Tristan Perich: Working Inside the Insane Limitations of 1-Bit

Posted by on December 8, 2016

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Personal computers stand as one of the most substantial inventions of the 20th century, to some great extent because of how they’ve reframed our very identities. Our laptops, tablets and phones intersect with many branches of our lives, especially the methods by which we entertain ourselves. In music, physical products are on the decline — or at least in a state of flux. So an art object is not only more novel, in some cases it can become downright aberrant. Enter Tristan Perich, who codes austere “1-bit” music onto a tiny 8 kB microprocessor, before soldering a simple circuit with the processor, volume dial, shuttle-forward knobs, and headphone jack onto a compact disc housing.

In 1-bit, there is no resolution in the signal; it is either on or off. This means you can only create a square wave with a controllable “duty cycle” — the amount of time the signal is on versus off. A smaller duty cycle means the sound is allowed to speak for less time, which results in a more tinny sound.

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Perich’s music is Philip Glass meets first-generation Nintendo: primordial electronic sound particles that fluctuate in repetitive structures devoid of meter. Intricate, austere blips cascade across and around each other in the albums 1-Bit Music and the epic 1-Bit Symphony. This year, Perich released Noise Patterns, which contains forty minutes of shuttling arrangements of white 1-bit noise.

At a recent Fridman Gallery show co-presented with ISSUE Project Room, Perich selects his piece Parallels for tuned triangles, hi-hats, and four channels of 1-bit electronics. Aside from pressing the “play” button, he is absent from the stage, sitting off in the wings. “I try to keep the complexity of the electronic side of the music equivalent to the acoustic side of the piece,” Perich says. “All the rhythms, melodies and sequences are relatively playable. That keeps everything in the same space, so the music is always grounded to something we can hear, understand and relate to, as opposed to going into the domain of electronics that’s beyond our reach.”

Percussionists Todd Meehan and Doug Perkins have the Herculean task of keeping up with the demanding score. The hourlong composition is a study in repetitious microcosms of notes and phrases, a sound bath filled with a tinkling, trebly resonance that rings in your ears. The percussion is tuned to frequencies played by the electronics, so that the analogue and digital instruments are perceived as one.

Any kind of meter is too difficult to discern, invoking restlessness, where time seems to cease. There are no climaxes, movements, nor improvisation, yet the sound is encompassing, a treble drone removed from terrestrial trappings. “Starry” could describe the music, as if this is the ringing of the cosmos itself: faraway, disparate bits of matter colliding in perfect tonal unity.

Perich grew up listening to Glass thanks to his parents. He appreciates the composer’s use of polyrhythm and strict minimalism using tiny, infrequent changes in each piece. “The early minimalist pieces of Steve Reich and Glass and the later Terry Riley keyboard and reed improvisations are extremely moving. It’s a very absolute approach to music which I find profound.” Perich states that early minimalism is like comprehending the laws of physics. “It’s similar to thinking about the world differently when you understand how gravity works, which is made possible by science. As we learn how pieces of music work, we understand them differently, outside of aesthetics. The early pioneers had this transparency.” To take an example from visual art, those viewing a Rothko painting for the first time may not be aware of his deliberate and time-consuming process involving layers of paint. At first glance, his typical canvas just looks like a few flat sheets of color.

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The same follows for music. Anyone who listens to early electronic experiments compiled on records like Ohm: The Early Gurus of Electronic Music without the hundred-page liner notes may be perplexed by tracks divorced of their context. Without a proper background, listeners are unable to attribute significance to how an experiment was conducted, reaching a deeper level beyond merely the aural record of a piece. Just like understanding Rothko’s painting process adds a layer of understanding to the presentation of the final work, knowing that Ohm artist Iannis Xenakis used the Fibonacci sequence, random processes, and probability theory to create his music adds crucial context as well.

This central challenge to modern art of all disciplines has been mediated in the museum with informative labels next to each artwork. Perich handles this by presenting the physical circuit on each album, as well as publishing the source code and its corresponding machine output in the liner notes.

There are incredible limitations Perich imposes on himself. He codes in assembly language, the basis of every other programming language and the closest to the ones and zeros of machine code itself. “Every assembly statement is an actual instruction that gets fed to the processor,” he says. “It’s like programming with a computer right in front of your face.”

Andrew Schartmann’s Koji Kondo’s Super Mario Bros. Soundtrack, part of the 33 ⅓ music novella series, is instructive to get a sense of Perich’s limited working environment. Schartmann discusses Kondo’s extreme limitations in regards to memory, number of channels, and voices permitted, forcing the composer to create the iconic (and brief) three-minute soundtrack that, decades later, is immediately recognizable. Kondo’s instruments were limited to two square wave channels and a single triangle wave, as well as a fourth channel dedicated to noise and short audio samples. The entire game, graphics and all, is a measly 32 kB, smaller than a single emoji at 160 pixels squared.

Perich is working within even tinier parameters. “What’s beautiful about those old games is the way the programmers tried to balance the processor the best way they could. For me, it’s all about how I can get to the music by using the smallest bits of information possible, because it’ll run faster. It forces me to think in a very pared down way about exactly what tools I need and write code to get exactly that. It’s not about having infinite possibilities.”

Perich codes iterative melodic fragments so parameters like pitch can change each time the loop runs. Loops are one way to ensure that the least bytes are used. 1-Bit Symphony and Noise Patterns barely fit onto the chip, even with all the looping. “The code is structured similarly to how Ableton’s cells are triggered and looped. That’s a very efficient way of storing a piece of music, but figures into the limitations since I can only write something that fits that framework. I can stretch it by writing a minute-long cell that repeats once instead of a two-note sequence that repeats for a minute.” However, this risks using too much memory. “If you write a long sequence that eats a hundred bytes, you can only have 80 of those before using the entire chip, so the information management is always in the back of my mind.”

Using chips that are almost a thousand times slower than our laptop processors, Perich’s work highlights our ignorance to the staggering scale of modern technology. But that just scratches the surface. He published a 700-page companion book titled 0.01s along with 1-Bit Symphony. The tome details only the first hundredth of a second of Symphony‘s code, corresponding to 80,000 instructions spit out by the computer. “The funny thing about code is that it’s instructions. It’s not a recording where every moment has a value. It’s not a linear document. In 0.01s, the code itself is a few pages in the beginning of the book. It’s the execution of the code that’s so vast.

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“What’s fascinating about code is it takes very little information to make something happen forever. You can have a very simple statement that says, ‘output a one. Now output a zero. Now go back to the beginning and loop that forever.’ In a few lines of code you’ve made something that lasts forever. So length or complexity of code doesn’t line up with length in time. It’s really easy to just have something play a single tone forever. It’s a little harder to make that tone change, and a little harder to make that tone into a melody, and then that melody into an interesting piece of music.”

The whole process is certainly technical, though initially, Perich was actually opposed to using electronic sounds. In the early 2000s, anyone with a Game Boy could “play” a music cartridge called Nanoloop to compose music using its distinct 8-bit music engine. This led to the growth of the “chiptune” genre and a scene that Perich was connected to (though he’s never used Nanoloop). You have simply not lived until you experience people crowd surfing to club music run through an Atari 2600. One of the scene’s biggest proponents was Nullsleep, who threw down a particularly brutal chiptune set as part of New York’s Blip Festival.

Perich reminisces on the time. “I played a lot of shows in the chiptune scene. I was very inspired by that raw electronic sound. I was first most excited about the idea of making all these different pitches and sounds purely through 1-bit information. That was interesting just from a technical level. I also really liked the raw electronic sound. There’s a certain color to 8-bit sound that you don’t get in 16-bit, for example. Over time I got more into the mathematical side and thinking of the code itself as a physical process.”

Outside of programmers, few of us ruminate on code. Perich’s music highlights the black boxes that perform nothing short of magic. At the conclusion of the Fridman Gallery show, the audience sits spellbound, having heard the strange electronic sounds somehow still tethered to humanity, and aware of the technologies they’ve taken for granted, if only for a moment.