I think that if you work in those sorts of idioms, you indeed allow your intuition to play more of a role. Perhaps in the wake of serialism, indeterminancy, and minimalism, composers are hard-pressed to admit that they operate intuitively. But, I mean, for God’s sake, it’s supposedly the way artists are supposed to work. Why should we be embarassed to admit it? Then, to get to the issue of emotion, then we can also tie the intuition and emotion elements to what I call the demographics, which is that we’re getting older, you know? Here we are, my birthday, I’m 42 years old, and a couple of things happen. Number one, As Jasper Johns says, “It doesn’t get any easier just ’cause you get older.” But you do develop certain instincts and your problems lie in different areas than they did, say, ten years ago. So, intuition rises with age, I think, until you have, say, a career crisis and you have a change in style or something, which involves your resetting you down to ground. The other thing is you become maudlin as you get older. You either become drippy and maudlin, or you become angry and bitter. So, these things become more difficult to repress and keep out of that which is theoretically your raison d’être, your life work, or at least your job, your day, you know, you crank out this stuff. It becomes more difficult to keep that aspect of your life out of your music. I think it’s easier when you’re younger to make these clean separations. In the first few years I was in university, I’d have these discussions with people and say, “You know, I don’t really get any sense of myself from looking at my music. I don’t think I have a style, and I certainly don’t think that anything that’s of any emotional importance to me has entered into my music.” In retrospect, sometimes you’d look in the mirror and say, “I was blind, obviously this thing is dripping with pathos.” But, you tend to try to avoid it, I think. And then, you get older, and I think, to play the old saw, having kids definitely changes the outlook on a lot of things. You tend to operate on a much more operational, kind of a high-pitch, sort of on the edge, much more with children, because you’re surrounded with this extraordinarily complex emotional channel, back and forth. So, you’re working on the emotional plane much more, I think.
We listen to the conclusion of Pet Sounds, from “Inverse Guitar,” by Nicolas Collins [0:57:00–0:59:45].
[K] We left your music ten years ago in the discussion, without bringing us a little further along. Maybe we can mix a couple things up in this, since we’ve got the experience of kids…
[NC] Well, you’re talking about my Raffi period now.
[K] Well maybe the Raffi period would be perfect! [Laughter] Yeah, but could you mix in a little bit, and maybe this is asking a little too much, but an opinion on algorithmic composition, mixed in bringing your own self up to date.
[NC] When I started working with microcomputers, which was 1977, ’78, I was definitely doing, sort of, “embryonic” algorithmic composition. I think everybody was, because it was so difficult to get anything control input to these things from outside, that you just let them kind of run. Also, it’s so novel at the time, that they could do…
[K] Could do some beautiful things you could just set things to running and sometimes you can just listen to the contemplation.
[NC] Computer programming can often have kind of a pinball-game element to it, where you have these little routines that, depending on chance or some external event, can “bounce the ball” from one area to another, and you can get these sort of random walks through little cells that are somehow knowable, but you never really know what’s happening, and this was a very easy thing to do with computers.
But, I kept sort of shifting the locus of the computer in my music over a period of time, and there were a few years where I did everything, “from soup to nuts.” I did the structural things with the sound… Then, I pulled back and used it more for control, like in Is She/He Really Going Out With Him/Her/Them, it’s controlling the mixer, operating at a relatively slow rate, compared to generating sound. There is another piece on that album called Second State, which is two filters that are filtering feedback, and so the only sound is feedback, but the computer is doing this sort of complicated modulation of the frequencies of the filters, and creating all these sidebands, and this and that. The piece actually grew out of an error that was in the code, which meant that the routine to drive one filter took one instruction longer than the one to drive the other, and so they would gradually slip in phase, and it got a very nice, sort of, cheering property to the sound. Most computer bugs just crash, this one actually did something nice.
Then, around the time of Devil’s Music, I stopped using computers entirely. I had sort of felt that I was tired of being typecast, and I wanted to go back to this sort of live electronics tradition. There are some pieces for ensembles of backwards guitars on the second record, and a piece called A Letter from My Uncle. The computer is simply used to co-ordinate instructions from the players, who have these instruments — they press buttons on them and call up sounds to come through and resonate the strings. The computer is basically a switching network that says, “Oh, he wants the tape loop of the drumming panda bears to go to the low E string,” like a switching network for a telephone system.
Then… I think where I sort of settled on putting my programming energy was in the interface between players and more self-sufficient machines. From the late-80s on, I’ve developed a series of instruments — [eg.] this trombone with propelled-electronics that’s used on all my pieces — where there’s a computer program that interprets buttons you press, and knobs you pull, and this and that, and some of the translation to sound control is direct. It’s like pressing keys on synthesizers, but some of it sets up events that have more of a longer timeframe. But, the actual structural and compositional elements, the form the piece takes from one minute to the next, these days, is invariably under the control of the performer, and is dictated by — for want of a better term — the score of the piece. I’m not doing any pieces now where you can really say that the computer is determining the overall form of the piece of music. It’s no value judgment on my part, but for the kind of work that I’m doing now — and again, maybe it comes back to this issue of intuition — I feel that one of the places where I have an edge on my computer is in overall form.
There’s also a place in the musical process where the performer has an edge on the computer, and that might be touch. That’s sort of the feedback relation that, say, an acoustic musician usually establishes with the instrument and room. Sort of like, “Oh, a little louder,” “a little softer,” “a little brighter.” And then the computer kind of fills in the gaps. The computer helps you out when you need to do several things at once, that you can’t actually manage. The computer’s down there at a grassroots level, processing sample-by-sample the information of the sound, to do digital signal processing. It fits in a few niches, where either people don’t work quite so well, or where we can use some help, like a crutch. And, of the algorithmic music that I am most intimately aware of at the moment, I think I’ll have to say that the stuff that interests me most is still the sort of George Lewis, David Behrman [see interview in this issue of eContact!] tradition of using the computer as a kind of interactive performer with a flexible score. On one hand you have Behrman’s music, where basically there’s a score that depending on what you play would take different paths to it, and then in George’s case, you have a question of the computer that improvises, and has been taught how to improvise by someone who is, clearly, a great improviser. This is an area that I’m continuously surprised that people keep coming up with new, fresh material. I work with Luc Houtkamp, who’s a Dutch composer and improviser, who does programs like this. Thomas Kessler, in Switzerland, does pieces that work in this element. Actually, there have been a number of people, and to my ear and to my æsthetic, it’s more interesting than just a free-roaming algorithmic composition.
[K] We talked to another composer who actually characterizes his computer — gives it a personality — in the way he speaks about it.
[NC] Well, I will have to say that I have a rather low opinion of computers in general. I’ve been around them for a long time, and I find that it was the early machines that had the most distinct character. And it is perhaps because — to get back to one of my old saws — they had more limitations to them. I can’t blame the computer manufacturers, because they’re trying to make computers now that are usable for a wide number of functions. I mean, the first computers that Behrman, The League of Automatic Music Composers, and myself were working with, things like the KIM…
[K] The KIM, the single-board, 1K memory…
[NC] Yeah, yeah. This thing was designed for two functions. It was designed to control machines, you know, to keep the lathe from cutting your hand and it was designed as a way to teach the mid-level electronic engineer who was sure he was going to be thrown out of the company at the next round of layoffs, because you know, the young bright stars were coming out of school. A desperate attempt to bring these guys into computer literacy. You know, they sit there with a book and write a program to turn a light on and off.
[NC] These were not very versatile machines, you weren’t supposed to do word pressing, spreadsheets and run Max on them, you know? And obviously, the computer companies wised up and realized that you want a machine that works in a broad sector of the market. Or you go for something very, very high-end, like the workstations that have a more limited market that can sell for more money. So, I’m sure that you can give your computer a personality, and there are people who do it. But, I’ll have to say that they don’t come out of the box chirping, saying, “Hi, my name is Cherise,” when I open it.
[K] [Laughter] I think this in this particular case, it was a reference to the software that he had developed to…
[NC] That’s quite different.
[K] Yeah. The whole combination of the software and system was to him, a “performer,” an independent performer, which he has named, and talks about as “he.”
[NC] Right, and I know who you’re talking about, too. But I’ll have to say that… Certainly that is possible, and I think that some of these interactive programs that I’ve heard have definite personality. I mean, I remember that when Joel Chadabe [see interview in this issue of eContact!] marketed M and Jam Factory, which were interactive composition/improvisation programs, and I knew a number of composers — Elliot Sharp was one, Carl Stone [see interview in this issue of eContact!] was another — who were working with it. It did make their music sound like Joel Chadabe’s music. I mean, clearly there was an element of Joel in the way those programs worked.
[K] Very interesting, because we talked to Laurie Spiegel [see interview in this issue of eContact!], and she said that people say that about her program.
[NC] Correct. Now, George Lewis’s has a very definite personality, but I don’t think it sounds like George. It has a sort of unique characteristic, and his is perhaps the most relevant of personality I know. A lot of the other stuff, I don’t think of it so much as personality, as it has very clear limitations that you’re made very aware of. I mean, it’s personality is kind of… Neanderthal, in many cases. It’s not necessarily the charming person you like to have a conversation with, but rather it’s the guy who’s humping your bags upstairs at the hotel, you know, something like that. (Boy, what a class distinction I just made.) [General laughter]
[K] A few [questions], to kind of wrap up. One question is: If you had to look at what you do, sort of the tunnel of time, in both directions, where are you the pioneer? What is your most pioneering act, in fact?
[NC] Oh, God, it makes me sound so hopelessly inadequate.
[K] What is your most hopelessly inadequate pioneering act? [Laughter]
[NC] Well, at the time I was studying with Alvin Lucier, there was a very profound split in the music scene between the improvisers and the composers. I reflected on this to try to figure out why this was the case, because from all rational standpoints it shouldn’t have been. Composers in the 70s were working with a lot of open forms, where performers had to make decisions, and this and that. But, I think that there was maybe a fear on the part of composers who were not notating everything strictly, that the performers would run amok with it, and so they were always told, “This is not improvising,” what you’re doing. Having come into new music from… — since pop was essentially improvised music, one would have to say — coming into composed music from a more improvised background, I quickly accepted this party line like a good Stalinist, without thinking too much about it and then I spent a lot of time after university un-learning a lot of these prejudices. It took me a long time, but when I developed the first systems that I have for live sampling, after working with the radio material in Devil’s Music, I decided it would be interesting to work with instrumental resources. So I started to contact a few of the improvisers in downtown New York. There were two things that came as a great surprise to me. One was that after the number of years that I spent slagging them, that they would have anything to do with me made them sound extraordinarily Christian, you know, “I will turn the other cheek, I will go into Nick’s studio, and I will make noise.” And the other thing is that they were wonderful. I learned more about orchestration in the few years of doing duets with all these various people, than I learned from any course, reading books, listening to recordings. There was a kind of intuitive understanding of what instruments can do, and can’t do, that was prevalent in this scene at the time. These were highly virtuostic people, with very specialized skills; sometimes some of them could read and some of them couldn’t, but profoundly musical in most cases.
George Lewis used to say that I was the first composer to take a computer onto a bar stage. And I did, I mean, I did these tours where one night would be a computer music conference, and the next night would be an electronic music festival and I would share the stage with Tudor, the next night would be an improvised gig at a jazz festival, and the next night would at a squat in Switzerland, where it would basically be rock acts. I seemed to slip very smoothly between those worlds, by the late 80s. I think that I’m interested in not letting myself be stylistically pinned down, and maybe that’s one of the areas that I’ve been somewhat of an innovator: in pooling the resources that those different scenes have to offer — I work with a computer, I work with electronics, I work with acoustic instruments, I work with classical players, I work with improvisers — while (I hope) maintaining reasonable integrity to the sound of my own music. I’ve enjoyed working in a world that incorporates all this. I’ll also say that in terms of more technical stuff, I think that I was one of the first people to do live sampling with musicians: creating a voice in an ensemble (duo or larger), that originates from grabbing sound material from what the other musicians are doing, and somehow transforming it to create your own voice. And, the out-of-print CD, 100 of the World's Most Beautiful Melodies (which was ’88, I think) is 40-something duos with different improvising musicians, where that’s all I do. If we think of technique — because everything else is sort of trivial — I’ve been doing these pieces with skipping and scratching CD players with musicians, maybe I was one of the first people to work with CDs as a malleable live performance point. Radio is something that has come in and out of the repertoire since, literally, one of the first pieces of electronic music, one of the first was Imaginary Landscapes, and Kurzwellen, and these pieces. But, you know, I did a lot of work with that in the 80s that is sort of re-surging again now.
[K] What question would you like to answer?
[NC] “What question would I like to answer…”
[K] And would you answer it?
[NC] [Pause] Does that mean, “What question do I have an answer for?” or “What question would I be able to answer?”
[K] What would you pose to yourself? A question you’d pose to yourself, and say, “…Nick Collins?”
[NC] Oh, to myself? [Pause] Oh, God. Well, I guess the question I would have would probably be the following. I spoke earlier of the maudlinism of the middle age, and the things that happen when you have kids, and we got a little side-tracked, and you asked me to mention the piece of music, well… Pretty much concurrent with having our son, who’s now five and a half, I started working on narrative, text-based pieces. And, I think that where it was not overtly the case with the first one, when you have a kid, or at least when I have a kid, and most people I know, you end up reading out loud to them a lot. You also end up inventing and telling stories, but you end up reading a lot, and you become very impressed at the power of the narrative, on two levels: number one, to put a child to sleep, that there is something about the right kind of prose having this lilting kind of quality, that I can look at the child straight in the eye and watch those eyelids go down. It’s like hypnosis. The other thing [is] that I think one becomes very aware of the evocative power of language, and the weird thing that happens when you read — that doesn’t seem to happen when you do anything else — there’s something about the apparition between the printed word on the page and in the brain, there’s some extraordinary out-of-body experience that happens. It’s very different from watching television or a movie, or listening to a piece of music, for example. I embarked on a series of pieces, and most of my pieces now are text-based, and the first one was It Was A Dark and Stormy Night, which is a sort of Calvino-esque Shaggy Dog story that’s all about forgery and repetition and copying, so it’s nested in itself several times. It’s a collage of writing by about 12 different authors including myself. So I embarked on this series of pieces, which were unusually successful with audiences, just to say that in a typical set that I would do in a mixed program, somebody would come up and say, “I like this, and I hated this.” These pieces all seemed to go down like wildfire, people would come up and say, “Nick, that is what you are doing right.” As if for 20 years I’ve been doing everything wrong, which may be the case. But, there’s one thing that I think has still eluded me, that I hold up as a sort of koan: is it possible to make a performed work for public presentation that can evoke the same psychological state that reading words on a page can do? It may be that the answer to this is to be found in cultures and traditions of story-telling (oral tradition), where storytellers can in fact transport a listener that same way, of making them forget their surroundings and just get completely immersed in the story. But I don’t know, it may have to be a private thing, it may have to be a thing between a person and page, and can’t be put on the stage. But one of the things I’m trying to find out now is, is it possible to evoke that sense, and if I could answer that, I’d be happy man.
[K] Nic Collins, thank you very much for joining us on the show.
[NC] You’re very welcome, how’s the weather in Vermont today?
[K] I wish I knew. It was snow on the ground when we left, there was still a foot.
[NC] Amsterdam colds here, I can tell, instead of Vermont ones.
[K] Yeah, that’s right, we don’t get Vermont colds in winter. I think we’ve been talking too much, too.
[NC] Yeah, that could be it.
We listen to an excerpt of Falling Stone, by Nicolas Collins [1:22:35–1:24:50].