sarah j ritch, pyr interview!

sarah in the red room

When did you first become interested in music?

Hmm, you’re asking for a bit of family history here. I can’t remember becoming interested in music. It has just always been there, probably because of my family. My Mom was an amateur cellist until her early 20’s, my Dad is a brass player and conductor (notably of the U.S. Army band in San Francisco during the final days of the Presidio), my Grandma sang opera, one brother plays violin, another played sax and flute, plus various other relatives who played various other instruments (including auto-harp!). Music is just part of life, like air and sunshine and thunderstorms. Please don’t judge me for the cheesiness of that line, but it’s true! I’ve always loved moving to music and making sounds.

Man, that’s a lot of music in your family, it seems like it was pretty much inevitable that you would start playing. Although, you could’ve also rebelled by completely rejecting it too I suppose. With all those musicians on hand, did your family ever play music together?

My brothers and I joked around about starting a grungy Hanson type band, but no. The closest we ever came to playing music together was solfegging the violin and cello parts to various symphonies on many long drives between Vegas and Reno (nerd alert).

What was it that drew you in to music?

Growing up, my Mom always encouraged me to pursue all my interests (probably because of my attention span issues). I’m what you would call a “high stress functioner,” or someone who needs a multitude of things going on at once in order to stay focused. If you give me one thing to focus on, I can’t. So, (through generous community support because we were dirt poor) my Mom had me in ballet, gymnastics, piano lessons, girl scouts, and various after-school academic clubs. I’m really lucky that so many people were able to make this happen for me. When I say we were dirt poor, I mean dirt. Section 8 housing, homeless shelters, WIC, food bank, seven people in a two bedroom apartment, moving every six months kind of poor. Our Christmases were provided by the churches and public donations and I remember a few occasions where I was told to go get a clean rock from the yard for stone soup. If you don’t know, this is where you make a soup out of broth from boiling rocks to get the minerals out of them, supposedly to avoid malnutrition. So I just want to make it very clear how grateful I am to the many anonymous people who made it possible for me to become something more than another victim of poverty (p.s. support the arts in public schools!). If I hadn’t been kept busy, I would have become totally self-destructive.

That is truly awesome that you had so much support and encouragement growing up; and awesome that your mom made it a priority to expose you to all sorts of experiences.

Yeah, my Mom knew early on not to let me get bored. Boredom is the enemy.

Do you remember what types of things made a song interesting to you – a sound, an effect, subject matter, a style of singing?

In those days, I just loved all sounds. But I do recall being really excited by the synths on my first electronic keyboard. I’d sneak them in to the piano pieces I was learning in my lessons, like add a big sawtooth synth sound during one of the rests. Luckily, my teacher was ok with it and encouraged me.

Nicely done sneaking sawtooth waves into piano practice. I always only practiced grudgingly, it never occurred to me to add anything to the existing music.

It wasn’t really a conscious effort to change the music… just the feeling that this music is a little bare. It could use a backbeat and some synth!

reno nevada stock footage

Where did you grow up, and did the environment have any influence on what type of music you were into and what kind of music you played? I guess I mean both the town/area you grew up in as well as your home environment.

I grew up in Reno with a Native American cowboy Step-dad. He was a lot older than my Mom, and so we had mostly classic country playing in the house when he was around and not in prison (if you’re interested in his story, check out my sister’s work: Noelle Garcia). While I lived with my Mom and three younger siblings (from my step-dad), my two older brothers lived with my biological father (who I now have an excellent relationship with). When they would come to visit, they would bring me music from Motown and put on performances of Elvis Presley and the Beach Boys. One brother loved CCR and the other Led Zeppelin. Naturally, what they loved became precious to me. And Gospel music I found on my own. I was at a church service at a Baptist church for some reason and they had a visiting gospel choir. I remember being floored by it. I wanted nothing more than to be a gospel singer… but that just wasn’t meant to be.

I think there was a pretty natural progression from my childhood tastes to the music of my adolescence. When you’re a kid, much of what you like depends on what you are exposed to and what you are exposed to is greatly dictated by your family. We moved from Reno to Las Vegas when I was 12 and this allowed me to reinvent myself. As a younger kid in Reno, I totally lacked self-esteem or any ability to stand up for myself. I remember thinking that when I got to Vegas, I was going to be a stronger person and I wasn’t going to take shit from anyone. I think this was the start of that terrible female pubescent stage filled with angst and anger. Of course, my music was an expression of me, and had to be angry and depressive. Also, anything that shocked my Mom was pretty cool in my book. I loved L7, Nirvana, Metallica, Guns N Roses, Crass, The Sub-Humans, Dystopia, At the Gates, His Hero is Gone, Notorious BIG, NWA, Ice-T, Beethoven, Brahms, Bach… and on and on.

The move to Vegas definitely exposed me to the punk scene. That city is so abused by the gaming industry that you have a huge amount of unemployment and a high poverty rate with little support for either. When I was living there, it had little to nothing in the form of “culture” or activity outside of the gaming industry. I think this helped to develop a subculture of poor and angry youth whose time was spent in either in protest or in self-destruction. I’m not going to be so pretentious as to say I’m speaking for everyone in Vegas in the punk scene at that time, but I think many of them would find some truth in it.

Is gospel music something that you are still interested in?

I’m not a particularly religious person, so it isn’t easy for me to listen to gospel in an honest way. But, I am in love with a lot of music that is influenced by gospel, like some blues and R&B singers like Mary J. Blige and Beyonce.

It’s hard for me to imagine liking the modern music that you were into and simultaneously being into Beethoven and Brahms. I was into similar things as a teenager and classical music was the last thing I would want to listen to, aside from Rite of Spring, Satie and Debussy which both struck a chord with me. I played some classical stuff with my piano lessons, but I was rarely interested in listening to it for fun.

I think playing in orchestra is what kept me interested in classical music. There is so much raw emotion in the music of Beethoven and Brahms… and even Bach ! Add the craftsmanship of counterpoint and how can you not at least be curious? Playing in the orchestra allowed me to hear all the individual parts and how they work together. P.S. – Stravinsky and Satie are two of my fav’s!

This question is kind of redundant but, what kinds of music were you into when you were younger? Let’s break it down into: elementary school; junior high; and high school.

It’s good you broke this down into parts because I’ve definitely gone through phases… I guess we all have! Here is my musical adventure:

Elementary – Country Western, R&B, Soul, Gospel, Classic Rock, Elvis, and the Beach Boys

Junior High – “Alternative”, Grunge, Hard Rock/Metal, Classical, R&B, HipHop

High School – “Alternative”, Political Punk, Crust, Thrash, Black Metal, Hard Core, HipHop, Classical

What was it about metal that struck a chord with you?

In High School (or the years that would have been – I dropped out my freshman year and got my GED when I was 17) I was really drawn to the parallels I saw between some of the black metal and classical music. It reminds me of neo-classical for electric guitars, synth, and swords.

Which black metal bands were you into in high school and how did you get into that? I never got into metal for some reason, partly because I was intimidated by the kids in school who wore Deicide and Napalm Death shirts. Scary! It’s only in the past couple years that I’ve started to develop an appreciation for a few metal bands and they tend to be at the weirder, dronier end of the spectrum.

I was drawn to the kids in the scary shirts! Or maybe, they found me and helped me to not be so introverted… I have never been very good at meeting new people and making friends. With metal and punk, the people came first and I found the music through them. I immediately fell in love with the all-in, dirty yet sometimes virtuosity of it, and it helped that some of the lyrics had profound social messages that I agreed with. With Black Metal, I didn’t really care for or about the lyrics (some of it is hilariously wrong, if you don’t take religion too seriously). But the guitar and drums are so crazy! That is virtuosity. My metal tastes range from Black Sabbath to Dimmu Borgir and Cradle of Filth to At the Gates and In Flames then over to stuff like Nausea, Neurosis, Dystopia, His Hero is Gone, El Dopa (1332), etc.

That’s fabulous that the scary shirted kids helped you out so much! Looking back as an adult, of course those kids were nice! I think for me the virtuosity in metal was something that turned me off for many years.

I can understand being put off by the craziness of some metal. I just loved listening to some of those drummers and being blown away when someone would tell me they didn’t even use triggers!

That’s true, those drummers are pretty intense. Are you aware of any connections between the music that you liked as a kid and the music that you like now?

Oh, of course! I still love and listen to everything I mentioned above. And when I write, I can’t be separated from my musical past. I often incorporate what I think of as hip hop rhythms in my notated music, and when I’m making crazy loud noise, I’m often thinking Man, this is metal as *u&@k!

I’m going to listen for the hip hop beats in your pieces now. Do you mention this to any of the performers of your music when you’re going over a piece with them?

My piece for solo piano, The Sandman is a good example of using hip hop rhythms in my music. It’s a seven movement piece in seven minutes… I think it’s the fourth movement that explicitly uses these types of rhythms. When working with a musician, I try to explain what I want as clearly as possible in the notation, but there are usually questions anyways. For this hip hop type stuff, I’ll usually ask that they try to lay on the back of the beat. And if technical lingo doesn’t do, then reverting to stop counting and just feel it will sometimes work.

You say you were into classical music from a young age, were you interested in the more experimental composers at that age, or did that come later? When did you first get exposed to the avant-garde (for lack of a better word)?

When I was younger, I didn’t know that composers still existed. I thought that was an old method of music making that died out! It wasn’t until I was in music theory and heard Einstein on the Beach by Philip Glass that I realized how wrong I had been. I remember hearing Knee Play 5 (from Einstein on the Beach) and having my concept and definition of what music is completely shattered. That was the moment that changed the course for me… I wanted to be a composer.

When did you start to play music? Did you do the whole formal instrument lesson thing, or did you start off just for fun? And what made you decide to start playing music?

I started playing music when I was about eight with piano lessons. The lessons were only partly donated and my Mom couldn’t afford lessons for very long, so that only lasted about a year or so. I started playing cello in elementary school because I was lucky enough to have an orchestra program and instruments in my school district. Never had private lessons in cello until college though. My older brothers taught me guitar when I was 12. I learned how to play from the Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream tab book and by picking up the songs my brothers knew. In college I got a Bachelor’s degree in music composition which was definitely a classic formal training environment. I minored in cello performance and took piano to pass piano proficiency.

I’m glad you started playing guitar by playing Siamese Dream! That rules. Did you teach yourself all of the solos too?

You know, this might sound strange, but I always found solos boring to play! I was much more challenged by the rhythm guitar parts… the intricate chord fingerings and picking.

That actually doesn’t sound weird to me at all. I’ve never been into guitar solos and totally understand being intrigued by chord patterns and the other things that come out of the guitar. What was the first band you played in? What kind of music was it?

Ha ha ha. My first band was called Utter Lunacy and was styled mostly after 70’s British Politi-Punk. Our drummer was dead set on us practicing until we were perfect before we ever played a show… so we never actually played a show! I wound up starting another band with some of the Utter Lunacy folks which was an all-girl Punk–>Crusty–>Metal band(s) and we actually played shows. We didn’t worry about getting it perfect before playing, so our motto became We suck. Fuck you! We were together about five or six years and every time our sound changed a little, we changed our name. Here’s the progression: Smurfette’s Whorehouse –> I Cut Myself –> Grimorium Verum –> Venus D. Ablo. I had a few other bands in that time, but those girls were the first ones I shared a stage with.

Was Utter Lunacy in high school? I like that your drummer wanted you 90’s kids to sound like 70’s Crass or something and that perfection was a prerequisite for playing a show. Were you playing guitar in all those bands?

I was 15 when I was in Utter Lunacy. I played guitar in most of the bands I was in but played bass in a few. There was one called The Gelflings that I played bass and sang in. That one was with the drummer from my girl bands, Courtney Carroll. She’s pretty awesome and has a slew of equally awesome bands out in Vegas now. I highly recommend her duo, Kid Meets Cougar.

When you first started on cello did you primarily stick to playing notated music? Or did you feel the urge to explore the instrument and make up your own music?

It took a long time and a lot of effort to start exploring the cello. I was always more creative with experimenting on instruments I had no formal training on, like guitar and percussion instruments. With cello, my classical training made it difficult to break out. And really, it’s not that the technique of classical playing is the problem. The technique helps to train your muscle memory for better control and to prevent injury. But the musical training is what got me, and I blame that on myself. It was totally my own rigid stubbornness that held me back so long from improvising with cello. It’s like, you’re trained on what a beautiful sound is and isn’t according to western classical standards. You are also trained on what is or isn’t appropriate according to the composer’s intent and style of the period. And if you stubbornly follow that doctrine even subconsciously, you find yourself just regurgitating the classical style and not playing from a truly independent creative place. Or at least that was the case with me at first.

Have you read Derek Bailey’s book on improvisation? I just recently read that and it blew my mind that there used to be improvisation in classical music once upon a time. The section dealing with classical music talked about how creatively stifling and oppressive it can be for classical musicians and how hard it can be for them to break out and find their own voice.

I absolutely have read that book! I was reading it while going through my quest for expansion outside of the classical school. If you are interested in baroque improvisation, you might enjoy a look into the subject of figured bass.

I know it’s probably a tough thing to answer but what is your process for composing music?

Ooooooh… process! I am plagued by writers block and procrastination, so I have a slew of things to trick me into getting things going. I think that’s why I have such differing styles. Sometimes, I get a concept that really gets me going… these are the pieces I primarily work on out of my own whim. When I’ve got a deadline or commission to deal with, I’ll use formal structures, algorithmic processes, and sometimes crayon and paper. I almost always work at the piano first, then work out the piece on a meta scale formally, and finally, the process of notation brings all the finer details in.

A word for any new composers out there – don’t beat yourself by trying to write an entire piece note by note from start to finish. I only know of one person claimed to have this ability (Mozart). For most, you think of your start, ending, and transitional middle… then just fill in the connecting pieces. Of course this really only works if you’re writing more traditional tonal music. Conceptual music is another beast entirely that I won’t go into here. If I still can’t get a piece going or I get stuck somewhere… I force myself to write and/or improvise at least 20 minutes every day until the “light” goes on.

Can you describe how you work with algorithmic processes? When you rock crayon and paper, are you composing graphically with images and symbols, etc.?

I define an algorithm simply as being a set of step-by-step instructions. These instructions can then be used however you wish. Some people choose to compile an entire work from an algorithm, strictly with no intuitive intervention, while there are others who use intuitive writing as their algorithm (i.e. choose a next note based on your preference as compared to the previous note). What I like to do is use some algorithmic process to generate some part of the piece while using intuitive writing to bring it together.

As an example, I have a piece called 16 Days which I wrote using a Max/MSP patch, also developed by me. The instrument (the patch) was constructed using the follow algorithm: Select 100 numbers at random from the pool of numbers contained in all flight numbers of flights from Las Vegas, NV to Klamath Falls, OR between January 1-16, 2008; next, form 16 groups of randomly selected numbers from the pool generated by the previous step; next, generate a sine tone for each number to be used as the sine frequency; then intuitively tune each of the 16 oscillators using separate amplitude controls for each frequency. This is how I designed the instrument used in 16 Days. The sound piece which you hear was performed entirely intuitively, in fact I improvised several times and chose my favorite recording for the finalized piece.

When I use crayons, or markers, or collage, I am trying to make a visual representation of the sound piece. I might be focused on formal structure, timbral elements, or narrative… it all depends on the piece. I am not usually trying to create a graphic score to be used directly for performance but using the image as a tool for me… like a brainstorm or free writing session for authors. Although, I am currently using one of these as an improvisation map with the Chicago Scratch Orchestra.

And of course I’m totally interested in how your process for creating conceptual music.

I think everyone has their own process for conceptual work. For me, it is just working from ideas as they make themselves available. For example, 16 Days was inspired by the passing away of a close family member and my desire to make a memorial for them. The concept first was to work with the numbers I got from those flights I could have taken between January 1 – 16, 2008 to visit this person. January 1st was when we found out they were terminally ill and the 16th was the day they passed away. I can’t say this is even a good example of conceptual music (there might even be an argument that it is closer to abstract expressionism in art), or that I have a recipe for it. It is something I find difficult to define in art and almost impossible in music.

The act of composition is something that fascinates me because I truly can’t imagine how it works, hearing the various parts and putting the whole thing together in your head. I can understand writing in the context of band and each person coming up with their individual parts, but developing an entire piece for multiple instruments just mystifies me.

Don’t worry, composers aren’t some magical breed of person who put entire scores together in their heads. We have to work hard at it… and not all the results are successes. I started by trying to write other people’s parts in my band for a few songs. Eventually, I wrote all the parts for an entire song. That’s the start. Just having an idea for something complete and providing instructions on how to produce it.

Aside from the Derek Bailey book, how did you first discover improvising as something that people do and as something you could do?

The wonderful Chicago keyboardist, David Schrader, first legitimized improvisation for me. In undergrad, we had a required class called composer seminar where we had different discussion topics each semester. The most memorable being when our professor, Don Malone, picked improvisation as the topic. We did a lot of group activities and that is where my trio, Sound Collision Alliance, got started actually. It wasn’t until Schrader came in to perform for us that I saw it as the art it really is. Later, I took a class in improvisation at School of the Art Institute of Chicago with John Corbett. This experience made me open my ears to improvising with sound in general, including noise. From John, I heard the album, Berlin Djungle by Peter Brotzmann, and had a life changing reaction similar to after hearing the Philip Glass. Now I listen with different ears. I hear and appreciate music and sounds differently. For example, I had always really liked Sonic Youth as a kid… but now I appreciate them on a totally different level.

It should also be noted that having to play in a group with a kid eating an apple, a sewing machine, and noisy guitar pickups will do wonders for breaking one out of their classical straightjacket.

That class sounds amazing! You didn’t happen to record the apple, sewing machine, guitar pickups trio did you? Sonic Youth was beyond huge for me when I was younger. I feel like it was a combination of them and Squarepusher that got me into jazz. The freakout sections of Sonic Youth songs were always my favorites. There was something about the feeling that they created. Mindblowing. And being a Thurston Moore nerd for many years led me to many free improvisation and noise types.

Unfortunately, I don’t think there were any recordings made. I love that Squarepusher is what got you into jazz!

What do you get out of improvising that you don’t get out of composing?

Well, the obvious is that I get to be the performer. I love playing and being on stage, but only when it’s on my terms musically. The pressure of all that classical technique and expectation just kills me. We don’t work well together. But when I can go out and just do some “live composing” to an audience that has no expectations, I couldn’t be happier.

What is the difference between improvising by yourself and improvising with others?

It has its positive and negative aspects. For instance, you aren’t bound by anything other than your own direction. You are free to move within your own constraints. However, with all that freedom comes all the responsibility. If you don’t really have an idea for where to go next, you can’t just chill back and listen to your partners for inspiration.

What goes through your mind when you’re improvising by yourself? Are you aware of any thoughts or feelings or of what’s coming next and what you’ve played?

It’s a bit like maneuvering a massive bubble around a room in a sort of modern expressive dance performance. You have this object with delicate but beautiful skin which you have very little control of but must handle with gentle precision or it may explode in your face. That’s what I’m thinking of. That’s why when I practice, it’s things like scales, triads, long bow exercises, double stops… all control exercises. I am not necessarily thinking of musical motives or a narrative but rather to manipulate and move the sound masses I produce in an intuitively expressive way.

As you’ve developed musically over the years has a philosophy or guiding principle developed as well? Has any of the social justice aspect of your punk background carried over into your composition and/or improvisational pieces? Is there something you would like to communicate with your audience?

I’d say there’s a struggle between intellectualism and academicism at the heart of much of what I do. I sometimes think that my desire to move towards randomness and intuitive process is my way of rebelling against that struggle. While I am somewhat intellectual in my work, I have this chip on my shoulder against academia. I think my background has a bit to do with this. As I said before, I grew up on the underbelly and have felt the sting of not having the same privileges of some of my colleagues. I find I am always questioning my motives artistically. Am I doing this because of its artistic statement or because I’m lashing out due to some grudge I have? I want to be careful not to muck up the purity of art and music with hurt personal feelings. A social statement is one thing, but I can’t let it get personal. I do like to incorporate pop aesthetics into my work because I believe often academia alienates the general public. I want to give something with thought that anyone can appreciate without having an advanced degree or private tutoring, my goal is to share not to alienate.

Musically who most inspired you in the past? And who are you currently taking inspiration from?

Ok, I’m just going to spew a list if that’s alright (this is in no way an all-inclusive list either): L.V. Beethoven, J.S. Bach, Josquin des Prez, Stravinsky, Mussorgsky, Satie, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Alvin Lucier, La Monte Young, Nam June Paik, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Arvo Part, Sonic Youth, Aphex Twin, Peter Brotzmann, Thelonious Monk, and Sun Ra for starters.

Are there any contemporary composers or improvisers who people should check out? Shout out time, I suppose.

I’d like to give a shout out to:

Composers: Marcos Balter, Brian Baxter, Anna Clyne, Sam Krahn, David Lang, Alvin Lucier
Eric Malmquist, Steve Reich, David Smooke.

Improvisers: Chicago Scratch Orchestra, Dan Godston, Eric Leonardson, Julia Miller, Carmel Raz, Sound Collision Alliance.

Groups/Bands/Ensembles: Anaphora, Chicago Composers Orchestra, Coppice, CUBE, Ensemble Dal Niente, The International Contemporary Ensemble, Kid Meets Cougar, Singers On New Ground (SONG), The Sissy-Eared MollyCoddles, The Spektral Quartet, Third Coast Percussion.

There are so many people doing inspiring work now. This list is just someplace to get started. It is in no way all-inclusive of the large group of amazing work I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing either first hand or from afar. Have fun exploring!

2 thoughts on “sarah j ritch, pyr interview!

  1. Pingback: The Cello as Drone | Acts of Silence

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