TP: I come at it from a very different perspective. For me, the grid of time is something that’s intrinsic to computation, and so I like to give that its own space and basically say that time is set by this machine. And I don’t necessarily mean a musical grid, just the literal idea that computers run on a certain clock cycle, usually eight million or 16 million times per second. That’s my unit of time in a composition, and then I kind of work with grids on top of that.
CT: So you’re saying that defines some sort of tempo? Or just the resolution at which you can do things?
TP: It’s just sort of the fact of computation: there is a unit of time, and time is something that is very specific and quantifiable and unchanging. So when I have compositions that change tempo, that’s happening at a higher level than the truth of the unit of time and computation. But I think of that, also, as a very live process: the fact that computation itself is happening in real time, even if it’s doing something that’s totally procedural and not taking any input from outside of itself.
CT: It’s not prerecorded. You’re witnessing a live process. Like if I were to drop the pendulum of a grandfather clock, you’re witnessing that process. It’s inherent physics.
TP: Exactly. So that’s my version of the liveness of performance that you’re talking about as coming from the performer. For me, it’s more like this hybrid, or something like that. But I think the second half of it – the fact that the sound is synthesized live, that we’re dealing with real computational processes instead of prerecorded sound – is actually identical, almost; it’s the compositional structure or the input or the stimulus that’s different. I just have the code taking care of that, and in fact I’m really against having any extra input to the system, because if you think of computation in the sort of number-theory way, then it’s this self-contained, pure process that’s happening until it takes input from the outside world, and then all of a sudden it’s not pure anymore. Like quantum mechanics – our own intelligence comes into play, free will comes into play, all these things. And if you just let the computation happen by itself, un-interfered with, then it can kind of be this pristine thing.
CT: I can appreciate factoring out the sort of pure elements of the process, the mathematical integrity. In some ways, it brings the actual form of the process very sharply into focus. But my question is, how do you think people hear and receive it? The system, as people perceive it, is not necessarily the object that is a mechanism of creation; the system is the whole show.
TP: Sure, of course. And if anything, maybe that influences the musical choices that I make, to have the electronics be electronics, and have the acoustic instruments that are playing along with the electronics do what they do best – artistic performance and gesture and everything that comes with performing those instruments – and create some kind of hybrid, where I think that the elements are at least somewhat clear. Maybe some pieces are more ambiguous than others, but I’d like to think that the presentation is explicit enough that those ideas are wrapped up in the experience.
CT: So how do you find that dialogue? The human performer obviously has to move to some degree toward the process. Not only is it scored, but it’s fixed in time. How do you navigate that tension? That seems to me to be a very interesting and palpable part of your music.
TP: It’s funny, I don’t find a tension there. I don’t know why, exactly.
CT: You work with amazing performers? [laughs]
TP: I think it’s actually… I mean, yes, it’s special to work with amazing performers.
CT: And not just amazing, but amazing in that sort of conceptual way, to get with it.
TP: Yeah. Maybe it’s also just that the electronics are simple enough that there’s no kind of confusion there. I’m a decent enough musician to play on a few pieces of mine, and when I do, I always find it like I’m playing along with the other part of the band, or whatever. I’ve never really felt that tension, which maybe is a result of thinking about this stuff and trying to find music that works – that isn’t too forced, or whatever.
Especially in minimalism, there’s this idea that that musicians have to play robotically to play the parts perfectly. I think that that’s not true. Any time a musician plays a piece of music, they’re striving for an accurate, perfect kind of reading of the score on some level. And in more grid-based music, maybe there’s a rhythmic accuracy that that tends toward. But nobody is trying to play robotically, and we don’t want that as an audience. I think the same is true in my music, where the electronics can just be electronics and the musicians can be musicians, and they kind of meet somewhere in between. And maybe they’re playing similar material, but that creates a dialogue.
CT: Maybe tension was the wrong word. For me, it’s what you just said, in the sense that the musicians move toward that space. So it’s not “I need to be me, and that’s something other than me, and I need to be less of me to join it.” That’s not the paradigm I think I hear, but I do hear this paradigm of, “I’m interacting with this sort of natural phenomenon that’s going on around me.”
TP: Yeah, right. I like that, because in a way it sort of implies taking it for granted – like, this is just the set-up. We don’t need to think too much about it.
CT: I think the environmental aspect of what you do really helps this. It’s a normal, intuitive way to relate to a process like this that if you were just to go out and sit next to the river and the birds were chirping, and you were to pull out a flute and start playing along. There would be, from your perception, all this aleatoric stuff going on, but it would be really beautiful and compelling.
We understand this relationship between “me and an environment.” The environment’s not in my control, but I am in dialogue with it. The environmental aspect of what you do really speaks to me, even when you don’t have a million little speakers set up. The fact that that’s the case really speaks to my experience in listening to the music and what works about it, as opposed to just playing along with karaoke, which would be fundamentally a different way to relate to it.
TP: It’s weird, though, because they’re really not all that different.
TP: Well, just the idea of playing along with anything. That’s a whole class of performance styles, and that’s what I fit into, in a way.
CT: It really is in the details, but I think this is a huge detail: the difference of going out into the woods and playing music, versus a music-minus-one thing where I’m trying to learn my part in string orchestra. [laughs] In the latter case, the aesthetically offensive component is you’re using a proxy for human expression… or something that I feel like I want to be human expression. And in the former case, it’s an environment that I know how to relate to, and an important one. The fact that I’m not in control of my environment is a powerful and, I think, optimistic reality. I know how to relate to that, I know how to experience it, and I know how to participate as a listener and as a performer.
TP: What’s interesting about doing this show with you, in regards to these ideas, is you and I have very specific and, I would say, almost incompatible core principles, in a way…
CT: It’s really “Tristan Perich versus Christopher Tignor.”
TP: … in our own art making, but I find an incredibly strong kinship. We’re doing very different things, but we’re sort of dancing around similar ideas. And I find resonance with your work, even though we’re coming at it from very different directions. Does that make sense?
CT: What do you think are some of the core differences?
TP: Some basic stuff. I’m very wary of computer sound, because of its open-endedness and the fact that it’s not necessarily grounded in a gesture.
CT: By “computer sound,” do you just mean sound generated by a computer?
TP: Synthesized sound in general, yeah.
CT: Your whole thing is synthesized sound.
TP: Yeah, but what makes it work for me is that the software is extremely simple. And that it’s executing on this self-contained chip somehow makes a difference; I feel like I’m witnessing something that’s more akin to a mechanical process.
CT: Is it because the process is more accessible, aesthetically?
TP: I just mean for me as an artist, not for the audience at all. Even though Alan Turing proved, as we know, that all computation is the same, for me as a human being, if it’s running on a chip that hasn’t been soldered into something, it has a different quality. I feel like using a laptop or whatever is a very complex object.
CT: Of course, a hundred years ago they would’ve said the exact same thing about what you build. But maybe that’s an unfair comparison, because we don’t live a hundred years ago.
TP: But you’re right, there’s kind of this ambiguous line there, for sure. It’s still a black box. Maybe it’s also that the 1-bit sound palette is intrinsically limited in some way: that it’s not trying to be emulative, that it doesn’t have this rich wide-spectrum possible sound output.
CT: What do you like about that?
TP: I like the sound. Just purely aesthetically, I like a very raw electronic sound.
CT: You could get that out of a big, fancy computer, too.
TP: Sure. But then I like the mathematical/conceptual side of it, which is eliminating as many layers as possible. I like to just be close to the source. And that’s why I program in assembly language and build my own hardware.
CT: I thought it was just masochism. I’m glad to know there’s another reason. [laughs]
TP: Well, luckily I’m working with musical structures that are really simple, and they represent themselves nicely in very simple code. Maybe “simple” is the wrong word, but the simplicity in your mappings, too, is a direct connection: not too many notes, you’re drawing on a pitch system that you create, and so the audience is very aware of that connection.
CT: I think you may have gotten to what is the real sympathy in our approach, where even though we start from these irreconcilable differences…
TP: [laughs] Sorry!
CT: …the thing is, we arrive at this place where it really is about the simplicity of something that we can cognitively hold and touch and work with. For me, that’s critical. And it’s completely baked into the composition, which is what really matters in my mind – how the music’s put together, putting the notes in the right order. The fancy programming is something that is quite boring to me, that I do only as a means to an end: to get something I can physically play and touch and get it to work. I have a very narrow interest in electronic music; I’m only interested in what can be done with live sound to make these instruments.