Nicolas Collins: Bending All the Rules

Molly Sheridan: I’m trying to figure out what you’re really after in your musical work.

Nicolas Collins: You know, I think of my music as being terribly middle-of-the-road. I look at it and I think that at one or two times in my life I’ve done pieces that were kind of a radical statement artistically but, generally speaking, I see myself quite firmly in the middle of some bell curve. Obviously there are people who don’t think that, but I can situate myself very comfortably in a certain set of aesthetic boundaries. I think about myself very much coming out of sort of a ’70s music mentality. I’m very much a product of my teachers. Most of my pieces are very simple. They focus on one or two very pointed ideas. I try and steer away from being overtly pedagogic, but there is that kind of latent pedagogy of even reformed minimalism that probably creeps in. Most of them are about listening one way or the other. They’re about multiple variations on a small amount of material and very often trying to replicate the process of discovery that one goes through as a composer or as a sound artist working with sound in front of the audience, so that whatever pleasure I got out of discovering and developing this material, that that same route of discovery and development could be experienced by the listener rather than my coming to them with a final finished object. It’s a little bit as if the very act of digging a diamond out of an impossibly hot, horribly dangerous hole in the ground was as artistically and aesthetically pleasing as the ring on your finger, that you would somehow try and incorporate them all into the object. They’re not. I don’t think the process of composing is quite as disgusting as the process of mining for diamonds, but it was the best metaphor I could come up with at the time—argument by contradiction.

MS: But that was something that you mentioned when you were giving the workshop, that you were looking for these ways of listening as opposed to being solely concerned with the end product.

Susan Lyall, Robert Poss, and Susan Tallman rehearsing A Letter From My Uncle, 1983.
Photo by Bill Jacobson.

NC: Yeah, and I think as a result one of the things that I’ve acknowledged in my work—sort of like a doomed to failure characteristic—is that at the end of the day, it’s terribly ephemeral work. It’s about creating an experience of the moment of discovery rather than constructing a masterpiece that you would remember when you leave the concert hall. It must be some sort of weird, self-destructive urge that I have, but in a sense my goal is to create a work that you won’t remember afterwards, that will only be an experience while one is immersed in it but that, while you’re immersed in it, will be all-encompassing. It will be like that sort of pseudo virtual reality that comes in a dream. When you have a dream, it’s all-encompassing. You only once or twice get a crack in the dream where you say, oh, it’s only a dream. Until then, for all its lack of reality, it is a completely enveloping experience even though it might be wholly impractical. And when the dream is over, it vanishes. Well, to use a dream as an analogy for a piece of music is hopelessly romantic and tacky and clichéd, but there is that aspect that you can’t deny the power of a dream simply because when you wake up, it vanishes. So it’s kind of an anti-masterpiece syndrome, I suppose, on my part. And it’s one of the reasons why all of my work has been performer-oriented. I haven’t made a lot of records. The records that I have made have come after the works have been in performance repertoire for a long time, and I’m able to conceive of the idea of a performance for recording, as opposed to a recording of the piece.

MS: Is the performance then as important to you as the composition process?

NC: Absolutely. I think I’ve probably led an almost lifelong low-key grappling with this issue of what is composition and what is improvisation. The way I tend to make my composed pieces is that I take them out on stage at a point when all I have is a beginning and an end. Sort of like building a bridge—I’ve got a footing at each end and then, with each performance, I fill in a little bit more so that the stuff that’s truly unknown when I walk out on stage becomes less and less. At the point that I actually get that last little bit stuck in is usually when I stop performing the piece. When you no longer have that instability and problem solving going on, it ceases to be an interesting piece to do, and I think that’s what led me in the ’80s to working with improvising musicians. I was coming up with structures for interactive stuff for electronics and musicians and, at that time in New York, the only players who would touch me were the improvisers. They were terribly open and excited and optimistic and supportive of doing these pieces, whereas with the so-called Uptown musicians, it was brutal to try to get them to do this work. And so I started to strip things back to less and less structure and ended up creating instruments and strategies for doing purely improvised music that was interactive with other players, which taught me a lot.

MS: Are you comfortable not playing during a performance of your work then?

NC: Oh, I love it when I don’t have to play in one of my pieces, I really do, but the situation is one of pragmatics. A lot of the pieces I do work with sort of arcane technology—most of my pieces aren’t for traditional instruments, so I’m usually the one who owns the instrument. It’s like there was a time in the history of American pop music when the electric sitar was a popular instrument on certain instrumental tracks. The one guy who had invented the electric sitar lived in L.A., and he got all the session work for it. Sometimes I feel like that guy.

Collins at STEIM, Amsterdam, 1994.
Photo by Arno Lingerak.

A lot of my bread and butter has been performing my own work. It’s a kind of minstrel tradition. When I do work for other players, whether it’s for soloists or whether it’s for other ensembles, it just puts it into a slightly different economic realm. Especially for group pieces, I essentially have to wait for a group to be interested in doing it, and hopefully to either commission it or have the funds required for me to attend and work out rehearsals and this and that. When I lived in Europe—and I lived in Amsterdam for four years when I was the visiting director of STEIM and then I was in Berlin with DAAD Fellowship and I lived there for several more years—and there were ensembles and soloists throughout Europe that I worked with, thanks to the largesse of state funding in those countries. These groups were at that point, late ’90s, excited about working in more open-form music and had the budgets to support my being in residence and working out pieces. It was terribly satisfying, and I’ve never picked up quite the same support group since I’ve moved back to Chicago.

MS: Besides the financial aspect, what else did your time in Europe do for you, do to you?

NC: Let’s see. It forced me to learn a little bit of a lot of foreign languages or else I would have starved to death when I went on tour, and that was great. I love learning languages. I’m terrible at it, but I love doing it.

The two main things for me were looking at how different cultures and different cultural economies support culture. That is, what is the attitude of the average Dutch taxpayer or German taxpayer towards the role of culture in their life, and how does the government go about backing that up. My wife, who’s a journalist and an art historian, had a wonderful interview with the Dutch minister of culture at the end of the ’80s. They were changing the structure of their arts funding system, and Susan asked, “Well, is there any condition under which you’d consider eliminating funding for the arts?” And the guy said, “Oh, no, no. Here in Holland we regard the arts as being part of the infrastructure of our society, like highways and sewers.” And I thought, what a practical idea. You know, you’re not elevating it. You’re saying it’s part of the infrastructure; it’s like a sewer, and I think that’s a very good analogy.

The other thing was before I sort of started burning up energy in education, which is what I’ve been doing for the last seven years, I was deeply involved in curating—festivals, concerts, gallery exhibitions, this and that. And here in the States it was on a relatively modest scale, but when I moved to Europe I got access to god-awful amounts of money to do large festivals. In particular, I did two versions of a festival that was all about whistling in various forms, from Renaissance and Baroque music based on birdsong, to films that had whistling in the soundtrack, to international amateur whistling competitions, to sheepdog trials where they whistle the commands for the dogs to go in different directions. And we produced one in Berlin and then an absolutely huge one in Switzerland, and I think we spent over half-a-million dollars. The largest budget I’ve ever had working in the United States to produce anything was, I think, $4,000. So this was like, well, as my German friends would say, lecker teuer—deliciously expensive.

MS: You said there were two pieces that were outside that bell curve. Tell me about those.

NC: There’s one piece on my first record for Lovely Music that I just listened to the other day for the first time in ages called Little Spiders. These were pieces where the computer had to be played by more than one person—the music happened when two people’s fingers, say, did the same thing at the same time on little keyboards. It was an idea I had had for a long time of trying to take the ideas of Christian Wolff about coordination between musicians and figure out a way to realize that within a computer. I looked at those early Christian Wolff pieces from the early ’60s and I said, wow, this is sort of like computer music before computers. So for a long time I’ve tried to integrate those strategies in my own work. And I listened to the piece and the sound is so raw because we didn’t have any interfaces of any kind. I would just literally take the direct bus output of the computer and make these sounds directly by turning bits on and off. It was so rich and so hard-edged. It’s like looking at abstract, hard-edge art compared to a nice painting of flowers. It exists in a different world. I think most of my music is like paintings of flowers. Maybe not very nice ones, but you know. So I think some of that work was really at the cutting edge of what was going on musically at the time and also unrelentingly, uncompromisingly anti-musical in the traditional sense of the term.

The other thing is that at most times in my life I’ve been slightly behind the wave of technological and cultural development. In other words, I’m sort of mining the just-familiar rather than the futuristically novel. And working with computers in the early days, that was before anybody really thought that you could do music with a computer. So that was sort of ahead of the edge. And then I did a piece in 1984 and ’85 called Devil’s Music that was live radio sampling. It was DJ-ing with radio samples. And that piece, although the sound material was terribly, terribly familiar because it was just broadcast radio, I think of that piece as being like a real timely distillation of various cultural and technological trends. It was sort of like a prediction of what was to come in terms of certain dance music sounds. A lot of the hip-hop sampling vocabulary, which was just emerging at that time, was pushed to an extreme in that piece. It sort of addressed issues of how samplers were going to be integrated into creating a rhythmic structure for music—looping and this and that. It was flag-wavingly postmodern in terms of this “let’s appropriate everything and smash it together into a box.” And it was, sadly, just about five or six years ahead of the time. Because when Scanner came around in the early ’90s, sampling his cell phone conversations as I had done five years earlier, then it was like really culturally resonant. And in my case it was, just, you know, just part of the clutter and part of the noise.

MS: You did that piece again, didn’t you?

From Collins’s current installation, Daguerreotypes (2006), for the Sonambiente Festival in Berlin.

NC: Well, there’s a wonderful colleague of mine in Chicago named John Corbett, and he said that one day he was listening to a tape in his car, and on the flip side of this cassette was a dub of Devil’s Music. He hadn’t listened to it since 1986 and he thought, ooh, it’s kind of nice. Let’s do a revival of it. The circuits that I’d used for the piece were in an attic in New England rusting away and I had no idea how I could get them, so I did a replication of it in software. And what it meant was that it could be very freely distributed because then it wasn’t just three boxes: it was an infinite number of copies. And so for a few years I was doing this thing of sending it out to basically DJs and electronica guys and laptop guys in various cities, and then we’d get together and we’d do these sort of night-long versions of the piece where everyone would get up and do their own performance of it—solos, duos, trios—and then you’d sort of overlap them. So in the course of the night you might have eight or ten musicians run through their realization of the piece. And it was really kind of charming because it was like a classic photographic double exposure—you know, my face and your face, my ears and your nose. You could always recognize that it was Devil’s Music because it has a very particular rhythm that it generates all of its own, and it was always working with radio, so there was always that sort of chance aspect of what sound you would find. But these guys always managed to twist it to their own sonic ideal. So it always sounded like their music as well. And it was very nice because the one thing one misses as a composer when you work in electronic idiom is the idea that you will generate or leave behind a score, and that in a year, in five years, in ten years, in a hundred years, people will be able to pick up that piece of paper and make it relevant to themselves and to their milieu. Bach can be interpreted today in ways very different from the way it was interpreted in the 17th, 18th, 19th centuries. And to make a version of this piece that could be interpreted so wildly and widely was very satisfying.

The other thing is when you look at the history of pop music and there are those songs that have been covered so many times by so many different artists, and you think, why is it that one Lennon and McCartney song is much more coverable than another. There’s some secret character, a secret recipe that goes into making a personalizable pop song. And I thought, well, maybe this is the closest I’ll ever get to making a personalizable pop song as an avant-gardist or whatever. It’s sort of, god forbid, my version of “Yesterday.”

MS: That’s deep. While we’re talking deep thoughts, I was reading some of your published articles, and you wrote that you never felt your music was “personally meaningful.”

NC: Oh, yeah. God.

MS: Do you still agree with that?

NC: I’m trying to think of the context of that quote. I feel like I’m in front of a Congressional committee. What do you mean by “is”? Right? [laughs]

What that refers to is that for many years I would look at a run of my pieces, like say my music over a five-year period, and I would say there’s no inherent identifying feature that you can recognize from the outside. In other words, if you were to play five of my pieces at random, with no other information, would you know that they were all Nic Collins’s pieces? Whereas if you play the same number of Phil Glass or Steve Reich or Alvin Lucier or Robert Ashley or David Behrman or Karlheinz Stockhausen or Brian Ferneyhough pieces, almost any other composer, you’d be able to say there’s a kind of internal consistency. My judgment on that observation at the time was that it was not personal music; in some way it didn’t reflect an inherent musical personality—that maybe in sort of a Cageian way, I didn’t want my music to be so personal as to be recognized as being mine; that I approached each one of these pieces as an experiment, as a job that somehow had to be executed outside of personal instinct. I don’t know, though, if I still buy that. Maybe I’ll be a revisionist historian for a moment and say that, on the other hand, now when I go back and I listen to a period of work, I think, oh my god, it was just one idea and I ran with it for eight years! They were just variations on the same basic idea.

So that’s one counter-reaction that I have at the moment. And the other one is that, at the risk of being maudlin, I think my work changed a lot after my son was born. I have two kids now, and I don’t mean to short-change my daughter, but there was a big change after my son was born. I think that the work that I did in the ’90s appealed more to emotional issues. A lot of it was text-based. There was a series of pieces I did about trauma and individual senses—blindness, deafness. They were narrative pieces, and the sound world was rather luscious by my standards. They were about a very human thing, as opposed to an acoustical thing or a scientific thing or a technological thing. They were about the evocative power of speech, which is something that when you’re a new parent you are very aware of in terms of your early interaction your children. So I think my music from the ’90s was probably intensely personal and highly identifiable as a body of work.

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