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Reviewed by:
  • Salvaged—Compositions 1986–2014 by Nicolas Collins
  • Ross Feller
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;

Given 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, 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 [End Page 105] 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 2 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...


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pp. 105-108
Launched on MUSE
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