The interlocking rhythm patterns of Steve Reich, the micro-universe contained in the drones of La Monte Young, the hypnotic sounds of the German motorik bands of the ’70s…these are a few of the straws I will grasp at in an effort to describe the sound world of Tristan Perich‘s Surface Image. Perich specializes in 1-bit electronics, meaning electronic sounds that contain only a single piece of information, unlike, say, a synthesizer, where each note is a complex composite of different frequencies. Charmingly low tech and surprisingly adaptable, these beeps and blips can stand on their own, as they did in Perich’s 1-bit Music in 2005, which consisted of a CD jewel box with no CD: The box contained the simple wiring needed to produce the sound and you listened by plugging into the headphone jack built into the box. But Perich has become a master at weaving these sounds into the far more complex world of acoustic instruments. And with Surface Image, an hour-long piece for pianist Vicky Chow, he may have created his masterpiece.
The opening moments offer the unsettling experience of hearing a droning note that somehow seems to be moving at the same time. As the texture thickens, it can be difficult if not impossible to tell the live pianist from the layers of tinkling, chiming electronics. And when those electronics suddenly drop out, almost five minutes later, the effect is not unlike the “bass drop” in an EDM concert. But if this is a more intimate music, a web woven from dozens of tiny sounds, and the 88 bigger ones of the piano. Even the quiet second part of the piece proceeds in a kind of moto perpetuo, and Perich often focuses on the extreme upper end of the keyboard, where the notes begin to sound more electronic anyway. Chow has proven herself to be a formidable talent — she’s one of the Bang On A Can All-Stars, and also performed a solo piano reduction of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring during that work’s centennial year — but this requires a different sort of virtuosity (and seems to be a repetitive stress injury waiting to happen).
This is a world of tightly woven rhythms, and one in which a harmonic shift, or the introduction of long, organ-like tones (as happens nearly halfway through the piece) register as seismic events. And lest this all turn out to be just too exhausting, Perich ends Surface Image with a slow, lyrical piano movement. It begins over a barely audible electronic beating that gradually doubles back on itself and builds to a beautiful and satisfying conclusion.