An interview with
Nick Didkovsky (2000)

By Beppe Colli
July 1, 2003

When I decided that an interview with Doctor Nerve's Nick Didkovsky was a really good idea, I looked around to see what had already appeared in print in Italian language. Strange as it seems, there was practically nothing - though the group's music was fairly popular.

So when Nick Didkovsky agreed to do the interview, the questions I sent were intended to give readers a panorama as wide as possible about the group's career - and about the various compositional procedures the group employed.

Nick Didkovsky sent his (very articulated) answers on July 9, 2000. The interview originally appeared in Italian language in Blow Up magazine, issue # 28, September 2000. It appears here in English for the first time.

As a first topic I'd like to start from EREIA, the recently released CD by Doctor Nerve with the Sirius String Quartet. Your interest in string instruments is not new - I remember reading about a collaboration with the Soldier String Quartet in the early '90s, and a Live At The Knitting Factory CD being announced, featuring "conducted improvisations" ("deconstructions") with the participation of the Sirius String Quartet. I also know of a suite you wrote for the Bang On A Can All-Stars, Amalia's Secret. So, would you mind talking about this aspect of your work?

My first musical influence was probably my grandmother Elizabeth Bauer. I recall her playing piano in our apartment on the Bronx when I was 3 or 4 years old - usually Mozart and Bach, although she had no objection to doing versions of Moon River or Spanish Eyes. She was not an improviser - she only read sheet music, but spoke frequently of personal expression; slowing down or speeding up passages according to your mood, for example, simple stuff that made sense to a 4 year old.

She also told me a story about her first instrument, which was a violin. The quick version of the story goes like this: She was the oldest of 11 children, and raised them single-handedly, leaving very little or no space in her life for herself. She saw a violin in a shop window, saved for a few years to buy it, and was then denied the right to purchase it by her lovely mother. Apparently she collapsed into some traumatic fever or something similar, and when she was finally told she could have it, recovered and bought it. I have that violin still. I've played it, and both my sons have played with it. But I never heard my grandmother play it. I think it was an object that was too charged with meaning for her to play in her later life. Must have been an utterly miserable childhood.

I used her violin on a few home recordings that never made it to a CD, and I used it also in an ensemble with Elodie Lauten - making electronically processed noises that the New York Times dismissed as "irrelevant squeals" (although I thought they were squeals that were in fact very relevant). I also improvised with it informally with Julie Joslyn (of Iconoclast) and had a lot of fun digging into what the violin can do acoustically.

But I am no violinist (NY Times would probably agree there), and so in my own music, the need for that sound has to come from other players. On the first two Doctor Nerve records, Anne Brudevold played violin, and nothing would please me more than to have her in the band today (she moved to another state and divorced her violin in favor of creative writing). Ann Sheldon played 'cello on the first Nerve record, but her participation in the group was interrupted first by her stint with the Psychedelic Furs and later, tragically, by her death in an auto accident.

Both Ann and Anne were brilliant players, and Anne, especially, was a monster improviser. Ann Sheldon came from more of a classical background, but had the rhythmic chops to play hard and heavy in a rock band. So back then, when we were still called Defense Spending, the sound of Nerve with bowed strings became established.

With the loss the two Ann(e)'s Nerve settled into the current formation, with its percussion section, electric guitar/bass, and horn section. A bowed string section was in many ways a natural addition. It's just that the size of the band becomes intractable at that point, so it was never a serious consideration, until the commissioning grant made it possible to accommodate the time and budget required.

EREIA is a work in three movements; leaving aside for the moment the topic of composing by means of HMSL software - which I'd like to discuss later - I'd like to ask you about the relationship between the three movements: in the CD liner notes you wrote about the second movement being a "morphological bridge" and "a conducted improvisation". Would you mind talking about your concept of "conducted improvisation"? Is it linked to the "hand signals/hand gestures" vocabulary you wrote about in an article which appeared a few years ago in the English magazine "Rubberneck" (which I don't think many Italian readers are familiar with)? And is the concept of "morphological bridge" related to that of "musical morph" which you talked about in the past as being used in "Preaching to the Converted" on SKIN?

My use of the term "morphological bridge" means that some of the morphologies of the first and third movements are both found in the second. The problem was to connect the first movement for string quartet only, with the third, which is for full ensemble. The timbre and the materials of these two needed a bridge. The second movement serves this up. It's no accident that the first sound of the second movement is every instrument in the ensemble blowing its brains out.

So it really is quite different from a musical morph, which is taking source material and crossfading it in some way to destination material using some algorithmic means. Though related on a higher level of meaning, I guess.

The conducted improv is a two-way street, where I use a small set of hand signals to direct the members of the ensemble. Their response, in turn, suggests what I do next. The method I use is capable of fast changes between dramatically different materials because of the "downbeat" signal that is used to actually signal the change. Before the downbeat, I load the musicians up with the next activity, but it doesn't change until the downbeat. So the potential is there for tape-splice precision changes. Yes, the same signals as I mentioned in Rubberneck.

I'd like to go back a bit. The first time I heard about your group was at the '87 edition of the MIMI Festival in France: among the players taking part in the following afternoon improvisations (I'm pretty sure you remember the "oven" where the playing took place) Fred Frith announced "Nick Didkovsky from Doctor Nerve" - a name that sticks in one's memory. I know "Doctor Nerve" was the title of a composition, but what does this name represent to you? I think the group's previous name was "Lethal Injection" - do I detect a "theme" here?

The name Doctor Nerve was born in a hotel room when Zorobabel and I were looking for a name for our duo. Zoro is a drummer who lived in Germany, and I spent a summer there with him and his family (Paul and Limpe Fuchs of Anima Musica). We laughed hysterically when the name dropped out of the air and knew we had a winner. One of the grooves we would improvise on in the duo ended up being the rhythmic basis of a tune years later, for the band Lethal Injection (which was the first NYC based version of Nerve). I called that tune Doctor Nerve. We did not like the name Lethal Injection particularly... the band had a lot of enthusiasm for the name Doctor Nerve, so we went with it. The duo with Zoro had disbanded some years before so there was no confusion or overlap.

The first Doctor Nerve album I bought was Armed Observation - maybe at the aforementioned Festival. Looking back, how do you regard the group's first two albums?

I marvel at the spirit and raw energy of the first LP - so much of it was recorded in one take on my 4 track tape machine. Brings me back to a very spontaneous and fresh time of the band ("Shinin' times," as original member and trombone player Chuck Verstraeten recently wrote to me, himself quoting the old mountain trappers of New England). The group was bursting with this new-found sound and we were all riding this high energy wave.

The second LP was very important in identifying the fact that Nerve was in fact a band and not a project of multiple musicians and one composer. The compositions are more mature, and the whole thing sounds more "New York" to me. I think Mike Leslie and Jim Mussen in the rhythm section had a lot to do with that New York thing; Jim was a real straight hard hitting drummer who loved playing ahead of the beat, while Mike had tons of funk chops in his hands, and they struggled to rein Jim in... they pushed against each other in a very exciting way.

Overall, the energy on the first LP was more celebrational, the energy on the second was more brutal, in my view. Both of course are overflowing with energy, so pick your mood...

Though most of the material on it came from the two previous albums, I liked the next CD (Did Sprinting Die?) more - which I suppose had a lot to do with the "tightening" of the band, and with the new bass and drums players (by the way, is it true that the concert that's on that CD was the first time Rob Henke played with the group?). I also think that having a line-up of fine players that has remained fairly stable over the years, and so becoming conversant with your musical vocabulary and procedures, has been an important factor in the way your music has so successfully been "taken off" the printed paper.

Yes, that's the first time Rob played with us. Great gig, too. It's a great record, probably under-heard. Originally a limited edition release, which probably hurt its popularity and availability. Cuneiform would agree, I think, so we're on the same page there. Sprinting ushered in a new era, where my computer programming would push me and the ensemble in new directions. And it solidified the sense that began with Armed Observation: that this is a live band that can rip your face off in concert. And yes, most players are on stage with no music in front of them.

One's perceptions being framed by one's knowledge, when I first listened to the three "computer generated" - and performed - pieces on Did Sprinting Die? they reminded me a bit of Frank Zappa's work with the Synclavier (for in., the Jazz from Hell album), particularly Piece No. 8 - though maybe it was more a matter of timbral affinity, since after listening to the acoustic arrangement of Nerveware No. 8 as performed by NewEar on Every Screaming Ear the similarity became a lot less apparent. Were you aware at the time of Zappa's Synclavier work - and what's your opinion of the way he translated some of the things he had composed without any consideration whatsoever for the "feasibility" of a live performance in his later collaboration with the Ensemble Modern?

I heard Jazz From Hell once and didn't really like it that much. Don't recall exactly why; I guess it didn't sound raw and idiotic the way my automated composition software did.

Maybe the difference is this: his Synclavier work was created to address performance issues, ie. to create a music with a machine that no human would likely be able to perform. Mine was created to address composition issues, ie. To create a music that no human would be likely to compose.

Could you talk a bit about your music education? I know you studied with composer Christian Wolff, and that later you got a Master's Degree in Computer Music from the New York University. Besides, I know you attended the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock, New York - is it true that it was nicknamed the Crazy Music School? (I think there's a book out there about it.) The only thing I remember is that Karl Berger taught there - and I think in the late 70s I read an article by Rafi Zabor in Musician magazine about the members of the Art Ensemble of Chicago being artists-in-residence for a week.

My most valuable education came from studying electronic music with Gerald Shapiro, whose words "change things just before the audience gets used to them" resonates particularly strongly with me. Also from my class with Christian Wolff, which exposed me to avant-garde "classics" like Les Moutons de Panurge... we even put an ensemble together in that class and performed a concert at the end of the semester. Most impressive to me was that I thought the audience was going to hate us. I experienced this extraordinary dissonance between my expectations and reality, when I saw smiling faces looking back at us. This was a powerful moment which spoke to me something like this: No matter how weird you are, there's probably a whole lot of people out there who will dig it.

But ultimately, the best education was my experience at Creative Music Studio, where a huge variety of influences would roar through our lives. And the weekly cycle of preparing new works, playing on other people's pieces, performing music by visiting composers, etc, gave me an experiential education that I don't think exists anywhere today. It's a shame the CMS no longer exists - I was extremely lucky to catch it before it disappeared.

Karl Berger (CMS's founder) is one of the greatest educators on this planet. And he's so humble about it, I think most people think of him as a brilliant musician and composer (which he is), and overlook his role as one of the greatest educators this planet ever produced. The way he could catalyze experimentation and creative learning with no rules, no manifesto, no curriculum, no syllabus, no promises, and no support from the educational establishment is a miracle, and a model that educators in all fields should pay attention to. I strongly encourage your readers to learn more about Karl and the CMS by checking out Bob Sweet's book, Music Universe, Music Mind at Bob would be happy to hear from anyone interested in the CMS via email at

Would you mind talking about how you became interested in using the HMSL software as a compositional tool? And about how your concept and use of this tool - and the tool itself, of course - has changed over the years?

Originally I was pointed toward HMSL by Pauline Oliveros, as I was interested in creating a piece for multiple players, based on a Prisoner's Dilemma game. After getting somewhat familiar with HMSL I began some simple experiments, trying to get HMSL to generate music for Doctor Nerve. The programs were refined over time and, with the introduction of some code I wrote to save the material HMSL generated into a file format readable by common music notation software, I had the tools in place to create computer generated works for Nerve. The concept at the highest level remains the same over the years: to push the creative process, and break down prejudices and formal barriers by creating music with a software agent that doesn't care much about cultural or technical preconceptions.

Nowadays using computers to make music is pretty common. In an interview you did a few years ago I found the interesting definition of "the PC explosion as another opportunity for virtuoso consumerism". Would you mind elaborating on this topic?

I think I was quoting Ron Kuivala there. There's a lot of commercial software and hardware that is developed to help people make music on their PC's. You can always go out and buy the next cool set of audio processing plugins or audio cards for this or that system. So I like writing my own software!

However, I assembled the Ereia project on my PC, using Vegas Pro. All the soundfiles were beautifully digitized, 24 bit audio. Vegas Pro is a cool program, but I saw immediately how easy it would be to pour more money into it, to buy their effects packages that do reverb, EQ, special sound processing, etc... it never ends. You just have to decide at what point do you have enough tools to make creative music. For example, a poet or a writer does not need a bigger and better pencil, or a faster computer with a fancier word processor every two years. Choose your tools, set your personal limits, and go go go.

What I find pretty strange is the fact that - though computers are very flexible tools - in most people's perception their use appears to be linked to specific STYLES. I own some "computer-intensive" CDs by George Lewis and Richard Teitelbaum - and a beautiful duo CD by David Rosemboom and Anthony Braxton (on Lovely Music); and yet, judging from my personal experience, these are not musicians even those who are familiar with their work would think of as "computer artists"...

I find that CD by Rosenbloom and Braxton utterly inspiring! Makes me want to put together a band with computer controlled acoustic piano, and acoustic musicians. Would be great. Well, I have always thought of David as being a computer artist through his role as a creator of HMSL. And while I have seen George play in more contexts as an improvising tuba player than as an interactive software guy, I do associate him very strongly with his improvising software. Richard, too, is closely connected to electronics in my mind. What's extraordinary about all these guys is, in my view, how much their vision and musical intentions dwarf the tools they use. All their ideas are bigger than the software and hardware they use. Which somewhat addresses your style comment, I think.

Would you mind talking about three specific pieces of yours that I find pretty interesting - Fast Fourier Fugue from Beta 14 ok, and Ironwood and Our Soldiers Are Soft Pianos from SKIN?

The first two pieces belong to a class of computer music works which sonify mathematical algorithms, while the third is an interactive software instrument.

Fast Fourier Fugue was written after Robert Marsanyi and I ported an FFT algorithm to JForth, which was the FORTH software layer that supported HMSL. I could specify harmonics and their magnitudes in a harmonic spectrum, and generate a waveform from this spectrum. I liked the idea of playing these waveforms on a macroscopic scale: ie, as rising and falling melodies instead of sustained tones in the audio range. As the piece develops, it adds more and more complex harmonics to four independently generated waveforms, so these melodies arpeggiate up and down more and more wildly over the course of the piece. Two things I like about it are: 1) that as the piece speeds up, it implies a continuation that would eventually perform the waveforms at audio rates, and 2) I also like the self-similarity of melody at various time scales - which is something that is often associated with fractals; but this is not fractal music.

Ironwood is the third piece in a series of sonifications of recursive algorithms. The first two were commissioned by percussionist Kevin Norton, for whom I wrote a marimba piece and a drum set piece, based, respectively, on the Pascal's Triangle algorithm, and the Towers of Hanoi algorithm.

Ironwood is a drum set piece based on traversals of a data structure called a "binary tree". It traverses the tree three ways (infix, postfix, and prefix) every time it adds a new random "leaf" to the tree. And example of infix notation is "1+2", while in prefix it would be written "+ 1 2", and in postfix, "1 2 +". A more complex example might be the infix expression (1 + 2) * 3 + 4 , which written in postfix would be: 1 2 + 3 * 4 +

If you imagine substituting snare, toms, kick, and hihat for mathematical symbols, you can imagine that you'd hear the same material performed in three peculiarly logical permutations every time the tree is traversed.

Our Soldiers was an interactive instrument I wrote in HMSL for a theatre piece by Tena Cohen. It used 8 independent voices to loop various melodies from the Nerve piece Our Soldiers Are Soft As Babies and They Squander Their Stipends A-Whoring (which was a title pulled from a monolog in a comic book my friend Tom Marsan and I are writing called The Sad Hungarian.). I read a passage from Tena's play to myself while performing the instrument, to get the timing and feel for the piece, which was to accompany this passage. I felt it could stand as a piece by itself and so, released it on CD.

Let's change the subject: I think it could be said that, at least on record, you came to the fore as a guitarist on SKIN - and maybe in this respect there is a similarity with people like Frank Zappa and Robert Fripp, who at first were mainly seen as composers and bandleaders since they didn't feature themselves much as guitarists. Would you mind talking about your "roots" as a guitar player? What were the elements that attracted you to those players in the first place?

My roots as a guitar player really go back to my first experiences playing heavy metal and hard rock in junior high school and high school bands. Lots of Kiss, Queen, Led Zeppelin, Alice Cooper, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple, UFO, Hendrix... I got into Fripp and Zappa a little later, as I was getting turned on to more progressive styles of music composition. Fripp liberated the tritone for me! But I must say I am not the fan of Fripp now that I was years ago.

A little question about two specific solos on Skin: I seemed to detect some Ritchie Blackmore in the latter part of the first solo in Preaching To The Converted, and definitely more than a pinch of Zappa in your solo in Little Jonny Stinkypants (the phrasing and the use of the wha-wha pedal)...

The solo in Preaching is derived more, I think, from Ace Frehley and Dimebag Darrell. What was tough about that solo is making the phrasing work in the time signatures of that riff. But certainly, the Stinkypants solo is an homage to Zappa, with its wah wah, note cramming, and contact mic on the guitar.

If I'm not mistaken, you've singled out Frank Zappa's solo on Black Napkins as one of your favourite solos ever: could you tell me why? (My personal memory of the first time I heard that solo is of asking myself: what kind of wha-wha is this? - I think it's an Oberheim VCF, right?)

That solo is wonderful! I think its passion and storytelling makes it so extraordinary. Sorry I don’t know the equipment.

On Every Screaming Ear there is a cover of Captain's Beefheart's When It Blows Its Stacks. A lot of his music deals with highly rhythmic, independent lines: was he an early influence? (And: did you listen to last year's box set?)

Yes, I got the box set - had a good time bringing it on tour with Body Parts last March (my duo with drummer extraordinaire Guigou Chenevier). I had my laptop with me and we could watch all these early Beefheart videos in Quicktime format. This is a great package. I discovered Beefheart rather late in life, but I loved him then and still do now. A living treasure.

As somebody who had first-hand experience of the time when Béla Bartók-influenced groups such as Henry Cow and King Crimson were thought of as playing "rock music" how do you see the state of "rock" today?

Tough question, as I am not really up on the rock scene (or any scene) these days. Despite my commitment to computer music with JMSL and JSyn et al, I get great satisfaction when I see real people playing real instruments real loud. My family and I were recently in Avignon during the French Festival of Music. The city was filled with musicians - almost every corner of every street. It was wonderful to see how many young rock bands there were in the streets, blasting away, working hard, and loving it.

You've been a member of the Fred Frith Guitar Quartet for a while (three CDs, if I'm not mistaken): would you mind talking about this relationship? And about your solo album Blinky Boy, which I think shows a different side of your instrumental work than the Doctor Nerve line-up?

I first worked with Fred when he produced Armed Observation, but I'd been keeping him current on my work before that by sending him tapes of my electronic music (1979/80) and later my first LP Now I Do This (1981). Years later, he invited me to join a new guitar quartet with the express purpose of realizing a version of his As Usual Dance... with an ensemble of which he would be a performing member (the piece was originally written for Les Quatres Guitaristes de l'Apocalypso Bar, of which Fred was not a member). Our first work together as a quartet was actually in Fred's piece In Memory, which also had a percussion quartet and a vocal quartet in it. When Mark Howell and I later contributed a composition each to the repertoire, the group could actually perform a live set. More pieces accumulated, the band toured and put out a couple of very strong records. Up Beat, especially, is my favorite record. Probably because it has so much live material, and I associate the group most with the spirit and insanity that happens in our live shows.

Binky Boy is my all-electric guitar CD, which I released on my own Punos Music label. It's my first self-release since Now I Do This. I tried to push the use of guitar as far as I could on that record. Using it as a percussion instrument, for example, which is in my view a very successful use of the guitar. It points toward a lot of new possibilities which I want to explore with another record.

Binky Boy is a very strong and very personal CD. And it spans many years of work. Black Iris, for example, is the first piece I brought to the guitar quartet. It even has more prehistory, being originally a piece for 'cello, flute, violin, and guitar, and was beautifully recorded by Ann Sheldon, Yves Duboin, Anne Brudevold, and myself (all early Nerve members!). The Binky Boy version, however, is performed by the guitar quartet. Maybe I should release the original some day.

I think some readers will be curious to know about the genesis of the 44 Nerve Events - and of the subsequent Transforms, The Nerve Events Project album...

I came up with the idea while riding my bicycle up a long steep hill in Connecticut. I remember the moment very well. I have always liked the miniature gesture, and it seemed the CD medium would be perfect for a one track per event delivery. I also was missing vinyl a bit, I suppose, and working hard to come up with reasons why CDs should exist (I no longer have any doubt about preferring CDs, by the way). Lots of people used the 44 Nerve Events on Beta 14 Ok (Cuneiform CD) straight off the record. I heard them show up on outgoing answering machine messages... and radio artists, especially, loved them. The idea to take it a step further came when Steve MacLean (early Doctor Nerve) and Jason Willett sent me some of their pieces which incorporated these events. So I made a call out to a number of composers and the results were astonishing. That's how the Transforms CD came to be. Your readers can check it out in detail at and play with the events themselves at

Transforms is timeless. It still stands today as some of the most innovative use of sampling I've ever heard, where the term sampling is taken in the widest possible sense. Truly astonishing work by an extremely diverse group of artists.

As my last question I'd like to ask you about other aspects of your interest in software and computers - i.e. your teaching activity and your interest in the creation of graphics and texts.

I have not done much with computer generated text recently, favoring instead music software development (See JMSL below). My CGI program, "Dada’s Little Baby Namer" is something of a hit on the WWW, though. It gets tons of visits. The software generates bizarre names based on a statistical process applied to a database of real names. I wrote it while my wife Wendy was pregnant with our first boy, who we ended up naming Leo instead of Drthana or Quchen, for example. Most people love it, but I get some hate mail too, which is baffling.

But I am still involved in computer graphics to a degree, through my position as scientific programmer at a neurobiology lab, where we take 3D images of embryonic brain tissue, rotate these in space, make 3D movies, etc. Very cool stuff. My love for computer graphics re-emerges in some of my music applications, most actively MandelMusic (which you can visit by following the JMSL link given below). And Bill Ellsworth's portraits of the Ereia band (included in the booklet of the Ereia CD) which merges features from our various faces, was provoked by a more raw version I wrote which is on line at

Right now I am working hard to develop JMSL (Java Music Specification Language) with Phil Burk. JMSL is the Java successor to HMSL. While HMSL runs faithfully on my Amiga, how long my Amiga will last is an open question. I got rather burned and very sad to see the Amiga disappear from the mainstream marketplace. It was a truly painful history: to see the possibilities of a superior technology crushed by idiotic market conditions.

I am interested now in the Java virtual machine, rather a real silicon machine. Java is a very powerful technology, and JMSL is now at a state where I can actually start to get some work done. Once its notation editor is workable (quite a hard project!) I will be off the Amiga completely. Then I'll be able to compose with JMSL on any train or any coffee shop just using my laptop and headphones.

I am teaching a graduate level course at New York University using JMSL and JSyn as the core curriculum. JSyn is by Phil Burk, and provides the Java programmer with the tools necessary to create CD quality stereo sound by building virtual synthesizers. The combination of JMSL as an algorithmic music framework and JSyn as a highly controllable sound engine is spectacular.

Interested readers can learn more about JMSL at
They can learn more about JSyn at

And they can hear and interact with pieces I have built that are online (and require the JSyn plug-in) at

A selected discography

All titles are on Cuneiform, except when differently specified. The first two Doctor Nerve albums, originally on LP, were re-released on one CD in 1992.


Out To Bomb Fresh Kings (1985)

Armed Observation (1987)

Did Sprinting Die? (1990)

Beta 14 Ok (1991)

SKIN (1995)

Every Screaming Ear (1997)

Ereia (2000)


Transforms: The Nerve Events Project (1993)


Binky Boy (Punos Music 1997)


Quartets (RecRec 1994)

Ayaya Moses (Ambiances Magnétiques 1997)

Up Beat (Ambiances Magnétiques 1998)

© Beppe Colli 2000 - 2003 | July 1, 2003