Space, Physics, and Math

Microchip melodies

Simplicity and complexity collide in Tristan Perich's music

January 26, 2011

Tristan Perich creates music with microchips. Watch, and listen to his work.

Tristan Perich: Microchip Melodies from Scienceline on Vimeo.

Video by Katie Palmer and Madhu Venkataramanan

Microchip melodies by Katie Palmer

Tristan Perich’s studio was getting crowded. Along with a piano, several wall-sized canvases and a cat named Balki, five extra people had just crammed into the small, cluttered space. Soldering irons began smoking as their hands carefully fashioned electrical circuits on the clear CD jewel cases that littered the piano top and a red vinyl couch nearby. As light flooded in through the studio’s large windows, Perich looked on, watching his music in the making.

On many mornings, Perich’s Manhattan studio serves as a factory for his musical composition 1-Bit Symphony. You won’t find a CD in any of the jewel cases coming off the assembly line, however. Instead, there’s a simple circuit that includes a tiny microprocessor, a headphone jack, a volume knob, a track-changing button, a watch battery and an on-off switch. “The technology behind Tristan Perich’s 1-Bit Symphony is fascinating; more important, the music is fairly electrifying,” wrote bestselling author and New Yorker music critic Alex Ross on his blog.

Perich, 28, is known for creating complex music and images by building up from a set of minimal digital instructions, usually programmed on a simple microprocessor. In a world where the computing power of smart phones is taken for granted, Perich wants to make the programming in his work transparent. “These microprocessors embody code in a way that allows it to coexist in the world around us,” he said.

Perich started calling himself a composer from a young age, honing his ear by writing music for himself on the piano. But he only began working seriously with electronics between 2000 and 2004 at Columbia University, where he studied computer science, music and math. After Columbia, he did postgraduate work at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP).

Though Perich considers himself more of a composer than a techie, he has the coding chops to pull off complex projects. “The coolest thing about [Perich] is that he makes his own tools,” said Luke DuBois, a professor at ITP who taught a collaborative visual art and music course at Columbia while Perich was a student there. “He writes his own software and he comes up with his own systems.”

For each project, Perich starts from scratch, learning the coding language necessary to best execute his musical and artistic vision. Programming the five movements and nine musical voices of 1-Bit Symphony was no easy feat. The microprocessor Perich chose to use only houses 8KB of information, which is just about enough to store a long e-mail.

“I would call it audio hacking,” said Jeff Snyder, a maker of electronic brass instruments who was a Columbia graduate student while Perich was there. “He’s producing audio on controllers that were never intended to spit out an audio file.” Indeed, the microprocessors Perich uses are more likely to be found inside a microwave or an alarm clock than an MP3 player. “These microprocessors allow us to augment the physical presence of what’s around us with this more abstract idea that’s based on logic and process and execution of code,” Perich said.

At the most basic melodic level, the microprocessor in 1-Bit Symphony produces tones by toggling back and forth between ones and zeroes, and the pitch you hear depends on the speed of that binary oscillation. The sounds produced are the same as the grainy bleeps and bloops that you’d hear coming out of an old digital watch. But in Perich’s work they’re layered to create rich textures that you wouldn’t expect out of this simple chip, creating music that can be both grating and exhilarating.

Perich’s success as an electronic artist feeds off his unique way of emphasizing the physical aspects of electronics. Computation isn’t just about constructing an image on a computer screen, Perich said; it can have tangible effects. While listening to 1-Bit Symphony, you can almost feel the microprocessor churning, creating music for you on the spot. As Perich describes it, the chip stores a score for the piece, like the musical notation that a conductor and orchestra play in real time. “His chip is making it live; the chip is performing for you,” explained Snyder.

Douglas Repetto, director of research at Columbia’s Computer Music Center and founder of dorkbot, a New York City social group of techno-geeks, said that Perich was one of the most amazing undergraduates he had ever seen. “Lots of undergrads talk ambitiously about what they’re going to do,” said Repetto. “But everything [Perich] proposed, he did, and it was exceptional.”

In one Columbia class, Perich’s final project was “notorious for being insane and unfinishable,” said Repetto. But he pulled it off, though not without the help of his father, a painter who used robots to execute his work in the 1970s. They were together at two in the morning before the project was due, busily hot-gluing fiber-optic cables to construct a cube that would project a low resolution, hologram-like image. That frantic pace continues today, as Perich tours internationally to make music and art while remaining an artist-in-residence at his old high school in Massachusetts.

The intensity with which Perich attacks his projects is evident in both the large scale of his ambitions and the detail of his work. The concert program that Perich made for his senior recital at Columbia is a typical example. Instead of settling for a thin paper booklet, Perich made his programs out of three by three inch pieces of plywood, punched and bound by keychain rings and branded on the front. And with each copy of 1-Bit Symphony, Perich includes the detailed source code that underlies what you’re hearing.

The large and the small continue to collide in Perich’s work. Coming up next is one of Perich’s largest projects yet: a spin on one-bit sound that will do its part to help struggling freelance musicians in the city. The piece, to be performed at Brooklyn’s ISSUE Project Room sometime in the next two years, will require 50 violins and 50 channel electronics to execute. It will take countless moving parts — cables, speakers, circuit boards, stands, instruments, breathing musicians — that in Perich’s hands will make one cohesive whole.

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