Christopher Tignor recorded the entirety of his new album, Along a Vanishing Plane, live. Western Vinyl.
Live electronic music’s largest concern these days is a question of returns—how do you keep putting on the same epic DJ sets for the same crowds, year after year? Even the most booty-shaking body is tied to a mind that soon grows desensitized to the spectacle of lights and bombastic visuals, and just like depleting serotonin, soon the thrill is gone.
To remedy this, some electronic artists have started bringing drummers onstage, hoping to offset some of the synthetics of the music with organic performance. Acts like Tycho and Caribou feature drummers who play along to a track, but have elevated their projects into the muscular band dynamic nonetheless, complete with bass and guitar. For others like Disclosure and Odesza, drumming has become an ornamental gesture, a formality necessary to sell the image and the movement of performance when much of the music is still a result of just pressing play.
That’s whats so fascinating about composers who embrace electronic music through technological innovations of their own design, all in the interest of regaining some of that sonic warmth, that intimacy, which seems lost. Tristan Perich and Christopher Tignor represent a nexus where sound meets technology, and they’re taking the time to explore this crossroads because it helps them answer the questions their work kept asking.
Perich’s been building and releasing music on one-bit circuit boards for years, devices that don’t just play back the sounds like a speaker, but actually produce them when activated. His latest circuit board release, Noise Patterns, continues that exploration.
Tignor, meanwhile, makes and distributes free software that adds electronic harmonies, octaves and other accompaniment to live performances, all in response to the performer’s movements. These releases are an extension of his days working as a Google software engineer, but the applications are far from mainstream. His new album, Along a Vanishing Plane, was recorded live at an abandoned schoolhouse/psych ward using only the software.
“If I wanted to make a commercial application I certainly never would’ve built the stuff that I built,” says Tignor. “Most people want pretty applications where there’s a strong visual component, where you drag something around the screen and it uses sound files on your disk that are pre-recorded and makes some fun sound out of it. That doesn’t interest me at all. I’m trying to provide a fucking life-raft out of culture.”
Of greater concern are the elements of live performance that have always been out of electronic music’s reach—movement, prowess and the gestural action of physically producing the notes he plays. When the triggers on Tignor’s drum kick and violin bow send an electronic signal to his software, Tignor is able to produce all of the electronic accompaniments to his music live. There’s a computer running the software, but he doesn’t touch it during a set, save for quickly queuing up the next track with the tip of his bow. The triggers pick up on the intensity of the gesture, too, and produce a sound with a resonance to match.
“Like all art, it’s really about what’s at stake,” he says. “And the idea of keeping things live really should expand the scope of what’s at stake. A big part of my technological ideas about art are that it should stand and redefine the limits of personal expression. I’m trying to go up there and say, ‘you can expect more from what you’re about to see.’ There’s more at stake now, the stakes are bigger. So this would be contrasted with the typical standard electronic music practice [of] playing some pre-recorded thing, then playing in front of it. For me that really diminishes what’s at stake, because the audience knows what’s pre-recorded, there’s safety there. I’m trying to make things risky, and think that that’s what’s exciting. I’m trying to dig into that inherent live conflict, because that’s how you bring the audience into the process.”
Bringing the audience into the process is why Perich makes such an effort to release his music as circuit boards, too. And the key to unlocking that process for listeners means challenging the stigma of what technology means to an audience.
“Technology is ultimately a tool, and it all depends on how you use it,” says Perich. “So you can use technology as a distancing mechanism, where it gets so complex that you don’t even know all the aspects going on, like a social media site. And you can use the exact same type of technology to call attention to itself and make its role in your experience as explicit as possible. I’m trying to remind us that there is technology in front of us, that there’s software running this circuit that’s creating the sound you’re listening to, and I’m trying to expose that.”
“I think that is a humanizing experience, which is kind of funny because the sound itself is so primitive, raw and unnatural. The one-bit fidelity waveforms are totally outside the natural world. But to me they kind of connect, they’re so self-evident. They teach us how they work and connect us to what whole process.”
Revealing the process of electronic performance to listeners taps into a major cultural and societal issue, says Perich. “As technology becomes more opaque and more miniaturized, less fixable—there are so many layers separating us from what’s actually happening, so we have to kind of let go of our agency and trust that the systems we’re using have our best intentions in mind,” he says.
The point of his circuit board music, then, becomes an effort to reclaim some of that agency.