Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking // Nicolas Collins
review by Guy Van Belle
Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking
As a preliminary remark and before we take a closer look at Nicolas Collins' recent book "Handmade Electronic Music: The Art of Hardware Hacking", we must admit that there are very few works dealing with technological art that can combine successfully the artistic and the technical/technological. What is in literature called a poetica, more exactly an either prescriptive but more recently possibly also a descriptive how-to-do-it overview with tips and tricks and describing stylistic effects by doing such or so, seems to be profoundly lacking in the more technological arts. We either get theoretical texts, or down to earth dry manuals, or curator and exhibition or even festival related catalogues. 'Handmade Electronic Music' is definitely very different from that.
In the introduction, David Behrman writes about the current revival of self-made electronics in the arts. After more than 20 years of almost exclusive software and computer works, again we find a lot of workshops being organized introducing electronics and soldering. The aquisition boards (like the open source arduino development [arduino.cc]) seem to breed a new generation of DIY artists-programmers. Even a rather new term "physical computing" got coined, indicating the flow and translation of data from sensors and analog data to the digital computer environment and back. But we must admit, if you are not too skilled with electronic parts and soldering, some of these things may be pretty tough to handle for the creative and skilled musician or video maker, even after spending a week of tinkering on an Ars Electronica Festival workshop. And on second thoughts not a lot of new approaches and art works seem to leave the workshop tables.
What Nic achieved over a mere 230 pages seems to give the manual almost the status of a invaluable masterwork in any respect. It combines essential technical recepies for novices to electronics in experimenting with their surroundings. It introduces the beginning electronic musician enthousiastically into a world in which everyday appliances with a few additional electronics can be transformed into original instruments for performing with. Gradually the book builds up and explains some basics of electronics while showing the use within making music. This reverses the general line that we see in a lot of other works. Compare for instance another recently published, and in our opinion invaluable manual for artists, "Physical Computing: Sensing and Controlling the Physical World with Computers" by Dan O'Sullivan and Tom Igoe (Thomson Course Technology, 2004). You will find the more creative chapters on sound, light and movement only at the end of the work after you went through the tough explanations of concepts and communications, programming and building circuits.
Bu 'Handmade Electronic Music' starts with making sound and ends with a lot of suggestions for building your own original instruments. You make your own microphones, speakers, oscillators, transformers, ... from broken toys, electronic paycards, old contact mikes, dusty tape heads, and a handful of cheap electronics, while on the side even experimenting with custom made video projections. The explanations are given in Nicolas's lofty but witty style in which he is known for teaching the same kind of workshops. The initial "seven basic rules for hacking" remind of Asimov's 'I Robot' classic, and form a leitmotiv through the work, while the structure of the manual reflects almost the 'senses' a beginning electronic hacker can be defined by: listening, touching, building, looking, etc... And even if you don't change your attitude towards electronics and music, at least you will have fun messing around and at the same time making a hell lot of noise!
But Nic Collins uses not only this bottom-up approach to achieve that you are making sound from the first pages on, he also illustrates the very easy to understand DIY principles with a side-explanation of many of the musicians who used these principles in their compositions and works from the last century. In a sense, at the same time you get educated in the context of contemporary music while you are taking your radio apart, relating your casual-technical manoevres with a historical-aesthetical context: Cowell, Nancarrow, Partch, Mumma, Tudor, Cage, Theremin, Lucier, Stockhausen, Ashley, and many more of the electronic music heroes from the last 50 years. And as if the descriptions only are not sufficient, on top of the book you get a wonderful CD with 20 examples of original and hard to find radical electronic music, relating to the topic of the manual.
So even if you do not finish the manual completely, it will give you an essential insight into the inventive and non-conventional ways in which some more or less famous electronic artists have moved into over the last 30 years. You almost stand behind their back watching them cooking up the dish current music is made of. In this magical world Nicolas Collins urges you to participate in. So back to where we started from: the word 'manual' is only a modest identification of this concise work, it is rather a poetics of electronic music, and as such an essential tool for any contemporary musician.