New York Philharmonic and Yo-Yo Ma Perform Salonen's Cello Concerto

Tristan Perich at The Kitchen

by Robert Leeper and FoM Dither Quartet
Let me cut to the chase: there is no one today writing music that is more relevant, more engaging, more viscerally exciting than Tristan Perich. Over the past decade, Tristan has carved out a unique niche at the crossroads of acoustic and electronic, of visual art and sound, of theoretical physics and hacker culture. And he's done so in a way that cloaks his music's complexity in a vein of ecstatic trance, much as Steve Reich does in his deceptively minimalist compositions. 

The Kitchen, which has been something of a home for Tristan over the past few years, presented a two-day retrospective of his music this past weekend, all of which utilized 1-bit electronics and a variety of acoustic and amplified instruments. On their own, these 1-bit sounds come across like a Game Boy gone wild, but there is something uniquely satisfying, even thrilling, about the interplay between digital and analog Tristan achieves with these works.

"I think about the basic states of a signal," he says, "as it moves through a circuitboard and then out to a speaker... (the same as music) from a score to the actions of a musician on stage."

On Friday night, electric guitar quartet Dither kicked things off with a new version of Interference Logic (2010, rev. 2017). The music started softly and simply, until suddenly the peace was shattered by a piercing electronic pulse: not quite a siren, but no less insistent or penetrating. Over time, the guitars slowly built in volume until they eventually overpowered the 4-channel electronics. Man: 1, Machine: 0.

(2016, rev. 2017) featured the chamber ensemble ACME playing over rhythmic patterns of "1-bit noise", which sounded like the static interference you get when a radio station is falling out of range. It was sort of like listening to a concert broadcast from a cabin deep in the woods. (Tristan's latest "album" Noise Patterns - actually a pre-programmed circuit board - is an extended exploration of noise.) 

Friday's program ended with the premiere of Dimensional Bloom (2017) for two amplified pianos and electronics, featuring Vicky Chow - who commissioned Tristan's brilliant Surface Image for piano and 1-bit electronics in 2014 - and the Dutch pianist Saskia Lankhoorn. As with Interference Logic, the pianists started by playing repetitive figures, only to be interrupted by a series of deep, LOUD bass pulses. As I took in Vicky and Saskia's athleticism, playing an endless series of cascading 64th notes, it struck me that this was really a Double Concerto, with Tristan providing the invisible orchestra. It ended with the pianos melting into the electronics with dizzying swirls of trills. Pure ear candy.

Vicky Chow and Saskia LankhoornOn Saturday night, the stage featured two percussion setups and two sets of three speakers arranged symmetrically around a morass of cables and electronics. It was a reflection of Tristan's visual and aural aesthetic: a physical manifestation of the electronic heart where acoustic and electronic coalesce.

The evening began with Formations (2011), featuring Tristan's longtime collaborator Mariel Roberts on cello. Flanked by speakers, Roberts’ cello shifted from foreground into the background, lightly dancing around a relentless barrage of 1-bit electronic sound. Roberts easily dispatched the numerous technical challenges in Tristan's score.

Sequential (2011, rev. 2017) featured a gathering of new music titans Sō Percussion and the JACK Quartet. Tristan changes tack here, carving up blocks of sound as a sculptor would a block of marble. He takes the acoustic sound provided by instrumentalists and uses "gated electronics" to insert periods of silence like a mute button. The result is a kind of counterpoint: detailed rhythmic patterns lead the listener from one instrument's frequency to the next, obscuring the natural timbres of the instruments.

Despite his complex scores, Tristan's use of 1-bit electronics are something of a throwback to the early days of synthesizers and handheld electronics. This is the core of his music’s appeal: it brings together acoustic and electronic, human and machine, past and present, asking us to leave behind the duality of instrument and electronics and allow them to come together to create something new.

Vicky Chow, Saskia Lankhoorn, Tristan PerichMore pics on the photo page.