Introducing: Tristan Arp
Introducing: Tristan ArpNovember 22, 2021
The first thing you might notice about Tristan Arp’s Sculpturegardening is that each song is meticulously produced and polished to perfection. That’s not to say his music is cold, calculated, and lifeless. Instead, the polyrhythmic melodies and syncopated rhythms that define Arp’s output give his music the quality of having a life all of its own.
The glassy surfaces of songs like “From The Seems” or “Photosynthesis” encase warm, undulating basslines, distinctly “human” instruments like a swaying cello and fluttering voice, and his signature modular melodics safely inside the song’s pulsating body. It’s like the musical equivalent of rubbing your hand across the back of a gecko or iguana. At first, you mostly feel its slick yet textured exterior, before noticing the living tissue and soft organs underneath. And much like a gecko, Arp’s music rarely stays on ground level, often climbing just beyond his control.
“I do want to make music that sounds like little creatures; music that sounds like a living thing,” Arp says from his sunny living room in Mexico City, where he’s been living since early 2020. Wearing tortoiseshell-framed glasses and a dark blue Nike sweater, he engages openly and eagerly throughout our conversation.
Raised in a Detroit suburb 30 minutes from the city center, music for Tristan began with a guitar and a four-track tape recorder when he was 12 years old. Along with a love for Motown, Arp’s main interest was funk — specifically George Clinton and his Funkadelic band — which Arp credits for developing his lifelong fascination with rhythm. Parliament led to krautrock, which led to Kraftwerk. “And those are the two things that came together to make Detroit techno,” Arp says.
Rather incredibly, Arp says his parents “did not have a particular music background, and they did not introduce me to that world at all.” And even though his fascination with funk and Teutonic electronics helped him discover a deep love for Detroit techno — his first experiences of which were at the Detroit Electronic Music Festival (now called Movement) when it was still a free event — he did not immediately connect the dots. “Those are just two of many things in the blender of what I was listening to,” he says.
By the time Arp started NYU’s School of Recorded Music when he was 18 years old, he’d discovered Ableton. And through combinations of electronic sounds and live instrumentation, he was making ”very experimental and ambient music, to pop inspired by people like David Byrne and Björk, and even filmmakers like David Lynch, who manage to express something very strange and challenging but in a pop paradigm,” Arp says.
Ultimately, however, he hit a wall, finding the challenge of creating something that was pop enough for mainstream audiences but weird enough for the underground more than he felt capable of. “It takes a very special person to make that work,” he says. He decided to “rip it up and start again,” focusing on making music that brought him joy, without thinking about its functionality.
It was one of many start-over moments for him in New York City, a place that “ate me up and spit me out a new person several times over,” and is “really responsible for who I am,” he says. There, he met many “really beautiful people,” including Arca, a classmate of his, who shaped him “profoundly, just as a human being,” he says. He spent nights at spaces like 285 Kent and Glasslands, and parties like Ghetto Gothic, where Arca herself performed. In New York he also met Brandon Sánchez, who makes music as Simisea and would partner with Arp in founding the Human Pitch label. Sánchez, who was beginning school at NYU just as Arp was leaving, found a flyer for a party Arp was throwing at 285 Kent, and volunteered to help. “He became a best friend through that partnership,” Arp says.
Despite his deep connection to NYC, a place he says still feels like home, Arp hasn’t lived there since early 2020. Before covid was on anyone’s radar, he took a gig in Mexico City and began falling in love with the place. He made enough friends that he decided to start learning Spanish in anticipation of his next visit. And by his third show there on New Year’s Eve 2020, he’d decided to stay and live for a few months. He soon met his now-partner, an industrial designer. And so when lockdowns began, “It was like, ‘Okay, I’m moving — like, I already moved,’” he says with a laugh.
It was during lockdown in Mexico City that Arp wrote Sculpturegardening, which could fairly be described as an ambient album, but has little in common with the horizontal-listening, sepia-tinged soundscapes the genre is normally associated with. Arp channels introspection partly through the instruments he uses. For instance, he learned the basics of the cello just for the album, which both haunts and soothes in equal measures. But Sculpturegardening‘s feel is also partially defined by what it’s not. It shares many of the same playful characteristics of Alternate Looking Glass and Oddkin, two club-ready EPs Arp dropped this year, but the pace is slower, and there’s hardly a kick drum in sight. And then there’s that infectious, bright, bouncing tonal melody, which permeates the whole of Sculpturegardening without ever subsuming it.
“Sometimes when you’re making music, you approach it like you’re building the house, like laying bricks,” Arp says. “But then I thought about gardening, and how a gardener spreads the soil, plants the seeds, and creates an angle for sunlight to come in. You’re really just creating the conditions and allowing the plant to grow on its own. And I thought, ‘How can I bring that into my life and put that into my music practice?’ And I thought about generative music, which is not a new concept.”
Generative music is why songs on Sculpturegardening — named for various sculpture gardens that have inspired Arp over the years — seem to be writing themselves, as the melody is carried off in new and unexpected directions at every turn.
“I created some ways in Ableton that allow me to create random melodies. And when you start combining these instances of randomness on top of each other, they’ll never repeat the same way twice. And the combinations sometimes become very, very interesting and more complex and more exciting than something you could have made if you were deliberately placing note by note.” Arp layered these melodies with Marbles, a “chance-based note generator,” as Arp describes it, and recorded several takes lasting from a few minutes to nearly half an hour. He’d then find hidden synchronicities, then “tame them a bit afterwards.”
The resulting sound is one that tugs at the edges of chaos and order, two traits that define most of human existence. We thrive on order, but too much order and we’re bored, even maddened. Likewise, while too much chaos can terrorize our sense of normalcy, some chaos can also invigorate our experience in unexpectedly profound ways, like suddenly finding yourself living in a city you only meant to briefly visit.
It’s through this lens that Arp’s work should be seen: an ever-expanding process of growth and creativity, where carefully tended seedlings sprout lush, new forms, resulting in a beautiful garden full of life and possibilities.