New York experimentalist speaks...
Nick Yulman

Although he grew up in Philadelphia, Nick Yulman has family history in New York. "My grandmother grew up on the Lower East Side," he tells me. "Her grandfather ran a restaurant on Houston Street." Yulman eventually followed his ancestors’ to the city and has lived on the same block in Greenpoint, Brooklyn for the past 10 years ("I moved next door at one point," he says).

Working from a studio in an old rope factory a block away from his apartment, many of Yulman’s projects are firmly rooted in the city. One of his most recent, ‘Immigration Song’, uses independently tuned piano strings stretched across a map to plot the paths of immigrants into the city since 1855. Another, ‘No Bills’, featured recordings of New Yorkers telling the stories of their own existence – and that of their ancestors – in the city.

Yulman’s work covers a far broader spectrum than would be expected of most recording musicians. His work incorporates robotics, oral history and performance art; his instruments vary from guitars to books used as sound modules and scraps of discarded metal found on city streets. A photo on Yulman’s website shows him onstage leant over a mass of cables and small boxes lined up on table, concentrating intently, while a wooden arm appears primed to strike the tin helmet perched on his head.

“My ideas tend to start off with wanting to create a particular experience,” he says. “Like I started doing installations with my robots because I wanted to make songs that you could walk through and create an experience of music that was very intimate.” He is currently developing a project called Bricolo, described as a “mechanical music system [that] allows digital music makers to incorporate robotics into their performance and recording setups.”

“Over the years, a lot of musicians have seen my stuff and expressed interest working with automated instruments,” Yulman tells me. “So I’m trying to create a tool that gives people who make music with computers an easy way use the sounds around them in their work.”

An additional aspect that makes Yulman’s work so appealing is his ability to incorporate all of it into bright pop music that – while inspired by his adventures in robotics and installation art – shares genes with the music of Beirut and Owen Pallet and displays strong melodic roots that hark back to his first musical experiments learning Beatles songs on guitar as a child.

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When did you start making music?

I started playing guitar when I was 13 by working my way through a Beatles songbook. My dad had a 4-track cassette recorder and bunch of equipment and instruments so I got excited pretty early about recording and building sound with layers. I had a band in high school and always wanted it to sound like Talking Heads and the Minutemen – that sort of ecstatic energy and mix of different styles.

How did you come to approaching music in the way that you do now? Was there a moment walking past a skip one day, raindrops hitting a tin can, that made you think, 'Hang on...'?

I'd been making music using a computer for years and enjoyed the control and iterative approach that it allows. At the same time, I was frustrated with the options for presenting this music in a live context. I wasn't really interested in performing with just a laptop. I also became wary of the relative lack of limitations one has when working with samples, synths and virtual instruments. You can spend days tweaking settings and applying new sounds, which is great, but also somewhat paralyzing. These automated physical instruments were a way to continue to use the computer as a musical tool while working with an output that provides more creative resistance for me and is more engaging for an audience. I also really wanted to make musical installations: not just a performance that happens on a stage but a whole musical environment that you can explore, like walking into a cartoon.

How do you go about composing? Working robotics into the process must affect how you approach it?

Definitely. A lot of the orchestration techniques I employ come out of experimenting with the sounds of different objects and trying push the limits of the devices that I build. For example, I’ve been working with a module I call the “Thing Synth” lately. Basically, I realized that I could get tuned notes out of objects I’d been using for percussion by striking them in very rapid succession. This becomes particularly interesting with things like books that have a variable physical volume. By opening up to different pages in the book as its being struck by the actuator, I can use it like a resonant filter on an analog synth.

What keeps you in NYC? What do you like about it?

The thing I like most about New York is how unknowable it is. It’s like having 50 different cities that you can visit just by getting on the subway or taking a bike ride. At the same time, it can feel like a small town – projects can spring up very organically just through conversations or running into people.

New York has a reputation as the home of lots of very trendy, very blog-friendly music. Is it a good environment for the kind of work you're doing?

I think so. My work combines music, installation art and interactive technology. There are pretty strong communities and institutions in the City for all of these things and I enjoy collaborating across them and existing in these different worlds.

The trendy stuff is what it is. There will always be people who like the trappings of being a musician or artist as much as actually creating things. That’s legit though – music is of course a very social thing. I actually think there are a fair number of New York based artists who have managed to capture some attention while doing pretty exciting stuff.

How much has the city's musical heritage played a part in your development?

It’s mindboggling to think of all the creative music that has sprung out of New York. Whether it’s John Cage or Laurie Anderson or Raymond Scott or the Bomb Squad, there’s definitely something about the City that’s inspired some pretty radical approaches to working with sound and music. As a teenager, I was very into the downtown jazz/noise/experimental what-have-you scene and so I think that always made me think of New York as the hub for adventurous music. The fact that John Zorn had his own weird versions of a klezmer band and a thrash band and a zillion other projects in between was pretty exciting to me. The city is a place where you might get sidetracked but you won’t get bored and, for me, getting sidetracked is kind of the point.

What other influences lie behind your projects?

My musical influences are all over the map. I obviously really admire musicians who invent their own systems or approaches to working with technology. Listening to Pierre Bastien and Conlon Nancarrow first got me interested in making mechanical music and I love the way artists like Ikue Mori and Asa Chang work with drum machines and electronics in very organic, textural ways. I’m also very influenced by American traditional music. When I play music for pleasure its usually ragtime guitar. Learning those picking patterns can almost be like programming your hand like a mechanical instrument.

Your most recent album [2012’s Warsaw Machines & Songs] came out of a residency in Warsaw. What role does place play in the conception and performance of your music?

I think songs are all about particular times and places whether they’re documents of the place where they are created or a more personal association that listeners create for themselves. With this album, I built instruments from materials found around Warsaw and wrote songs with them. The record also features field recordings I made around the city with binaural mics.

What sort of things did you end up finding in Warsaw? Was there a favourite discovery?

The instrument on the album cover is made from street sweeper bristles. For years in New York I’ve noticed a particular type of metal strip that litters the street and realized that the street cleaning machines actually distribute rusty scraps of metal around the city. When I got to Warsaw and saw the same metal strips everywhere, I decided to make an instrument with them as a sort of unsentimental reminder of home and a celebration of this weird entropy and decay that ultimately makes cities interesting.

One artefact of the Soviet era that I found particularly interesting were sound-card records: postcards with a thin plastic surface that have pop songs pressed into them. From my understanding, you could buy them at kiosks that would stamp the song of your choice onto whatever postcard you pick and then handwrite the title on the back. So I have cards with a picture of Polish folk musician holding bagpipes that features Elvis doing ‘Viva Las Vegas’ or the Beatles doing ‘Michelle’ with an illustration of a drumming snail.

I first came to your work through the 'Immigration Song' project. How did that project come about? What made you want to focus on immigration?

I started thinking about immigration as a creative process on a giant scale, the way immigrants shape a city’s culture and turn it into something new. I also liked the idea of
representing historical data in a time-based medium to let you experience the patterns and variations in a compressed way. I had an image of New York as the bridge of a stringed instrument with strings of different lengths radiating out across the map. I prototyped a screen-based digital version and then had a chance to build the physical installation with actual piano wires for a show at the New York Hall of Science.

A lot of your work doesn't fit into the categories that most musicians' work might, yet the songs on your albums have a heavy pop sensibility. How do you see yourself?

There’s a fair amount of artwork that employs pop music as a cultural reference, but I’m more interested in using pop songs as structures to experiment with – it’s nice to have something as sturdy as a song to push up against and hang ideas off of. I’m definitely in between categories in lot of ways: musician, sound installation artist, oral historian, interaction designer, etc. To me, these things all inform each other and I like doing pieces that are hybrids or different types of media.

What other projects do you have in the pipeline?
In June I’ll be doing a large-scale musical sound installation with a group of other artists at the Palais du Tokyo in Paris. I'm writing music for an animated TV special that StoryCorps is producing. I also have another album’s worth of songs for the machines written that I'll get around to recording eventually.

How do you see your work developing in the future?

In general, I’m interested in making my work more immersive and interactive and further exploring the spatial possibilities of using acoustic sound sources. One project I’m working on involves a network of small instruments suspended from the ceiling that are like a weather system that reacts to the positions of viewers in the space. I’d also like to do a large-scale version of my interactive sound piece “Song Cabinet” which lets users trigger automated mechanical instruments by interacting with a set of drawers – kind of an acoustic mixing board. I’d love to do a version with hundreds of drawers filling a room and really let listeners pick different paths for the music to take.

Words by Paul Tucker

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