Vicky Chow: Tristan Perich: Surface Image
New Amsterdam Records

Two things in particular help bring Tristan Perich's Surface Image into immediate focus: the “for solo piano and 40-channel 1-bit electronics” detail on the back cover and the panoramic inner photograph that shows Vicky Chow seated at a grand piano—a snake-like nest of cables and circuit boards on the floor beneath her—with forty loudspeakers hand-wired by Perich to serve as his “electric orchestra” arrayed on either side. Such scene-setting helps ease the listener into the hour-long, album-length composition, which was premiered in early 2013 in Brooklyn and is, in essence, a piano concerto for the digital age. On the one hand, Chow's playing ties the piece to the time-honoured piano concerto tradition—despite including passages that demand a technical ability bordering on the super-human (her playing at the nineteen-minute mark is especially dazzling); Perich's electronic dimension, on the other hand, connects the work to a future-oriented, digital-influenced tradition whose lines are, of course, still being drawn.

In the ambitious Surface Image, forty distinct 1-bit sounds accompany the piano playing. To clarify, a 1-bit electronics scenario means that the electronic sound involved can present a single piece of information only. But while such a low-tech scenario might seem like an overly restrictive handicap, Perich has composed works that push beyond whatever seeming limitations the 1-bit idea might impose, among them his 2004 work 1-Bit Music (issued as a CD-less jewel box containing a microchip) and 2010's 1-Bit Symphony.

For her part, Chow, a member of New York's renowned Bang on a Can All-Stars, gives a bravura reading of Perich's score. She not only rises to the monumental challenge posed by the material but like some high-wire artist sustains that incredibly high level for the full sixty-three minutes. Calling Chow's performance virtuosic hardly does it justice.

The interlocking cross-currents of her piano playing naturally suggest a pronounced Steve Reich influence, and an episode appears thirteen minutes along where the organ-like electronics cycle in a way that recalls early Glass. But while all that might be true, Surface Image is hardly a too-familiar minimalism exercise. The moment the electronics enter, whatever barriers there are between the human and non-human begin to dissolve, especially when the acoustic and electronic realms become chiming partners within a radiant, pulsating whole. As the layers accumulate and the rhythmic intensity increases, the music begins to take on the character of a blinding blizzard. At the twenty-seven-minute mark, the piece rises to a glorious climax, Chow scaling a remarkable mountain with the unrelenting thrum of the electronics at her side.

In the wake of such an exhausting ride, Perich is wise to ease the listener down with a concluding section that's slow and lyrical by comparison. At the fifty-minute mark, the frenetic pace of the work comes to a sudden end, and Chow's sparsely distributed chords thereafter intone against an electronic backdrop of insistent, insect-like bleating. For maximum impact, play the album at peak volume in order to be fully engulfed by this remarkable piece of music.

December 2014