The matte-black circuit board that holds Tristan Perich’s Noise Patterns has a few things in common with your average smartphone. It’s small and sleek enough to fit into your pocket, and it comes with a standard 3.5mm headphone jack that gives you direct access to the music within. That’s just about where the similarities end. It won’t let you access Spotify or Apple Music’s immense libraries, and it won’t let you pull up YouTube videos. (You can forget about checking your email, too.) Noise Patterns contains six tracks, and you can’t rewind, skip, or pause them. The music also has more in common with the noises your microwave makes than the songs you can hear on the radio.
Noise Patterns is Perich’s latest experiment with 1-bit music, an album made up of six pieces of rhythmic noise that’s best heard right from the source: the circuit board. (It’s not being released in any other physical format.) The board holds a battery, an on-off switch, a volume controller, a fast-forward button, and a microchip, and it’s remarkably easy to operate. You plug your headphones in and hit the switch, and the battery sends the microchip into action, executing Perich’s handwritten code and generating the album in real time. The resulting music is brutal and abrasive. When I played it for a few coworkers this week, most of them said it just sounded like static, a description I can’t contest.
Every song is made up of stuttering waves of pure noise, clashing and interlocking in preordained patterns hand-coded by Perich. That’s a major shift from his earlier LP-length experiments with 1-bit composition, particularly 2010’s 1-Bit Symphony, an album built out of pure, crystalline tones. (1-bit digital audio only has two possible states: on and off, one and zero, true and false. There’s no room for dynamics, timbre, or depth.) 1-Bit Symphony is still harsh, but you can easily link it to music that’s richer and more palatable: Radiohead, Kraftwerk, Steve Reich. Noise Patterns replaces those tones with spikes and waves of chaotic, rowdy interference, and its reference points are more challenging and distant.
"It was a totally different approach to music and sound"
"Working with noise came out of my visual art," says Perich. "I made a simple machine to execute these algorithmic drawings, and in the drawings I explored the difference between randomness and order… It took a long time for me to realize the harmonic, pitch-based music I was making was a lot like the ‘order’ side of the drawings. There was this randomness I realized I just wanted to explore in music." Choosing to work with noise instead of pure, easily manipulable pitches meant composing in a different language. "It’s all about texture and pattern and rhythm and beat and pulse," he says, "and I didn’t have any of the tone-based musical qualities to work with. It was a totally different approach to music writing and sound."
Perich’s music is radically simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s immune to concerns about audio fidelity. Noise Patterns is just as vulnerable to digital processing as the stuff you hear near the top of the charts. "If you’re listening to it on the board, you’re getting the exact output. You’re as close to the sound synthesis as you can get," says Perich. "It’s not a recording. This is full fidelity — it’s like performing live… MP3 compression absolutely destroys this music. The 1-bit signals rely on how sharp those edges are, and they get approximated and rounded out by MP3 compression. It sounds awful, and it’s a really different experience to listen to it on the device."
Perich built a special circuit board for live improvisation
I’ve listened to Noise Patterns in its physical form and I’ve heard it as a collection of compressed MP3s, and Perich’s assessment holds up. When you press play on it inside iTunes or Spotify, you’re hearing a compromised version: it’s softer, fuzzier, and palpably dulled. It’s only a step or two away from the kind of noise machine you’d run in the background to fall asleep. When I plug right into the circuit board to listen, I can’t last longer than a few minutes before giving up and picking something more soothing. It’s an intense, exacting experience.
When Perich plays Noise Patterns live, he’s doing more than just pressing "enter" and letting a bunch of coded commands run their course. "I have a special version of the circuit board that I built to allow myself to improvise with the material," says Perich. "I give myself the same core patterns and the same musical processes to work with, but I’ve created controls. I can explore the material in real time and push it and pull it in different directions." Even when Perich gives himself a little wiggle room, he’s still at the mercy of his chosen parameters: you can’t do much more than pushing and pulling when you’re working in 1-bit. And that’s why Noise Patterns is worth checking out, even if it’s a little too raw to enter your Sunday morning rotation. It’s a piece of music that gets you thinking critically about the sound you hear, its characteristics, and what it takes to bring it to life.