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“Tech-Rebel” Tristan Perich (PA00) Returns as Edward E. Elson Artist-in-Residence

A funny thing happened to Tristan Perich on his way to becoming one of Andover’s finest student composers—he discovered quantum mechanics.

“I became interested in…how the physical laws of the universe are in fact simple at the lowest level but build up to create this complex system,” says the Katonah, NY native, who took up piano in grammar school and was composing by age 12.

“He was a tech-rebel,” remembers PA physics instructor Clyfe Beckwith, Perich’s former house counselor, whom the artist credits with nurturing his fascination with physics. “Tristan’s room was filled with mechanical gadgets, an electronic keyboard, and a then-forbidden wireless Internet router, the function of which he feigned ignorance.”

Coupled with growing interest in computation and the foundations of math, the tech-rebel composer, long influenced by minimalist Philip Glass, became increasingly drawn to simple lines of music “with patterns… more mathematically based.”

At Columbia, Perich took a class called “sound/image,” which introduced him to art involving “computation in a physical way.” He followed with an independent project exploring kinetic sculpture (three-dimensional moving sculpture), and learned to generate sound and operate motors with microchips.

Today, the 28-year-old New Yorker zigzags across artistic media, as well as the Atlantic, physically manifesting the “intersection of computation and our natural world,” and, in so doing, forging new media along the way. Village Voice termed him a “tech-savvy tinkerer,” Filter Magazine called his art “complex yet elegant,” and Time Out New York coined his work “retro-futurist.”

The artist is as prolific as his work is enigmatic: among his many projects, he’s released two “albums” of compositions programmed on a microchip housed in a CD jewel case; he’s built linear walls of cathode ray televisions (TV’s lo-fi black and white forefather) that display images which he programs; he solders music circuits on overhead projectors to create a build-up of sound and patterns for live audiences; and he’s invented a drawing machine with circuit board controlled pulleys that move a suspended pen across paper.

But the new media and digital artist (titles he graciously offers to laypeople, but which make him bristle: “those terms don’t mean anything anymore”) is still very much a composer. His “geeky crush on algorithms” (as art magazine BOMB observed) combined with his computing expertise has led him to become a maestro of 1-bit sound: the bleeps and bloops of alarm clocks and microwaves, under Perich’s spell, transform into music which critic Pierre Ruhe once proclaimed “induce euphoria in the listener.”

Perich, who earned an MPA degree from the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, has released two compilations of 1-bit compositions, “1-Bit Music” in 2004 and “1-Bit Symphony” this fall. “His art is easy to appreciate, and nearly impossible to understand,” said Allison Kemmerer, the Addison curator, who lead the search for the museum’s first Edward E. Elson Artist-in-Residence since it’s recent reopening. Kemmerer sought an artist who could create a sound installation to celebrate the new Museum Learning Center in the Sidney R. Knafel Wing, which led her to Perich. When she discovered his machine drawings, the deal was sealed.

Black and white wall compositions of overlapping angles, often accompanied by pointillist splotches that appear to drift against their rote counterparts, Perich’s drawings have attracted attention not just for the machine he invented, but for the beauty of the works themselves.

“His background as a composer has everything to do with these drawings,” says Kemmerer of the live drawings Perich is installing on the learning center’s walls. Although he uses the same program and machine for each drawing, each one is different, with Perich, along with the viewer, hanging in the balance for the outcome.

The drawings, says Perich, express the interaction between computational randomness and order and natural randomness and order: “The randomness/order of the code is mirrored by the imprecision of the pen bouncing and the orderly mechanics of the drawing machine itself,” and ultimately, like his 1-bit compositions, a physical representation of “the simple interface between the microchip’s code and the art itself.”

This is not his first trip back to Andover. In 2005, faculty emeritus music instructor Peter Warsaw (whom Perich remembers as “very supportive of my composition”) invited him to write a piece for string orchestra and organ, which students performed in Cochran Chapel.

As artist-in-residence, Perich is as excited to teach students as he is to learn from them, “I associate so strongly with my time at Andover. It’s such an expansive and outward looking time in people’s development. I’m just really curious to see where their brains will take these ideas.”

by Amy Morris (PA92)
Reprinted from Andover magazine, Fall 2010