To spark discussion, the Walker invites Twin Cities artists and critics to write overnight reviews of our performances. The ongoing Re:View series shares a diverse array of independent voices and opinions; it doesn’t reflect the views or opinions of the Walker or its curators. Today, musician and assistant professor of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota Michael Gallope shares his perspective on the performance by Vicky Chow and Tristan Perich at the Walker Art Center last Thursday, in a concert copresented by the SPCO’s Liquid Music series. Agree or disagree? Feel free to share your thoughts in comments!
Daylight Savings Time boosts consumerism in the spring and summer months. It provides an extra hour of activity—shopping, eating out, driving, and the like—as opposed to an hour spent sitting at home, where one is economically less productive. This, of course, is the critical view; one can avail oneself of nostalgias and affirmations of all sorts that celebrate the metaphysics of backyards, the grand passage of the seasons, the poetry of long walks and dinner with sunlight, the slowed appreciation of a great cosmic rhythm.
Tristan Perich’s music made this extra hour resonate. In 1953, philosopher Susanne Langer wrote: “music spreads out time for our direct and complete apprehension, by letting our hearing monopolize it—organize, fill, and shape it, all alone.” On March 24, 2016, at 7 p.m. in the Cargill Lounge at the Walker, Perich’s Surface Image filled—spread out—the extra hour of the eleventh day of Daylight Savings Time with a downpour of hypnotic patterns. The composition is scored for pianist Vicky Chow who performed a duet with 40 channels of synthesizer playback. Chow’s piano and Perich’s synths projected a bright, high beam of minimal counterpoint in boundless arrays and combinations. It was big and affirmative, immersive; most of it is at the highest register—treble to the maximum. After twenty minutes or so, it accustomed the ear to highness, saturating one’s body with a hallucinatory flux of metallic, impersonal forms.
Perich will live only at the apex. His sounds seem to resist us like the sun resists us, as it beams in with all its power. Plato’s Socrates saw the sun as a metaphor for the truth of being qua being, though communion with its absolute heights was painful and disorienting. Nietzsche’s Zarathustra came down from a mountain and wondered: What would the sun do without us? As we heard an extra hour of sunlight as music between 7:00 p.m. and 8:10 p.m., the blazing longevity of the sun’s flames were both for us, and not for us. And like the sun, Perich’s Surface Image is not music that can be consumed and apprehended as an object. It was a vast column of patterns cast down all around us—a solar torrent, where one’s stamina becomes central to the aesthetic experience.
Do we matter amidst the towering architecture of Surface Image? Can we keep up? The actual sunset occurred halfway through the piece, at 7:31 p.m. The light through the massive gallery windows shifted to blue. Twilight set in at its conclusion. An encompassing solar cycle, made vivid by an extra hour of idle surplus, drew music toward us, even as its bright substance remained inhuman and mechanical. Surface Image was a twisted and dialectical event, a fabric of sound that connected an extra hour of economically productive consumption and pleasure to the enduring rhythmic beams of the sun. But there was no hidden significance or secret to its operations; it was empty, open, ecstatic.
Technical details and the metaphysics of numbers are recurrent themes in Perich’s ideas about music. Though instead of the age-old harmonics of Pythagoras, Perich prefers modern research by Alan Turing and Kurt Gödel in the field of theoretical computation. He is an accomplished practitioner of “1-bit” music that is exemplified by polished, homemade circuitry. Notwithstanding what may appear to be an art clothed largely in technical detail, listeners to Perich’s music discover in short order that his formalism is first and foremost exuberant. It sounds something like a child’s toy Casio with its tempo knob dialed to the maximum. It has a big impact, but in the long arc of its form, it conveys what appear to be expressive gestures, woven harmonies, counterpoint.
In the 1960s, the early minimalism pioneered by Philip Glass and his ensemble created an immersive spectacle, its audience occasionally splayed out on the floor. A gallery performance of Perich’s hypnotic Farfisa-like downpour of laser sound has a similar vibe (I sat on a cushion on the floor). Toward the center of the space, the lone live performer of Surface Image—pianist Vicky Chow—expertly performed his score to a DIY-custom-fabricated digital clock that read out passing measure numbers. In synchronicity with the electronics, Chow played minimalist modal patterns—quite stunning in their harmonic palette—with a rhythm that was incessant, remarkably synchronized, variously fluttering and hammering.
In a gallery upstairs, piano destruction was the subject of a video installation by German artist, Andrea Büttner (a brilliant mash-up of Fluxus destructions of pianos into four channels of video) that comments upon a larger shift in cultural tastes away from this once-ubiquitous musical machine of the nineteenth century. Yet Surface Image revalues the piano for a post-Fluxus age. Chow played the Walker’s polished Steinway with a painterly sensitivity. In fact, elements of the composition could feel at home in the nineteenth century. At 7:25 p.m., six minutes before sundown, Chow broke into an etude-like solo, an athletic chain of notes that required olympic stoicism. The circulating melodies, woven between two-hands, sounded both childlike and expressive, and contained shaded detail. Every line was made to sing, even if the sounds were more like rectangles and dots, not voices. At its core, it was a virtuoso’s shred session, a reconstruction and a sampling of the tradition of Liszt, Alkan, and Sorabji, and earned her an old-fashioned standing ovation. But its meaning was post-human and architectural in the soundscape of 1-bit polyphony. She was the heroic messenger of the ceremony, and gave the torrents a sense of ethical focus.
The last third of the piece plunged in register a few times, in rhythm with the setting sun. Around 7:48 p.m., a low drone emerged like a laser. It sounded like a bassoon played on an electric organ, with bright overtones. The sky turned a deep electric blue and the golden gallery lights along the walls delicately lit up. The piano became increasingly expressive. By 8:00 p.m., at twilight, Chow played a nocturne from the piano—impressionistic sonorities—while the synthesizers whirled quiet alarm clock patterns. The expressivity of Perich’s formalism has surprised some critics. Is all this formalism for the sake of returning to, what Glass once called “another look at harmony?” Of being able to lull oneself in a gorgeous sequence of chords? Millennials don’t understand the death of tonality in the same way. Perhaps there are just forgotten or latent potentials beneath the minimal experiments of the 1960s and 70s. Surface Image is a minimalism revisited, perfected, or put on hyper-drive in a way that aims to supersede its forbears.
There were over a hundred people packed into the Cargill Lounge. Some, predictably, trickle out as exhaustion sets in and the loose gallery space lets everyone meander. During gaps of loud volume in Surface Image, the crowd noise of the galleries would rush in unexpectedly from behind the seated audience. We realized, by point of contrast, the immense din that these towers of sound set in motion—these patterns were everywhere. Surface Image placed a cloak over our ears, and for a moment the humans came back in an echo, as an impersonal crowd with a dull roar. Perich and Chow de-familiarized the space of the gallery.
Sound Horizon 2016 continues with three in-gallery performances by C. Spencer Yeh on Thursday, April 28.