Music For Writers: Tristan Perich’s Percussionists, Human And Not


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‘Blur And Back Again’

When composer Tristan Perich puts his work Parallels on its feet, one of the results is something that Q2 Music’s Hannis Brown correctly identifies as familiar to distance runners: the play of endorphins in an athlete’s sensory fields. Brown writes:

It’s music to which any runner can relate. Parallels‘s architecture melts from distinct texture and color to hypnotic blur and back again; moments of exhaustion lead to euphoria. Through focus, repetition and sheer magnitude, the process builds to a state of heightened awareness – one that ultimately achieves a glimpse of ecstasy.

Do take advantage of the SoundCloud provided by Perich’s label, Physical Editions, to hear the work as you read.

Having embarked on a year-long series of releases under the overall title Compositions, the first of four installments’ releases saw Brown writing for Q2 Music’s Album of the Week series just What I Talk About When I Talk About Tristan Perich. Hardly a stranger to listeners of New York Public Radio’s Q2 Music, Perich nevertheless keeps us all guessing by throwing open new doors of percussive potential each time he produces new work.

Like many of the leading voices and minds in our contemporary classical community, Perich is an artist who thinks of performance. Unlike many of his colleagues, however, he’s thinking here of “the separate roles of composer and performer.

“It is the performer who translates score into sound, a live even that is captured and becomes the recording.”

And “performer” this time is both man and machine. Todd Meehan and Doug Perkins, working as the Meehan/Perkins Duo, are engaged in what Brown rightly talks about as “almost as much about physicality as about sound.”

Known as the man who released an album, 1-Bit Music, as a microchip, Perich generates music that sounds like the technology he masters to produce it. His work is daring, dancing, ebullient —swirling interactions of tones and patterns. In the 46-minute Parallels, for example, some 20 minutes of feverishly shimmering, tingling triangle suddenly morphs into hotly compelling signals that could accompany NASA’s New Horizons probe to Pluto. There is a spacious persistence here, an elegant insistance. Brash hi-hats, yes those cymbal sets used in drum kits, start fizzing their action around something that takes on its own mind — and curiously focuses yours.

A New York Foundation for the Arts fellow, Perich is internationally welcomed as one of the most forward-looking composers of our era. Book? Sure, he created a book from “The First 1/100th Second of the 1-Bit Symphony” and titled it 0.01S. It’s close to 700 pages of code. His most devoted fans will be heading to his site for a remarkable packaging of the Compositions collection from this year.

“The physical world will always be messier, imprecise, an approximation of the purity of the mathematics behind code.”
Tristan Perich

And yet, for all the physicality that Brown identifies in his music and that Perich, himself, engages in the presentation of his work, getting a handle on just what’s happening to create the sonic chambers of his work is no easy task.

So that’s where we started in our interview. The full title of this work is Parallels For Tuned Triangles, hi-hats, And 4-Channel 1-Bit Electronics. And if you’d like to get an idea of what Parallels sounds like, hit Play on this video from Perich’s own Physical Editions label.

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‘To compose pieces of music, not to bundle them’

Thought Catalog: Tristan, I’d like to start by asking if you could describe for our readers what they’d see if they were hearing and seeing Parallels performed live in front of them?

Tristan Perich: Parallels has a particularly minimal setup: two percussionists playing alongside four small raw speaker cones. The percussion setup is sparse, a handful of tuned triangles plus two hi hats, and the accompanying speaker cones hang from boom stands. They perform alongside each other—six composed lines of music—without any processing or manipulation of sound. Even though the electronic part is played by computer, I consider it equally as live as the human percussionists because I think of computation as a physical process. For the release event, I staged the performance in front of one of my machine drawings, because there are similarities between the elements of tone/noise in the music and order/randomness in the drawings.

TC: There’s a sense that I’m hearing phasing occur at times, as in Steve Reich. Is that possible? I assume your programming of the 1-bits would control pacing so accurately that phasing wouldn’t happen. But it sounds like it’s happening to me at times in this.

TP: There is technically no phasing in this piece, but a lot of the music in Parallels uses overlapping material, shifted a beat forward or backwards, so there is a multiplying effect. For instance, at the beginning the four electronic parts are playing a four note sequence, so the listener constantly hears a block chord, but it is shifting between the speakers. That said, while it’s true the electronics are extremely accurate, the percussion playing can never achieve that precision, so there will always be an imperfect dynamic to how it all fits together. This is one of those truths between computation and the physical world: the physical world will always be messier, imprecise, an approximation of the purity of the mathematics behind code.

“I’ve been uncomfortable with how confusing the individual roles behind a recording have become, especially with such emphasis on composer-performers lately.”
Tristan Perich

TC: There’s a “parallel” (sorry!) between your release of these pieces as standalone entities and “singles,” as we call shorter, novella-length releases now in digital publishing. Our authors will think of your releasing four singles with an “omnibus” to bring them together. Can you talk a little about the decision to open this series with Parallels?

TP: I wanted to start the series with where I currently am in my music. The other releases, and I do consider them “singles,” span eight years, dating back to Active Field, my first major composition that involved 1-bit electronics. Parallels is both my most recent composition and also the culmination of a long paring-down process to reduce my writing for acoustic instrumentation and electronics to some essential techniques I’ve been slowly developing. It’s also the longest and most intense of the four, which is a nice way to start.

‘The Notes Behind Everything Come From The Composer’

TC: Can you talk about how fully your concepts arrive in terms of both sound and visual? And tactile…after all, the scores in poster-prints have a dimension of their own in space. How readily does all this come together for you in a given project? Do you see and hear it all at once in your mind? Or do you build the whole from incremental elements that only hint at the shape and resonance of the bigger picture?

TP: Each of my projects, whether music or art or anything, tends to evolve into its final form over a long time, often years. Compositions started off as a typical album, but I was never comfortable with curating a selection of my composed works to stand alongside one another on a CD. By releasing them as singles, I got to jettison this kind of curation in exchange for a series of individual statements. And this reflects what I think it is to be a composer, to compose pieces of music, not to bundle them. I’ve also been uncomfortable with how confusing the individual roles behind a recording have become, especially with such emphasis on composer-performers lately, and so including the score was a response to that, a way of reminding people that they are hearing the performance of a fixed score, that the sounds they hear are coming from the performance of that score, and the notes behind everything come from the composer.

If it could have been made cheaper, I probably would have had the regular edition include self-contained players as well, to emphasize the act of listening to an individual piece of music. But there were other problems, like how I wanted the packages to be as thin as the score. On the flipside, I’m excited to start a major CD project in 2015, when the medium is mostly dead or dying. CDs will always be one of the few attempts the human race made to etch digital information in a physical medium.

TC: Hi-hat and triangle. What led you to choose these instruments? Is it the closure of the hi-hat vs. the reverbs of the triangle?

TP: Both the triangles and hi hats can be played open or closed, sustained or muted. So in a way, their differences are mostly whether they are pitched/tone or unpitched/noise, and this became the shape of the piece. The 1-bit electronic tones are fundamentally either on or off—with any decay or trailing off of the sound—so I employed them the same way: short or long. That’s partly where “Parallels” in the title comes from. Actually the original concept of the piece was entirely different, with orchestral bass drums and marimba and more, and it took about a year to move past that. It was one of those moments where the idea of an entire project changes overnight.

TC: Even the sale of the series in single elements or as a subscription seems unusual. Can you talk a bit about this way of releasing and selling the work?

TP: Besides the conceptual approach to releasing my music as individual compositions, I also wanted to make it practical for my audience to get them. I wanted people to have the choice of what piece they wanted, and to price them low enough to encourage getting more than one, or save some money to get them together at a discount, with the added perk of getting each release before its general availability. Releasing the series over the course of a year was a way of just putting some distance between the releases, treating them individually. Their commonality simply becomes that they came out during the same calendar year. So far, most orders are for the complete series, which has been interesting.

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TC: Is Telescope really just seven minutes long?

TP: Yes, Telescope is by far the shortest! The score is also very sparse, mostly long tones. It’s also priced as the least expensive. It was important for me that each release could be as long as short as it wanted to be. In a way, the shorter the piece the more clear the statement is. In total, around 100 minutes of music is coming out this year over the four releases.

TC: And last, the years in which the pieces were produced — 2013, 2007, 2009, and 2007: they seem to be bound for you not by chronology but by other factors. How do these four pieces come together now in the Compositions series?

TP: Even though I said that this format was anti-curation, there is of course still some curation there. For me, these pieces represent an introduction to my musical approach. They all involve acoustic instrumentation alongside 1-bit electronics, even though I’ve written purely acoustic music too. And the 1-bit waveforms are all pure tones, though I’ve explored noise as well, and have some compositions where the electronics simply interject the amplification of the acoustic instruments instead of directly generating sound. But I felt this would have been too varied to throw out all at once. So, there is a thread between the releases, which I feel represent a spectrum of approaches and each piece is a position in that gamut.