What’s in a jewel case, anyway?

Melissa discovers a self-playing electronic device that is a musical composition in and of itself. But is it art music?

Searching for a birthday present for a tech-savvy sound engineer, and not wanting to come across as a Luddite, I stumbled upon a nifty CD. Well, not quite a CD: like much of the music we hear on ABC Classic FM, my purchase is housed in a jewel case, but the mechanism inside this flimsy, plastic, hinged container allows the music to exist, defines its sound world, and gives it life.

American composer and artist Tristan Perich has programmed his First Symphony. It comes packaged in a CD case, the listener plugs headphones directly into the case, flicks the ‘on’ switch, adjusts the volume dial embedded in the case, and – hey, presto. A symphony.

Perich’s 1-bit Symphony is an electronic composition in five movements, programmed onto a single microchip designed to ‘perform’ itself when switched on. His compositional techniques are electrical pulses and assembly code; the electronic circuit mounted in the jewel case is the composition.

Electronic and electroacoustic music has experienced a long evolution in 20th-century classical music dating back to Varèse and the European avant-garde, but it’s never been presented in this form, as a sort of pocket sound installation. With digital downloads encroaching on physical CD sales, Perich challenges the way we consume music, the way the music is conceived and constructed, and the way we perceive a ‘symphonic’ work.

One could listen to playback of 1-bit Symphony in audio CD or .mp3 format, but the impact and striking originality of the composition is in its self-determination. So, does the strength of the concept match the quality of the music?

From the moment the listener flicks the switch, the headphones are flooded with intricately constructed rhythmic patterns and layers, no less complex than an early Steve Reich piece. A printed ‘score’ is provided in the form of the complete source code. The work has no sense of colouristic variation as with the instruments of an orchestra, but it is symphonic in the sense that, while a single melodic theme might unfold into a musical masterpiece, so too does Perich’s single microchip create a unique and compelling soundscape.

The innovation of 1-bit Symphony also offers insight into the DIY mentality of electronic music composers, across all genres. Perich’s jewel of a gadget has proven so popular that it’s sold out its initial run and he has a team hand-assembling the circuits in his apartment.

For me, though, the best thing about this discovery is that I was able to buy my sound-engineer partner a technological gift that he didn’t turn his nose up at.


1-bit Symphony

Cantaloupe CA21054

Tristan Perich with his 1-bit Symphony

Tristan Perich: 1-Bit Symphony (Part 1: Overview) from Tristan Perich on Vimeo.

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Melissa Lesnie
Melissa joined Limelight as Online Editor following two years as Label Manager for Naxos distribution. Prior to that, she may have served you behind the counter at Fish Fine Music.
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