There’s a scene in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being in which Sabina, a painter, is arguing with her lover Franz. They’re sitting in a restaurant, loud music is playing:
“Don’t you like music?” Franz asked.
“No,” said Sabina, and then added, “though in a different era . . .” She was thinking of the days of Johann Sebastian Bach, when music was like a rose blooming on a boundless snow-covered plain of silence.
Whether or not you can get past the florid language, Kundera’s point is to question music’s place in the noise-filled modern world. Of course, the same noise of modernity that Kundera laments has inspired countless composers, who have sought to make of it a music for their own time. Indeed, Sabina’s complaint echoes, negatively, the rapturous sentiments of Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo, who in his 1913 manifesto The Art of Noises proclaims, “Ancient life was all silence. In the 19th century, with the invention of the machine, Noise was born. Today, Noise triumphs and reigns supreme over the sensibility of men.”
Today, more than a century after Russolo’s statement, the din of industry has receded and digital technology has emerged to take its place. To be clear, I’m speaking in terms of the claims the sounds of these different technologies have on our consciousness: Sure, the traffic along 5th Avenue is still plenty loud, but now we have earbuds and MP3s to drown it out. The imposing and powerful have given way to the sleek and pristine; where once the roaring eight-cylinder engine served as a symbol of might, now we have the slender iPhone.
Tristan Perich is a composer particularly attuned to our present moment, and his music seems to capture perfectly the new aesthetic of the digital age. His work presents as a kind of shimmering minimalism, characterized by repetition and his distinctive use of 1-bit electronics. On first listen, the music sounds “clean,” in the already-hackneyed present-day sense of that adjective as a term a web designer might use to describe a homepage. But closer attention reveals a more complex sensibility. While Perich’s work is thoroughly of its time, his use of electronics calls attention to itself in a way that runs counter to our day-to-day engagement with digital technology.
March 25 saw the release of Parallels, the first of four records due out this year that together make up Perich’s Compositions series. To mark the occasion, Meehan/Perkins Duo—percussionistsTodd Meehan and Doug Perkins, who also play on the record—performed the piece at Sky Gallery in Brooklyn. The duo played with focus and precision. The music rang out clear and crisp in the white-walled space. Every now and then you heard the low rumble of a truck passing by on Union Street. Parallels is scored for tuned triangles, hi-hats, and 4-channel 1-bit electronics—4-channel meaning there are four speakers on stage, each connected to a 1-bit computer chip programmed by Perich to play a single line of notes. The electronics allow no control over timbre, dynamics, attack, or decay; they can be programmed for little more than pitch and rhythm.
For Parallels, Perich voices a rich four-part harmony in the electronics, delivered as straight 16th notes that form a hypnotic, ever-mutating pulse. The tuned triangles play a more complex, syncopated rhythm that breaks up the uniformity of the harmony; when the percussionists switch to hi-hats towards the end of the piece, the result is an even more dramatic tension between electronic and acoustic elements. Perich often exploits this tension in his work. It exists not only between the pre-programmed and live instrumentation, but also, in theoretical terms, within the electronics themselves, between the pristine code that determines what will come through the speaker and the sound that the audience ultimately hears. The necessarily thin tone that 1-bit electronics produce underscores this divide.
Introducing the performance, Perich made a direct analogy between the written score of a composition and the lines of code read by a computer: each is a set of instructions, the one being carried out by musicians, the other by a machine. This might seem an obvious analogy, but it becomes quite subversive when viewed in the context of the usual discourse surrounding technology today.
Consider the ritual surrounding a new product launch at a tech company. Companies like Apple portray their products as items of revolutionary import; they seek to awe us by presenting these things as feats of impossibly advanced engineering. The notion of transparency runs counter to these goals, and thus those who provide our devices cast themselves in the role of high priests of technology, à la Isaac Asimov’s Foundation. We the consumers are meant to purchase these items, not to understand them.
Perich’s use of 1-bit electronics is a deliberate move, it opens up space for understanding. The music is transparent, you can see how it works—indeed, you’re meant to. The four releases in the Compositions series each come with a copy of the corresponding musical score. By comparing musical notation, something that has existed for centuries, to lines of computer code, Perich is removing the mystical aura around technology. He is saying, in effect, that what we’re doing now is just the latest iteration of something we’ve always been doing. Making music deeply informed by and reflective of our current moment, Perich offers a rational corrective to its excesses.
MARSHALL YARBROUGH is the Brooklyn Rail’s assistant music editor.