In the 1980s, Nic Collins was a ubiquitous mover and shaker of the Downtown new-music scene. He spent the last seven years in Amster dam and Berlin, however, and as of this past September he now lives and works in Chica go—which may be, as some East Coast culture mavens have suggested, a different kind of expatriation (though I’ll put Chicago up against Amsterdam any day). His music seems to have undergone a concomitant change, evident in his recent concert in the “Interpretations” se ries. Once gritty and raucous in a Downtown conceptualist noise tradition, Collins’s work has become friendlier, more personal, emotive, with bittersweet tonal sonorities, touching texts, and program-note references to his children. Removed from New York, it seems, he mellowed.
In at least one respect, however, Collins’s preoccupations have remained consistent. His magnum opus of the late ’80s was an excitingly clever work with a self-referential text—It Was a Dark and Stormy Night—in which the vocal part triggered prerecorded samples from a digital reservoir. It was a potent technique, and Collins has continued developing it, most re cently in seven new pieces gathered together on a CD, Sound Without Picture, on Herb Levy’s Periplum label. Each piece has to do with one of the senses, some of them through deprivation: deafness, blindness, the scent of perfume, the “sixth sense.” He has also turned the technique into a solo performing venture (Dark and Stormy was for ensemble), with an optional second musician for some pieces—in the four pieces he performed here, with Jonathan Impett adding subtle commentary on trumpet.
For instance, the text of Strange Heaven is a letter from a blind woman contrasting for her grown son her own experiences of early motherhood and his experiences with his new born son. “I must have known less about your face,” Collins intoned with touching understate ment, “than you will know about Quentin’s. I mean, I knew its shape….” Collins’s voice stirred up lightly ringing minor-key sonorities, his percussive consonants triggered stronger pings, and his whistling elicited high trills. Sound for Picture was a first-person account of South African
poet David Wright telling how he realized he had become deaf; like the sounds of the poet’s world, Collins’s voice gradually became subsumed in electronic textures. For Still Lives, with a text by Nabokov, Collins made a CD of late-Renaissance music by Giuseppe Guami loop erratically. Reduced to snip pets, the music’s chords were dwelt upon lovingly, and deconstructed with a nebulous minimalism reminiscent of Ingram Marshall’s music. (Beware: Still Lives is the first cut on the CD, and immediately sounds like a skip ping, defective disc—but it’s not.)
We’ve had numerous women composers—Brenda Hutchinson, Laetitia Sonami, Eve Beglarian, Shelley Hirsch, and others—use such personal memoirs as pretexts for compositions, focusing us on the music while the text, seemingly less important but with its stronger emotional point, sneaks around the back of the listener’s psyche. It seemed unusual, in a welcome way, to see Collins shatter that subtle gender identification, especially as some of the narratives he read connoted a woman’s view point. It meant that, beyond its finely honed technical wizardry, Sound Without Picture expressed a poignant universal humanity.
To compound the irony, Collins was paired—though the juxtaposition seemed more haphazard than that word suggests—with a more ambitious, hour-long work called Sonic Mandala by a young woman, May-Tchi Chen. In chantlike modalities, baritone Thomas Buckner sang mystical verses by the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi, as Wu Man strummed a Chinese
pipa, Julie Josephson growled on a trombone, and the Midsummer String Quartet provided the music’s core. The work pushed every spiritual button it could reach: There were references to the Italian mystic composer Giacinto Scelsi, a movement based on a hymn by Hildegard of Bingen, and slides projected above of Tibetan temples, mandalas, and placid mountain ranges.
Yet the best moments came when the music stripped down to just Buckner and the pipa. Elsewhere, not only was the spirituality ostentatious, but the music was riddled with academic gestures, reminiscent of Webern only tonal, precluding any throughline that would have held our attention through this vast can vas. Too bad—had intentions been results, we would all have floated home enlightened.