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State Changes: Marvin Lin on Vicky Chow and Tristan Perich’s 1-Bit World

For Sound Horizon, our series of free in-gallery music performances, we’ve invited critic and Tiny Mix Tapes editor Marvin Lin to share his perspective on each installment of this three-part program. Following his February piece on Mary Halvorson, he turns to Vicky Chow and Tristan Perich, whose works Surface Image and Observations will be performed March 24 in an evening copresented with […]

Sound_Horizon_2015-16_04For Sound Horizon, our series of free in-gallery music performances, we’ve invited critic and Tiny Mix Tapes editor Marvin Lin to share his perspective on each installment of this three-part program. Following his February piece on Mary Halvorson, he turns to Vicky Chow and Tristan Perich, whose works Surface Image and Observations will be performed March 24 in an evening copresented with The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra’s Liquid Music series. Sound Horizon 2016 concludes April 28 with C. Spencer Yeh.

I’m thinking about electronic music. I’m thinking about how it’s dependent on the harnessing of electrons, on the manipulation of their currents in order to turn information into something musical, like a rhythm or a tone. I’m also thinking about my body—my heart, specifically—how a pharmaceutical drug has helped decrease its demand for oxygen by lowering blood volume and relaxing blood vessels. And I’m thinking about how the results of this chemical process is literally expressed through electrical currents.So when I hear music like Surface Image, a work composed by Tristan Perich and performed by a duo of pianist Vicky Chow and programmed 1-bit electronics, I’m also thinking about electricity, chemistry, particle physics. I’m thinking about the composition of music and the composition of molecules. I’m thinking about the way electrons are knocked off their valence shells to produce electric flow, about the geometry of sound waves, about the fragility of human emotions and their chemical, electrical implications.

I’m also thinking about state changes.

* * *

I first encountered Tristan Perich’s music in 2010. That year, Perich released 1-Bit Symphony, a bold collection of compositions all programmed to play a symphonic creation out of 1-bit sounds from an electronic circuit. And I mean that literally: inside the jewel case is not a CD, but a full circuit, which routes the symphony from a small microchip to the case’s right-side opening, where there’s a 1/8″ headphone jack.

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1-Bit Symphony is an incredible artistic achievement, not only for how it expands the possibilities of 1-bit sound—the rawest, most “basic” sound of electronics (think the chirp sound when an oven finishes preheating)—but also for how the medium is intimately tied to the music’s presentation, the symphony’s transition from its code state to its musical state expressed through wires and positive charge and amplification. In this context, electronic information becomes material information, with each of their conceptual regimes dissolving swiftly into each other—and into our bodies, too.

Perich has a history of blurring what it means to be “electric.” One of his more studied experiments is called Observations. In this shorter piece, Perich channels his 1-bit music across six speakers, complemented by two sets of crotales (a percussion instrument featuring a set of small, tuned cymbals). The performance of Observations is a mesmerizing technical achievement. Here, the crotales and 1-bit data unify not only through cascades of sound, but through mathematics, through physics, through an uncanny leveraging of both human and electronic precision.

Surface Image investigates on a much grander scale. While Perich continues his daring explorations into the discrete musicality of 1-bit sound, he’s joined on this minimalist composition by Vicky Chow—a virtuoso pianist for projects as diverse as Bang On A Can All-Stars, Wordless Music Orchestra, and New Music Detroit—who had commissioned Perich to form this unique, symbiotic collaboration. Witnessing the performance setup is quite the spectacle itself, with 40 individual speakers surrounding her piano like electrons around a nucleus. But it’s Chow’s marathon performance that’s especially captivating. For nearly the entirety of its hour-long runtime, Chow sustains an unimaginable amount of energy, fingers tickling the piano at breakneck speeds, arms bending and jutting out in awkward positions, her head occasionally bobbing up to glance at the notation as if coming up for air.

And yet, despite her intensely physical and wholly embodied performance, the music we hear sounds characteristically “electronic,” as if Chow’s performance was the result of thousands of quick, distinct events unfolding in a computational process.

Tristan Perich and Vicky Chow

Tristan Perich and Vicky Chow

* * *

What, then, does it mean to be electronic? If most music these days is amplified or transmitted, then is all music we hear outside the orchestra hall or bonfire considered electronic music, as Brian Eno suggested? And, on the other hand, can electronic music also be considered physical music, since it necessarily relies on the mass of electrons? And what about the materiality of the speaker? What does it say about electronic music when, as Perich notes, it must ultimately route itself to a loudspeaker, through which the generated electricity is turned into physical sound through a cone, coil, and magnet? And does this so-called physical music turn back into electronic music after it reaches our cerebral cortex through the cochlear nerve as bursts of electrical energy?

Which gets me thinking about my body and its electric currents again. It gets me thinking about the physical continuity of state change, about how representational and symbolic exchange, while inextricably connected, become subservient to these material transformations. It gets me thinking about my electronic appendages—my cellphone, my fitness tracker, my heart monitor—and how they output my body’s electric data into electronic information. It gets me thinking about how the translation of electricity into sound via speakers finds an unlikely counterpart in the electrical currents that beat my heart, or in the endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin that lead to feelings of ecstasy and euphoria.

But ultimately, it gets me thinking about the irony of these abstract concepts and aesthetic theories, how they’re byproducts of music that’s most often designed to elicit state changes not based in thinking at all.

And this is when I stop thinking.

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