Scored for traditional instrumentation combined with 1-bit electronics, Surface Image is “a duet between musician and code, exploring an interest in foundations of electronic sound,” observes its composer, Tristan Perich. Ahead of the work’s Chicago premiere on the MusicNOW concert June 6, Perich sat down with Sam Adams, CSO Mead co-composer-in-residence to discuss the work and his compositional methods.
Sam Adams: Tristan, could you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about what you’re up to these days?
Tristan Perich: Sure. My name is Tristan Perich, and — what am I up to? — I’m having a baby in two months! That’s pretty much what I’m up to. I’m trying to finish up some projects before that. I’m wrapping up a new electronic album called “Noise Patterns.”
SA: Surface Image involves 40-channel 1-bit electronics. Can you tell us a little bit about 1-bit electronics?
TP: I’ve been working primarily with this primitive electronic sound, this 1-bit sound where the sound wave is entirely ones and zeroes. It’s a very basic binary waveform. Compare that to 16-bit CD quality audio, where you have a really smooth, high-fidelity representation of sound — when you knock almost all of that information away, and you’re left with the most basic digital representation of sound that you can get, you’re at 1-bit. It’s a gnarly, gritty electronic sound that I really love. I think of it as the sound of electricity.
SA: How did you come to work with this material?
TP: I was actually really anti-electronics for a long time. I grew up playing the piano and composing contemporary classical music — scoring for acoustic instrumentation — and I thought that electronics lacked the physicality and tactile live presence that acoustic instruments had.
It all changed when I started working with micro-controllers, which are basic microchips that you can program to do anything — whether it’s controlling a microwave, or your car, or making music. They’re these open-ended devices. And what’s interesting about them is that everything is totally explicit. When you write software for them, you have to code everything from scratch, and you have to physically wire the output of one of these chips to a speaker in order to get it to make a sound. That directness, working with computation on an almost mechanical level, made me think more about electronic sound as a physical medium. It did have the tactile quality that matched the acoustic instruments I’d been working with for a long time. Electronic music started as a virtual thing that happens on laptops — nothing wrong with that, of course, but for me, these micro-controllers — these basic circuits — gave me something to hold on to.
They also appealed to the mathematical side of my brain. The conceptual purity of working with ones and zeros, and shedding all of the other layers, made the code simpler. It meant that the electronics and the software matched the musical processes that I was interested in, which are simple forms, basic repetition and pattern-based musical processes.
SA: Is there ever in your music an explicit relationship between the physical processes in electronics and the formal processes that you may use to flesh out material, like proportions or algorithms?
TP: Good question. I stay away from anything too procedural in my musical material generation. I try to keep that as intuitive as I can, and I create these super-formal structures, like the code system I used to write music for multiple chips connected to multiple speakers. I try to use that and write for that in the same way that I would for any other instrument, like piano. But in the end there’s a lot of overlap, because I write material that moves between the instruments on stage and the electronics.
The formal structure ends up being captured … but it comes out in the music, as opposed to coming out in an algorithm. I try to keep the algorithms at the lowest level in the creative “stack” of a piece of music. The algorithm is very bland; it does exactly what I tell it to do, nothing more and nothing less. I keep the code side of the system very predictable and very simple, so you can understand what it’s doing as an audience member (and as a composer, too). It’s a very simple instrument, and I try not to program anything that’ll be surprising. I’m more interested in computation when it’s not surprising — when it’s doing simple things but doing them really well.
It’s like a great minimalist work of art; it’s surprising in its profound simplicity and beauty, not necessarily in creative new music materials that you wouldn’t expect.
SA: That certainly resonates with many performances of your work that I’ve heard. With Surface Image, something else is happening. Well, maybe not something else, but I’m comparing it to Observations, which has a kind of simplicity in its form and in the material you use. Surface Image is, by contrast, a very romantic piece. The harmony of it, the form of it, the way it unfolds … to me, it self-destructs in a way. So I guess this is a two-part question: 1) Was there a change in your thinking with Surface Image, and 2) Is it a concerto?
TP: Surface Image was definitely a different kind of piece for me. I’d say in general there are two categories of composing: monolithic short pieces, not necessarily short, but monolithic in that they’re based on a specific idea that plays itself out. The idea is a statement that doesn’t change at all; it just goes through various transformations throughout the piece. But Surface Image is this epic thing that goes through different kinds of material and moves through different usages of electronics. Maybe it has something to do with the piano being my instrument, not having written anything for solo piano in a decade, and then finally having it come together in this piece — literally spanning from before I started working with electronics through now.
I wanted Surface Image to capture all the different facets of my musical thinking; it’s a rare emotional piece for me in that way, a little bit like a concerto. I think of it in terms of its focus on one instrument that is surrounded by this dense polyphonic backing material, or something that would be the orchestra, but now it’s 40 speakers blanketing the piano.
SA: When you’re working and you’re dealing with larger and developing forms, what is the process like? Do you sketch primarily with electronics? Do you work with 1-bit sound first, or acoustic music first?
TP: I’m going to upend my earlier answer: the way it’s not a concerto is the way that I may have to find some musical synthesis between the human musician and the electronics. And in this case, I needed 40 speakers in order to match the dynamic and grand qualities of a grand piano. It needed that polyphony in order to match the polyphonic capabilities of all of our fingers on our hands and the volume of the piano. I definitely think of Surface Image as a hybrid duo that happens to have a difference in number: 1 vs. 40. There is the concerto gesture and solo virtuosic side of it, but at the same time I’m trying to create a hybrid experience.
When I write, each piece often has a different process. Sometimes it’s really zoomed in on the grid, thinking about pattern, composing from the smallest element up and growing structures out of that. Sometimes it’s totally the opposite, where it’s intuitive, improvisational sketches that become material. Surface Image was a little bit of both, because of all the different forms it goes through and different ways of using the electronics and the piano.
I wrote it at the piano. I had a special setup where I built a custom version of the electronics such that I could actually test things out live and play along with 40 speakers. I was at my mom’s house, at the piano I played growing up, and I really got to be in the sound, turn it up full blast, and use that backdrop as a context for improvising and also honing in on gestures and whittling away.
When I wrote Surface Image, I wrote lots and lots of material, and much of it got cut out. I think that’s true of a lot of pieces of my music: that I write material as a way of testing out ideas and directions. Ultimately I then figure out, “Oh, this is what this piece is about,” shed away everything that it isn’t and distill it down to what it is.
SA: Is there anything else you’d like to say about Surface Image?
TP: Generally I’m interested in the bridge between acoustic sound — the physical world around us, this tactile world that we interact with all the time — and the abstract world of electronics that we interface with indirectly, like through our computers.
But one of the ways we actually interact directly with electronics is through sound, through speakers. We still plug an analog cable — like plugging our headphones into an audio player. And when you do that, you’re connecting the output of your audio player to the speakers of your headphones, and that’s a very direct connection.
A speaker is a very simple, beautiful device that translates electronic signal into sound — into movement of the speaker membrane. And it’s such a simple object: it’s just an electromagnet attached to a membrane. It’s sort of like a drum, where instead of having to hit the drum, you can reach underneath it and cause it to move exactly how you want it to move. And so, speakers are a very direct translation between electronics and sound.
I like that because it’s a link between sound and code — code is just electronics, and computers are beautifully crafted machines that hijack the laws of physics, hijack electromagnetism, to compute information. The funny thing is, computers have no idea what they’re doing. They’re just processing ones and zeroes in exactly the sequence that programmers tell them to. And the result of that is processing information, or sending email, or loading webpages, or editing a video. The crazy thing is that the information that the computer is processing, these ones and zeroes, are actual physical quantities in the real world. Those ones and zeroes have the power to move the membrane of the speaker directly. I love that connection.
SA: Pianist Vicky Chow commissioned this piece. Was it a collaboration or was it very much a commission?
TP: It wasn’t a “collaboration” in the musical collaboration sense, but this piece was absolutely written for Vicky. It was very much inspired by her virtuosic, extremely enthusiastic, focused playing. I connected very strongly, as a composer and also as a pianist, with the way she plays piano. And when she asked me to write this piece, it was clear pretty early on that it had to be big. It was the sort of project that you had to go all in on. And it was also an invitation to be able to write whatever I wanted to write knowing that she’d be able to play it. It was a total treat to be able to pour everything that I wanted to say for the piano into a piece of music and have her bring it to life. That’s the joy of working with Vicky Chow.
Surface Image is by far the largest of my pieces, both in length but also in the stage setup of piano surrounded by 40 speakers. Because of that, it was a chance for me to really explore polyphony coming from electronics. Usually with 1-bit electronics, I work with a smaller number of voices – maybe up to 10 or 16. But 40 is a whole other level of density. It allowed me to work with 1-bit electronic sound as a blanketing, cascading texture and use it both as individual point sources, like the pointillist rhythmic stuff that I like, but then multiply that so much that it becomes a texture. And have the piano – with its built-in sustain pedal reverb – living within this big sound.
That’s the thing about 1-bit electronics; they’re on or they’re off. There’s nothing in between. So in a way, the “digitalness” of the piano is mirrored in the electronics in the sense that you press a key and the piano makes a sound, or triggers the electronics to make a sound. It’s very abrupt and odd, but the piano has this wonderful resonance to it that the electronics don’t have, and there are very finite musical events to work with.
SA: Very often, when people are discussing the work of Steve Reich or Philip Glass, particularly their early works, the conversation tends to veer towards process. With you, the conversation veers towards technology and electronics. What’s unique to Reich and Glass is their sense of harmony, and how different pieces can exist with the same processes but with a completely different harmony. You have a really incredible sense of harmony, particularly in Surface Image. I love what happens in the piece. Do you have a specific approach to harmony, or is there a specific narrative that has inspired a strain of harmonic thinking?
TP: The early minimalists had such a sense of beauty: the beauty of these simple processes. I really don’t care about technology; I’m much more interested in the way technology enables simple processes, kind of the opposite of technology in a way. I’m interested in very basic machines, basically mechanical machines, except that computers can do things really fast, and because of their speed you can generate sound.
Computation is essentially some mathematics working fast enough to create sound, so that’s just process for me. I’m more interested in the same things that the early minimalists were interested in, which was creating these processes and playing them out.
Having a simple harmonic language is beautiful. There’s something beautiful about the harmonic language behind Reich’s Piano Phase or Glass’s Two Pages and all those pieces. But at the same time, it’s also a clean slate, a clean backdrop. It’s not complicated. It lets you focus on processes that are happening in a way that doesn’t interfere but is also really beautiful. That’s the stuff I grew up on too. That simple, mostly diatonic harmonic language is something that speaks very strongly to me, and I also like the math of it.
When I started working with code, I had this question of what pitch system I was going to work with, because it’s totally open-ended. Code lends itself to a just intonation approach much more readily than it does to equal temperament. But to me, music is the keyboard and music is equal temperament, and I think I’m maybe stuck in that. I ended up bending the electronics to the acoustic side of things, towards the Western, to my tradition. That meant incorporating irrational numbers and algorithms, which don’t look nice in code. But it let me continue using and exploring this harmonic language.
SA: The harmonic language of Observations is so static that it’s much easier to understand and to listen to the sound, and to how the acoustic world is interacting with the digital world. But the harmonic language that you choose to engage in Surface Image does a completely different thing. It’s guttural. It makes me less interested in what’s going on. My relationship with listening to that music is very different from listening to your other pieces.
If an audience member wonders, what do you gain by adding more speakers versus just turning the volume up? Is that something you can simply answer? Can you explain why there are 40 speakers?
TP: There are lots of different reasons. I wanted 40 speakers in this piece to be able to explore musical density that I hadn’t done before, and have so many lines of music layered on top of each other so as to create a new texture.
A lot of the music has to be high pitched, mostly because I love that, but also because these speakers respond very well in that register. Or, a piece of music will change registers too much, and that’s because this speaker, at a lower pitch in a lower octave, will be much quieter. And so in Surface Image, with 40 speakers, I was able to explore the full range of pitch in a way I haven’t been able to do before. That’s because I can have one low note being played by 40 speakers, and all of them contributing to that one low note are able to lend enough power to compete with the piano.
I’ll say one more thing. Another reason for the density was to be able to explore space more fully in this piece. It’s a wide setup, and the number of voices I get to work with through these 40 speakers playing 40 electronic lines of music necessarily cover a lot of space. I think about space a lot in my music, about the placement of the speakers, about the relationship of the number of speakers to the players, and the fact that all of this sound is getting created live in the same room as the audience. And so it’s electronic sound, but very firmly rooted in space, alongside the musicians. It’s not just coming from the house P.A. system, it’s part of the acoustic experience that’s happening on stage.