Though it’s not exactly a case of “opposites attract,” those who know the music of composer-performers Tristan Perich and Christopher Tignor might not automatically pair the two creators despite a shared association with electroacoustic music and technical ingenuity. Perich is best known for the snap, crackle, and pop of his signature 1-bit electronics, his custom-designed, handmade circuits that make music alone or with live performers. Tignor, violinist and leader of the ensembles SlowSix and Wires Under Tension, has moved increasingly into a mode of solo performance for which he programs software instruments to act as virtual ensembles. Yet however much their music diverges, Perich and Tignor share a genuine respect for one another, and in a recent interview in advance of their joint appearance at National Sawdust on May 5, they discovered a healthy amount of overlap in their working methods and philosophies.
TRISTAN PERICH: We both have what can be called electronics onstage with us. Tell me what your set-up is, and what it’s doing on a practical level.
CHRISTOPHER TIGNOR: On a practical level, I have various relatively small percussion items: an 18-inch kick drum, a hi-hat, and two suspended triangles right next to the hi-hat. The kick drum has a trigger on it, and that trigger sends out a little electronic signal to a computer, which I also have onstage. And that becomes a source for all sorts of tomfoolery. One of the things it lets me do is, obviously, trigger other sounds, like bass notes and synth pads and various software instruments.
The software that I make, which runs in Ableton, lets you take each of these trigger events that come from the kick and essentially map it to scrolling through a score – the first time you hit it, it will play the first event in the score, and that will be a specific note that will be routed to a specific set of instruments. So the first time I hit the kick for a specific song, maybe it plays some sub-bass at C-sharp below middle C, and then it cues up the next event. So I’m essentially scrolling through a series of events, and those events will be playing notes as soon as I hit the drum.
Simultaneously, I’m playing a lot of the ensemble with my gestures. This is the big thing for me: physically controlling the time, because a lot of the music that I’m doing is very free in time. It’s very much about flexing time, lots of waiting for phrases to decay. There’s a lot of rubato, so I need to be able to control precisely how the music is flowing.
I’m also playing the violin at the same time with my hands, in various different ways: the normal way, which is bowing and playing the violin traditionally, but the violin is also going into the computer, and I have a series of harmonizers – which are really just Auto-Tunes – which I use to add extra voices below my violin playing. The advantage here is I can very specifically control the notes that they’re allowed to output, within very precise scales, which I can change on the fly.
Essentially, what I can do is create harmonies, and create other voices which move either obliquely or in parallel, but not directly parallel. I might play a scale up, but the notes of the voice below mine, for example, might only leap up a note after I get to the third-highest note in the scale. So if I play B-C-D, the note below mine might start off at F-sharp and then leap up as I get to the D; it’ll remain at F-sharp as I go up the scale, and then leap up to C-sharp. So it creates a sort of internal harmony.
A lot of that design actually came directly from looking at Arvo Pärt’s tintinnabuli style, where he has a very precise sort of formula for how he controls the relationship between what he calls the “T voice” – the inner tintinnabuli voice – and the upper melodic voice. One of them moves by step, but the “T voice” only selects notes the anchoring triad of the piece. I can do the same thing, in the sense that I have this lower voice that’s output directly from my playing; again, this all comes from my sound, so when I slow down or lean harder, it gets all that physical nuance. It’s playing notes that follow me, but only from a specific set of pitches. I can do that multiply with other harmonizers, as well.
The last little component in my bags of tricks is the tuning fork. I’ve developed a little technique where I’ll strike the tuning fork onto one of the triangles, so it’s a percussive gesture – it’s just a metal striker at that point – and it starts to resonate. I put it to my violin, and that pure tone – either A or lower E, depending on which fork – runs through some software I make, which just makes a melody out of it. It takes that original sound and delays five other copies of it by different increments, which I can program. And then each of those delayed copies is pitch-shifted by a different amount, so I’ve essentially made a little motif out of the thing.
TP: So basically in that case, the violin is kind of the interface to the computer – not actually playing itself, but acting as a resonant body.
CT: Yeah. Simultaneously while I’m doing that, I’ll do some left-hand pizzicato, which will also go through the same melodic process. The fun part about the tuning fork through the violin is that it sounds very electronic: it’s a very pure tone. So you get that sort of dialogue between the wood of it, when I’m doing the pizzicato, and the resonant metal-through-a-body vibe.
TP: It’s interesting, because that description of your set-up is exactly what I have in mind when I listen to your music. I find that your music has a very honest use of the computer audio, the electronic sound, as clearly triggered by and at the same pacing as your live performance. I was wondering, though, how the music grows over the course of a piece? Elements get added and subtracted over time. It’s not just a one-to-one mapping; it feels like you’re moving through some sort of score.
CT: It definitely is a score. It’s definitely bound to the idea of my being somebody who likes to make scores, and likes to sort of think things through and practice a lot. So different sections of a piece will have a totally different mapping of what these triggered notes will play, and the entire palette of sounds could be very different as music. The only fundamental difference is I’m also prescribing a way to change the instrument itself during the process.
I really enjoy things that you can get good at with practice. In any band that I was ever in, I was always the taskmaster. The advantage of this solo thing is no one can tell me to stop practicing. The tuning-fork thing is a good example – it really took me a lot of practice to find a way to do this that was natural. And the same thing is true in learning how to articulate and work the instrumentation with the pedals. For me, it has to feel natural.
There are things that I’ve done in the studio where it’s like, I know I could man up and learn to do that, but it’s at odds with the aesthetic of what should be done. It’s awkward inherently from a body-presentation standpoint, which for me is important, adopting this solo-performing thing: It really has to come from the body in a way that evokes the music. If I’m doing something like a bodily gesture that seems completely at odds with the musical result, and that’s not intentionally a fun part of what’s going on, then there’s a problem.
This is a problem of abstraction which electronic musicians, I think, face in general. It’s very easy to just touch a button and have any sort of prerecorded thing happen. But if you want to sort of play something, it becomes very useful to allow yourself to harness the natural expressiveness we have as bodily creatures onstage, and let that part help you by aligning the way it’s actually delivered. If you do that, you benefit from all the normal, intuitive ways we move through the world and convey things expressively. You get all that, and the audience really picks up on it.
I don’t think this is heady stuff; I think this is the stuff that sells shows – and by “sell,” I mean it really reads for the audience. It conveys the message very clearly. So that’s always foremost in my mind. When I’m working with any electronic element, I’m just like, how is this really like an instrument that can be played expressively? And is it really working with the musical goals? It’s part and parcel with the compositional thing, for me.
What’s your experience? You’ve worked with these amazing performers.
TP: This was just making me think about the live element of things, because for you, the software instruments… it’s very important that they’re reactive to you as a performer, and to keep an open-ended sense of time and pacing. It feels like that was your uncompromising thing: When you work with a laptop, you are in control of time. You’re not giving that up to the electronics.
CT: That’s right. It’s an instrument.
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.
TP: But when I listen to your music, I don’t hear it as a rejection of all that other stuff. It’s just your particular interest. There’s a completeness in your music, too, where since everything is tied to the performer – at least in your recent work as a solo performer – your ideas are reflected in the structure of the music, in the score, and in the experience. And that’s a complete, relatable picture for the audience.
CT: It’s all concomitantly created. It’s 100 percent gut check at every moment. I’m playing the whole thing end to end, even the long pieces, way more than maybe I should. I have a very low threshold for “this form doesn’t work.” Form is a huge thing for me. If it sounds like a series of non-sequiturs at any given point, I’m rewriting it. I throw away so much, 90 percent or more.
TP: Me, too.
CT: It’s kind of like Sophie’s Choice for composers. I have parts of songs which I think are amazing, heartbreaking, really interesting, which just didn’t fit the narrative and are on the shelf. I’ve got so many shelves’ worth of that stuff. And you’ve just got to be, like, sorry, you’ve got to go.
TP: My problem is that I often write a piece of music, perform it, and then realize what I actually wanted to say in that piece, and throw out the entire thing.
CT: I do that all the time. I play and tour for maybe upwards of a year before I hit the studio, the same material. It’s the only way I feel I can understand it. It’s quite frustrating… my output would be a lot higher if I had a quicker cycle.
TP: I think there’s something to be said, also, about just the mental space to think. I find that I think about a piece much longer than I’m actually writing it, to distill all the non sequiturs and just focus in on what it really wants to be.
CT: What is that process like for you? When you say “thinking,” are you trying stuff out?
TP: No, a lot of it is just thinking. It’s sort of like: there’s an opportunity to write a piece of music, I kind of delay it as much as possible [laughs], not even on purpose, and just think about the piece. It’s sort of like daydreaming.
CT: It’s all chit-chat until you start playing with something. It’s very daydreamy.
TP: The idea that becomes the piece comes out of the blue, usually. And then I throw out all the stuff that happened before, and a lot of the stuff that comes after, trying to chase that idea.
CT: Once the idea shows up, that’s still leagues away from having anything stage worthy. What about that part of it?
TP: I think I’ve changed how I think about it, recently, for whatever reason. Before, it felt like then the rest of that was execution, which was sort of tedious – well, not tedious…
CT: Was it really that process-driven, where once you found the process it was really about…
TP: No, not at all. It’s totally intuitive at that point. Basically, it’s kind of like seeing through this idea. I think the creativity that comes after that is a very different kind; it’s more like in service of realizing this idea as best as I can, as opposed to freely writing music.
CT: What’s an example of one of these ideas that would have been one of the axioms for one of your works?
TP: They’re really bland ideas, something like “a piece with accordions, and just having long, high tones.” It’s just this thing I want to hear. So maybe I’m giving too much credit to that idea, but until I have that… like, for instance, this recent percussion duo of mine originally started out with marimbas and bass drums and all this kind of stuff, and eventually it became a piece for just a few triangles. And it was sort of like, “aahhhh, finally.” Maybe it’s more that until that moment, I feel like I’m wandering, lost, not knowing what I’m doing.
CT: That’s how I feel about form.
TP: Maybe that’s what the idea is. What do you mean?
CT: Maybe form for you stems from these ideas, but for me, the initial stages of composition are playing around with a lot of nouns, sound objects – a melody or series of electronic sounds that was really evocative, some independent little bite-sized thing, or a series of chords that are articulated in a certain way, or arranged in a certain way – and then trying to get them to speak to each other. So then you start to get to the verbs, which is, where do these nouns go? Do they actually evolve and do something? I have all these independent objects that I’m playing with, and they’re all really fun to play and hear, but what do they do? There’s no time, there’s no flow, there’s no development, there’s no piece of music.
I’m working in visual art, almost, at this point, and there’s a lot of music that I think just sort of stops there, a lot of ambient music that’s just the noun. But I’m interested in flow and development, so I’m always trying to see which of these things have legs. There’s a constant war to get them to play ball with each other, and see which of them are siblings, and which of them like each other and don’t. Will they copulate, will they fight, will they get married and get divorced?
It’s engineering in the sense that I’m trying to build the machine, the Rube Goldberg machine, that does it, but the process of evaluation is completely gut: how do you decide whether it’s good or not? Until there’s a form, I feel like I’m playing around with all these nouns; until I know where the whole thing’s going, it’s total lost-at-sea, and I’m an emotional train wreck. It’s arduously agonizing over, where does this thing go, and does it sound inevitable?
TP: My analog of that is, similarly, I’ll come up with material, and then I feel like I have to become a professional at my material. So I listen to it a lot, and sort of figure out what it means.
CT: Everything it can do.
TP: Yeah, right, exactly. But I don’t know what that is when I write it, necessarily. There’s a lot of reflection as I’m writing. And this weird, detached idea of “oh, that’s what I was trying to do” might not even come until I’m sitting in an audience, listening to the piece. But that’s so core to the compositional process, to making things make sense, making them work, making them meaningful or resonant or whatever.
CT: Do you also work with these sound objects, what I called nouns?
TP: Oh, yeah, sure.
CT: You can’t start with the whole piece; you have to start with some small component…
TP: And I’m bad at writing linearly in any way. It’s always this massive creative output, and then trying to make things work. And then there are the monolithic pieces, where it’s just one idea that plays itself out, but it’s still the same thing; that’s just working more closely with the object.
CT: One of the things you’ve said about this show is that this will be the more intuitive side of your work. Of course, that makes perfect sense, because this is largely driven by improvisation. But, I have to say, looking at it another way, when I’ve heard your work, I’ve always found it super intuitive musically, in terms of how it flows through. I don’t hear a process in the composition; I hear the changes in motifs and harmony moves. Listening to your work for me is like listening to a first-person mind navigating this space.
TP: Well, cool. That’s how I want it to work. Structural decisions, those are intuitive. Those are the choices we make as composers. Even a piece like [Steve] Reich’s Piano Phase, where the process is so forefront in that piece and you’re listening to the process unfold, all of that is happening within this very light framework, these sort of moments where something changes – where the chord changes or the piece starts or ends, even something as simple as that. And those make it an intuitive piece, for me. When I listen to Piano Phase, I’m listening to both the process happening, and that engages this mathematical side of my mind, but on top of that I can just bask in the beauty of the sound. But what makes the composition is these very few choices that he’s made, when to change things.
To me, that makes the whole experience something that’s relatively intuitive. And I think that maybe what I’m getting at is that intuition, whatever role it has – because in different pieces of mine it affects different parameters in different ways – always has to be at the forefront. It always has to be part of the listening experience. I think of myself as still writing music by hand – not literally doing that the way we think of it, but I’m not writing generative music. I’m not writing processes that kind of create the music.
CT: It’s an interesting point: within the many variations of the minimal musical aesthetic, in general, because there are fewer elements and there’s a minimum of means at play, those choices that do exist – although they may seem small relative to the choices that are made in Beethoven’s “Appassionata” [laughs] – really come to the forefront. Because you have this process at play and your brain hears the repetition and sort of can anticipate where it’s going, and goes into a different state, when you pop out of that state to hear a choice, it clearly profiles as a choice, and they really become big, big moments.
For me, that effect is even more pronounced in Music for 18 Musicians, speaking of Reich’s work, where there’s so many choices like that, including the chords he chose, the voicings. It’s one of the reasons I really have enjoyed, throughout my musical life, digging so deeply into minimalism: not because of its sort of sterile qualities, though I appreciate restraint and stoicism in music as much if not more than the next guy, but because it allows the very simple, not overstated human gesture to really have a weight without having to be a big, grand gesture. You can make small moves and they can have such a profound weight, because there’s space for them.
Interview transcribed, condensed, and edited by Steve Smith. Tristan Perich and Christopher Tignor perform on May 5 at 10pm at National Sawdust; www.nationalsawdust.org