Monday, August 23, 2010

one bit, two bit, red bit, blue bit

In the past couple years, we have seen a wealth of full-length albums from the newest generation of composers. Since , we have Corey Dargel's Someone Will Take Care Of Me, Timothy Andres' Shy and Mighty, Nico Muly's two upcoming albums, Ted Hearne's Katrina Ballads, and Tristan Perich's 1-Bit Symphony. Besides Nico, these are all names that have made waves in the classical world only relatively recently, and the increasing media devotion and intrigue into these new projects has given an almost disproportionate (but well-deserved) attention to a set of composers who haven't quite hit thirty.

The solo, studio-produced album has become the primary musical statement of this generation. It's really more important than any New York Philharmonic commission, Boosey & Hawks publication, or foundation grant. Shy and Mighty made more of a splash upon its release than any performance Timothy Andres has received. And now Tristan Perich, loosely affiliated with the Bang on a Can scene but closer to the video-game music crowd than the postminimalist bunch, has made it into the classical world with his release of an album containing a symphony.

Remember what I was saying a couple weeks ago about symphonies? Well Perich's 1-Bit Symphony, though seemingly defying all cliched notions of the form (it's for electronics? it's not on an actual album? the first movement isn't sonata allegro form and the last movement isn't a rondo?), actually fits nicely within the overall mold of the genre. It's dramatic, multi-part, with a sense of arching narrative. In short, it's what you'd expect a symphony to sound like, albeit with a completely different actual sound than you're used to.

Friday's CD release party at Roulette was built around Perich's symphony but also included a solid hour-plus of other fairly entertaining music. An ad-hoc group of four violinists (Andie Springer, Joshua Modney, Pauline Kim Harris, Conrad Harris) performed Reich's 1967 Violin Phase, one of his pioneering attempts to transfer the tape phasing process to live acoustics. The dense polyphony and complex interactions of the four violins evokes the loops of Come Out and It's Gonna Rain, but fragments of wistful melody and lyrical unison passages make a departure from those earlier works. My only complaint is that the violinists seemed unnecessarily mic-ed, adding an unfortunate bit of reverb to the texture.

Michael Gordon's XY followed, in a shockingly virtuosic rendition by percussionist Doug Perkins. It creates an gradual sense of tension and release through quick crescendos and decrescendos reminiscent of the "breathing"effects in Music for 18 Musicians. The steady stream of eighth notes is an economy of means over which Gordon plays with a few different timbres and pitches, limiting himself to only five tuned drums. I wish that there was more diversity in the piece itself; the length of the work seemed to outlast the ideas within it.

Shawn Greenlee's set of live electronics was immensely unenjoyable. His manipulations of his laptop provided an echt-electronic sound, with trite ear-cleansing screeches and thunderous (but unexciting) roars. It felt like an audio equivalent to TV static, similar to John Zorn in its sense of free improvisation--I'm not sure how much of it was structured ahead of time, but if it was, it was not audible. I'm all for barrages of sound which assault the ears, but there didn't really seem to be anything creative or expressive about Greenlee's composition, besides the overall sense that he was angry about something. It would have made an adequate accompaniment to an abrasive experimental film, but without programmatic content I couldn't find much on which to grasp.

In two movements excerpted from Glitch, Daniel Wohl's work for string quartet and electronics, a group of freelancers (Modney and Springer from Violin Phase, joined by Victor Lowrie and Rose Bellini) capturing Wohl's careful balance of acoustic and electronic with impeccable blend. The strings slide around with tiny glissandos over the electronics' regular pulse; melodic snippets slowly coalesce into a drone, followed by an explosion of Xenakis-like effects. It ends brightly ecstatic, with each instrument shivering to form a radiant, un-inflected major key, supported by shimmering electronics.

The four works formed a compelling preparation for the main show, the 1-Bit Symphony. From the first notes, Perich presents a teeming landscape, creating an immediate sense of hyper-charged narrative scope. The shifting patterns of six small TVs mimic the '80s graphics of 8-bit Nintendo games, pure patterns which also reminded me of the twisted abstractions of Islamic art. The music courses with energy, somehow scrolling in tandem with the video, heavily layered but completely transparent. Waves of sound give off the inexorable sense of rhythmic motion and harmonic stasis which form the contradictory principles of musical minimalism. One of Perich's favorite transition mechanisms resembles the skipping of a scratched CD, a hiccuping effect which slows us down before launching us into the next large section: the momentum is infectious.

Broad themes emerge, and I was reminded of the blocks of sound in Bruckner's symphonies, which play out a small number of musical materials over the course of twenty- or thirty-minute movements. Instead of formally distinguished movements, though, Perich's symphony contains individual sections which seem more like levels of a videogame. In the classics of the NES days (the first three Super Mario Bros. in particular), one is presented at the beginning of each level with a set, unified thematic, aesthetic, and (if you have the sound on) musical style--nothing changes until you move on to the next level. It is the same way with 1-Bit Symphony; each section stays within a specific framework, whether that be antiphonal beeps or techno grooves, and works its ideas to their natural conclusions. At the same time, the accumulation of structures creates a grandiosity worthy of John Adams.

A sudden reboot of sorts sets up the final section, which begins with a descending corkscrew coming from the right speaker in a kind of basso lamento. The lament transforms from the plaintive to the danceable, chaconne-esque in its merging of upbeat and somber. Then a jubilant melody enters, a pulsating wall of sound, and the solemn backdrop gives way. On the album, the listener controls when the final major chord finishes--the music, in a sense, becomes a sound installation. At Roulette, Perich held it for a glimmering five minutes, and then beat the game.

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