The appeal of messy electronics

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Nicolas Collins is an electronic music pioneer and Professor of Sound at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He's also one of the advisors for SOUND CHECK, and we asked him to write the following guest post to explain what the exhibiton means to him.

My parents grew up on two different continents, separated by language and 5,000 miles. They shared one common trait: both had been told as children not to bother asking for piano lessons, since “no-one in our family has ever had any musical talent.” I was a precocious pop music fan as a child, during the British Invasion, but as a result of my genetic inheritance, it never occurred to me to create music until adolescence — at which point I was more interested in being a guitarist than playing the guitar (much less practicing the instrument), and this was reflected in my astonishing lack of instinct and skill. 

But I was smitten by the siren sound of electronics — the processing of the guitar, even given the modest techniques available at the time (distortion, tape echo) attracted me more than what I could coax out of the strings — as well as (hello, 14th birthday in 1968!) by its rebel yell: with no Jimi, Jerry or Eric to compare myself to, I naively thought there was no obvious benchmark for “talent”.

But there was precious little available in the way of affordable electronic instruments at that time. So I began the 1970s learning electronics from hobbyist magazines and, after numerous frustrating failures, eventually cobbled together my first oscillator midway through my last term of high school. 

A year later, I was lucky enough to end up under Alvin Lucier’s wing at Wesleyan University, and he brought in circuit masters like David Behrman and David Tudor to teach his students. By the end of that decade, many of my musical peers had abandoned their soldering irons and started programming early microcomputers like the Kim-I. Even before the ubiquity of cmd-z, it was easier to rewrite code than de-solder components. These new machines also offered the potential of merging elements of an instrument (electronic sounds), a score (programmed sequence) and a performer (decision-making software) in a single portable, powerful package.

The Moog Sound Lab UK at SOUND CHECK at Science Gallery Dublin 

I kept a hand in circuitry even as I programmed away the 1980s and 1990s. Despite the advances in MIDI music devices and computers, I felt that hardware — whether silicon or strings — was more playable than software. When I went on stage, I took comfort in holding a physical thing.  

Nonetheless, the 1990s ended on a note of digital exuberance. It seemed as though anything was possible — if not right now, then for sure with the next software revision or model of Macintosh. Laptops ruled the stage, Napster was launched in 1999, and the iPod was introduced in 2001. At the same time, as the naughts progressed, I noticed a digital fatigue setting in. The rise of circuit bending, as proselytized by its pioneer Reed Ghazala, belied a growing interest in sonic alternatives to the all-powerful computer. 

I had started teaching in the Department of Sound at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. My students were artists, not musicians. Few played any conventional instruments. 99% of the music they heard was electronic — if not in its production (house, techno) then in its means of transmission (through earbuds and speakers). They used their laptops for everything — cmd-x/cmd-v was the universal tool by which they could cut and paste anything: words, drawings, photographs, video, audio, html code….  

But the mouse and keyboard are not tactile, and every artist starts out a messy child, scribbling at the kitchen table, even if as adults they work in the digital domain. Artists, by and large, are drawn to things, and computer files are just not very thing-y. When my students learned that I was old enough to remember the first wave of electronic music, with its homemade circuits, they prodded me to teach a class in making electronic things. Which I did. My handouts evolved into a book, Handmade Electronic Music – The Art Of Hardware Hacking, which led to workshops in enough countries to convince me that the appeal of messy electronics extended beyond the walls of my art school.

SOUND CHECK grows out of this rediscovered enthusiasm for things that persist in our increasingly virtual world. Reviewing the proposals we received, I was struck by how wonderfully impractical they all were. Every one of them suggested a tidier, more reliable digital alternative — but a significantly less enjoyable one.  Software (when it runs) can be extremely useful, but programming a sequencer seldom brings the pleasure of running one’s forefinger, Chico-Marx-style, up a piano keyboard; moving a mouse across a screen representation of a sound file lacks the seductive resistance of scratching a record on a turntable; twiddling the knobs on a synthesizer beats data entry. 

In the words of pianist Bob Gluck:

“Playing the piano has always been a fundamentally physical act for me. Feeling the keys resist my finger pressure is at the core of the experience. When I listen to music, the sounds echo in my hands as I hear them in my ears. As I listen, I have a sensation of weight, of sounds evoking muscle memories — whether or not their source is a piano. I do not have perfect pitch, thank goodness; instead, musical sounds evoke in me a kinesthetic awareness. Often my musical decisions are driven by the physicality of the means of making sound. It is no wonder that in my late teens, I so loved cutting and pasting magnetic tape.”  
— Playing and listening through the body, music and metaphor, unpublished manuscript, 2016.

Your fingers are as essential to musical appreciation as to its creation — as SOUND CHECK should demonstrate, viscerally. Feel it.

New York born and raised, Nicolas spent most of the 1990s in Europe, where he was Visiting Artistic Director of Stichting Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music (STEIM) in Amsterdam, and a German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) composer-in-residence in Berlin. An early adopter of microcomputers for live performance, Nicolas also makes use of homemade electronic circuitry and conventional acoustic instruments. He is editor-in-chief of the Leonardo Music Journal, and a Professor in the Department of Sound at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His book, Handmade Electronic Music — The Art of Hardware Hacking (Routledge), has influenced emerging electronic music worldwide. His indecisive career trajectory is reflected in his having played at both the infamous music club CBGB in New York and the Royal Concertgebouw in Amsterdam.