Vol. 40 Issue 4 Reviews
Nicolas Collins: Salvaged – Compositions 1986-2014

Dvd disc, 2015, Trace Elements Records, TE-1012015DVD; available from Trace Elements Records, 3500 N. Lake Shore Drive, #10A, Chicago, IL, USA; telephone: +1-773-697-9478; www.nicolascollins.com.

Reviewed by Ross Feller
Gambier, Ohio, USA

DVD CoverGiven the numerous slick packaging and marketing efforts by mainstream and not-so-mainstream musicians, it was refreshing to receive Salvaged, Nicolas Collins’s first dvd collection, which sports a modest, ecologically friendly, recycled cardboard envelope that looks like its cover was printed with an insufficiently inked letterpress. This do-it-yourself look pays homage to the theme and title of the dvd. At the same time, this disc is an example of high-tech multimedia at its best and most creative.

Collins should be a familiar name to readers of the Computer Music Journal. His pioneering work with live electronics, computer music, and hardware hacking is well known. His book Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking is considered by many to be one of the best sources for this type of approach to music making.

Recorded and produced at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where Collins teaches and serves as chair of the sound department, Tall Poppies, the first piece of this collection begins with an enticing, close-up view, high-definition visual of three sparklers alight. This piece was originally part of a three-channel video installation for a gallery in Brooklyn, New York. The dvd version reformats the video into a single screen image.

Tall Poppies is firmly ensconced in the tradition of conceptual, process-oriented works, but realized with high-quality video and audio systems. Contact microphones were placed on the sparklers’ stems to amplify the resultant sounds. This close miking amplifies what can be described as a stochastic, timbral array that sounds like what one might hear inside a large glass jar as small kernels, or pebbles, are slowly drained from it.

In the second half of the piece, after the sparklers go out, one sees a black screen but hears soft popping sounds as each stick’s temperature begins to fall back to room temperature. These popping sounds are spatialized and mixed in such a way as to suggest human intentionality. The composer has carefully placed his sounds in a vibrant, three-dimensional field, effectively emphasizing their irregular pulsations. There is a poignant moment just after the sparklers die out in which the brightly lit image is ‘burned’ into our retinae, continuing to be seen even after it disappears from the screen. At almost two minutes in length, this piece might be thought of as an insignificant contribution to the dvd, but the opposite is the case.

According to the one-sheet for this dvd, The Royal Touch, reanimates “deceased, discarded electronic circuitry.” The piece begins with a close-up shot of two hands lightly depressing twelve tiny lead balls soldered to the ends of twelve wires, placed atop a familiar green, computer circuit board. The balls are actually repurposed fishing weights. The hands we see in the video are middle-aged, weathered hands that clearly represent a wealth of experience. As we see this image, which may remind some readers of a YouTube instructional video, we hear a familiar sound: the crackling sound that occurs when a circuit is weakly, or only partly, connected, not unlike what happens when a guitarist plugs in his or her quarter-inch cable to a guitar amplifier whose gain is not fully attenuated.

At various points in this piece the hands are briefly removed and then placed atop the small heap of balls and wires. In addition to the crackling sounds, we hear a variety of squealing sounds that seems related to the amount of pressure being applied, as well as the location points of contact. Whatever the case, the level of sonic variety is engaging.

In addition to the streams of high frequency sine waves, sounding like fireworks as they blast off into the sky (and almost just as loud), we also hear a variety of crackling noises that, given the almost motionless hand movements, conjure up a busy, unseen, miniaturized world.

Anyone that has hacked circuit boards from toys or old cell phones knows that finding ‘good’ sounds can involve a lot of trial and error, as well as much luck. So the sheer variety of sounds and timbres that we hear in The Royal Touch is something to appreciate and savor. It is also worth noting that this piece involves subtle performance aspects such as small amounts of pressure applied by the performer’s fingertips, which also move horizontally, ever so slightly. These aspects are not necessarily obvious even when viewing the close-up video footage of this work.

With an overall duration around 15 minutes, one might legitimately assume that, given the pared down nature of the visuals and resultant sounds, this work might become monotonous minutes before ending. But this is not the case. The challenge of matching sound to finger placement, or movement, is an intriguing exercise in patience and discovery. There are also sections in which the fingers fully, or partially, disappear from view, making the listener wonder if they have been moved off-screen to attend to other tasks such as panning, or whether they are simply leaving the lead contacts to make sounds on their own. This is difficult to determine since so much of the sonic content does not follow a direct or linear path from the physical movements of the fingers.

Another intriguing aspect of this piece involves irregular, pulsating sounds that seem to speed up and slow down haphazardly and unexpectedly. This can be heard as an anthropomorphizing of what is essentially a ‘soulless’ circuit board. There is also the sense that the circuit board is groaning, iconically represented in sound, in pain or delight, as the fingertips ‘massage’ its solder points. This is similar in sound, if not in approach, to David Tudor’s well known live electronic pieces such as Hedgehog.

In the next piece, Waggle Dance, we see the faces and necks of walking performers lit by the solid colors of their laptop screens, which they carry and slowly walk in circular pathways. This work was written for the Princeton Laptop Orchestra (PLOrk). Without reading the program notes for this piece a listener might assume that the sounds heard, which sound like aliasing, distortion, or noisy artifacts are coordinated somehow with the performers’ body movements. And in fact this is the case. According to the liner notes “the sound material consists of feedback between the internal mikes and speakers in the laptops, triggered by crackle noise extracted from antique cylinder recordings.” The overall effect was poignant and ghostlike.

Imperfekt (The Simple Past) is an audio-only work, a category that some say will become obsolete before too long. I’ve even heard millennials admit to never having heard music without a visual accompaniment. Presumably Collins selected this piece for his dvd to showcase its spatial qualities at a higher sample rate than that found on another currently obsolete object: the cd. When we play this piece from the dvd we encounter a quick title frame, followed by the disclaimer that this piece has no video component. Following this is a black screen for the entire 13-minute duration. After becoming acclimated to the sparklers, fingers touching circuits, and colored laptop screens reflected on the exposed skin of performers in the previous works, one is forgiven for hallucinating visual content in a piece that claims not to have any. This is exactly how I experienced it.

According to the liner notes, the sounds in Imperfekt (The Simple Past) come from “a barely functional Soviet radio passed through a maze of computer signal processing.” At the beginning we hear a series of pulsating clicks that sound as if they are swirling around your head in a circular motion. These are interrupted by various deviations from this pathway. Similarly the clicks are interrupted at various points by distortions and sonic artifacts. I had the impression that I was hearing the results of dials or pan pots being manipulated in real time, which conjured the image of a human at the controls, invisible to view but aurally present via the audible traces of physical movement.

In some cases the sounds are so soft that they are at the threshold of audibility. The Soviet era radio is tapped to produce a wealth of sounds but not including any standard broadcast material, only the byproducts or the ‘space’ between stable stations. This is the primary material for the piece. In an age where much has become digitized, this emphasis on what are essentially analog byproducts, even as the computer processes them, is ear opening.

The fifth piece, Salvage (Guiyu Blues), presents us with a view of a computer motherboard from above and a process of using electronic probes to amplify and ‘coax’ sounds from the motherboard. One performer begins with a probe in each hand, precisely touching various parts of the board. Gradually more performers are added until six are all probing at once. We hear a rich cacophony that gradually builds in textural density with the addition of each new performer. Occasionally there are unexpected pauses even though the probes continue moving. At other times it appears that the performers seem to respond to each other’s probes, building to a continuous stream of sound as the performers interfere with each other more and more. There are also sections in which all 12 probes suddenly freeze, cued by lighting operated by a seventh performer. In these sections the textural density diminishes. Each performer initially explores one quadrant of the board, eventually ‘invading’ the others’ quadrants. For the last 30 seconds, the amplification drops out leaving only the sounds of the probes themselves as they move around on the board’s surface.

In Memoriam Michel Waisvisz employs a flickering candle to control the tuning of four oscillators. The oscillators are overdriven, producing some very harsh and distorted sounds. As the candle flickers from air currents, the oscillators respond by producing what sounds like simple frequency modulation, i.e., vibrato. Like the other works on this disc In Memoriam Michel Waisvisz engages physical processes that interact with circuitry or computer processing. This piece is a fitting tribute to a pioneer in experimental electronic instruments and artistic director of the Studio for Electro Instrumental Music (STEIM) in Amsterdam, who passed away much too soon at the age of 59.

The last piece, Tobabo Fonio, dates from 1986, a fact that is made obvious by the faded, grainy video footage. But although the video looks dated, the audio does not sound as such. This may be because video standards have changed so much during the past 30 years. Or perhaps the piece was shot with substandard equipment. Even if this is the case the ‘look’ certainly matches the overall salvage aesthetic so prominent on this disc.

Tobabo Fonio uses brass band samples from the Peruvian Andes. These samples are digitally transformed and played back via a modified trombone ‘preformed’ by the composer. In addition to what looks like a button-infested circuit board attached to the slide, Collins also installed a speaker into the body of the trombone. This enables the performer to create highly directional sounds via dance-like body movements. The trombone is cleverly used not just to trigger sounds but also to transform them through its tubing, adding resonance to the raw samples. It is not until late in the piece that the source materials are finally revealed in unadulterated forms, like a theme and variations piece that begins with variations, slowly revealing the theme by the end.

Overall, the pieces on this disc offer partial-view, close-up visuals along with accouterments of sonic distortion, the result of physical processes. In one respect each piece showcases a process or set of processes, with the results being determined by the boundaries of each process. This is the composer’s first dvd of his work, and his first attempt at mastering a 5.1 mix. Unfortunately, I did not have access to a working 5.1 system. The spatial effects would certainly have been more pronounced in a 5.1 system. Nevertheless, they are still powerful and highly effective in the stereo mix also supplied on the dvd.

One criticism of the music on this disc might be its over-reliance on sprawling, through-composed formal structures. Given the fact that most of the music was generated from processes, mostly analog processes interacting with digital hardware, this type of formal structure is, perhaps, to be expected, as it seems to be the norm. One usually can grasp the opening logic in work of this stripe, but the endings more often than not, sound arbitrary or are completely dependent on some physical process winding down. But this is a small issue compared with the intriguing work found on this disc. It contains some highly compelling experimental work by an important figure in the computer music world of today.