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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.


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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."

Nicolas Collins

When: Sat 5/13, 7 PM

Where: Quimby's, 1854 W. North

Price: Free

Info: 773-324-0910

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marty Perez.

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