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Clip: Handmade Electronic Music with Nicolas Collins

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  • Carl Z.
    May 12, 2006 Lock Up Your Gameboys Nicolas Collins, electronic composer and master jerry-rigger, has put
    Message 1 of 1 , May 12, 2006
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      May 12, 2006

      Lock Up Your Gameboys
      Nicolas Collins, electronic composer and master jerry-rigger, has put
      the lessons from his Art Institute circuit-bending class into a book.

      Nicolas Collins likes to refer to what he does as "tickling
      electronics." He's been building his own musical circuits since 1972,
      when he was 18 years old, and since then he's established a worldwide
      reputation as an instrument inventor and composer, creating complex,
      intricate music with odd jerry-rigged contraptions -- most famously a
      wired trombone that worked as a sound processor, with a speaker driver
      instead of a mouthpiece and a homemade interface attached to the
      slide. He's been a professor at the School of the Art Institute since
      1999 (and chair of the sound department since 2001), and he's made it
      part of his job to teach novice circuit benders how to laugh off the
      warning labels on consumer electronics -- the ones that say no user
      serviceable parts inside.

      To that end Collins has just published Handmade Electronic Music: The
      Art of Hardware Hacking (Routledge), a sort of manual for aspiring
      sound-art counterrevolutionaries: though the laptop has come to
      dominate the genre in the past decade, a radio, toy, or off-the-shelf
      appliance rebuilt as a cheap, intuitive instrument can still solve
      problems software can't. "Computers are wonderful, don't get me
      wrong," Collins writes in the introduction, "but the usual interface
      -- an ASCII keyboard and a mouse -- is awkward, and makes the act of
      performing a pretty indirect activity -- like trying to hug a baby in
      an incubator. . . . Sometimes it's nice to reach out and touch a
      sound. This book lifts the baby out of the bassinet and drops her,
      naked and gurgling, into your waiting arms, begging to be tickled."

      The book began its life as a series of student handouts for a
      summer-school class Collins started teaching in 2000. "The Art
      Institute is a very computer-oriented school, and also very
      interdisciplinary," says Collins, "but there were two gaps I noticed
      in what was going on. One was a lack of cheap and dirty solutions for
      making technology work -- what I call 'glue solutions' or 'prison
      technology,' like making a knife out of a bedspring. It's this whole
      idea of gluing things together and just figuring them out.

      "And also, despite the obsession with computers," he continues, "a lot
      of these art students are very tactile, and computers are not very
      tactile objects. If you have a laptop and a drum set side by side,
      they appeal to a different set of responses."

      Each of the book's 30 chapters corresponds to a different hands-on
      project, with titles like "How to Make a Contact Mike: Using Piezo
      Disks to Pick Up Tiny Sounds," "Tape Heads: Playing Credit Cards With
      Hand-Held Tape Heads," and "World's Simplest Oscillator: Six
      Oscillators on a 20-Cent Chip, Guaranteed to Work."

      All of them, says Collins, are designed to connect people more
      directly to the process of manipulating sound with electronics. "One
      of the first things my students do in class is take a cheap transistor
      radio, open it up, and lick their hand and push it down on the circuit
      board. And at a certain point, it just starts to squeal and make all
      these amazingly weird sounds," he says. "For four bucks, you've got
      this beautiful touch-sensitive synthesizer. And the way you did it was
      by sticking your body in the circuit -- which is an experience that
      the average computer hacker is deprived of. It's a very gratifying
      experience: you're so proud of yourself when you make your first
      oscillator, even if it just kind of goes wheeee."

      Eventually Collins exported part of his curriculum into a public
      workshop, which he's conducted all over Europe and America and as far
      away as China. Each typically ends with a performance where students
      demonstrate the instruments they've developed. "The last one I did in
      Switzerland, they were literally still soldering as the audience was
      filing in," he says, laughing. "It was like walking into a sweatshop,
      or some strange Soviet factory concert."

      By 2002 the materials he handed out to the students in his
      summer-school class had evolved into a rough manual. "Then that manual
      got out, and by 2004 it'd made the rounds and fell into the hands of
      this publisher, [Richard Carlin at] Routledge, who said, 'We think
      this could be a great textbook.' And I looked at him like he was
      insane," says Collins. "But at the same time, until I took the job at
      the Art Institute, I'd been a freelance musician my whole life. Call
      me a whore, but I'm not gonna turn down money to publish a book."

      After he signed the book deal, Collins got to work cleaning up his
      classroom material. He found an illustrator to redo his crude
      schematic drawings and added several small essays to make the whole
      thing read more like a textbook. "They're like 500-word sidebars about
      how John Cage worked with electronics," he says, "or how people have
      integrated visual media and circuitry." He also compiled a companion
      CD, including tracks by artists ranging from London circuit-bending
      group P Sing Cho to New York composer David Behrman, who in the 60s
      became one of the first to experiment with home-built electronic
      instruments. "Most of the material on there is rare, hard-to-find,
      out-of-print stuff off obscure labels," says Collins. "But it provides
      some nice examples of the concepts we're getting at in the class."

      The publication of Handmade Electronic Music is timely --
      circuit-bending pioneer Reed Ghazala put out his own book in 2005, and
      in recent years the movement has been gaining traction outside the
      sound-art community. Noise and experimental bands like Wolf Eyes,
      Kites, and Nautical Almanac all use circuit-bent instruments, and a
      fledgling Rhode Island outfit called Casper Electronics has supplied
      circuit-bent toys to the likes of film composer Danny Elfman and
      Fantomas front man Mike Patton.

      Collins helped program the third annual Bent festival, held last month
      in New York, and among the nearly four dozen acts appearing were local
      solo artist Spunky Toofers and former Chicagoan Peter Blasser, whose
      bizarre and often beautiful homemade synths have made him a guru to
      circuit benders. "It's like a huge group of people who are engaged in
      the arcana of hacking a Speak & Spell," says Collins. "It's a young
      crowd, a grassroots movement. It has nothing to do with the academic
      scene or pop music -- it's very much in its own corner." Chicago's
      thriving community includes guitarist Todd Bailey of Voltage, who's
      lately started selling analog-synth kits at the band's shows, and
      noise impresario Dave Pecoraro, better known as Rotten Milk, who not
      only mercilessly abuses electronic toys but helps run the zine and
      CD-R label Terry Plumming. Collins isn't even the only person in town
      teaching classes in circuit bending anymore: Patrick McCarthy of the
      Rubber Monkey Puppet Company holds a semiregular seminar at the Old
      Town School.

      On Saturday Collins will be at Quimby's for a release party and free
      hacking demo, where he'll continue the ongoing project of demystifying
      his own expertise. "This book is not a work of genius," he says. "It
      is rather, as the expression goes, an insightful look into the
      obvious. Often you can precede certain things with so much theory and
      fear that you'll never get started. Or you can say, 'I'm gonna have a
      couple of beers and just jump in.' I tend to take that approach."

      --BOB MEHR

      Nicolas Collins
      When Sat 5/13, 7 PM
      Where Quimby's, 1854 W. North
      Price Free
      Info 773-324-0910
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