Canadian pianist Vicky Chow and New York-based composer Tristan Perich visited IUPUI’s IT building last Friday night to perform “Surface Image,” an hour-long collaboration featuring Chow on piano accompanied by 40-channel 1-bit electronics coordinated and arranged by Perich.
The grand piano sits at the center of 40 speakers, in the middle of a forest of oversized suction cups.
Wires crisscross the ground at its feet, snaking their way through the overhead spotlight that bathes the instrument in a soft glow.
The incongruity grows as a petite Asian woman, clad in head-to-toe black, bounces across the stage to where Jordan Munson, IUPUI Music Department lecturer, is standing. He smiles and introduces her.
“Tonight’s performance is a concert length piece for 40 loudspeakers playing 1-bit sound on piano,” he says.
She strides toward the instrument, sweeping a hand through her long mane of straight black hair, and takes a seat at the bench.
A buzzing like TV static rolls across the stage as she sits in the humming canopy of sound, motionless.
And then Vicky Chow begins to play.
At first, it’s more a cacophony than a symphony. The static from the speakers drowns out the piano’s softer notes, but Chow isn’t worried. She starts bobbing her head in time to the music, and then her notes cut through the noise.
The discordant strains blend into a melody as, eyes never leaving the music, Chow weaves a canopy of sound, with her at the epicenter. Like a reverberating river, the speakers undulate and beat in unison, their heaving vibrations clearly visible to the audience.
It’s awkward at first and then it’s seamless and then it’s beautiful.
But through it all Chow’s expression never changes; eyes downcast, lips pursed in concentration.
She trained at Juilliard.
Chow, a Canadian pianist whom the New York Times described as “brilliant,” Time Out New York as “a monster pianist,” and MIT Tech as “sparkling” with a “feisty technique,” has performed on four continents, and is the pianist for Bang on a Can All-Stars, The Virgil Moorefield Pocket Orchestra, Grand Band and New Music Detroit.
She began playing the piano at age five, and by 10 had performed with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra and the Juilliard Symphony Orchestra in New York. Most recently she gave the premiere of the evening-length work “Surface Image,” a 2013 piece written by New York composer Tristan Perich for solo piano and 40-channel 1-bit electronics.
“Surface Image” garnered critical acclaim as one of the top albums of the year from Rolling Stone and Rhapsody when it was released in fall 2014, and was the piece Chow performed last Friday at IUPUI.
But, spectacular as she was, the credit for tonight’s performance doesn’t go to Chow alone.
Tristan Perich loves music.
And computer science.
He studied all three at Columbia University, and then got his masters in Interactive Telecommunications from New York University. His website states that his work is inspired by, “the aesthetic simplicity of math, physics, and code,” and WIRE Magazine described his style as, “an austere meeting of electronic and organic.”
The New York-based artist and composer’s work combines lo-fi, 1-bit computer-generated music with traditional styles in both music and visual art. His 2004 album “1-Bit Music” was the first album ever released as a microchip, and it was this piece, in part, that sparked Chow’s interest in collaborating with him.
“I really admire Tristan's work,” she said. “I love the piano because its sound is so large and lush, and I think technology can add a lot of expression to this instrument.”
Vicky Chow takes her foot off the gas and inhales deeply, eyes closed as she sways her shoulders in time to the buzzing of the speakers surrounding her. The piano is silent, the only sound in the auditorium the hum of the speakers whose presence the audience almost forgets until they too are silent for a moment.
Chow and the piano are still for nearly two minutes as she allows the music emanating from the speakers to wash over both herself and the audience.
Though this was her eighth time performing “Surface Image,” Chow said each time she performs the composition is unique. “I’m always excited to play this piece,” she said, “because it’s like—what sounds will I hear tonight? Every acoustic space is going to be so different, and each time I perform it I hear a new rhythm in the electronics that I haven’t really heard before.”
She said reaching a consensus with Perich as to how many speakers to use in the piece was difficult.
“One, two, ten, just didn’t seem like the right amount,” Chow said. “So we thought, how about a symphony orchestra of 40?”
It is that symphony that now serenades her, and as Chow takes up her position once more at the piano, Perich watches her intently. He leans forward, contemplative, head titled to the left; his eyes never leaving her face, hand never leaving his chin.
Charles Stanton, President and CEO of Classical Music Indy, one of the night’s sponsoring organizations, said Chow and Perich were just in Cincinnati the other night, so this was a perfect opportunity to get them to come to IUPUI.
“People should come to events like this to hear something unique,” he said. “You know Mozart, Bachman...you can hear that in New York, you can hear that anywhere, but stuff like this, this is really unique.”
While Stanton said that both mainstream and eclectic performances are equally worth attending, he added that unique events like “Surface Images” provide attendees the opportunity to engage with the music in a new way.
“I think people felt more welcome to take pictures, take selfies than they normally would,” he said, “and if that’s how they engage with their community, that’s great that they feel welcome to do so here in the same way.”
Vicky Chow likes to go fast.
“I like playing the fast stuff in the middle, like the 3rd or 4th section, just because it’s just such a challenge, like racing or something,” she said. “It’s so quick—you have to make the right turn at the right moment, or else everything won’t line up perfectly.”
Her notes soar as a lo-fi hum buzzes from the 40 speakers surrounding her, and Chow does indeed look like she’s behind the wheel of a race car, as shoulders shaking, fingers pounding, she canvasses the keys before her, fingers dashing across the ivory’s glittering surface.
But then, as abruptly as she accelerated, she signs off with a flourish, lips still pursed in concentration, and lets the whine of the speakers wash over her again.
Judging from the applause that greeted Chow and Perich after the performance, the event was a resounding success.
“It was a beautiful piece,” said Priya Wittman, a 28-year-old Herron School of Art student at IUPUI.
Chris Hill, 45, another Herron student, agreed. An experienced DJ himself, he said, “The electronics allowed them to do things that really wouldn’t have been possible in an analog way.”
As to her own vision for the piece, Chow said that “With any kind of experimental or contemporary kind of piece I would hope that people would walk out feeling like a different person, like something changed within them. I would hope that they would walk out the door having heard something new.”
Digital copies of Chow and Perich’s album are available for purchase here for $7. For those interested in seeing more of Chow or Perich, they’re finished performing as a duo for now, but Chow’s next appearance is Sept. 19 at The Max in Detroit, where she will be performing “Strange Beautiful Music” with the group New Music Detroit. Perich’s next appearance is at the San Diego Museum of Art’s “The Art of Music” gallery opening Sept. 26.
It’s almost over and Chow knows it. She slumps over on the bench, spent.
She and the piano are flat lining, the speakers pinging in unison like a metal detector.
Beep . . . . . . . beep . . . . . . . beep.
But that’s no surprise.
Tonight, she played her heart out.