Five Pieces at the Kitchen
by George Grella
The Beautiful and the Good
Tristan Perich, Five Pieces
The Kitchen | March 17 – 18
Beauty is underrated. Beauty used to be an important value in music, but one of the peculiar, and most significant, anomalies in the history of classical music is how beauty came to be distrusted and disregarded. For very real historical reasons, a new aesthetic took hold that was intentionally ugly. That was the deliberate point of Luigi Russolo and his intonarumori. Russolo of course was part of the self-conscious artistic avant-garde, but musical modernism became associated, intellectually and aesthetically, with the atonality of Schoenberg, as passed down through the likes of Boulez and Babbitt (with a smaller, vital parallel track that started with Varèse and continued through Xenakis). Modernism left behind the revolutionary and beautiful music of Debussy, and the foundations of the music were seen to be split between two incompatible styles, Schoenberg’s atonality and Stravinsky’s neo-classicism. There were movements in the modern era against beautiful prose, images, and movement, but those never superseded long-standing aesthetic pleasures in the way that serious modernist music took control for decades, and regarded beauty as outdated—even socially and politically suspect.
But beauty in music—consonance, pleasing sounds and timbres, formal design that was clear and fulfilled its own logical criteria, positive energy—was never totally forgotten. Composers like Lou Harrison sought to make music that was as beautiful as possible, and the likes of Stravinsky, Copland, and Gian Francesco Malipiero kept the idea of beautiful music before the public. Then La Monte Young, Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Philip Glass rose as a new avant-garde in great part because they made beautiful music, and history got back on track.
This extended, though simplified, introduction leads to musician and artist Tristan Perich, who is one of the most important avant-garde composers on the scene in no small part because he makes beautiful music.
Perich’s concepts are high art, and he uses technology as an integral part of his work; but I want to point out and emphasize that his music is frequently beautiful, and the sheer beauty of the sound of his work matters because it delivers the things we listen to music for: a feeling of life and pulse in the body; pleasure; joy. It sounds good because it is good, and it sounds good because it’s well-made.
The experience of his Saturday concert at the Kitchen, the second and last of the “Five Works” concert series, was one of hearing energetic music and performances full of a focus on method, form, and gorgeous sound. There were two pieces, one “old” (Perich is too young to have old works) and one old but revised this year.
The old piece was Formations, a 2011 commission from cellist Mariel Roberts for solo cello and six channels of 1-bit electronics. This was played by her—and can be heard on her disc Nonextraneous Sounds (2012, Innova)—and set the tone for the concert.
Formations fits the cello inside the shimmering sound of the six speakers, three on each side of the musician. Perich’s 1-bit square waves are fat and bright, with a satisfying weight, like the heft of a brand-new baseball in your hand. They are programmed in repeated, overlapping, and offset patterns, and they cascade in shimmering waves that are too forceful to be ambient music, but have the same enveloping, transformative effect.
Roberts had her own repeated patterns—in terms of fundamental structure, Perich fits firmly into the post-minimalist style—and the cello music by design surfs the 1-bit sound. Roberts rode the swells for a while, laying back, then plunged into the pipeline, sluicing forward as the sound coursed over and around her.
A purely electronic interlude changes Formations into something else; when the cello returns, the music is mournful, plangent, singing against sounds that move implacably onward. The pure pleasure of the first part is replaced by strong and mysterious emotions, making Formations not just beautiful but expressively complex.
The other work, Sequential, also dates (originally) from 2011, but has been revised this year. It also combines live acoustic performance with electronics, but in an entirely different way. Percussionists and a string quartet (Sō Percussion and JACK Quartet) bow long tones—the percussionists use Crotales. The playing is quiet, caught on microphones and channeled through a 1-bit circuit board that gates the sound pattern that is, essentially, the score.
Although you could barely hear the instruments (by design), there was a direct visual/aural connection between the musicians’ gestures and the patterns of sound that came through the speakers; each long tone and chord produced complex activity. Sequential was again gorgeous, with fascinating shifting rhythms and counterpoint that created a weave akin to a Persian rug or an Islamic mosaic. The musicians outlined the harmonic motion, but the sequences seemed to be using their own intelligence and agency to create their own composition, on the fly, from the cues the humans gave them. This was a real Perich masterpiece, a simple concept producing complex results and intellectual satisfactions, all of which came second to the immediacy of the beauty of the music.
GEORGE GRELLA is the Rail’s music editor.