Q&A: Sound Scluptor Tristan Perich Talks 'Noise Patterns'

"Circuit Album" Explores the Shaping and Stressing of Digital Noise
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Noise Patterns, the latest work by New York-based composer, programmer and sound sculptor Tristan Perich, explores the shaping and stressing of digital noise. And, like predecessors 1-Bit Music (2004) and 1-Bit Symphony (2010), it has been released as a circuit album—a wired board featuring an on/off switch, battery, fast-forward button, volume knob, and ⅛-inch audio jack, all in service of a microchip executing the source code. It’s like an authorized bootleg of an optimal performance—six fascinating tracks of hand-coded flux, of pulverized repurposed raw material where crackling forms limited shapes and overflowing images. But Perich has played with the digital detritus of contemporary technology from a very young age.

“I remember when I was around eight finding that our computer’s operating system would make a noise if you clicked outside of a dialog box, and I would use that to make patterns,” he reveals when reached by phone in his studio.

Perich grew up in a household with Philip Glass on the turntable, and immediately connected with polyrhythms and repetition as musical gestures. It didn’t hurt that they tickled the mathematical portion of his brain, which would go on to explore randomness and order in everything from exhibition machine drawings to gallery sound installations to 1-bit electronic composition. This eventually led to acclaimed performance works pairing painstakingly aligned speaker arrays alongside acoustic instruments such as percussion, piano or chamber ensembles, pairing hypnotic oscillators and gated amplification with naturally decaying elements.

Thinking beyond piano lessons, Perich recalls first connecting with pulses, with the concept of on/off as a compelling physical-musical phenomenon, while sitting watching windshield wipers and turn indicators as a young passenger. Now, decades later, he’s driving the fluttering, shuttering machinery and he took a few moments to speak about digital events, regulating interference and capturing duty cycle sequences in 12 square inches.

Your last circuit album, 1-Bit Symphony, performed arcing tonal movement. What was the impetus behind the more dense, primitive binary of Noise Patterns?

I was asked to do a show at [New York’s nonprofit experimental performance space] the Kitchen in 2013 and I proposed this project as something I've been thinking about for a while, but I had no idea how it was going to sound. I just knew it was something I wanted to explore as a compliment to working with 1-bit tones. For the live version of the project I would basically improvise with the material I created and the circuit I built, and when doing that I was really playing the sound system of the venue. Using control of the volume and EQ, I could really shape sound over the course of the performance. But when I did the album I knew I would be stuck with stereo output going to whatever people are listening to it on, without control over volume or EQ, so I mixed these binary strains into signals that are almost always on, that just turn off for brief moments, which means the signals are oversaturated and that's where a lot of the color comes from. With Noise Patterns you are kind of listening to this thing on the edge of being way too loud at all times, it just never really utilizes that full volume. On a certain level my approach hasn’t changed, it’s really about working with patterns and how they layer, but diving into the randomness side requires a different way of shaping sound than with pitch-based qualities.

How does the design and manufacture of Noise Patterns build on the process you established with 1-Bit Symphony?

Noise Patterns uses the exact same functional circuit schematic as 1-Bit Symphony, but while 1-Bit Symphony was all glued and wired by hand, Noise Patterns is a machine-assembled circuit board. That let me use a different aesthetic of circuit design that I felt matched the music better. Instead of wires, the connections between the parts is fabricated right into the board as lines of copper. It's a surface-mount layout, which means the parts sit on top of the board and are soldered directly onto it, which allowed me to use smaller parts. I tested dozens of variations of each part to fit the overall layout and aesthetic. I use the software package Eagle to design all my circuit boards, for Noise Patterns or my other visual art and music. I send those files to the manufacturer and get back the finished boards, which we program and package here in my studio.

The actual circuit board features hard edges, the stark contrast of a matte-black finish and chrome fixtures … Should anything be read into this aesthetic in terms of how you feel the music sounds or where it sounds best?

I knew I wanted to ditch the CD case that was necessary for the wiring of 1-Bit Music and 1-Bit Symphony, because I said everything I wanted to say with those. I still wanted a layout clear enough so you could see the path of electricity, where there were still explicit actions like turning it on, but I wanted the form factor to be clean and mysterious in a way. Ultimately, though, how the circuit and the music are realized is just metadata. Noise Patterns is really about putting you face-to-face with the sound. It’s not a recording; it’s full-fidelity sound synthesis. But it’s all in 1 bit—there is no body to the waveform, it’s just these on and off pulses—so whatever you are hearing is an artifact of the speaker it’s coming through, meaning the piece can vary so much based on different playback systems. When composing, I auditioned it primarily on beyerdynamic DT770 32-ohm headphones, because they achieve the crispness I need, but also carry the low end really well. Nicer headphones are an ideal listening environment, but I also listened to the album a lot while driving, as I love the way it sounds in a small, closed space that adds rumble. It’s in a way closer to a performance version, but with the immediacy I want for these album pieces.

Digging past the metadata, tell me about the core essence of the material.

It’s sequenced and layered patterns changing abruptly or slowly, broken into linear segments to achieve what I want with the least amount of data. I don’t think I have a narrative agenda or specific moments I’m labeling as such, but with this project from the beginning there were bigger natural components that weren’t present in my work before—references to natural phenomenon, such as weather, the sea, wind. But more in the abstract, the way they layer and represent the concepts of decay. 1-bit bit tones are just constant amplitude, there is no decay to them, but that remains a musical idea in my mind, when the signal breaks apart because there is an oversaturation, or too many things happening at the same time, and in the end on a certain sound system or in a physical space with its own reverb character that might sound like something more natural, though it’s not something I overtly intended.

So, these aren’t the noise patterns found while taking a stroll around Central Park and discovering a bionic termite colony boring into an aluminum tree, for instance ...

[Laughs] No, though it does have a start and end in white noise I wanted it to be something varied in its references, touching on various directions that the material can go using the same core processes. You get polyrhythmic pulses, things closer to drum beats, more swishy and gurgly layers of material … all these parts that break down and come together. I didn’t want to box the piece into something beat-based or textural or merely pulse-based.

Does the end result indicate any particular direction for future works?

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In 2009, when I wrote 1-Bit Symphony, I was thinking more more structurally in a certain way that has now evolved and morphed into the approach with Noise Patterns. This album was about bringing something in and slowly changing it and letting it hover and experience minute changes rather than more narrative structural layout shifts. So I think I want to go back to thinking about tones now with this in mind. I think each project just slowly evolves my way of thinking about electronics, how I find meaning in both the conceptual and technical aspects, so the next step is bringing more of the noise elements to composed works.

Noise Patterns can be previewed on all streaming services now. To fully experience the album, visit www.physicaleditions.com to purchase the circuit board.