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Composing for 1-bit Microchip: Tristan Perich

Tristan Perich releases music entirely as electronics, with his 1-bit Symphony, coming out next week. But before we get hung up on the novelty of the thing, take note: there’s some real musical, compositional goodness inside that jewel case frame, locked up in the circuits. To begin the conversation about that music, Primus Luta, aka David Dodson, talks to the artist for CDM.

If you are familiar with Tristan Perich’s previous work 1-Bit Music, the packaging for 1-Bit Symphony will look familiar.  Housed in a standard jewel case, the CD is replaced by a series of circuits wired to a headphone jack from which the secrets of the case can be revealed.  But there are visible differences between 1-Bit Music and 1-Bit Symphony, and it is not just the colors of the wires.

“The first one had a lot to do with the transparency of the circuit,” Tristan explains.  ”It was meant to be very clearly laid out.  The different colors represent different functions of the wire.  There were the different volume knobs for left and right.  A big microchip.  This time I took the aesthetic decision to throw all of that out.  I made everything black, used a smaller micro-chip because I didn’t need all of the extra functionality of the bigger one.  Used a stereo volume knob.  All of this allows me to highlight a different aspect of the circuit, which is going from left to right: the battery to the power switch to the chip on to the headphone jack.”

Tristan Perich: 1-Bit Symphony (Part 1: Overview) from Tristan Perich on Vimeo.

After plugging in headphones, a simple flip of the switch begins the journey.  If you have heard 1-Bit Music, you are likely prepared for the sonic palate, but the depth and density of this new work takes the foundations laid in Music much further.   It is all a result of the musical journey Tristan has been on for now over half a decade.  “I never really wanted to work with electronics for music.  I took programming, so there was an interest in that and also the foundations of physics and quantum mechanics.  But my background is as a classical composer, working with more physical instruments. When I first started working with 1-bit sound, I fell in love with the raw, primitive, electric tonings that I could get.  This very, very basic electronic sound.  It provided an interesting and intricate structural framework.

“I think of this project as being very much inspired and coming out of the techniques that I have developed and learned scoring classical music.  But learning to score and write music in the 21st century is already a primitive thing.  Electronics have been a part of it for a while with many composers.  I grew up listening to Philip Glass and The Electro-Acoustic Ensemble, Steve Reich using tape loops in his pieces. In a way the definition of orchestration has different standards already.  At the same time, with the first project and this one, it’s music written for stereo headphones or a stereo speaker system.”

This is a realization of what Brian Eno describes as a music that  ”doesn’t exist outside of the recording,” both projects taking the notion a step further in that the music itself is not a recording.  ”[Symphony] is a contrast to the music I’ve been working on for the past two years where I’ve been writing for instruments on stage with 1-bit electronics.  These have one speaker on stage per channel and the speakers act like musicians.  In these two albums I’m working polyphonically in this really limited medium.  So in that sense it is written for the hardware.”

It’s an interesting trajectory in which, perhaps to Eno’s chagrin, performance has played an integral role in the development of this performance-less compositional format.  ”1-Bit Music was my first time working with one bit sound.  Only after that did I start writing pieces for 1-bit sound and instruments.  I learned a lot about the character of classical instruments and electronic sound over the past few years.  Returning to working with just electronic sounds has a whole different feeling than when I did it the first time.  Now it’s really about just focusing on working with the electronics as a self contained system.”

When working with electronics, particularly in the manner by which Tristan approaches them, the non-musical aspect of developing a system for composition is essential.  ”This was basically my first real piece of software in the Assembly language.  I built it up piece by piece. First you have the code that generates a tone.  Then you set up another piece of code that can change that tone every once in a while.  Set up different tracks.  Of course Assembly is a really sneaky language.  You have to keep track of  how much space the code is using, how much space the music is using up.  I had to confront issues where I wanted some abilities but couldn’t implement because I literally ran out of memory.  But if I deleted two elements I saved twenty bytes and could fit it on the chip,” he laughs.  “That was a real retro coding experience and unusual way for me in writing music.”

With the writing of the music itself, Tristan takes compositional cues from his work with instruments.  ”Sequences form melodies, and melodies get stitched together into sectional compositions.  Repetition is a very core part of my music. The way that I write for instruments is very similar to how I write for electronics.  So the code that I wrote mimics the structure.  It’s a way for me to write sectional music that also doesn’t take up much memory on the chip, because it is so limited.

“The things that are different between writing for instruments and writing for electronics are similar to things that are idiomatic to different instruments.  Wind instruments need to breathe every once in a while.  Electronics have characteristics like you can’t have too much polyphony and there’s no attack, decay or any real shape to these sound waves”  If it sounds limiting, you surely would not know by listening.  In the same way that you rarely think about the breath limitations of the wind section of a symphonic orchestra, listening to 1-Bit Symphony, you never think of the sound waves lacking shape.  The limitations of the medium never makes themselves apparent, instead one is left wondering how such a detailed composition is even possible from the circuits in your hand.

By his own admission the work is not performable so do not expect any live renditions of the music contained on the chip.  But at the listening party this Friday Tristan will attempt to present another aspect of the project.  ”The whole project is about how speakers are instruments specifically designed to translate electricity into sound waves. The whole 1-Bit Symphony really is turning on and off electricity and moving a speaker membrane.  That’s what I really want to capture at the release party.”

The release party will be held at Roulette in New York, on Friday August 20th.  The project itself will be released August 24th on Cantaloupe Music.

At the Bang on a Can / Cantaloupe store

More info:

Cantaloupe Music: cantaloupemusic.com
1-Bit Symphony: 1bitsymphony.com
Tristan Perich: tristanperich.com

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