Nicolas Collins: Bending All the Rules
April 25, 2006—11:00 a.m.
Robert Poss’s Studio
Edited and transcribed by
Molly Sheridan and Lyn Liston
Video presentation by
Go ahead: ignore those little warranty-voiding cautions against opening up electronic appliances. (But make sure it’s unplugged first: that rule still stands.)
When I first met composer Nicolas Collins on a rainy Saturday afternoon last April, he had his hand inside a radio with its guts exposed. His book, Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking, had just been published, and he had a crowd gathered for a lecture/demonstration at the Bent Festival in Lower Manhattan. Using his fingers to bridge the circuits inside, the radio on the table in front of him was talking—white noise, bits of broadcasts—a far cry from the usual AM talk-radio banter. The miracle of electromagnetism, suggested Collins, is perhaps the best argument he’s ever heard for the existence of God.
Collins has stripped apart and reconfigured all sorts of gadgets and toys in pursuit of new sounds. Still, he suggests that his resulting compositions do not carry an identifying sonic “Made by Collins” tag. After just ten minutes in his company, however, I think I might hear otherwise even if he does not, because Nic Collins is funny. Both in front of a crowd and the camera, he shows himself to be a charmingly dry and self-deprecating artist, and there is an aspect of this that also tints his sound. Some bit of his wit accompanies even the densest of his textures and shouts out, “Hey, you. Come listen to this!”
Born in New York City in 1954, Collins studied composition with Alvin Lucier at Wesleyan University, where his interest in electronic music extended into messing around with circuitry and outfitting his own instruments. Not that he doesn’t work with traditional players, but his discography is thoroughly peppered with lines such as “for any number of performers with radios and screwdrivers.” I told you he was funny.
Collins, currently the chair of the Department of Sound at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, calls himself a Luddite when it comes to the computer programs most of his students are fluent in. But he offers them the skills to step out from behind a slick piece of code and build a sound world with a soldering iron. “I like to say it’s like being the oldest living Kimono maker,” he says, explaining that what he is teaching is really the “glue technology” that connects computers with the real world. “When there’s a burst of enthusiasm for things Japonais, suddenly they have to dust off these 80-year-old men and women and learn again how to do this thing that for 200 years was an unbroken tradition. This is where you can teach somebody something that they didn’t pick up while editing their own films when they were in the eighth grade.”