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Tristan Perich - 1-Bit Symphony

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Artist: Tristan Perich

Album: 1-Bit Symphony

Label: Cantaloupe

Review date: Dec. 8, 2010

About a year ago, I had an argument/debate with my friend Ben about the philosophy of listening. His contention was that we need to start thinking about and accounting for how machines listen when we conceptualize how we, as a society, will hear things in the future. Recorded media has shifted largely to the digital realm, with the closing of the last reel-to-reel audio tape manufacturer in 2005 and the rapidly accelerating turn to mp3s, FLAC files, and the like as exemplars of that change (with the resurgence of vinyl as the exception that proves the rule). Since sound is now by and large stored on computers, it is necessary to think about how computers “hear” music. Perhaps the most radical part of Ben’s theory was the notion that “listening” to a computer occurs outside of time, since a machine can “hear” a song in fractions of a second and can “listen” to a piece forwards, backwards, and sideways simultaneously. I countered with the question of how this could be considered listening, when the process of listening to a sound file is essentially the same as listening to an image file or a program file? And, more importantly, is music not by definition a temporal form, one in which time is a necessary organizing factor? Time is what separates music from other, static art forms such as literature and painting, which exist in time and are experienced in time but don’t rely on time. He responded by pointing out that an experienced musician can experience a piece out of time just by reading the score. The debate continued on for a while until I got frustrated, insisting that music can only be truly experienced by an (organic) body that hears in time. Ben stuck to his guns, unswayed by my argument. I think it’s fair to say that he won that debate. Despite my unease with some of his conclusions, Ben’s ideas have stuck in my head.

Enter the music of Tristan Perich who lays the machine/human, temporal/instantaneous divide bare. His music is digital, but it doesn’t exist on computers as conventionally conceived. He writes music that exists on a single microchip, powered by a single batter, with an on-off switch, volume knob, and headphone jack thrown in for kicks. In many cases, including this “album,” his music is encased in a jewel case, with the case containing everything needed to listen to the music (save for headphones). He also includes the source code for the microchip in the liner notes, which for 1-Bit Symphony ends up being about 2,000 lines of Assembly Language. On the page, the code is an undulating sequence of synthesizers, timers, commands, numbers and loops. The effect of reading over them is like seeing abstract graphic poetry, like reading Marinetti’s Zang Tumb Tumb or Schwitter’s Ursonate. Not knowing Assembly Language, I’m left marveling at the proportions and the hypnotic nature of the endless rows of gradually shifting formulas. It’s a kind of minimalist text that mirrors the minimalist music the microchip creates. I imagine an expert in Assembly Language could read through this and get a sense of what the piece sounds like without having to even activate the miniature computer in a fraction of the time that the audio takes to unfold. That would be a kind of listening, one entirely abstracted from time, sound waves, and eardrums. I suspect that Perich himself would consider it a valid way to hear the piece. And for a human being, this is perhaps as close as one could get to the kind of machine listening my friend proposed a year ago.

The symphony is five movements of “1-bit” sound, spanning about 35 minutes of human time. The sound is entirely sawtooth waves, layered in a minimalist texture that manages to sound like the soundtrack to Mega Man that Mahler didn’t write. I’m only being a tiny bit flippant when I say that. While Perich is nowhere near as repetitive as the Mega Man composers (a series of anonymous Japanese composers/programmers), his timbral and harmonic palettes are the same, letting the buzzy overtones of the sawtooth waves create density and dissonance within a largely major-key setting. The middle of the second movement is an exception, a wildly developmental passage that could be out of a late Ligeti work. Conceptually, the audio is of the same kind as the User’s Symphony #2 for Dot-Matrix Printers or Xerophonix’s Copying Machine Music, and Perich often creates patterns that sound like dot-matrix printers and copy machines (as well as fax machines and the sound of dial-up internet connections). The musical material itself, though, tends to be fairly conventional, though Perich manipulates his melodies and harmonies in really cool ways. I’m particularly drawn to the Music for 18 Musicians-esque passage that opens the second movement. Here’s the catch, though: you have to listen to the symphony in order, from start to finish to experience it aurally. There is no track selector, no pause button, no ability to fast-forward or rewind. Finding that great moment in the middle of the third movement, or the Mahlerian drone of the final movement, you have to start at the beginning and wait for those moments to arrive. To listen to it as sound waves rather than code, you are entirely at the mercy of time. You are reduced to a body, to a squishy lump of cells forced to experience the world in a conventionally temporal sphere. And for the microchip, sound can only unfurl in real time. It has all the code at its disposal, but it can only execute that code in one direction, in one form of temporality.

So we have a paradox. Time, for the 1-Bit Symphony is both real and not, both one-directional and omnidirectional. The aural music can only be experienced as a single unit of a fixed duration, but the code (the “textual” music?) is free to be experienced in any direction or duration, to be “heard” in whatever way the “listener” pleases. I can’t say which way of listening is more valid. I tend to privilege the ear over the eye when it comes to the way I experience music, but that doesn’t mean that my human listening is necessarily correct. But in listening to Perich’s work, I am forced to appreciate and seriously confront the possibility of machine listening and grapple with the thought that music doesn’t actually need time to exist. It’s a frighteningly intriguing possibility.

By Dan Ruccia

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