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Nicolas Collins

It Was A Dark And Stormy Night, Nicolas Collins' 1992 album, was hailed on its release as an avant-garde masterpiece, and deservedly so. The title track uses one of Collins most bizarre electronic inventions, the "backwards" electric guitar, as well as voice-to-MIDI convertors that use vocal rhythms to drive percussion. The album also features his MIDI-trombone (which is in fact a sampler in disguise) and CD-players manipulated by footpedals by the members of a string quartet. It Was A Dark And Stormy Night is remarkable not just for how it takes such unusual experimental instrumentation and creates affecting, beautiful, approachable music out of them. The text which forms the backbone of the piece is a post-modern shaggy-dog story, a recursive loop of narrative where stories-within-stories-within-stories are the norm, where the text is both "borrowed" and about borrowing; and which is ultimately mirrored in the music's own use of appropriated sounds. If the performers (Collins, Robert Poss, David Moss, Guy Klucevsek, Ben Neill, Rob Bethea, Tom Cora and the Soldier String Quartet) are New-York avant heavy-hitters, it's only fitting, since this is an outstanding piece of music, which operates on many levels and succeeds on all of them.

If Nic's interest in musical technology and in the use of simple processes to generate musical material seems reminiscent of other American composers of the post-Cage generation, it's no surprise. Although he went to Wesleyan University to study Indian music, it was meeting composer Alvin Lucier there that determined the course of his musical life. Lucier was a member of the Sonic Arts Union, a collective of American experimental composers which also included Robert Ashley, Gordon Mumma and David Behrman. If they had one thing in common, it was an interest in areas that are often seen as peripheral to music-making: in drama, and narrative; in the construction of electronic circuits and instruments; in the almost scientific investigation of acoustic phenonmena.

"Lucier was delightful, he was charming. I worked with him solidly from the first day I was at Wesleyan. I worked with Lucier then and actually went back to Wesleyan to get an M.A. later. Through him I met Cage, I met Tudor, I met Christian Wolff, who was a very big influence on certain things that I was doing. I met Ashley, I met Gordon Mumma, that whole scene. I worked with Tudor in the 80s a fair amount, he had an ensemble called Composers Inside Electronics.

"Alvin was not a hacker, he was a very elegant composer, and a bit all-thumbs when it came to doing things with electronics, so he emphasised the elegance of working with a minimum amount of equipment. His work is associated very strongly with the minimalist art tradition of the time. He was certainly a very good example for self-discipline, which tends to be the most difficult thing in finding yourself as a composer. I think the overt influences of Alvin are pretty clear, especially in my earlier stuff. I'm very interested in acoustic phenomena. I'm interested in setting up relatively simple systems that I can squeeze a lot of variation out of. I'm not a synthesiser-oriented person, I'm much more interested in transformation, and a lot of Alvin's earlier works were almost alchemical in their scoring. It's in the last 10-15 years that Ashley has become a much stronger influence as well. Now, so much of my work has to do with spoken word, and I don't think I would be doing it if it weren't for Ashley's precedent in that area."

One thing that's immediately noticeable about Lucier's music is the simplicity of the process. His best known work, I Am Sitting In A Room, consists of the composer reading a short text, a description of the piece, which is recorded, and then played back into the room; over a period of time the sound mutates, with the acoustic resonances of the room emphasised and everything else suppressed until the words disappear and only a set of rhythmic frequencies remain. On Music For A Long Thin Wire, the instrument is just what it says, a single wire, set up to vibrate with as little interference from the composer as possible. Nicolas Collins' music has in the past adopted a similar approach, but as the years have passed, "composerly intent" has taken a greater and greater place.

"I used to believe really strongly in the idea of the 'process', I was really doctrinaire about it. Then I had this moment of revelation where I had a piece with a process that was beautifully elegant, but the piece was utterly boring as a result. I'd carried that notion so far that it became completely self-explanatory, and there was no mystery left in it. It was that clichéd complaint against experimental music where it's accused of just being a demonstration. I began to pull back and figure out ways to bring in multiple layers of activity and interpretation.

"I think I misinterpreted the doctrine of Lucier and others that the process was the only thing that was important. I realised that Alvin for example was obsessive about the actual quality of the sound that came out, from something that seemed like a rigorous task-oriented piece. I think that's what distinguished him from a lot of the composers from say the Scratch Orchestra era. A lot of their publications really were about processes, pure and simple. I think Alvin's obsession with acoustics, which is after all about not only the way sound behaves in space, but the way it interacts with your ear, did carry through and made me sensitive to those issues. I also think that the older generation of composers, Steve Reich, Phil Glass to a certain extent, Lucier, the obsession with system has disappeared in those composers. You look at Steve Reich's The Cave compared to his It's Gonna Rain or Come Out, and clearly he's not interested in straight process, he's digging with it. I think that's a natural direction for a lot of artists to go in. There are artists who remain obsessive about system, but there are a lot who become, for want of a better word, more romantic.

"It's actually something I think about a lot. I used to say that I never felt that my music was personally meaningful to me. Like a lot of composers of my generation, the music sprang from a lot of things other than emotion or drive. I wasn't John Cage, but I was very interested in his idea of creating music that happened without taste being there all the time. Maybe what your taste did was to pick the departure point."

Devil's Music

Despite his background, Collins' musical interests extend much further than just the "serious music" tradition. Although popular music has influenced several of his recordings, it comes to the fore on Devil's Music, a series of pieces which use electronics to sample and combine snatches of sound taken live from the radio.

"Devil's Music was wide open in terms of sound material, and unbelievably restricted in its rhythmic element, its time element. I had a problem in electronic music which was that the background I come from, both with circuit design and computer programming, was the one-circuit-equals-one-piece school of thought. There was no such thing for me for a long time as a general-purpose machine for making music. I had no instruments, nor did I have a production studio for the stage. What it meant was that it might take fifteen or twenty pounds of electronic music equipment to make twenty minutes of music, and then I'd have to do some furious repatching to set up another piece. One of the things I started doing in the early 80s was to look for a machine that could accept a lot of different kinds of sound input and would structure it to be a piece of music. The sound input could be a very ephemeral thing that would vary from site to site, but the machine would contain a core element of 'what makes this a Nic Collins piece'.

"I built this automated mixer that was used in Is She/He Really Going Out With Him/Her/Them, which was on the first Lovely record I did. It was inspired by Grandmaster Flash. the beginning of the DJ turntable thing that's now ubiquitous. I loved watching people cut, and cutting contests were very trendy at that time. I thought, two record players, what if you had more? I thought it would be wonderful to have a wide open thing, ten, twelve, twenty channels, where any time two things came into rhythmic coincidence they would crossfade. The idea was that I'd keep developing other sound material to feed into it. The performances consisted of just plugging and unplugging sixteen inputs, electronic toys, tape loops, radio, musicians, whatever. Devil's Music was the next step, a system tweaked specifically for radio, and it just reduced the amount of kit considerably."

It's fair to say that Devil's Music is typical of avant-garde appropriations of pop music in that it takes material with the one crucial ingredient of being immediately accessible, and turns it into something that requires a completely different way of listening. Anyone who's used to unusual music will cope without too much bother, but the constantly changing tempo, the lack of repetition, will baffle most pop listeners.

In Devil's Music One, there seem to be about three channels of sound, each of which takes chunks of pop music and loops and interleaves them. The result is uneasy listening, the new hyper-repetitive rhythms taking the source material to one logical extreme. It exaggerates the repetition, superficial timbre and simple-mindedness of pop music. Like similar assaults on the genre (cf. Plunderphonic) it tries to destroy pop by ripping it up and fashioning a bludgeon from the pieces.

The second side uses "easy listening" as its source material, and is actually more enjoyable than this would suggest, the rhythmic looping creating authentic but unsettled minimalism, without the manipulative romanticism that some of the genre's composers see fit to lard over everything they do. Other moments have more in common with the hypnotic grooves of Bruce Gilbert, but it's all far removed from the source.

"Actually, I think the album is by now relatively tame. Here was one thing that Alvin and I would never agree on, because he despises pop music, or certainly doesn't feel it has a place in his own work, with one exception which is his very weird version of Strawberry Fields, which has to be heard to be believed. For me, it was part of my musical roots, as much as if not more than any other sort of music. I felt it was turf to be mined. The other thing is that formally, the pop song is just about perfect for that two to four minute duration. If you want a core to keep your music on track and you're working with short durations, the infrastructure is there. Some of that music has that maudlin poignancy and emotional resonance for large numbers of people, and in a lot of performance environments, it's an unexpected moment of poignance. At a London Musicians Collective gig it's not at all surprising, but when I get up on stage at the International Society for Computer Music and do a piece where there's a Roy Orbison quote in the middle of it (apart from the problem that a lot of people there don't even know who Roy Orbison was) ... it's a question of the unexpected versus the expected."

Collins-ised pop songs have included music by Brian Wilson, David Bowie, the Shirelles, the Andrews Sisters, Roy Orbison (on the At Close Quarters compilation) and others, and he considers his altered versions of classical music to fit the same approach (e.g. Broken Light, on It's A Dark And Stormy Night).

"Each one is an obsessive treatment of one tune. When I heard Oswald's plunderphonic, I thought that here was a guy who basically has a very similar approach, where you hack away at one particular tune and bring out these things that you think are the essences of it. The only difference, really, is that I do them as a live performance, his is studio music, and much more 'obsessive' than I am. He's perhaps made a career out of doing it, for me it's just one part of what I do. Devil's Music is different from plunderphonic because it goes in the opposite direction of cutting up a million things.

"When I did the record, I specifically had this fantasy that I could sell loads of records by appealing to two diverse record-buying publics, the dance music crowd and the easy listening crowd. It wasn't actually a very serious assumption! The record was divided along those lines, while the performances would wander back and forth from one thing to another. I'd very often end up mixing up dance music for the rhythm, muzak or classical for the harmonic material, and advertising or news for vocals. The record's a bit artificial. One of my ideas was to make an encyclopaedia of break. Remember, this is 1985. I had this idea that you'd buy the record as a DJ because there was a two-second spot in the middle you could use, which was how DJs bought records. Except that in this case there were hundreds and hundreds of breaks. Like the index to a book instead of a book. I sold a few to dance music stores in New York in '85, or '86, but it was obvious that I'd failed completely on that score."

100 of the World's Most Beautiful Melodies

After Devil's Music, Nic's interest moved into a new area of music: improvisation. He wanted to retain the 'live sampling' element that Devil's Music had used, but somehow to combine it with a 'real instrument' to allow the music to be more of a performance. The results was the MIDI-trombone, the shell of a real trombone fitted out with a multitude of electronic devices. Sensors in the slide, the mouthpiece and on a finger-operated control panel are used to control a connected sampler. As far as providing a flexible real-time control system for sampling, it looks bizarre, but it works.

"It turned out to be a very fortuitous instrument for improvisation, and 100 of the World's Most Beautiful Melodies was recorded in the first years of this instrument's existence. It really amazed me how open the improvised music scene was. These people would respond to a phone call or a conversation at a concert by a guy who they may have met once before in their life, and they'd truck their stuff over to my house, and they'd set up and we'd play, and have a wonderful time. Unlike any other sector of the music business, the openness of those people to experimentation was really quite astonishing. The only ground rules for the record were that stuff was supposed to be very short. With every musician I asked them to do a couple of specific sounds, mostly to do with playing very high, because the nature of the trombone was that it generated all these side-bands on high frequencies."

The album consists of short improvised duets between Collins and fifteen other performers (John Zorn, Elliott Sharp, Robert Poss, Christian Marclay, Tom Cora, Shelley Hirsch etc). The guests generally stick to their acknowledged speciality, while Collins showcases the ability of his electronic trombone to sample his guest in real-time, loop back the results and modify it as desired. Not everything works well, some pieces sounding more like musical sketches than finished music, but some of the results are indeed beautiful, and on several pieces (e.g. with Zorn), the improvisations shine.

"Even the solo pieces that I've been doing for the last few years don't have very sophisticated computer programs or processes in them. They're much more active from a performance standpoint. I had this little ensemble with Robert Poss, my wife Susan Tallman, and Susan Lyall, which was an ensemble of backwards guitars, where instead of using your right-hand to strum, you'd use your right-hand to trigger all these different sounds into the instruments. I had a few different pieces for various configurations of that group. It wasn't until after 100 Melodies that I started to work with bringing players of normal instruments into non-improvised pieces, it was sort of a watershed for me."

Perhaps my favourite of Nic's instruments is the "backwards guitar", prominent on Inverse Guitars and It Was A Dark And Stormy Night, as well as his earlier records. This employs an ordinary electric guitar, where the electromagnetic pickups are used to "drive" the strings, translating sonic input back into string vibration. The result is most often a shimmering sound, retaining the rhythmic qualities of the source material, but tonally completely altered. On Collins's side of the split Inverse Guitars tape, the resulting recordings mix the original sound source (for example, a baby's voice or a computer-looped Ron Reagan speech) alongside the delicate rippling sounds that the guitar produces. The technique is inspiringly simple, the results straightforward and effective. One track, Like A Falling Stone, ditches the inverse guitar in favour of a battery of electronically-controlled distortion devices applied to Poss' guitar; try to imagine a rock soloist trying to cope with 2001's HAL at the mixing desk controls.

"When I started working with the backwards electric guitars, which I think was about 1982, I discovered that voice was a really great sound for resonating the strings, much in the same way as it was a great tool for resonating a room in I'm Sitting In A Room. The guitar string was like a fast forward version of I'm Sitting In A Room. Each of the two Lovely records I did had pieces where there was spoken word going through the guitars, but at that point I was much more interested in obscuring it. I think it's after my kid was born, and I started reading and telling a lot of stories, that I began to elevate the text to the point of being audible. It's A Dark And Stormy Night just preceded his being born. Since then I've done a series of pieces based on the senses, which are basically text pieces with various types of instrumentation, where you use electronics to derive rhythmic or pitch material from the spoken word. For the 'opera' that I'm doing, I'm using an extremely simple computer program which will take a voice and transcribe that to rough staff notation, halfway between real staff notation and one of those Morton Feldman or Earle Brown graphic scores. The idea will be that instead of having these pitch-to-MIDI converters triggering things off my voice, you'd have these little screens thrown up every couple of minutes, for musicians, based on the last five or six words of whatever the actors were saying, and they could do variations on it. With all due respect to Steve Reich and Rene Lussier, it's the cheap and dirty way of getting the same kind of effect."

Broken Light

Since 100 of the World's Most Beautiful Melodies, Nic has become an established part of the improv music scene, even playing on occasion in London. He's now reincorporating his improv experience back into his scored pieces.

"You take something like Broken Light, the score for that is one page long, it's a fifteen-minute piece of music. Clearly I'm not notating everything. It's almost like a jazz lead sheet. Since a lot of the variations are based on interaction, like I'll say, make a hocket pattern with another musician, you can't just pre-score it (which classical musicians love to do if they're asked to improvise, you'll see them notating stuff when you're not looking). It asks them to be on their toes. That's the way I like to work with players these days, to give them boundaries, and have a change of rules from one section to the next, but give them a fair amount of freedom within that area."

Nic acknowledges that this way of working is similar to that of John Zorn, who's often accused of an abusive relationship with his musicians. A Zorn score might tell the player to play two bars old blues, one bar fast jazz, three bars opera, and rely on the talent of the improvisers he works with to come up with something that works within those parameters. Nic tells me that with this way of working, it leaves room for the improvisers to come up with better music than he's technically capable of writing down.

"That whole improv thing, 100 Melodies, was also a fantastic education in orchestration. I learnt stuff about what you can do on a cello, on a trumpet, on an acoustic guitar, that I never would have known otherwise. It's not even the kind of things that you learn if you invite a guitarist over to your house and ask them to show you what they can play. It's like trial by fire, and you really learn a lot. I think I'm a better composer for having done all of that. The other thing is that, with a few exceptions, I don't think that 'I hear a clarinet here', or 'I hear a bassoon there', what I do is, I say, 'I hear Ben Neill here, on trumpet', or 'I hear Ned Rothenberg here, on clarinet'. It's like bespoke tailoring versus off-the-rack; I think more in terms of the musical personality involved.

"It's only recently that I've actually tried to do pieces that are somehow musician-independent. I'm actually now at work on a series of purely acoustic pieces for some musicians in Amsterdam, that are essentially attempts to try to transcribe the kind of things that happen with the skipping CD stuff. I'm figuring out a way to take away the CD, but I'm not interested in having them 'be' a skipping CD player.

"I like the idea of my music getting out there independent of my travelling from town to town. Also, when I do pieces for other players, I'm one of those guys who doesn't want to be involved in the playing of the piece. A duo is one thing, but when I start getting up to three or four musicians, I would just as soon not be in the piece. As I've discovered in the last couple of years, it's even better if I'm not even there! So, one of the things I'm trying to do, is to find way where I can pull myself back.

"The nice thing about the string quartet, Broken Light, was that I just gave them the CD-player with a little box and some pedals, and said, here's the score, do it. For both quartets that have performed it, I've coached them, but then they're on their own. That still has the problem with the technology where there's one of these things that has to be sent to wherever it's going. There's also the point: what are string players good at doing? Playing strings. What are they not necessarily any good at doing? Pressing pedals with their feet at the same time. I think that if you give musicians things to do that are close to what they're used to doing, you take advantage of their strengths more.

"I remember, I once asked Cage, in the late seventies, 'for me the pieces of yours that were the most inspirational were the ones that were pointedly non-virtuosic', pieces like Cartridge Music or Imaginary Landscapes. You prepared a score, but you did it with a phono cartridge, radio or record player. I said that these pieces were so liberating because it brought out the innate musicianship that people might or might not have independent of playing a musical instrument. Clearly, some people were better than others. I said to him, 'now you're doing pieces like Atlas Ecliptalis, and Etudes Australis, highly virtuosic pieces for traditional instruments. Why?' And he said, well, he realised that there were all these really great musicians out there, and a lot of them were asking him for pieces, and he realised that if he didn't give them music to do, some other person would, and that it might be worse music! He basically said that if they weren't doing his music they could be doing crap! Good sense of ego, admittedly! But there is a sense in which I see musicians in that cross-over area between improvisation and reading, where New York is the hotbed of it, there's a certain amount in London, it's lower in Europe generally, but it's there, and I think that it's nice to come up with a way to work with those people."


Since 1992, Nic has been artistic co-director at the Dutch organisation, STEIM. It was founded as a collective of composers in 1968 to provide assistance for people wanting to do live electronic music performance outside of academia. Initially, it was heavily involved in music theatre, and it still retains some of its radical routes. It's certainly unlikely ever to be accused of the technocratic elitism that IRCAM in France is blamed for.

"What they did was to slowly emerge from anarchy to pretty serious government funding, to the point that they could afford to have engineers on staff who would design stuff for people. They built a modular analogue synthesis system in the seventies. They then went off in a rather more extreme system with this thing called the Crackle Box, which grew out of the combined input of Michel Waisvisz, who is now the director of STEIM, and Dick Raijmaakers, who's sort of the grand old man of Dutch electronic music. They had a surprisingly noisy Tudoresque approach to electronic music compared to most of the European composers. The idea behind the Crackle Box is like when you open up a transistor radio, and put your hands on the circuit board at the back, and you start to get all those whining and zipping sounds that are a result of actually putting your body into the circuit. They built a number of different types of synthesisers, from ones the size of a walkman, with a little built in 2" speaker, and a sort of circuit board that you'd run your fingers over, up to the full thing where instead of the keyboard of a typical Mini Moog you'd have all these electronic contact pads that you'd put your fingers down on. Very deep degrees of control were allowed, from none, to a little bit! It was quite anarchic, again.

"With the exception of their black box analogue synthesis system, which was modelled along the lines of any typical synthesiser of the day, they never really tried to make a commercial product that would appeal to everyone. One of the threads that runs through STEIM is the notion of coming up with technology that's personal, that's suited to an individual. Especially in the old days, they wouldn't think twice of putting three engineers on two years of work to make something for one composer for one piece of music that might be performed once and then turn out to be a dead end. They were marvellously impractical. The Crackle Box definitely grew out of the minds of one or two composers, and was used by a few more, but had a pretty limited application."

STEIM has since moved in a more pragmatic direction. One of their major developments has been a small portable computer, about the size of a paperback book, which takes electrical input and transforms it into MIDI signals. It can be used to control looping samples from a temperature sensor, or play tones according to hooked-up brain waves.

It can be programmed to create quite complex outputs from the inputs, and its significance is in a way to control electronic musical equipment in real-time without using a keyboard. It can bring the complex sound-manipulation of the computer music world into a real-time performance situation.

Truth in Clouds

Work at STEIM has meant that Nic's own music has taken something of a back seat. One project which he hopes will move forward in the next year or two is an opera titled Truth in Clouds, written by his wife, Susan Tallman, based on spiritualism and seances.

"I think it was in 1992 that we came up with the first version of this. Susan discovered that she had an ancestress, a woman named Anna Mary Howitt, the daughter of a rather well-known literati in the mid-19th century here in England. She was a painter and founded an organisation called the Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood, an organisation of women painters. She did some pretty wacky stuff, but got a bad review from John Ruskin, which sent her over the edge. She decided to stop painting and got seriously involved in spiritualism. She kept her connection with the art world, and ended up taking transcription from the deceased Elizabeth Siddal to Gabriel Dante Rossetti. It was a bit of a messy suicide, perhaps even murder. This thing has all the makings of a great gothic novel, or in our case an operatic project. We did an early version of it in New York, built around what I call the world's first ouija-to-MIDI converter, which was a table where when you moved the wineglasses it would call up different sounds out of props around the room. The deer head would speak, the harp would play, the sofa would rumble.

"We weren't terribly happy with the result, but then last spring I was asked to do an installation in a castle in Austria, so I resurrected the technology. It was very nice as an installation, because people would just come in, move things around on the table, and this stuff would happen. I was working with some pretty flaky technology, such that whenever there was a major electrical storm, it would start to behave by itself, which turned out to be pretty appropriate. Now, we're putting together the project to tour this to villas and castles in Holland."

Devil's Music Revisited

Nic has also been wanting to do a new version of Devil's Music for a long time, and an extract has just been reissued on CD by Italian label New Tone.

"One of the things I liked very much about it, is this old seventies idea of making process and method clear to the audience. And even though it got to the point once where the process was so clear that it didn't matter, I still always think that the more they can understand it the happier they'll be. I'm not a complexicist, I'm not interested in baffling people, I'm interested in appearing like an ordinary Joe.

"I'm working with some technology now that would give me much more range of variation, on the same basic notion of doing live sampling from radio, but being able to get thicker textures, more radical transformations of the sound material, so larger bodies of the piece can be unrecognisable in terms of source material. A few years ago I did a commissioned piece for radio which was all based on short wave and ham radio material. There were those very beautiful electronic sounds that come out of short wave, but what I really got into were the stories that people were telling on ham radio. Out of maybe twenty different distinct recordings I'd made of people talking on the radio, I put together a story by just sequencing them. That made the narrative. Because I'm working a lot with narrative these days, I thought it would be nice to get back into whatever speech stuff exists on radio. Do a sort of backwards pop song where you start with the vocals and build everything else up around it. So I've been scanning lately on one of these illegal scanners that picks up cellular phone conversations, but my Dutch isn't really good. Eavesdropping is an excellent way to learn Dutch, but I need to spend more time in some English-speaking countries."

Nic is aware of the existence of Britain's own Scanner, but I suspect his own take on a similar theme will end up very different, and I'm certainly looking forward to seeing what he comes up with.

"There's a Hungarian film-maker whose name I don't know, he works a lot with the composer Tibor Szemzo. What he has been doing is collecting home movies from the fifties and sixties, which because it's Hungary, look even more quaint than they would in our culture. I'm a sucker for home movies, not video, but those Super-8 films, the whole way people produced them. The reels were short, they knew they only had two minutes, they would actually sort-of direct, but it was so non-cinematic. There's such a poignancy to those things, about family and everything else. I find them incredibly powerful. Using them to make art may be questionable, but there is something so powerful about truly private material. It doesn't have to be erotic or voyeuristic in any way. For me, it's a gut-level effect that cannot be achieved any other way. You can't write a text that captures it, and go into a studio and make it happen."

Interview February 1995 by and copyright © Brian Duguid