Five Pieces at the Kitchen
by Marshall Yarbrough
Exploring the Space Between 1 and 0
Tristan Perich, Five Pieces
The Kitchen | March 17 – 18
The first of two nights of works by Tristan Perich at the Kitchen gave evidence that the composer continues to develop his preferred compositional method, matching acoustic instruments with 1-bit electronic sound. That Perich continues to pursue this mode of composition and continues to find such room for growth and exploration within it is exciting; for me, listening to him at this stage in his career is to be confronted with still more sources of novelty, along with something that is, in his case, altogether new: the pleasure of familiarity, as Perich builds variations on his previous themes.
The night began with Interference Logic—written 2010, revised 2017—performed by electric guitar quartet Dither and four-channel 1-bit electronics. The stage was set up with four guitars, four amps, and sixteen small speakers. The massive sonic potential contained in such a sight is not to be understated. Hendrix’s group only had one guitarist; the Rolling Stones had two; not even Rust Never Sleeps-era Neil Young ever had four guitars on stage at once. Disc three of the Velvet Underground’s Bootleg Series, Volume 1: The Quine Tapes opens with Lou Reed on stage playing the same note on several strings of his guitar. “See what I mean?” he says. “Imagine a hundred guitars doing that at once?” Reed has grasped the potato chip logic of the electric guitar: once you’ve amplified something, you just want to keep amplifying it further.
The piece began with the guitarists—Taylor Levine, Grey McMurray, James Moore, and Brendon Randall-Myers—playing slow, looping chords, while a steady sixteenth-note pulse came from the speakers. As with other pieces by Perich, like Active Field or Salt, the work turned on a pivot—in this case, a moment about halfway through when, presaged by a slow swell of distortion in one of the guitars, the electronics shifted from their steady pulse to a more dynamic rhythm, moving first to triplets, next to quarter notes, shifting every eight beats or so, while the guitars became steadily more active, their parts more intricate, building to greater cohesion between guitars and electronics.
Like the guitars, the electronics moved back and forth between a clean and distorted tone. Interference Logic contains polyphony within each speaker. As Perich explains in the program notes:
With 1-bit sound, polyphony isn’t possible in the traditional, additive, acoustic sense since adding two 1-bit signals would yield a 2-bit signal—some information must be lost if the final output is 1-bit. I choose to ‘logical or’ the signals, which quickly leads to a breakdown of the signal as more voices are added, as the binary interference patterns approach 1. […] Until the signals become too complex, it behaves a little like electric guitar distortion, which is a different form of signal saturation.
The piece was intriguing for the slow convergence of guitars and electronics, each aping the other; in this sense it was a success. Still, as Dither’s playing meshed with the electronics, the effect was more muddy than synchronistic, and in seeking to achieve the full-on cacophony the piece seemed to be trending towards, the guitarists seemed hampered by the intricacy of their parts. Interference Logic acknowledged the desire for the wall of sound, but it never quite satisfied it. By the Lou Reed rubric, it fell short.
Next was a newer composition, Longitude—written 2016, revised 2017—featuring the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) playing alongside two-channel 1-bit noise. The piece was in several respects a departure from others of Perich’s that I’ve heard. ACME—featuring Caleb Burhans on viola, Peter Dugan on piano, Clarice Jensen on cello, Laura Lutzke on violin, Eileen Mack on clarinet, and Michael McCurdy on vibraphone—played long, drawn-out notes, twelve beats or so of extended harmonies far more complex than the usual minimalist fifths and triads that appear in Perich’s work. Meanwhile the 1-bit electronics did not come, as usual, through speakers visible on stage, nor were they confined to a discreet set of voices; rather the “1-bit noise” came through the house speakers, an indistinguishable mass of sound.
In comments before the night’s performance began, Tim Griffin, the Kitchen’s Executive Director and Chief Curator, spoke of Perich’s music’s relation to the current post-industrial moment, witnessing, as we are, a shift from one kind of labor to another. While Griffin is right to identify Perich as part of a shift, it’s important to note how the composer himself has downplayed the extent to which his use of technology is something radically different. Part of Perich’s approach up to now has been to reveal the relationship between instructions given to human performers in the form of compositional notation and those given to computers in the form of programming language; by showing its similarity to the former, he demystifies the latter and, what’s more, positions it as something that follows from the past, rather than being wholly new. Perich invites listeners to see the process behind the technology he uses; limiting his use of electronics to discreet voices represented by speakers on stage adds to this effect.
Removing the visual element of the speakers, then, was a significant move. It seemed all the more significant with Griffin’s comments echoing in my head. As ACME played, the noise galloped forth from the speakers in thundering crescendos, receding briefly only to make a renewed assault. It was as if the acoustic players were being submerged by an inexorable tide of modern noise. The whole piece had a momentous, foreboding atmosphere. The sound was not optimistic, but it was significant, and there were moments of awful beauty as the digital noise swelled and the old-world musicians kept up their nuanced, futile playing.
Closing out night one was a debut, Dimensional Bloom, for two amplified pianos and two-channel 1-bit electronics. Vicky Chow and Saskia Langhoorn, who together form X88, sat at pianos facing each other. Two speakers were set up on either end of the stage, and compared to the CD-sized speakers usually used in Perich’s work, they were comically large, as if they’d been lifted from the trunk of a lowrider Buick. This was Perich’s first use of the larger speakers, and the sound they produced was similar to the heavy distorted bass you started to hear in hip-hop production after Kanye West’s Yeezus.
The piece began with descending piano runs. Chow and Langhoorn’s parts only got more complex as the piece progressed, and they played with impressive precision. A few minutes into the piece, the electronics announced themselves in a significant way. The high-register 1-bit sound has a precious, nostalgic aura owing to its association with video games. The sound that came out of those big honking cones was a lo-fi fart of a thing, and if it was goofy at first, my smiling reaction quickly gave way to something like awe as I witnessed Chow and Langhoorn cook on those sixty-fourth notes and felt the low register in my stomach. Perich writes in the program, “Playing 1-bit sound accurately would have infinite energy and destroy the universe.” There are times when he comes close.
MARSHALL YARBROUGH is the Brooklyn Rail’s assistant music editor.