In “Works for Slightly Misused Technology,” a concert performance that aired last Friday evening, Nicholas Collins pushed the very boundaries of avant-garde music. Collins is a composer who has studied with Alvin Lucier at Wesleyan University and is currently a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He specializes in “electronic” music, so to speak. These aren’t the bouncy pop beats that you’re used to. Collins coaxes pieces of old electronics to make sounds that they were never intended to make.
In his first performance, Collins played games with the phenomenon of microphone feedback. He used a computer algorithm that modulated the feedback’s tone instead of letting it shriek. A pair of Carleton students were involved in the act – they stood in various parts of the concert hall and played notes on a flute and a cello to set off the feedback in interesting ways. Collins turned all the lights down in the hall, then sat nearly motionless on stage, monitoring the computer. A projection screen showed a glowing green graphic of the process. The effect? Well, this reporter was having nightmares.
In another act, Collins recycled a junked circuit board to make music. He had more Carleton students come on stage and touch electrodes to the board in various places. A device converted the current flowing between the electrodes into a tone. Next, Collins manipulated a device that made sound depending on information coming in from a lightmeter. It shrieked and guttered when he lit a candle near it.
The most informative performance was the middle one, called “The Talking Cure.” The purpose of this work was to be entirely extemporaneous. Making music with electronics requires careful planning, so Collins sought to explore the question “how unprepared can you be when you go on stage and still have it work?” He delivered an unplanned speech about the musical life while a rigged-up keyboard accompanies him with piano notes. The speech offers some surprising insights into his life as a performer. “One of the big problems with electronic music is that you’re not really sure if anything is working until it’s too late,” he says. An analog instrument “might not be in tune when you unpack it, but it still makes a sound.” The electronic instruments that he works with, on the other hand, fail catastrophically when they fail. To deal with this uncertainty, he has been designing pieces to make him as stressed out as possible, such as “The Talking Cure.”
New and different? Indeed. Will altered microphone feedback and circuit board tones be the next musical craze? That remains to be seen.