Tristan Perich’s 1-Bit Symphony stands quite eloquently in contrast to the 21st century’s love affair with the endlessly copyable digital file. While CDs have been traded for the instant gratification of the easily distributed MP3, Perich has shifted the frame and managed to make the fragile plastic jewel case once again worthy of shelf space.
He has achieved this by literally taking that clear shell and packing a microchip programmed to produce music, a battery, some wiring, a switch, and an audio jack inside it. The consumer is holding not a recording of the piece in this case, but the means to generate a complete performance of it, on demand, with the flick of a switch.
Perich, who studied music, math, and computer science at Columbia University, sees the project as twofold. “It’s half super, super formal based on these mathematical ideas and theories of computation,” he says, skipping the numbers lesson for the moment. “At the same time, it’s sort of a social commentary about distribution, music stores, and creating something physical again that people can consume as an object and not just this ephemeral digital download.”
Not that he bares these new technologies, which have made the consumption of a diverse range of music so much easier, any ill will. In fact, a recording of his 1-Bit Symphony will also be made available for digital download “for the sake of practicality.” But he does seem to appreciate the cultural tension his object is set up to poke at, and perhaps relieve. While today original recordings can be produced quite professionally in basements and bedrooms everywhere, what excited him musically was not the open door to more, but technological advances that allowed him the chance to play with a whole lot less: an eight kilobyte microchip (retail value in 2010: $1.50). His file size concerns revolve not around the angst of audiophiles over diminished fidelity, but dwell on how to build an interesting piece of music using the simplest expression of electronic sound: what is possible inside the limits of 8,000 characters, a series of zeros and ones that contain both the software to play the music back as well as the music itself.
Though the listener is in effect starting a performance rather than a recording every time she turns on this little music box, the resulting 5-movement, 45-minute work is completely composed and will play out identically every time. Though the timbres may echo digital alarms and Atari games, the layers of tone and rhythm Perich has employed result in music that is captivating. Perhaps never before has there been so striking an illustration of that old adage about the whole equaling so much more than the sum of its parts.
Though the code remains the same for every album produced, it is true that the clock speed of each chip has slight variations which could result in playback that is slightly higher or lower in pitch from machine to machine—a fact that Perich gamely acknowledges is “just an artifact of the fact that the real world is hard to make precise.” The battery also means the object has a lifespan.
Perich says he was attracted to computer programming and composing at a young age and was supported by parents who took his artistic ambitions very seriously, but he was never interested in electronics coming into his music. He explains that “in a sense the computer being able to do anything and the history of electronic music as moving towards the ability to reproduce anything possible—and that’s sort of the promise of computer music—that didn’t really have any meaning for me. Where’s the shape in that? Where’s the texture? It doesn’t really have much of an identity.”
It took working with these extremely limited microchips on the 1-bit projects to convince him otherwise. “You had to write all the software for them from scratch. They don’t have an audio card; they don’t have a keyboard. You have to write software and download it onto the chip. But at that point, this microchip is an incredibly elegant representation of that software, so it kind of turns software from this thing that is very abstract into something that is much more direct, more physical in a weird sense.”
And in so doing it is art perfectly tailored to its time.