With his 1-Bit Symphony, American composer Tristan Perich tries to challenge the concept of the artwork as we know it. Assembled into an CD jewel case, a microchip, a battery, volume control, an on/off-switch, and a headphone jack give life to music, consisting in its entirety and literally of 1 Bits.In a video, Tristan Perich explains his approach to his composition.
I was was compelled by this concept at fist glance. I mean, how cool is that, if the actual music is computed in the very instant you turn it on?
I am almost sad that the analytical part of my brain had to conjure some questions to this concept, which I want to discuss.
It resides in a jewel case. Or not.
The 1-Bit symphony not only resides in the microchip in the jewel case. Since the physical copies are, sadly enough, out of stock, one can buy it as .mp3-files via the Cantaloupe Music Store. It is also possible to listen to a couple of movements via Soundcloud for free.
But what appears to be a convenient way to enjoy Perich's music seems to me as the retraction of the artistic statement Perich's. To be honest, the music itself isn't that interesting. It reminds me and some of the commentators on Soundcloud of 80's video game music, especially that of the Commodore 64 or Nintendo. And saying that of music composed at a time when most teenagers haven't seen a C64 is not necessarily a compliment.
The 1-Bit Symphony could easily be desribed as minimal music. Alex Ross comes to the same conclusion and mentions Terry Riley. That might be or not be the intention of the composer. In the end, I have to ask both Perich and minimalist composers: Why stick to the diatonic scale? Especially electronic music bears to much possibilities to overcome the restriction of the common scales, so why not use these possibilities? And if still sticking to the diatonic scale, why almost always use consonant sounds?
A small detour: In the 80's show A.L.F, Alf is playing piano, observed by Kate. He is playing the song "I just checked into the parasite hotel", in jazz style. He replies to Kate, who is surprised that he can play the piano, that it would be not so easy without the red keys. It seems strange, that a species from outer space has the same tone scale as we have, even with additional red keys. Here is a video of that scene, though in spain.
Another, even more strange scene is the so-called "Cantina Band" at "Star Wars", Episode 4. "Star Wars" happens in a galaxy "far, far away" and "long time ago." But they still have scales from good old earth, and not even the red keys.
If transplanted from the jewel case to Soundcloud or your mp3-Player, Perich's 1-Bit Symphony becomes what it really is: 1-Bit music (in fact, another piece by Perich is called by that name.) And so it cannot be an innovative piece of music but rather a regression to the style of the 80's.
But maybe it is not fair to analyze Perich's music with the tools of a musicologist, who hones his skills usually with the so-called avant garde music. That might be a dangerous venture in this case.
Perich did not seem interested in composing avant garde music, this is obvious by listening to other music by him. So it might be rather the concept which should be the main focus of an honest analysis. Perich says in his statement in the video above that the listener should experience the process of generating music first hand. But is this true? The process is obscured anyway, either by the microchip or by a CD player - even a turntable is not "showing" where the music is produced. Where is the difference, whether the music is hard-coded or generated at run-time, if the results are the same?
So the point of this concept might be the contradiction, that 1-Bit music and not something fancy is coming out directly from a CD jewel case. But wouldn't it be easier to wrap a music cassette-like jacket around an iPhone and plug in headphones?
Perich wants to show us that complex music with a 1-Bit microchip is possible. To support this intention, he calls his composition "symphony." Although the symphony had a rather strict form in the 18th and 19th century, almost everything can be named symphony these days. Accordingly, it is used for music that should be great, either in instrumentation or ambition. One good example are the late Symphonies by Galina Ustvolskaya (I wrote about it one post ago) which are small in instrumentation but huge in ambitions. By calling his work a symphony, Perich is claiming the same ambition for his work, but is failing to fulfil this on the level of the composition itself. The music has no complexitiy, since it is mostly repetitive and not inventive harmonically and rhythmically. But especially this would be possible with electronic music.