An Explorer Unites Instruments with Elementary Electronics

United StatesUnited States Tristan Perich: Mariel Roberts [cello]; JACK Quartet [Christopher Otto, Austin Wulliman (violins), John Pickford Richards (viola), Jay Campbell (cello)]; The Kitchen, New York City, 18.3.2017. (KG)

Tristan Perich: Formations (2011); Sequential (2011, rev. 2017)

Tristan Perich constructs complex music from the simplest of materials, often just a half-dozen or so tonal pulses intertwined with acoustic instruments. It’s easy to let the rhythms, repetitions and dissonances of his 1-bit electronic music occupy the ear (without variation in volume or tonal quality, his blips are merely pitches that switch on and off), but his talents may secretly lie in his writing for traditional instruments. As much as Perich might want us to believe that he is post-human, he is actually a composer capable of creating works of great emotional resonance.

His Formations for solo cello and 6-channel 1-bit electronics, for example, simply wouldn’t work if the cello didn’t cry out to the listener—it certainly wouldn’t work in the same way, at least. And needless to say, it wouldn’t work without a player like Mariel Roberts, who is capable of articulating profound beauty on her instrument. Roberts included the piece on her 2012 recording, Nonextraneous Sounds, and reprised it for the second of Perich’s two nights at the Kitchen. With her playing amplified, and flanked by two trios of hanging speakers, she rose and fell above the fairly loud electronic score, quite lyrically.

In the opening moments of Formations, it was hard not to think of Steve Reich, particularly of his Different Trains (which also came to mind the previous night in Perich’s Dimensional Bloom for two pianos with electronics). Perich is a strong keeper of the New York minimalist flame—which isn’t to call his work “derivative” but very much in a tradition. But as these performances built, a distinction grew clear. Perich doesn’t graft the emotive thrust onto the work; there’s no recitation of holocaust dates here (as in Trains). And there’s rarely foreground and background. There is just a plane—somehow always vertical, never horizontal. Perich manages to sculpt a singular surface, acoustic and electric colliding into a cohesive whole where every sound—every moment—is integral. And as much as he tries to distract you from it, his writing for acoustic instruments can be sublime.

Though it isn’t his only mode of operation, his pairing of instruments with simple electronics is consistently his best. His bouts with harsh noise, for example, don’t stand out as strongly as his new-generation New York minimalism. Following the half-hour of Formations was Sequential (2011, rev. 2017) a 45-minute work for string quartet, percussion quartet and “gated electronics” (used to insert silences). Here the acoustic instruments (strings by the Jack Quartet and bowed metal by Sō Percussion) were played so quietly as to be nearly inaudible against the broken electronic interference. The result was a foundation that suggested more haphazard rhythms than the pulses of his multiple one-bit doorbells. It was something akin to live processing, but with no real-time decision-making.

Within the patchwork amplification, the strings sounded like samples of themselves, as if Perich had made the players into one big keyboard. Instead of the 51% organic cello piece, here eight players fed a signal processor. Listening to a recording, few people would likely guess it was anything but electronics.

Perich makes music not quite like anyone has made before. This piece wasn’t quite like anything he has done before. As long as he’s making something new, innovative, and enjoyable (the full house seemed appreciative), then the means of production are unimportant. Assuming we don’t want concerts to go the way of Spillikin, the play now touring England featuring a robot in the lead, then we can credit Perich for giving a gig to eight musicians on a Saturday night. And presumably their real-time interaction causes different results than would be achieved by flipping a switch on a preprogrammed synthesizer.

Ultimately, it might be a matter of whether or not the listener objects to the idea of sitting in a black box theater listening to a little red Korg playing itself, or to paying to listen to a Disklavier play Art Tatum for that matter (as happened in a 2010 tour and CD release organized by Yamaha). If that sounds like a night on the town, than Perich might be the man-machine for you.

Kurt Gottschalk

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