Nigel Rollings Has Some Good Ideas September 25, 1978

My first encounter with the music of Nigel Rollings occurred some weeks ago, when the young British-American composer was accompanying a theatrical event in Washington Square Park. He was playing on several rackfuls of interesting percussion and homemade instruments, but the general knockings and ringings he was producing did not seem so interesting, and I only stayed a short time. Last week, however, I noticed that he was presenting an evening solo concert, and I decided to have another listen. I was glad I did. This September 9 program, which took place at Rollings’s Front Street loft, included 12 short pieces. None of these were very long or very profound in themselves, but the concert as a whole turned out to be a most stimulating hour and a half.

Rollings’s formal training was in architecture and graphics, but he soon drifted toward new music, publishing a little magazine and following the activities of the Musicians Coop of London, a group that includes many jazz based experimentalists such as Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, Tony Oxley, and Paul Rutherford. Four years ago he came to this country, where he earns his living as a graphics designer and devotes much of his time to making music. Like many with visual arts backgrounds, he loves to pick up odd objects he finds on the streets, and he often manages to turn these into musical instruments. He did almost no public concerts, however, until this spring, when he began a series of monthly presentations at his loft. This economical format is perhaps a rather cautious way for a composer to introduce his work to the public, but it offers maximum preparation time and minimal pressure, and in general strikes me as a good idea. Rollings has many other good ideas. In fact, it seemed to me that there were more good ideas in this concert than I have heard at any concert by any young composer in some time.

Several pieces were played on the chord organ. As you probably remember, this instrument was designed some years ago as a means of selling organs to people who don’t know how to play them. As on the autoharp, one can find the right chord simply by pushing one button, thus relieving the users of having to learn the notes of the chords, and enabling them to concentrate on finding the melody. The instrument no doubt achieved its main purpose, which was to make money for the organ companies, but it was never taken very seriously in music education circles. Composers of experimental music also overlooked it, despite their interest in practically every other kind of organ. Enter Rollings, who found an abandoned chord organ on the street one Christmas Eve, took it home, and began to discover possibilities others had overlooked. Its chords, for example, are always voiced in the same restricted range, and that alone gives the instrument a unique sound. If you push two chord buttons at once you can sometimes make the chords pulsate against one another in odd ways. If you handle the buttons delicately enough you can kind of ease one chord in while you ease the other one out. If you manipulate the buttons quickly you can make extremely fast chord changes. All of these techniques would be more or less impossible on any other kind of organ, and thus Rollings came up with some lovely, repetitious, modal, nostalgic, minimalistic organ music that doesn’t sound at all like any of the other lovely, repetitious, modal, nostalgic, minimalist organ music that people have been turning out so profusely. That was another good idea.

One especially attractive segment of the concert was played on a vertical pane of glass about two feet across and five feet high. Rollings sprayed water liberally on both sides of the glass and began rubbing his fingers across it. At first he stroked the glass in simple motions that produced short phrases. Later he moved in larger circular motions that throbbed in longer phrases. Later he moved in big slashing movements that groaned in vigorous phrases. Many musicians would also have wanted to tap the glass, knock it, click it, and scrape it, but Rollings restrained himself, thus achieving a well-focused piece that was all about rubbing. The performance seemed to be basically an improvisation, but he must have practiced quite a bit, as he always seemed to know exactly what kind of sound a particular motion would produce, and he was able to move sensitively from one phrase to the 1978/a-la-monte-young-diary-oct-1974-sept-1978. Just a wet pane of glass. Another good idea.

At several points in the program Rollings turned on his short-wave radio. It was a powerful receiver, and he turned the dial with much respect for the distant signals it picked up. Eventually he would find a spot he liked and would leave the dial there, where the radio would provide a strange background while he drew a bow across some cymbals, or played some prerecorded piano music, or stimulated some of his homemade wind chimes. Many composers have used radio sounds, but I have seldom heard such arresting ones as those Rollings tuned in. Once he stopped the dial at a point where two humming sounds were moving in and out of phase with one another, throbbing gently and unpredictably. Sometimes he would find a frequency where three or four indecipherable signals would mix together at varying volumes, perhaps with bits of static sputtering around them. Another good idea.

Everything on the concert might be described as minimalist in nature. One segment was played exclusively with metal-tipped mallets on two suspended cymbals, and the keyboard segments generally involved simple phrases that repeated over and over. Other moments were devoted to dropping ball bearings into a metal lamp shade and casually dumping ping-pong balls onto his assemblage of instruments, which, incidentally, also included fire-alarm bells, heating pipes, a crude homemade stringed instrument, and an ingenious homemade clicking device. Like most minimalists, he never has a whole lot going on at once and never decorates the essential ideas very much. Unlike most minimalists, however, he doesn’t permit his individual pieces to go on for more than a few minutes. Frequently, too, the repetitive materials shift suddenly, veer into an unexpected turn, or otherwise break their own logic. That was particularly true in the chord organ music. Like some other younger composers I have encountered recently, Rollings is not content to lay down a couple of basic premises and respectfully allow the music to follow its course unhindered. He likes to tinker with his material, play games with it, even contradict it. One might call this ‘mannered minimalism,’ and one might dislike it, but one can also become totally fascinated by it. Another good idea.

Of course, Rollings is not alone in any of this, and in fact, his work fits rather neatly into the larger context of experimental music. His radio sounds, his toy piano, his homemade wind chimes, his found objects, and his general openness to all sounds clearly have roots in the kind of explorations that John Cage, Lucia Dlugoszewski, and others began many years ago. Philip Corner, Carole Weber, and Charlie Morrow are a few of the other New York composers who have also discovered that one can obtain a variety of high-quality bells quite inexpensively by shopping at the Canal Street fire-alarm shops instead of the music stores, and I am told that musicians have picked up on this solution in London and other cities as well. Fire-alarm bells have practically become standard instruments. Meanwhile, I have heard other cymbal solos by Bob Becker and Michael Canick just in the last few months. Anna Lockwood explored sounds of glass in some depths a few years ago. Skip La Plante, Jim Burton, and others have devised homemade instruments as ingenious as any of Rollings’s. And of course, Cage and Dlugoszewski continue to find new objects that make new sounds. There is nothing particularly unique about the direction Rollings is taking. But he is obviously aware of how others have traversed the same ground, he is able to skirt the main pitfalls and adept at finding shortcuts, and he does have a knack for coming up with, well, good ideas.


I have never heard Rollings’s name again, and I told Paul I suspected he had disappeared from the experimental music field. ‘That’s not surprising,’ Paul replied, ‘People like that usually disappear. They are just doing music for a short time, for their personal pleasure. But that’s why their work is so refreshing and interesting.’