Photo by Kory Katseanes
Imagine if American music history in the 1970s had taken a slightly different course and the iconic Synchronisms of Mario Davidovsky—works which combined acoustic instruments with pre-recorded electronics—were the foundation for the future direction composers took, rather than being sonic curiosities from a past zeitgeist. For Steven Ricks, a Davidovsky protégé who directs the Electronic Music Studio at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, works merging acoustic and electronic realms into a seamless whole serve as a sonic metaphor for uniting the corporeal and the spiritual. A practicing Mormon who is completely attuned to contemporary culture (everything from Thomas Pynchon to videogames and recent pop trends), Ricks (b. 1969) creates latter day synchronisms containing some of the most thought-provoking music written this decade.
“It’s coming out of a tradition; it’s definitely influenced by Davidovsky and his Synchronisms,” says Ricks. “I’m doing my best to try to figure out what else could happen, what’s the next step. Electronic media and electronic music permeate our lives so much. There’s that great quote by Brian Eno, ‘Chances are if you’re younger than 90, you spent most of your life listening to electronic music.’” My vocabulary is kind of modernist, it’s not neo-romantic and it’s not trying to be accessible per se, but I do hope it hits people on a gut level. I hope it can communicate in a very direct and personal way.”
To get a sense of how Ricks shapes his compositional vocabulary from these seemingly irreconcilable elements, a good starting point is actually a non-electronic work, Mild Violence, a 2005 composition for new music’s ubiquitous “Pierrot plus percussion” ensemble—a sextet of flute, clarinet, violin, cello, piano, and percussion. While the title comes from a warning on a videogame, the piece was inspired by something very different—the brutal 1844 mob murder of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. Indeed that act was anything but mild, and Ricks’ music often isn’t either—sudden percussion attacks periodically punctuate music of relative calm, creating an atmosphere that it is never quite safe to relax in, and occasional unstable ostinatos reminiscent of Edgard Varèse and Igor Stravinsky make for a truly visceral listening experience.
According to Ricks, “Music in some cases attempts to deal with experiences from the real world, but it’s done in a very abstract way. So to portray musically the murder of Joseph Smith, even in its best attempt, is still going to be mild. Music is a euphemism and can never be like an actual violent event; nobody’s going to get hurt. I already had the piece a little bit underway and was thinking of this title, but the idea of connecting it with Joseph Smith came a little bit later. I was writing it in 2005, and knowing people that were writing various pieces to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Joseph Smith’s birth, I began to feel like this could be my little offering to that and thinking about that shaped some of the musical events—there’s a lot of snare drum hits that are meant to sound like gunshots and things being abruptly cut off. It’s the general notion of the one against the many, somebody tries to do something but the rest of the group is ganging up on them.”
Steven Ricks is well aware that the elements he is putting together are often worlds apart. The oxymoronic word combination “mild violence” also serves as the title for the first commercially released recording of Ricks’s music, a collection of six compositions which was released last year on Bridge Records. Another work included on that disc, which probably goes furthest in juxtaposing seemingly unrelated musical elements, is American Dreamscape, also composed in 2005. Scored for a standard jazz quartet—alto saxophone, piano, bass, and drums—plus Ricks’s signature electronics, it is one of the composer’s more secular creations, though not exactly: It was inspired by a passage in Thomas Pynchon’s otherworldly Gravity’s Rainbow. In the novel a drugged character in a hospital imagines himself in the bathroom at the Roseland Ballroom hearing strains of the popular standard “Cherokee” downstairs on the dance floor. At the same time, in a different place, bebop legend Charlie “Bird” Parker improvises on the chord changes of the same song and has an out-of-body experience.
Fueled by Pynchon’s descriptions, Ricks creates a vivid audio collage that opens with a noisy crowd at a club in the middle of a set—a pianist reminiscent of Bud Powell plays a run, but it sounds somehow not quite right because it has been microtonally altered. This quickly shifts into an electronically-generated timbral kaleidoscope before landing into a truly weird sonic space that is somehow equal parts post-bop jazz and so-called Uptown music. Eventually acoustic multiphonics and similar sounding electronic responses blur to the point where it is difficult to identify the source of any specific utterance with certainty. While the sonic translation of this literary passage sounds more like Eric Dolphy than Bird, Dolphy’s explorations beyond hard bop orthodoxies into free jazz melodic directions might very well be the sound of Parker having an out-of-body experience. Ricks explains, “I thought of Charlie Parker waking up in the after life, or pushing through past some sort of threshold into a very surreal world. The other thing is there are little short snippets of recorded alto sax where I purposely add in some record scratch, but the lines are funky and atonal. My idea was to try to create an unreal situation where somehow I had excavated these old recordings, but when you listen to them they are completely new or out of this world.”
Mormon cosmology is more overtly behind the structural conceit of Ricks’s 2000 percussion quartet, Dividing Time, which also eschews electronics. But while electronically produced sound is not part of the final product, an electronic devise helped to shape the piece—pitch materials were generated from a prototype of a piece of software Ricks co-invented called the Universal Music Machine. Ricks explains, “It’s basically a program that spews out a stream of notes based on the information that a user provides. Then you can export it as a MIDI file and use it to play a patch you’ve created, or import it into a notation program to look at the actual notes and then edit it and hand those notes to a performer.” (Click to download the Mac and PC Versions of the Universal Music Machine.)
“One of the techniques I used for Dividing Time was numbers in a hat—I was tearing up pieces of paper, but I was thinking there’s got to be an easier way. So at a certain point I used a prototype of the Universal Music Machine to randomly select different drum patterns. I actually now use it in every piece I write, but the way I use it is pretty controlled; it’s kind of meta-compositional. One of the influences that went into Dividing Time was the Biblical account of creation being the act of dividing: God divides the light from the darkness; organizes the earth and then divides the land from the water. Inherent in that is this notion that matter is eternal. Joseph Smith, the founding prophet of Mormonism, says that all spirit is matter. Even things we can’t see—things that are spiritual—still exist in the material world, but their particles are smaller or more refined and can’t be seen with the natural eye. So it is not creation ex nihilo—this vacuum that you then put something into; the stuff is there and creation is the act of organizing it.”
It might come as a surprise to a non-Mormon that adhering to a faith often perceived by outsiders as fundamentally old-fashioned in outlook would manifest itself in a corpus of musical compositions that are unapologetically experimental. But like other composers for whom firmly held religious convictions helped to shape aesthetics that might initially sound counterintuitive to tradition—Olivier Messiaen, Toru Takemitsu, and Steve Reich come to mind—Ricks has a relationship to his faith that has served as a wellspring for innovation. And he is not an isolated case within the Church of Latter Day Saints, although he admits that he is something of an anomaly.
“In general, the Mormon community is somewhat conservative and maybe not so interested in the avant-garde, but there are many people that are very supportive. In some ways, it’s just a microcosm of the United States in general. The audience for new music is somewhat small in comparison with the people who are willing to buy a ticket to go to a stadium concert. There are some people who are very enthusiastic, but those people are fewer than those who tend to be more traditional and have a feeling that art music ended somewhere around 1890 and anything after that is sort of strange.”