Composer Tristan Perich has released four CDs this year through the Physical Editions imprint. Each comes in a cardboard sleeve about the size of a DVD case, accompanied by a foldout poster of its score. The covers are illustrated with drawings, also by Perich, but realized with the help of machines. Both the music and the drawings display an incredible density of content, almost too much information to process at one sitting. Even as foldout posters, the music on the scores is too tiny for any musician (or anyone else) to read without a magnifying glass; the sheer number of notes, and the intensely repetitive phrases into which they’re arranged, is almost frightening—the idea of trying to play this stuff is enough to give a person fits of nervous anxiety.
Each piece is made up of a single track; there are no movements in Perich’s work, and very little movement. It’s minimalism of a highly active sort, with none of the lush romanticism heard in, say, later Philip Glass or Steve Reich. That said, the first and longest piece, “Parallels,” arranged for tuned triangles, hi-hats and 4-channel 1-bit electronics, has moments of thrilling beauty. There’s a moment about eight and a half minutes in, after a few patterns have been repeating for quite a while, the percussion (performed by the duo of Todd Meehan and Doug Perkins, who also commissioned the piece) tinging and the electronics pulsing, when a new, more vibrant electronic tone begins to ring out. Despite being just as fast and mechanical as everything that’s come before, it’s somehow so much more active that the listener’s pulse begins to race; it’s like the moment when an Underworld song reaches its climax. At the same time, the high-pitched tones and pulsing repetitions also recall works by Ryoji Ikeda. And as with Ikeda’s work, the music is experienced very differently through speakers than through headphones. It’s only in the 46-minute piece’s final section that the hi-hats come in, after the electronics have shifted from the high frequencies of earlier to an almost marimba-like pitch, and it’s like the music is bouncing around the listener’s head, before stopping abruptly.
The second composition, “Telescope,” is virtually the opposite of “Parallels” in every way. It’s scored for two bass clarinets, two bass saxophones, and Perich’s 4-channel 1-bit electronics, and is only seven minutes long. The bass clarinets, played by Sara Budde and Eileen Mack, and the baritone saxophones, played by Argeo Ascani and Alex Hamlin, emit long, slow drones, with the occasional slightly higher harmonic note, as the electronics ping out a melody—it’s like listening to a submarine crew use their sonar to sing lullabies to whales.
The third piece, “Dual Synthesis,” returns to the high-pitched, high-speed pulsations of “Parallels.” It’s scored for harpsichord, played by Daniel Walden, and 4-channel 1-bit electronics. Here, the electronics are primarily emitting single repeated notes, almost like an echoing signal, as Walden strikes the harpsichord’s strings in fast, shimmering triplet figures that recall the lightning-speed, maniacal shred arpeggios of guitarist Mick Barr. At times, a human element enters into the music, as the stuttering rhythm seems to cause Walden to slow down as he considers the next move; he doesn’t quite falter, exactly, but the listener, thinking that perhaps he might, is oddly thrilled and concerned for him. As the piece continues, though, it becomes clear that the stuttering effect is highly deliberate, and is in fact part of the score, which makes Perich’s compositional methods seem almost perverse, and more brilliant for it. Still later, the music becomes more romantic and emotionally florid, somehow, almost bringing to mind the analog synthesizers of 1970s progressive rock. Over its 23-minute running time, “Dual Synthesis” explores a startling array of moods.
The final piece, “Active Field,” is scored for 10 violins and 10-channel 1-bit electronics, and performed by Ensemble Signal (Olivia De Prato, Molly Germer, Jennifer Choi, Christopher Otto, Yuki Numata Resnick, Josh Modney, Esther Noh, Ari Streisfeld, Patti Kilroy and Lauren Cauley), conducted by Brad Lubman. This is the most traditionally written, and conventionally beautiful, of the four pieces, a way of bringing the listener back down to earth after the utter alien-ness of so much of what’s come before. The violins have the room to themselves for several minutes at the beginning, and they gradually shift from a slow rippling to unfolding melodies and harmonies that sound like minimalist takes on Appalachian folk music. It’s not until near the 10-minute mark (of a 25-minute piece) that the electronics take over, and they sound like the soundtrack to a classic Nintendo game, playing simple, repetitive patterns intended to keep the listener’s attention focused as he or she sends Mario running and jumping to the next level. After five minutes of this, the violins reappear, playing Glass-esque pulses which are matched by the electronics, gradually rising to a dramatic point-counterpoint climax, after which they dissolve into long drones. At the very end of the piece, another romantic melody emerges, as though the video game hero has won the day and is being rewarded.
Tristan Perich is a fascinating composer whose ability to blend the electronic and the organic gives his music an emotional power its austerity, repetitiveness, and sometimes nearly painful frequencies might not immediately suggest. Each of these pieces is worth hearing; taken as a set, they’re some of the year’s most astonishing music.
Stream “Parallels,” “Telescope,” “Dual Synthesis” and “Active Field” on Spotify: