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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 June 2018

Back to basics with sound artist Tristan Perich

From vinyl to 8-track, cassettes, CDs, MP3s and the cloud, for record buyers, substance has vanished into thin air. But for one musician, the medium is the message.

Tristan Perich has produced Noise Patterns, an album of digital 1-bit audio consisting of a circuit board, microchip, battery and headphone jack. Courtesy Tristan Perich.
Tristan Perich has produced Noise Patterns, an album of digital 1-bit audio consisting of a circuit board, microchip, battery and headphone jack. Courtesy Tristan Perich.

Flipping the switch to listen to Tristan Perich’s new album Noise Patterns involves actually flipping an actual switch. There is nary a metaphor to be found. The medium is the message, and the message is the medium itself.

Noise Patterns comes in an unusual form: a small circuit board affixed with a microchip, a battery and a headphone jack to link directly into listeners’ ears. A fast-forward button allows for skipping between tracks, and volume is controlled by a knob built into the hand-size sculptural mass. To hear it, one must become part of it – to tap its electricity at the source and take up a position within the circuitry of it all.

The album in its physical incarnation comes packaged in a CD case, pointedly so. It’s one of those jewel cases with fragile hinges on tiny plastic nibs, a means of presentation that is going by the wayside.

Contemporary times abound with studies and surveys to provide stark numbers as evidence for the fact that CD sales are scaling down. It may be that they’re effectively negligible, in fact, cast out on a long, slow decline that fades away without any final notice or spasm to mark the end.

Noise Patterns pays a backward sort of tribute, though. To hold music in your hand – to have a tactile reaction to material matters of texture, shape and weight – adds to the experience of listening in to the ineffable. It compounds, too, when holding the means of the sound itself – not just a vessel or recording device for it but the actual instrument that makes it happen.

Morton Subotnick, an American composer who is now 83, thought intensively about music’s relationship to its medium when making his iconic 20th century classic Silver Apples of the Moon.

Considered by many to be the first fully electronic LP, the album – released with a futuristic push in 1967 – was composed to be just that: an album, on two sides of a grooved vinyl disc.

Music made by electronic means could be conceived in a way that privileged its status as music on an LP. It didn’t need to exist as music in some other context (a concert hall, say, or the physical world in general) that would then be transplanted and then transmitted by the LP – it could be made manifestly for the LP itself, the beginning and end of the story.

Since the ’60s we have been captivated by many other media: 8-tracks, reel-to-reel tape, cassettes, CDs, MP3s. The list is long enough that it can be easy to forget about the notion of media altogether, especially when they exist so abundantly in the digital realm.

Noise Patterns taps that too with electronic sounds that signal their origins in things like wires and chips.

Perich is a New York-based musician who works in the fertile field of sound art, which involves lots of channels of working with sound that aren’t necessarily “musical” in the way most people expect from the term.

Past projects of his include 1-Bit Symphony, another “album” comprising a single microchip situated in similar but different fashion in a CD case, and Microtonal Wall, a sculptural art piece made up of 1,500 speakers, each playing a distinct microtonal frequency.

The latter occupied a prominent place in Soundings, a momentous 2013 sound art exhibition at New York’s prestigious Museum of Modern Art, in a way that summoned a literal “wall of noise”.

Noise Patterns (which is available as a digital release as well) carries on Perich’s work with elemental electronic sound in a manner that is simple and complex at once.

The album opens with a mass of static, like a transmission from another world of the kind imagined by early listeners to radio waves emanating from the ether. It could be a sign of another dimension, a spectral realm where spirits and ghosts roam.

Or, as the hands-on configuration of the album is quick to remind, it could be a by-product of earthly electricity taking aural form. Over the course of six tracks, that static moves through different incarnations, with shifts in volume or intensity and rhythmic patterns that become mesmerising over time.

What’s clear is that seemingly infinite variations can derive from simple arrangements of silence and sound, so that entrancing beats arise from the simplest series of sound/no-sound, sound/no-sound, sound/no-sound. Play around with those in subtle and nuanced ways and much in the way of music will be borne.

Also clear is the unusually understandable physicality of sound. Holding a circuit board is like holding a CD or a vinyl LP but more so, in a way that may make certain listeners mourn the passing of physical objects kept for musical rites.

As record stores close – the recent loss of a beloved favourite in New York known as Other Music caused such sadness that it provoked a marching parade of the kind that accompany New Orleans jazz funerals – the sense of music as a thing to rally around becomes more abstract.

Even CDs can make a mind of a certain age nostalgic. Too prone to scratches, too alien in the supposed coldness of their sound, too delicate in cases that would inevitably break down, the CD went through a long period of purgatory as a delivery system for music that vinyl and cassettes had courted long before.

Now we’re in a time when those little silver compact discs are emblems of another era, relics of a bygone age.

But maybe not. Vinyl remains, and cassettes are increasingly a medium of choice for certain underground artists who want to make listeners work to hear their wares. Peer around and you’ll find new releases on flimsy flexi discs of the kind that were once distributed in magazines and on cereal boxes.

There are even precedents to make playable records out of ice – see an unusual single released in 2012 by the Swedish band Shout Out Louds – and ways of making objects to house digital files, such as an aluminum cube with headphone ports given the name the Prism by the American-Chilean electronic artist Nicolas Jaar.

In all these cases, works of music strike up interesting resonances with the cases they are in. Those resonances are by no means the most important aspect of the musical pursuit, but it’s worth remembering, before digital evanescence may make it too late: matter matters.

Andy Battaglia is a New York-based writer whose work appears in The Wall Street Journal, Frieze, The Paris Review and more.