Nicolas Collins interview

Nicolas Collins is one of the stars (in the afternoon session) of Unknown Public Holiday the marathon live event at London's Queen Elizabeth Hall, South Bank Centre, Saturday, September 28 1996 12noon to 10.30pm. Unmissable (ed's shameless plug)

This is the full text of the Nicolas Collins interview that John L Walters, (editor, Unknown Public) conducted by email for a short (as yet unpublished) piece about Nic for Wired UK.

Interview with Nicolas Collins ( by John L Walters (

JLW: I'd like to 'interview' you by email right now. I don't mind gnomic responses, or even 'no comment'.

NC: OK. I'm writing fast so please excuse typos & grammar

JLW: Have you always been good with gadgets? Or is the technology more a means to a musical end? Do you know a lot about electronics, computer code, etc? (Are you the sort of person who can make a burglar alarm from an old torch and an alarm clock, or fix the central heating when it starts knocking?)

Actually, in all modesty I have always been "good with gadgets". My father came from a long line of "Yankee craftsmen" and minor inventors (some ancestor's "one horse shay" actually made it into the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC.) I remember a childhood of "fixing things" with him -- often a result of my brothers or me breaking them, of course, or -- in my case -- "improving them": my mother took to bringing home broken alarm clocks from the watchmaker, since at the age of 6 I decided to "improve" the household clocks by removing the "messy bits" (certain springs, I believe, violated my sense of the Copernican order a clock should have -- the roots of my fascination with minimalism can probably be found here.)

But I have never formally studied any form of technology (electronics, programming, mechanics). Nothing odd about this -- most of the designers/programmers/inventors one reads about these days seem to be self-taught ('though maybe just because they have more interesting stories to tell than people who've followed a straighter route.) But it means my skills are over-specialised, have a lot of gaps. I've designed dozens of beautiful circuits whose sole function is turning sound on and off (in various time frames), have "hot-wired" numerous analogue and digital devices, but cannot repair my Walkman or design a really good-sounding filter. I've never been any good at car repair (although I am excellent at packing car trunks/boots.) One of the proudest days of my life was when I re-routed the gas line in my NYC loft exclusively by re-using the existing piping.

Handiness and obsession are different things. I've never been interested in inventing or acquiring technology for its own sake (I don't lust over gizmos or even own a decent stereo). I fix something, if I can, because its broken; I invent something because I need it to do a job. "Market driven" invention, one might say -- more about this later.

To give some history, I got involved in electronic technology around 1972. At that time electronic music was accessible through only 2 routes: money or hacking. Synthesizers were mostly in university studios or in the hands of rich rock musicians. If you were poor or wanted something truly portable for live performance you had to do it yourself. At that time the term hacker meant phone freak, and ironically my first circuit was an oscillator based on a touch-tone encoding/decoding chip that had just come out. I can't remember the part number now (it may have been the Signetics SE/NE 566) but historically this was a musically significant chip, as it was the entry point to home-made electronic music equipment not only for me but several luminaries such as David Behrman and Paul DeMarinis.

I copied and varied circuits from magazines. I think I designed and built about 30 circuits before I finally got one to work. Then one day it clicked and it's been second nature ever since. I started with analogue circuits, then started building weird audio circuits using CMOS logic chips (i.e. direct audio output from digital chips.) My self-imposed design restrictions were every "instrument" had to fit on one standard small size circuit board and be powered by a single 9 volt battery.

In 1976 a group of West Coast pioneers, led by the mythical Jim Horton, all bought Commodore Kim I microcomputers: a singe pc board with a hexadecimal keypad, small LED display, 1k RAM, and a cassette interface for saving programs. They wrote in direct machine code (not even assembler.) The group included Behrman, John Bischoff, Rich Gold, DeMarinis, and others. I entered the circle with the next generation machine the next year: RAM was up to 4k.

My computer music consisted of direct digital output (I didn't even use a Digital-to-Analogue Converter) or using the computer to "steer" external devices, like mixers, cassette recorders, guitars, radios. For about 8 years I built few circuits, mostly programmed, ascended the product curve: from machine code to Assembler to Forth, from Sym to Aim to Commodore 64 to Apple II. But as operating systems became more sophisticated I became less interested, more frustrated. I had overcame my initial prejudice against computers (brought on by a summer's bad experience trying to do something on a mainframe) when DeMarinis told me, "Don't think of the microcomputer as a computer, think of it as a big expensive logic chip." I liked working at a real low level, bits going on and off. For me the increasingly sophisticated operating systems removed me from the essence of the computer. I got bored. I went back to hardware, shifting my emphasis to hot-rodding existing electronic devices rather than building from the ground up. The label " no user serviceable parts inside" became my red flag. I became notorious for adding jacks and switches to boxes that every other musician used straight. I re-worked analogue and digital systems alike. (Most people think digital systems are inviolate, that they either work or don't but can't be pushed (like overdriving a tube amp), but there are ways....)

JLW: Have you done similar sonic experiments with non-electronic sounds and tools? Do you identify with other pioneers of home-made instruments?

NC: I've always been attracted to the acoustic behaviour of sound. Most of my instruments have been "electroacoustic" or designed to be used in conjunction with an acoustic player or a "real world" external sound source. I've never been interested in synthesizers at all. My "trombone-propelled electronics" use a trombone slide with keypad as a sort of large-scale mouse to control a digital signal processor, while the electronic output of the system plays back through a speaker attached to the mouthpiece of the trombone for further acoustic processing (changing the resonant frequency by moving the slide, filtering the sound with muted, "spraying" the sound around the room by aiming the instrument.) I send sounds through the pickups in my "backwards guitars" to resonate the strings electromagnetically; the string vibrations are picked up and amplified, and the strings act as acoustic filters and resonators, tuned by fretting and playing (rather than turning a knob or sending some MIDI). The buzzes and clanks add a degree of viscerality unavailable in the purely electronic domain. The David Tudor influence is here, no doubt. He saw speakers as instruments, not passive playback conduits. I'm just an extension of the tradition of making them ever more malleable.

Lately I've been "mapping" onto more normal acoustic instruments sounds and structures encountered in my electronic work -- "It Was A Dark And Stormy Night" was/is basically a "re-orchestration" (for small ensemble) of a piece for the trombone-propelled electronics. Most people think of electronics as tonal resources; for me they're structural resources as well. I learn about musical form from the behaviour and misbehaviour of technology, and I try to carry it beyond the box.

No, I don't really identify so strongly with Harry Partch or any of the other acoustic instrument inventors. Partch was much more methodical: he built up an orchestra for a large body of related work. I work much more 'hit or miss', inventing instruments as needed for a new idea. Some instruments are used for just one piece and then consigned to the attic.

JLW: You once cited Michael Nyman's book (Experimental Music: Cage And Beyond) as important. Does the tag 'experimental' mean the same thing 20 years on?

NC: Nyman's book paralleled closely a lecture course I took earlier from Alvin Lucier my first year at Wesleyan University. The same aesthetic stance, many of the same composers and pieces, perhaps a bit more emphasis on the UK scene (Gavin Bryars and the Experimental Music Catalogue, Scratch Orchestra). I do believe that "experimental" is still a valid term, like "other": it's not pop, it's not jazz, it's not improvised, it's "other", it's experimental. It's experimental because it takes risks on a scale not seen in the other scenes: new structures, forms, sound resources, models for ensemble interaction. Experimental Music has fewer standard forms. For better or for worse, we have no "song format", no accepted range of beats per minute, no distinction between vocal or instrumental, no clear line between composed or improvised, no sonata form. There's much more chance of failure, many pieces vanish rather than becoming masterpieces, but there is new ground being broken every day. I find it curious to read in the pop press that a "radical new form of popular music" has emerged and what I hear in Jungle, say, is basically just a snare mixed higher. Don't get me wrong, I like the music, but this is not a revolution, sorry.

JLW: Is 'Devil's Music' your career-making hit? Is 'Son Of Devil's Music' your return to your roots?

NC: Hardly a career-making hit. To be kind we might say it was another example of being somewhere too soon. The general open form of "Devil's Music" (live sampling and rhythmic re-articulation of radio) was restricted for my 1985 LP recording: one side dance music, one side easy listening. I figured I had 90% of the record-buying public in my pocket, but failed to account for the rogue factors of an avant garde reputation and the bottleneck of Indie record distribution. I figured every DJ would buy the disc as an "encyclopedia of breaks" but I guess it was still too weird -- as Robert Poss once said, "an intro that never settles into a groove." But some years later, in the heyday of Acid House, I heard rumors of dance floor airplay and copies of the vinyl changing hands for considerable sums. By the way, I still have 800 copies in my attic, if anyone cares.

Now radio seems to be in the air again, so to speak -- especially in the UK (I'm thinking of Scanner in particular). An Italian label (New Tone) reissued an edit of the vinyl. So I figured it was time to dust it off, update it. I've always been interested in narrative, especially found texts. Eavesdropping was always an important part of Devil's Music -- adverts, DJ patter & phone calls always formed the vocal lines. Now I'm overlaying a catalogue of multilingual sound bites I've collected over the years off CB, shortwave, ham, and scanners. Plus with Robert Poss (of Band of Susans, a long time collaborator and owner of Trace Elements Records) I'm extending the rhythmic signature of the live sampling & re-triggering to guitar & drum parts.

JLW: Who do you empathise with the most? Improvisers? Composers? Pop songwriters? Rock musicians? DJs? Where do you feel most at home?

NC: A tough question. After all the talk of tech I feel compelled to interject (nerdily perhaps) that I am a composer, that I studied for 6 years with Alvin Lucier at Wesleyan University, that I worked for many years with David Tudor, performed Cage, Christian Wolff, etc., etc. But I feel like a chameleon. I do tours where one night is a computer music symposium, one night is a split bill with Tudor, one night is a rock club in the basement of a Swiss squat, and I finish up with a festival of jazz and improvised music. Maybe it's the "other-ness" of Experimental Music, in the old fashioned (i.e., Nyman) sense. A lot of people care about these distinctions (there's always someone in every Austrian audience who comes up to the stage pan as I'm packing up at the end of a set and asks "was it composed or improvised?"

I will say that I think of my music as being very conservative, very un-radical, non-confrontational, certainly not avant garde in the traditional sense of the term. Although it may not sound that way (and most people would probably never regard it as such) I think of my work as existing within the most general and far reaching (historically) musical tradition, but drawing on the wealth of resources available to a kid growing up in New York in the 1960s. In fact my concerns are so old as to be Pythagorean, or at best stalled somewhere around Venice 1600 (Gabrielli). But then I also regard Alvin Lucier as being a natural extension of the European chamber music tradition, which puts me in critical left field, I guess.

But I'm not judgmental. I did grow up in a time where pop dominated the sonic environment. My record collection and listening tastes are eclectic. I believe that pop has contributed one of the most perfect musical forms of all time (the 7 inch, 45 rpm song) and the most important musical instrument of the twentieth century (the electric guitar & amp on the threshold of feedback) -- but I'd never make a good rock musician (I don't have the talent). The improvised music scene taught me orchestration, and I could never do ensemble work without relying on those skills in players. One of my breakthrough pieces ("Is She/He Really Going Out With Him/Her/Them" from my second Lovely Record "Let The State Make The Selection") was inspired by and dedicated to Grandmaster Flash, the legendary DJ. I chose Wesleyan at the age of 17 not because of Lucier but because of its world music program (I went there to study Tabla, believe it or not, and did for 3 years.)

JLW: Why are the Beach Boys important? Would/could you ever do an 'I Wish' with a more recent pop record?

NC: Since the early 1980's I've done a series of "love songs to pop songs" -- respectful, unauthorised, sometimes extreme re-arrangements. Similar in feel to some of John Oswald's Plunderphonics, but always live, almost never recorded. The tunes have ranged from Roy Orbison to the Shirelles to the Beach Boys to Luis Rivera, and some classical (Italian Baroque, Webern) and world music (Peruvian brass bands) materials. I've never done anything very contemporary. I like the personal associations of older pop (everyone has a different one) and the generic quality of the even older music. When I want to be of the moment I prefer to work with a live musician.

JLW: How did you hit on the CD skipping idea? (Was it entirely yours, or was it 'in the air'?) Has anybody else copied or developed your innovations?

NC: I looked at the CD player as a challenge. I prefer vinyl in almost every aspect, but 5 years ago it looked as though the CD would take over. I took it upon myself to try to corrupt this "perfect" medium. I reasoned that, unlike a record, the laser "needle" did not pick up on pause or when moving from track 1 to 11. So I hunted around inside my player and found a signal intriguingly labelled "mute". I ripped the pin off the chip, and the player hasn't shut up since. I can scratch across the disc. Skipping loop rhythms are nice because unlike on a record they are not regular, they hiccup or stutter (from Devil's Music to the skipping CD's, I keep coming back to Lucier's speech impediment).

I know other people who have prepared the actual discs to cause similar behaviour (Sellotape, crayon, scratch, microwave) or have used expensive DJ players to cue and loop, but I don't know of anyone else whose done similar circuit mods to plain players. (By the way, with an ordinary CD player you can only damage the CD so much before the player refuses to play it or just shuts down; with my mods the player just keeps on spinning.)

But a few weeks ago I was leaving the Indy 500 time trials with my brother and I stopped the car radio scan (another of my favourite instruments) on wh at sounded exactly like my music: a CD skipping on a few seconds of an REM-ish tune. But in the 20 minutes before we had driven out of range (and my brother was ready to kill me) it never moved along, so we concluded that the station had been abandoned by staff for a fire drill or real disaster and according to Murphy's law the CD chose that time to get stuck. It was a beautiful moment, 'though.

JLW: What are you working on right now?

NC: My original trombone-propelled electronics (read the Leonardo article for details) were run over by a cab in the Amsterdam airport. It still works but is not totally reliable, so I've built a new one using the STEIM SensorLab. It spits out midi, which is a drag, but I've found some DSP boxes that make it worth adapting to the Esperanto.

I'm finishing a series of pieces on the trauma to the 6 senses, using text-driven musical systems of various sorts (including the backwards guitars).

I've just finished a piece for bass flute and skipping CD of Shakuhachi music playing back through a speaker in the head joint of the flute; sometimes the flutist plays notes herself, sometimes she just uses the flute as a filter. Lesley Olson commissioned the work.

I'm working on an installation and chamber opera about seances and spiritualism based on the life of Anna Mary Howitt, a nineteenth- century founder of the pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood. It features the world's first "ouija-to-Midi converter" that channels voices and sound to furniture and objects around the set in response to the position of the glass upon the table. It uses electronics and live players and actors.

OK. I have to go to bed and get to Germany tomorrow AM. No time to even read this over, so I hope you're a good editor.



JLW: many thanks, Nic phew, what a reply . . . I'll have to get some other magazine to publish a really long piece about you! And I'll enjoy editing it.

best wishes


Copyright © 1995 by John L Walters and Nic Collins



here follows text of piece commissioned for Wired UK by Robin Hunt (in 1995)


Composer Nicolas Collins has always been good with gadgets. He comes "from a long line of Yankee craftsmen and minor inventors - some ancestor's 'one horse shay' [chaise] actually made it into the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC," and, like Philip Glass, can turn his hand to a bit of NY loft plumbing. His music, bubbling out of hot-rodded samplers and CD players, is in the experimental tradition of Alvin Lucier and John Cage.

For those of us with cupboards full of electronic junk, Collins is an inspiration. The "trombone-propelled electronics" he lugged around lofts, clubs and studios for years (until it was flattened by a Dutch taxi) was a lash-up of $12 trombone, Commodore 64 processor board, dog leash and an early 1980s studio processor called the Ursa Major Stargate. He wrote the code himself. This was no ordinary horn - a loudspeaker replaced the mouthpiece and the slide did the job of a computer mouse. More American know-how goes into CD player abuse: "I hunted around inside my player and found a signal intriguingly labelled 'mute'. I ripped the pin off the chip, and the player hasn't shut up since."

The musical result is a crazy-paving path from pure acoustic noise to a messy collage of familiar 'real-world' sounds. "I've never been interested in synthesizers at all," says Collins. The unrequited longing of 'I Wish' (a treatment of the opening bars to the Beach Boys' 'California Girls') and the heartbreakingly sad 'Baby It's You' come from a series of "love songs to pop songs" that mangle old records by Roy Orbison, the Shirelles, Italian baroque music and Peruvian brass bands. His 'Devil's Music' pieces scoop up live radio broadcasts. "I learn about musical form from the behaviour and misbehaviour of technology," says Collins.

This sample, scratch, cut and paste method may make Collins sound achingly hip, but he's usually in the right place a couple of years too early. Though he grew up in the 1960s, "when pop dominated the sonic environment", his natural habitat is in the creative cracks between genres such as electroacoustic, improvised, and concert music. His latest piece, a commission from flutist Lesley Olson, is for a "skipping CD" of shakuhachi music played through a speaker in the head joint of a bass flute.

He relishes the riskiness of a music where new ground is broken every day: "I find it curious to read in the pop press that a 'radical new form of popular music' has emerged when what I hear in Jungle, say, is basically just a snare mixed higher . . . this is not a revolution, sorry." But when Collins claims he would never make a good rock musician ("I don't have the talent") he may be underestimating his unique selling point - a mellifluous, measured speaking voice that contrasts effectively with the Heath Robinson sonic mayhem. You can hear it on 'It Was A Dark And Stormy Night' (Trace Elements Records CD) and 'Still Lives' (on 'Musical Machinery', Unknown Public issue 4).

Copyright © 1995 John L Walters


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