Death of Classical fills St. Thomas Church with exalted life in Perich premiere

Wed Mar 23, 2022 at 12:19 pm
Tristan Perich’s Infinity Gradient was presented by Death of Classical Tuesday night at St. Thomas Church. Photo: G. Grella.

The innovative music presenter Death of Classical is back, and in a new space, the magnificent St. Thomas Church on 5th Avenue. Death of Classical uses evocative, fascinating spaces like St. Thomas and the catacombs at Green-Wood Cemetery for performances, but doesn’t stop there—programs consistently expand the classical tradition with new music. Tuesday night, that meant the American premiere of Tristan Perich’s Infinity Gradient, a musical experience that filled the church’s dimensions to the brim.

Perich is a singular music maker, though one not always heard in concert settings because he’s more than a composer. His work sits at the still-forming region where music, computer technology, and the physical means for producing sound meet. His own main instrument is a 1-bit square wave oscillator and a loudspeaker, and so his ideas are frequently encountered in museums and art galleries, as installations, or via brilliant objects like his 1- Bit Symphony, a piece that exists inside a CD jewel case that can be heard by plugging in a headphone jack.

Infinity Gradient is one of a series of Perich pieces for instruments with pre-programmed square waves that play in real time. This new one is for organ, played by James McVinnie, who asked Perich to create something for the instrument. McVinnie and Perich performed the piece, but with the organist tucked away in an alcove, and the composer unobtrusively manning a laptop in one of the pews of the darkened church, what the audience saw was an array of 100 speakers in front of the altar.

The sound of this, and the 7,000-plus pipes of the organ, filled the enormous vaulted arches. With the focus only on sound and the church’s interior, listeners were encouraged to move about the space. 

This seemed an ideal way to experience the work. While very different in conception and execution than Alvin Lucier, Perich does share a key value with the late, great experimentalist, which is to use the simplest possible means to develop the most complex results. With Infinity Gradient, that meant waves, and by moving around the listener could enhance that complexity. One could move up close and watch the pulsations in the speakers’ fabric, or move away and feel the waves washing across and over.

Sound is a wave, of course, and the key element of a square wave is that it is either on or off, it doesn’t glide from peak to trough like other timbres, those of the organ in this case. With quick activity, the waves from the speakers created a bright, glassy, shimmering quality, like sonic tinsel, while the organ’s more complex, richer, velvety stops pressed different shapes against that.

The result was marvelously sensual. There was the upfront pleasure of both the brief, opening cadence and the grand finale, where the bass pedals of the organ sent grainy, growling sounds throughout the church, ones felt coming up through the soles of the feet. There was also the sheer gorgeousness of hearing the waves and string and woodwind stops in the organ playing in the middle and upper registers, sounds that touched on experiences with everything from ambient music to Debussy. The textures were orchestral and new—despite the electronic means, this was an acoustic experience, very much live, full of the surprises that come from combining instrumental sounds in a lively acoustic space.

Like much of Perich’s work, the style was fast and active, but not busy, using rapid figurations to build large musical events—like Bruckner but much quicker and with simpler harmonies. Infinity Gradient is heavily diatonic, mostly in a major key, and sustained passages of major key music were almost literally bright, and moves into minor keys equally dark.

This was refreshing and also emotionally powerful, because the piece was so well made. At a little over an hour, this is one of Perich’s longest works and had the most accomplished and satisfying form one has yet heard from him. Balances between spare and dense material were excellent, and the large-scale shape, which rose, then fell, then rose, then dropped out, then rose and fell and rose again, was superbly judged. This had a symphonic feel, with sections that concluded while also pointing to a culminating finale.

That came with something new from Perich that also touched on Lucier, steady playing in the organ set against a rising glissando in the square waves. As with Lucier, this pressed the oscillators through gradients of dissonant microtonality against the organ, with brief moments of unison, before moving on. This tonal instability was exciting, dramatic, with a glorious sense of tension and release, ending with the feeling that Infinity Gradient was an exalted experience.

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