Music Notes: Nicolas Collins plays the radio
By Kyle Gann
March 11, 1988
When Nicolas Collins paid $12 for his trombone, it looked like any ordinary beat-up trombone. Today it looks like no other trombone in the world. Attached to the slide is a small circuit board with 19 buttons: 16 red, 3 black. There's no mouthpiece; it's been replaced by a round, black speaker driver, a device that feeds sound into the trombone. A thick computer cable leads from the instrument to a table full of sound equipment, and a coiled telephone cord extends from one end of the instrument to the other. Perhaps strangest of all, the slide pulls a retracting cat's leash that wraps around a dial at the back.
Collins starts to "play" his trombone. He pushes a button, and easy-listening music blares from a speaker hidden in the bell. He pushes another button, and two selected chords repeat over and over. He moves the slide, and the chords get slower and slower, dropping in pitch. Another button, they return to normal. Another, and the repeated passage gets shorter. Another, and the chords are played backward. The next button switches the music to jazz. Collins shifts the slide, and the trumpet phrase gets faster and faster until it blurs into a buzzy pitch. One piece Collins plays in this manner he calls, appropriately enough, 100 of the World's Most Beautiful Melodies.
Welcome to the low-tech electronic world of Nicolas Collins. At 33, Collins is a versatile and active member of New York's improvising/electronic new music community, one who began playing with electronic sounds as a teenager when a "mystery button" on his reel-to-reel tape recorder made the machine act funny. Collins studied at Wesleyan University with one of the gurus of electronic sound, Alvin Lucier, and has since played with John Zorn and with David Tudor's Composers Inside Electronics group. From Lucier he inherited a fascination with acoustic phenomena; from Tudor, a love affair with, and a talent for linking, the simplest of electronic components.
When I visited Collins in New York recently, he gave as example the doorbell I rang to enter his East Village loft: it's a toy ray gun he converted to that use. When he connects the circuit, it emits a sour "bleep." "Ten years earlier, you would have needed a whole synthesizer to make some of those sounds. Now I go down to Canal Street and I pick up a circuit board that says 'Spaceman module, 98 cents,' and it makes six incredibly rich, kind of cheesy electronic sounds." A more sophisticated experiment is what Collins calls "backwards electric guitar." He hooks up an electric guitar backward and plays music into the pickup. This music makes the guitar strings resonate, and the result is run through another pickup and amplified. "The strings act as a complex filter on the sounds that go through them. You get a beautiful wash of harmonics."
Collins's trombone, actually a digital sampling signal-processing system using the fluid control offered by the trombone's slide mechanism, takes its information from a radio. Working with radio, for Collins, is more than a gimmick or a convenience: it's an aesthetic stance, almost a morality. "The tendency in my work," he explains, "is to use found sound wherever possible. I call it my post-Cagean dilemma. For my generation, John Cage opened a lot of doors, and one of them was that any sound can be music. And the quandary I fell into is, if all sounds can be music, then how do I make my decision? Cage solved it by using random, indeterminate methods. I'm not willing to make that much of a sacrifice of ego.
"Given the fact that there's all this sound material already out there, I'd just as soon use a sound that already exists as make a new one. You could call it an ecology; it's like recycling. Radio I'm attracted to for a number of reasons. It's the world's most economical synthesizer. One moment you can dial up the sound of a $100,000 Synclavier, the next moment an entire string orchestra, the next moment a newscaster; you could never afford to have all that equipment at your disposal. Now, there's one catch: you never know what you're going to get when. But if you regard that as a challenge rather than an impediment, then you have access to all that material, given certain limitations."
Devil's Music is Collins's major attempt, to date, to deal with--in fact, to exploit--those limitations. Dependent as it is on local radio broadcasts, Devil's Music sounds radically different from one performance to the next. The music Collins calls a "minimalist context for improvisation," and the work has much in common with Steve Reich's early phase-shifting pieces, Come Out and It's Gonna Rain. The difference is what Collins calls a "stuttering circuit," which keeps the lengths of the fragments unpredictable. Snippets of rock, spoken phrases, flute melodies, and other materials battle each other in a jerky continuum that is oddly sensuous and jarring at the same time. (Collins's recording of two versions of Devil's Music is on Trace Elements Records.)
"It's a nice piece to tour with, because it's always topical. New York has loads of easy-listening stations, for example, and also Hispanic and Japanese stations, etc. I don't know why easy-listening music sounds so good through this system, but it does. I was in the south, and there are a lot of fundamentalist stations, which give it a whole different character. Some people take a while to realize it's live, but when they hear a local announcer, or the score of a football game that they know is taking place, they say, oh, this is here, this is now. It's interesting for both me and the audience; for me because it keeps me on my toes. I like to put myself in a state where there are a lot of surprises."
Collins admits his indebtedness to earlier radio pieces by Cage and Stockhausen, though his aims are quite different. "My music is about taking your cue from what you hear. In easy-listening music, some producer puts a lot of time into getting a sound exactly right, and then nobody listens to it. I play a sample over 30 or 60 seconds, and it focuses you. At first you say, I know that, that's an old Supremes song. But when it goes for a while longer, you don't think of it as the old Supremes song anymore, you think of it as 'click, thud, whing.' You're really listening to the sounds."
In his second Chicago appearance (the first was in April 1986), Collins will both demonstrate his techno-musical expertise and impart it to others. This Saturday, March 12, he will lead a workshop, sponsored by Chicago's Experimental Sound Studio, in making music with electronic components. Anyone interested is encouraged to arrive at Randolph Street Gallery, 756 N. Milwaukee, at 10 AM armed with an instrument, either traditional or nontraditional (the latter can include radios, cassette players, processing devices, electronic keyboard pedals, whatever). The workshop will be followed at 8 PM by a concert at Randolph Street Gallery, in which Collins will play Devil's Music, his backward guitar music, and a large improvisatory work with those involved in the workshop. Participation in the workshop is $15, $10 for ESS and RSG members; the concert is $5, $4 for students and seniors. For more info, call Randolph Street Gallery at xxx-xxx.
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