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A Compelling New Voice Emerges

February 1, 2010 | By Pierre Ruhe
MusicalAmerica.com
ATLANTA -- In early December, toward the end of a barnstorming national tour -- 22 cities in 48 days -- Tristan Perich was in an Atlanta art and music gallery called Eyedrum, performing what sounded like some of the freshest classical music today. Both intellectual and visceral, his "Dual Synthesis" involves philosophical arguments and a retro twist.

His music is a commentary on today's fetish for technology, among other matters. Perich's instruments are antiquated and adorable: a harpsichord and a 1-bit microchip, a throwback to "Pong"-era electronics. Four low-fi automobile speakers project the tinny electronic processing and amplification. The 20-minute work at once evokes the harmonies of English Tudor composers, the ghost of a Bach prelude and fugue, Philip Glass's "Koyaanisqatsi" and dorky video games from the 1970s. We tend to think of technology-based applications as a nudge (or a leap) forward; the futuristic aesthetic is often very glamorous. By defiantly spurning the future and even the present, "Dual Synthesis" somehow manages to seem utterly contemporary.

At 27, Perich describes himself as "a Minimalist with a focus on rhythm and melodic movement through patterns. I've always been intrigued by complex systems that are broken down into axiomatic statements and built back up again." His musical voice is distinct: the 1-bit electronics create a unique sound signature.

In the past year, he's taken a significant step forward: "Dual Synthesis" and his unusual recording called "1-Bit Symphony" (more on that in a moment) are strong works that stand up to repeated listening, thoughtful and exhilarating. A compelling new voice is emerging.

"The music is really good," says David Lang, a founder of Bang on a Can and a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, "and Tristan's presentation of it puts you in a mood to enjoy it."

Perich has thus far been mostly on the geeky hacker-gamer-art fringe. Among other events, he's given performance-lectures at Dorkbot conventions, where people gather to do odd things with electricity, and at galleries around New York, where he lives. When he won a Bang on a Can All-Stars [Musical America’s 2005 Ensemble of the Year] People's Commission, resulting in "All Possible Paths" in 2008, it was a first step onto a nationally-visible stage.

A few years earlier, Bang on a Can's record label, Cantaloupe, started distributing Perich's "1-Bit Music," an exceedingly clever statement on what we've lost in the digital-download revolution. It's a music-generating circuit package inside a normal CD jewel case that the composer programmed and, with assistants, constructed by hand in his apartment. (Each took about 15 minutes to make. Perich doesn't plan to make any more, although there's a long waiting list for it on Cantaloupe's website.)

Surface magazine called the "1-Bit Music" boxes "profound throwbacks to the traditional album, a response to the intangibility of iTunes and mp3s in the form of hand-held artwork." But Perich felt "1-Bit Music," an interesting concept, didn't go far enough musically. "I'm glad it's not around anymore," he says.

His latest, "1-Bit Symphony," will be officially released in April. As with its earlier sibling, the gadget doesn't store music like a CD or cassette tape but actually "performs" the composition anew each time it is switched on. You plug headphones directly into the CD case. "It's a comment on what machines do best, which is execute processes," he offers. To prove the point, the last movement is marked "Infinity" and will go on forever (or as long as the small watch battery has power).

Perich grew up in wooded Katonah, New York, about an hour north of the City. His parents were both involved in the visual artists, not musical, who listened to a lot of Philip Glass, which he cheerfully absorbed as a sonic staple. Computer programming was his boyhood hobby; in sixth grade he developed his own computer game and sold copies on AOL. High school at the privileged boarding school Phillips Academy, Andover -- "yeah, George W. Bush unfortunately went there, too, but he was on the cheerleading team" -- solidified his interest in composing off the grid. At Columbia University he was a music and math major and gradually joined the downtown scene. To earn an income he's a freelance Web designer.

"I compose furiously when I have a deadline," he says, "and in between the piano is my daily regimen." What sort of repertoire? Bach? Beethoven? Ligeti Etudes? "Yeah, I wish! I haven't tried to play sheet music in a long time, and I was never great at playing other people's music. I usually improvise and work out my own ideas."

He continues, "I started composing before I had any music theory, so when I learned about tonic and dominant and key signatures it seemed really foreign to me, it felt like 'classical' music."

Whether or not Perich's own listening habits are the norm for his age, it's evident that the next generation of "classical" composers might not consider themselves all that classical. For Perich, the standard Mozart-Beethoven-Wagner repertoire is still mostly foreign. Unlike, say, his 20-something contemporary Nico Muhly, a New York composer with a soaring career, Perich is not especially steeped in Byrd and other early-music sounds or Boulez and the high modernists. Along with the late 20th-century masters -- Glass, Reich, Morton Feldman, Arvo Pärt -- Perich says he listens to "banal recording-industry pop, Pearl Jam and Britney Spears and bouncy songs" as well as electronic trip-hop and rapidly evolving laptop "sound artists" like Ryoji Ikeda and Alva Noto.

Trip-hop doesn't neatly fit into a "classical" framework, but Perich's music does. "'Dual Synthesis' was an excuse to write something for myself to perform, the way Mozart would have." He describes the traditional orchestra as "interesting" but admits, "I don't have much to say about that instrumentation. I prefer conversations between one instrument, or one cluster of instruments, and electronics."

Perich is of a generation that doesn't see a distinction between music, video, electronics and performance. "Technology isn't the goal, just another tool," says composer Lesley Flanigan, a composer and scultural sound artist. "Tristan and I spend a lot of time talking about how to write so electronics are another acoustic instrument. He never wants people talking more about gadgetry than about the music."

Lang tells of the day walking down the sidewalk with Perich, when his odd-sounding cell phone went off. "He reached into his bag and pulled out an old [1980s vintage desktop] telephone, and he nonchalantly answered it. It was hilarious. He'd hot-wired this antique. He's exceptionally sophisticated and creative, part visual artist, part composer."

"Everyone today is an inventor in sound," says Perich, "and new-music for my generation has exploded, and everyone and his brother are forming contemporary music ensembles. I'm attracted to [Bang on a Can co-founder and Pulitzer Prize-winner] David Lang's music, although I feel a huge divide between that 50-plus crowd and people in our 20s. On a fundamental level, I'm trying to figure out where I fit in."

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