Nicolas Collins: Bending All the Rules

Molly Sheridan: You think of electronic pieces in general as being very abstract, and the use of the voice in your work humanized the music, even with the skipping CD underneath it.

Nicolas Collins: That is an observation I would get a lot, especially in the ’90s when I was touring. My goal behind working with technology has never been, say, the glorification of technology. It’s just a tool for me, and it’s a tool that I happen to think that, for the few musical ideas I have, it’s an effective path. But I have no particular interest in drawing attention to the tools, per se. And maybe that stands in some sort of contrast to the bending scene, where in many cases there’s very much a desire to draw attention to the object or attention to the technology. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s a different way of approaching the same thing. I don’t put it under the table. I don’t produce it in a studio and then just play the result. But I really don’t care one way or the other whether anybody sees that it’s a trombone with a dog leash on it or that it’s a CD that’s been hacked. At the end of the day it’s that sonic special experiential thing that happens in the hall that is really the only thing I care about.

MS: In the noise area—you’re creating it, and then it’s going to the listener. So is the noise on your side, or is it in the listener ear?

NC: Yeah, I talk to my German friends sometimes about the linguistics of music terminology and how in German—to the best of my knowledge and sometimes my informants argue this a little bit—there is no actual word for sound. But you have a word for tone, and you have a word for noise. It’s almost like this pre-linguistic distinction between [quickly whistles a pure tone] and shhhhhhh. And you wouldn’t have one umbrella term for the two. The old “that’s not music, it’s noise” argument is one that, needless to say, I’ve heard more times than I care to think about.


Concert photo c. 1990.
Photographer unknown.

There is that sense that noise is in the ear of the beholder, obviously, but here’s one value judgment that I can ascribe to, which is—and you can look at this as one reason why I work the way I work—when you, say, play a note on the piano or pick a string on a guitar, what you’re doing is putting energy into a harmonic machine of some sort. So the first thing that happens is you put very broadband noise—white noise—into a string. You bang the string. The very first sound, if you were to analyze the first microseconds, is noise. What most musical instruments do is that they take that noise, whether it’s a puff of air, a blat on a reed, a whack of a hammer on a string, and they very quickly filter it down to specific frequencies instead of all frequencies. So you bang a piano string and almost before you know it, it’s middle C. All that noise has gone away and come down to one fundamental pitch with a very neatly organized set of overtones that reinforce that fundamental pitch.

Now for me, as for a lot of fellow musicians, we’re really interested in what happens in those first few microseconds. What is that little world of transition from pure noise, if there is such a thing—it’s like pure randomness, it’s probably impossible—to that incredibly pure thing that people call a note?

A lot of my work is about slowing things down and listening more carefully. If I take two seconds of string music and I stretch it out to 20 seconds, how do you hear a little bit of that transition state that’s lost in your desire to get to the pitch?

I do this piece where I work with another player, I take the sounds of their instrument, and through this odd instrument of mine based on a trombone and signal processing, I dissect the sound of that other player. Maybe just a throwaway sound like testing to see if the instrument is on, or maybe just the first burst of sound, and I find little bits of it. I scrape through it, and I move here, and I move there. I just try to hear all those little aspects. It may be noise, but it’s trying to show a sense that all noise is not the same. You know, you can’t just dismiss it at that—that there are these gradations of noise, there are these transition states of noise. Those transition states, by virtue of their instability, are, for me, very interesting places to look. They’re very rich.

MS: Do you feel completely at home in any of these scenes, then, since you’ve got a hand in so many?

NC: Maybe that’s a classic sign of being uncomfortable in one’s own skin, but I’ve always been aware of a vaguely chameleon-like aspect of what I do and the fact that I’ve never been comfortable sitting exclusively in one camp. I started out firmly in the Lucier sonic arts union, post-Cageian experimental music tradition, and I went from working with circuits to working with computers, but I didn’t stop doing circuits when I started working with computers. I started working with improvisers, but I didn’t stop doing composed or computer work. I think it’s a question of available and appropriate resources, and I feel very comfortable in a large number of different scenes. And maybe it’s a quintessentially American mongrel approach to culture—it’s the mix of genetic material that makes for the most intelligent output.

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