Published May 15, 2016When Tristan Perich composed Surface Image for Bang on a Can All-Stars ensemble pianist and increasingly marquee draw Vicky Chow in 2013, he created a meeting place for artificial and organic music making. Written for Chow's solo piano and 40 one-bit micro-chip-programmed speakers, it demands the human will to bend to mechanical precision; the electronics operate independently of Chow's playing, so there's no room for nerves or goofs.
But despite its programming and how mathematically precise Chow plays, it's ultimately a piece that unfolds differently each time it's performed in a different space, new textures and overtones revealing themselves depending on the acoustic conditions it's being played in. Seeing Surface Image resurrected in the Music Gallery's location at St. George the Martyr Church, it was the piece's physicality that really shone through.
Flanked by speakers and following Perich's notation with a measure counter and an iPad that automatically cycled through the sheet music, Chow worked through the piece's 63 minutes with the hyperactive glee of a child expertly playing through a rhythm game like Guitar Hero or Dance Dance Revolution, hands flying a mile a minute, all smiles while bobbing her head from side to side in the face of byzantine complexity.
It was positively mind-boggling witnessing Chow's accuracy and endurance as she locked into the piece's exhaustingly repetitive rhythmic sequences, meditating on patterns for minutes on end while carefully introducing minute nuances, sometimes switching into more sprawling passages on a dime.
The mounting tension of all this got a cathartic release in the work's dramatic climax, when the composition's usually bright piano repetitions slipped in some darker notes. Watching Chow stab at those keys before the piece's brief cliffhanger quiet was breathtaking live.
In concert, there's a magnetism to Chow's playing that makes it hard to focus on anything else, but in the few breaks where the fleets of speakers took over and she got to pull back from the grand, you still managed a real appreciation for the complexity of Perich's sound design. As the 40 speaker diaphragms pummelled the air, each at their own rate, they created collective sounds recalling the stuff of clock radio alarms and Doppler effects you usually get from overpassing helicopter propellers.
In the coda, Chow supported a quiet alarm sound with Surface Image's most delicate piano chords, and as the piece neared its close, and a final piercing speaker noise sounded across the room, she reached below the bench, one eye on her measure counter, fingers hovering over a kill switch until everything counted out, finally switching off the circuit board and clocking in a performance precisely as long as Surface Image's recording.
Rising from her seat for a bow, Chow received an immediate standing ovation, and a well deserved one at that: Surface Image was an unparalleled concert experience that was a true privilege to share a space with.