When a culture makes a fetish of new technology, its art is often subsumed by the virtues and limitations of the gadgetry. Think of Milton Babbitt’s atomic-age music — both elegant and inhuman, as cosmically beautiful as a physics equation — created on the room-sized RCA Synthesizer at the Columbia-Princeton Music Center. The center aimed to be a Manhattan Project for music.
Nowadays we covet the latest communication hardware, and with minimal skill you can program you own app. We’re saturated by technologies that allow us to make our own technologies, and art reflects that. So it was instructional to hear and see a concert, Sunday night at Eyedrum Art & Music Gallery, of three composer-performers who invent their own noise, construct their own instruments and bundle it all together as a visually stimulating stage show.
The concert was introduced as “an evening of audio art.” The headliner, Tristan Perich, a New York composer, is old-fashioned. He is thus resistant to the latest fad yet faddish in his own way.
His equipment is endearingly antiquated — a harpsichord and four low-fi automobile speakers, the sort you get at Pep Boys for about $100. The sound is amplified and processed, but even this is vintage: harking back to “Pong”-era computing, with its tinny sound effects, the electronics are encoded on 1-bit microchips.
With those primitive tools, Perich created “Dual Synthesis,” a work that seemed to evoke the ghosts of Renaissance Tudor composers, or Johann Sebastian Bach, or the groovy-gaudy 1970s — anything to avoid addressing the present. Amid the confusion, it sounded totally of the here and the now. It’s a fabulous piece of music.
At 26, Perich is of the latest generation of Minimalists, building a large-scale composition from solid little cells that are repeated over and over, layered and looped till it is symphonic in scope and impact. There are no melodies, just repeated notes and cells that form sonic clouds and inner voices. He has a knack for pleasurable, theatrical gestures and for messing with the listener’s head, inducing euphoria at sudden, subtle harmonic shifts.
Regardless of materials, Perich is a good composer. He’s clever, and we’ll be hearing more from him. He has recordings available. As a follow-up to his hard-to-find “1-BIT MUSIC,” from 2006, Perich will soon release his “1-BIT SYMPHONY.” It is unusual. Rather than containing a normal audio disc, the CD case holds tiny electronics that produce the music, powered by a watch battery. You plug your headphones directly into the CD case. It will be released sometime in 2010 on Bang on a Can’s Cantaloupe Music label. (UPDATE 2/1/2010: Here’s a Perich profile on Musical America.)
Like Perich, New York composer-chanteuse-inventor Lesley Flanigan‘s performance came loaded with philosophical ideas, often blurring the boundaries among music, noise, sculpture and performance art.
A trained soprano, she uses her voice in ways reminiscent of artsy pop star Björk — innocent, sultry and controlled. Flanigan describes herself primarily as a songwriter; her style is introverted, contemplative. In “Retrobuild,” she first hummed along an interval till it echoed electronically, creating an a capella choir of one. “Thinking Real Hard,” a stronger work, had a bluesy, gospel vibe.
She accompanied herself on her six sculptural instruments: loudspeakers invaginated in shallow wooden boxes that produced beautiful, harsh or eerie feedback — pulsating waves of noise, all of it distorted — when she teased it with a phallic microphone. The boxes also seemed to become a choir of individual voices. And although the performance didn’t come off as overtly sexualized, it was Flanigan herself, much more than her music, that was the center of her art. Crouched on the floor amid wires and electronic control panels, her live image was beamed to the back wall, distorted as a photo-negative. As a performer, it helps that Flanigan — a pretty blonde in a low-cut blouse — brings sex appeal to a field that rarely taps the energy that is at the core of opera and pop music.
The evening opened with Travis Weller, from Austin, Texas, and his 20-minute “Dirt, Dust and Pollen Paralleled by Signal Bells,” performed on a homemade, high-tension instrument of piano wires, wood and electronics. (Weller told me “Dirt” was inspired by John Cage’s “14,” for prepared piano and chamber orchestra.)
Weller calls his instrument The Owl. The size of a tabletop, it is, in essence, a homemade prepared zither. He strummed or plucked the strings or struck them with a disembodied piano hammer. He pulled disembodied horse hair (missing its violin bow) across the wires. With metal screws or other objects wedged between the strings, the instrument produced unusual or lovely tones, ethereal or ghostly, like ancient Chinese gongs or weird sci-fi sound effects. Holding something plugged-in close to the wires, he made radio static out of thin air.
And it worked as a composition. Partly improvised, “Dirt” was memorable. It started with a drone hum, punctuated by a gentle ting or ring or whirr — out-of-time music in a static pool, and within this serene noise are canons and other audible structures. Gradually the intensity grew, the volume and chaos became intense, and what started as “head” music — something you’d find brilliant if you were stoned — became a narrative, a short story fraught with drama, where we forgot about the instrument and technology and let the music’s power carry us forward.