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Tristan Perich's most visible invention, which he carries with him nearly everywhere, is an olive-green, old-school desk phone. Inside, he has embedded his LG G4010 cell, service by AT&T, warranty seriously voided. It is the 26-year-old composer's only phone.
Other creations include a wooden synthesizer (its tones generated by 12 spinning gears), a primitive video game called KILLJET (its Sharpied title Windexed off before Perich flew back from South by Southwest), a drawing machine (whose eloquent swoops graffiti the walls of his Gramercy apartment), and one-bit music, a technology and aesthetic rolled into one.
"It's the same way that lawnmowers create pitches," Perich explains of his sound chips, always enthusiastic. "Just because something is happening 440 times per second, you hear an A." In one-bit, a chip controls a fast-flickering on/off signal, speeding the blip into the realm of sound, then outputting into a standard headphone jack. Sequenced onto the chip itself, Perich programs his music in elongated streams of zeroes and ones. It is, he frequently notes, "anti-emulation," each chip an instrument on its own.
Its most marketable manifestation, One-Bit Music—formally released this month by Bang on a Can's Cantaloupe label, nearly two years after Perich completed primary wiring—comes housed cheekily in a jewel case with a headphone jack. Absorbed through headphones, it is surprisingly sturdy electronic music. The first printing sold out of San Francisco's Aquarius Records in less than a day.
Live, Perich—skinny, with a tuft of straw-colored hair—sometimes accompanies his blip melodies on drums, banging affably in sunglasses and a vest made of zippers draped on his shoulders like digital chain-mail.
"What I find so interesting about Tristan is that he is fluid in a number of worlds—music, visual, tech—that at one time seemed separate, but are now all converging upon each other," says Michael Gordon, co-founder of Bang on a Can, who commissioned Perich to write the impressionistically drifting "All Possible Paths" for the Bang on a Can All-Stars and five one-bit chips last year. "The music on [One-Bit Music] is really good and has its own innovative implications . . . and Tristan realizes all three parts of the inventions—concept, tech, and music—himself in an amazing way."
In the project's next incarnation, which Perich hopes to release by the fall, he has added the ability to map the chip's pitches to standard intonation. This will allow him to more easily compose minimalist pieces combining traditional instrumentation with his chips, such as "Active Field," which debuted at the Whitney in February.
There, violins and chip-hum swirled together in silvery sound clouds, ending—as several of Perich's pieces do—with a single, sustained chord. "You just totally can't tell what's a violin and what's electronic," Perich enthuses. "One-bit sound is what people associate with alarm clocks, and for it to sound so harmonious with what we consider the most beautiful instruments, like a violin, is really, really cool." (A piece for 15 chips and 5 voices will debut at Issue Project Room on June 18.)
"He has a nice approach to thinking about music," says Mike Rosenthal, a curator at the Tank, the Tribeca art space where Perich has found a second home, occasionally booking nights himself. "It doesn't really matter what the instrumentation is; he has these sounds in his head that he can pull out in an effective way."
Another project of his, the Loud Objects trio, assembles live circuits on an overhead projector, later selling the creations as $50 art pieces. A recent performance at the Bent Festival had them attaching wires to a pair of dancers and using the circuit to induce elegantly creepy muscle twitches. In a scene that often leans on eight-bit nostalgia and punkish bit-jacking, Perich displays a rapidly maturing elegance.
Indeed, weaned on Philip Glass the way red-diaper babies were on folk music, he's just as eager to embrace the white-walled galleries of the art world as those cheap-beer gigs at the Tank. In this respect, Perich's lineage is strong: His grandmother, Virginia Dwan, was a pioneering gallery dealer in minimalist and land art; his father, the Croatian-born photographer Anton Perich, was a Warhol associate and the inventor of primitive dot-matrix printer/scanner contraptions. Studying composition at Columbia (along with topology and abstract algebra), and investigating simple machinery as part of the inaugural class of the Interactive Communications Program at NYU, Perich comes fully networked and accredited. But he doesn't text-message.
Tristan Perich performs at the Issue Project Room (issueprojectroom.org) June 18