Nicolas Collins: Bending All the Rules

Nicolas Collins: Bending All the Rules

Nicolas Collins in Palermo
Photo by Salvo Fundarotto

Molly Sheridan: Especially after paging through your book on hardware hacking, I started to wonder if you had ever taken apart the TV when you were a kid. Did your mom ever pick up the blender and find that it had been stripped for parts?

Nicolas Collins: No, I never took apart a TV, though I’m of the generation whose fathers were perpetually standing in front of the TV with their arm around the back trying to adjust the rear controls. I wondered at that point why those controls weren’t simply placed on the front of the television along with everything else. But I don’t think as a child I had any particular orientation towards things electronic. I come from a long line of tinkerers and tool-using crafts people. My dad gives me a toolbox when I was six—that sort of thing. The only thing I remember is that I liked taking apart clocks, and I wasn’t very good at putting them back together. I had this theory that they could be made more elegant inside by the removal of certain parts. So my mother used to buy broken mechanical alarm clocks from the local jeweler, and I would take out the parts that I thought were tacky and then put them back together to the best of my ability. But the tackiest part for me was usually the spring because it wasn’t round; it was spiral shaped and everything else was so planetary. And of course a clock without a spring is even more useless than my music, possibly.

MS: Where did this come from then, this desire to take things apart and make music out of it?

NC: Well, I guess poverty and timing. When I started getting seriously interested in music that worked with technology in high school, proper electronic musical instruments like the Moog synthesizer were way too expensive to think about. But the building-block technology, these little integrated circuits, had just begun to appear on the market. So if you were sort of semi-intelligent and extremely driven and were willing to look in hobbyist magazines and stuff, you could figure out how to make an oscillator. You could figure out how to make a little thing that ran on a battery and went [whistles]. And this was, I hate to use a cliché, but it was tremendously empowering. I built my first circuit in 1972, and I think for about a four- or five-year period this was a really critical factor in the formation of a generation of younger American composers—people like Paul DeMarinis and Laetitia Sonami, who’s from France, actually, and Ron Kuivila. These were people who studied with people like David Behrman and Alvin Lucier and Robert Ashley, and this was a tremendous leg up on instrumentation that we had that the earlier generation didn’t. Gordon Mumma, David Behrman, and [David] Tudor had to really struggle to get their electronics happening, and it was much easier for us. So I think it seemed like an affordable path, it seemed like it was that taste of the future. Here was this new technology, and I suppose that was like an intersection of whatever fuels someone to become an avant gardist or an experimental artist rather than, say, work within a clearly defined or accepted genre.

MS: It seems like a significant extra part of the work, though. You’re building the instruments and making the music.

NC: Oh, yeah, and that causes tremendous self-doubt, you know—dark moments of the soul— because you’re thinking: What percentage of those few hours that I have available to “make art” am I making art, and what percentage of that time am I making the tools to make art? And it’s very easy to fall into this sort of handiwork of making things, because it’s easier. There’s something fundamentally cozy and reassuring about it. I think that at a certain point when you have to make sacrifices and judgments about time, you do. You say, I’d like to make something special for this piece but, now that I think about it, I could probably do it with some off-the-shelf components. I think that’s one of the appeals of software. By the end of the ’70s there was a big shift in my generation of composers away from hardware and into software, and I think a lot of it was this idea that somehow by working in software you were wasting less time drilling holes. And sometimes writing code is just the same as hammering nails—in other words, it has no intrinsic artiness to it—but in many cases I think it’s a quicker route to similar solutions.

MS: Do you find that you procrastinate by building, then?

NC: I used to, but then, as my responsibilities accumulated, I think I became much harsher with myself in terms of how I would spend my time. And I would miss the certain indulgences that one was able to do when one had more time, but maybe I became slightly more proficient at producing work as a result.

MS: You didn’t get to spend hours in the basement anymore?

NC: Yeah, right. Oh, those days. It’s so funny. I mean, maybe, it’s like most people, they project toward their retirement, you know, I’m going to have a shop in the basement, and I’m going to make golf clubs of my own. But for me it has sort of a nostalgia.

But you hit at a good point: The other night we were at the Bent Festival, and the circuit-bending crowd is very much about the making. The making is terribly important, and if you attended any of the concerts, you know that the quality of the work produced varies tremendously because we’re in the nascent stages of this. There’s still a lot of instrumental experimentalism going on ahead of defining what’s a musical act. That aspect—the push-pull relationship between instrument and art—is very evident there.

MS: Where are you in that, as far as making something and whatever happens, happens, versus having a conception in your head and building to match?

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

NC: I think it was a year ago at the Bent Festival. I was just going to do a little demo, and I was setting up some things. And as I’m doing it this big, hairy guy comes up to me, and he’s looking at what’s on the table and he says, “Now are those bent or are they hacked?” I said, “Excuse me?” He says, “Are they bent or are they hacked?” I said, “Well, what’s the difference?” He says, “Bending means you have no idea what you’re doing when you start, and hacking means you have a little bit of an idea of what you’re doing when you start.” And I thought, oh, that’s beautiful. That’s like Talmudic scholarship, these fine points of liturgical distinction. And I said, “Gee, you know, I really don’t know.” I literally don’t have enough time to think about those sort of epistemological differences.

I don’t have a huge amount of patience at this point for pure chance-derived experimentation. Usually these days when I go about making something it’s because I kind of have a target in mind—I’m trying to make a piece of some sort, or I’m trying to get a particular type of artifact sonically. The exception to that has been that in the course of developing this curriculum for doing hardware hacking both for my students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and in these workshops I do, I periodically say, okay, here’s a set number of objects, here are certain types of circuits, here are certain types of toys. What is there in them that I don’t know about yet? How far can I push this to do something?

I often compare the hacking work that we do to the way most traditional societies approach dealing with an animal that’s been killed to provide food. When you travel in, say, the Third World, they don’t throw out anything. And if you don’t look out you’ll end up with some very odd things in your breakfast. There’s this high utilization. When my students go out and spend two dollars on a small toy to hack, one of them will concentrate on the sound circuitry, another one will take the little kitten that it came out of and will stuff it with something else, and a third will take the LCD screen that was in the belly that was the video game and will figure out a way to use the LCD as a visual object. And that was really kind of an eye-opener for me: this notion of no wastage. And I think I tried to sort of get into the spirit of that and look at all the permutations that one can get out of certain things.

MS: When you were speaking at the Bent Festival, you kept referring yourself as something of a Luddite, but your students must be coming in with all sorts of advanced computer programming knowledge. How does that play out in the classroom?

NC: What I see in a teaching situation is that there is a higher and higher degree of digital literacy in young people. I’m very proud of the fact that I’m part of this sort of first wave of composers, literally a half dozen, a dozen individuals who between 1977 and 1978 started programming microcomputers to make music. These were computers far, far before any Apples existed, and it was a bit of a challenge and it was very interesting. So there was a time that I felt right in the trenches, but I tend to move between a number of different types of technologies. I work with instruments, I work with circuitry, I work with computers, and I’m not a specialist in any one field. All I am basically is a musician and a composer who’s trying to find the best vehicle to do what I want to do. On the other hand, working in an art school these days you have true multimedia artists—I mean, these kids come in and they do film, they do sound work, they do painting, they do drawing, they design T-shirts, they tattoo themselves, they do graphic design—so they have the digital tools for doing all that stuff, and the more software you learn, the better you become. In other words, after you’ve learned your fourth software package, then you realize that cutting video and cutting sound use the same key commands. It’s all files. So they come in hyper-educated and much more literate in that specific domain—software tools—than I am. My 15-year-old son designed my website, you know. And in that sense they’re miles ahead of me. But what I ended up bringing into the equation when I started teaching was what I call “glue technology”—these sort of little scraps of technology that aren’t in computers that are needed to make computers connect with the real world. Interfacing. In other words, how do you do something with a computer if you don’t want to type or use a mouse? How can you use a computer as a tool in an installation? How can you make it interactive when there’s an audience? And this is where the knowledge isn’t as widespread.

MS: When they learn the skills that you are teaching them, then, do they use them in ways that you didn’t expect because of their own experiences?

NC: Oh, yeah. That’s what’s quite lovely about working out a curriculum for something like this. I like to have a situation where I say, alright, here are the parts you need to make an oscillator—something that goes “mmmmmmmmm.” And between the point of showing them the parts and them getting their own sound should never be more than three minutes. It’s no different working with twenty-year-olds than six-year-olds. You want to work in little seven-minute cycles. So on the one hand, there’s an instant gratification, and it’s a universal kind of sound. But then once they see, yes, I can understand it, I can make it work, they personalize it. It always surprises me how they manage to push things in different directions and what they manage to get out of it. What happened when I started doing circuitry in an art school was that, I mean it’s a cliché, but the visual aspect of everything became much more important than I ever thought of. Just the way they would package a circuit was so different than the way a fuzz box would be made by Danelectro or something. The other thing is they had a keen interest in extending what were essentially sonic contrivances and sonic techniques into manipulating visual imagery. So instead of hacking a toy with an LCD in it so it would just make weird sounds, they would do it so it would flicker the image in different ways. Or they’d figure out a way to hack a toy for children that was supposed to do video effects on a TV, so that it would essentially be a VJ-ing tool instead of a DJ-ing tool. So, yeah, there are always surprises.

MS: What about your own schooling? Alvin Lucier came by the Bent Festival to see you. What did you take away from your experience studying with him, because obviously that’s not a guy who taught you to take the back off a radio and stick your finger in there.

Ben Neill and Nicolas Collins, Amsterdam, 1994.
Photo by Andre Hoekzema.

NC: That’s a very good observation. That’s something I’ve just been thinking about in the last few days, and I was talking to David Behrman about this last night. When I arrived at Wesleyan as an undergraduate in 1972, I knew I was interested in electronic music. I didn’t know who Lucier was at that time. I was very keen on studying Indian music, which is actually one of the main reasons I chose the school. But I wasn’t 100 percent certain that music was what I really wanted to do, and it was meeting Lucier and realizing what a wide-open field music was by his definition compared to anything I’d heard about before. It was a very profound experience—the idea that you didn’t have to make music based on the great canon of Western music but that you could make music that was as much influenced by bats or architectural acoustics as it was by Bach. And Alvin worked with electronics in his work, obviously. He wasn’t a circuitry guy like some of his colleagues were, like Behrman or Mumma. But what was very good about having him as a professor was that he recognized that the electronic subculture was vital and it was forward-looking, even if it didn’t necessarily look down the same path that he was looking down. And he did that thing that a good teacher does of putting his own personal taste aside and saying, “This is an important thing for my students to learn about, so how do I do it?” And so he made a big point of, for example, bringing in Behrman to do a residency while I was an undergraduate and encouraging us to seek out bench space in the electronics lab of the physics department and stuff like that—at no point getting deeply involved personally in it, but promoting it, which I think is very magnanimous on the part of a teacher, to be able to make that separation and to not try to simply stamp out clones in his or her own style. So I think that the combination of that attitude on Lucier’s part, the host of other composers that he brought in to do concerts and make presentations, the music he played when he taught courses, it all served up a really broad palette of choices for students. And it was also a very nice professional environment because from early on he insisted that we perform as students. We performed our work not just at the school, but we’d go on the road with him and there would be a concert where there would be a Lucier piece and then a couple of his students doing pieces. Again, a very magnanimous gesture I think for a composer to make to kind of promote the next generation of artists.

MS: Since he wasn’t as involved in the specifics of what you were doing beyond a certain point, what did he teach you in the larger sense? It seems you avoided having a teacher always looking over your shoulder that way.

NC: Well, his involvement as a teacher was never based on making specific suggestions about anything. He wouldn’t micro-analyze what you were doing. He would look at a piece, and he’d obviously know whether it was good or bad, how bad it was, and where it was bad, but he wouldn’t say, “You know, I’d get rid of this part and just do this,” or “I’d change this to this.” You know, he’d make these very almost off-hand observations like, “I’d look there a little more closely.” Like when you’re encouraging a child in an Easter egg hunt—you know, like, I think you might want to look in that corner of the room. Because you see something that they don’t, but you don’t want to spoil that discovery experience. So he was very good about being hands-off at the right point. What it meant was that students of Lucier’s from that time period learned very fast to be very good self-critics. He taught really important basic skills. Certainly very much an ethos of the ’70s was to strip pieces back to less. And I still see this today. Most students have too many ideas, and I think Alvin and an ethos of the ’70s minimalist tradition was to really try and encourage students to focus on one idea in a piece, not 100 ideas. So that kind of clarity, that was important. He had a tendency to almost speak in parables. Instead of talking directly about what you were doing, he’d sort of casually mentions something else—another piece, another artist’s work—and it would go right by you. Then two hours, twelve hours, twenty-four hours, two days later, you’d think, oh, maybe that has something to do with my problem. And you’d kind of plug the two pieces together and you’d say, oh, clever guy.

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