Precipitations features two composer/performers, Steven Ricks and Ron Coulter, who have cultivated sophisticated hybrid instruments that merge their respective instrumental practices (trombone and percussion) with various electronic instruments and manipulations. The spontaneous and unpredictable results are a function of but not limited by their chosen constraints, decidedly shaped by both of their omnivorous appetites for many styles of through composed and improvised music.
Steve Ricks and Ron Coulter are longtime collaborators, having performed experimental improvised music together in RICKSPLUND + Coulter and CRAG. Precipitations is their first recorded project as a duo, zeroing in on each of their hybrid setups, enhancing Ricks’ trombone and Coulter’s percussion with various batteries of electronics, effects pedals, and microphones. The result is a constantly percolating dialogue between two composer/performers who know each other’s language instinctively. Coulter Ricks marries noise oriented examinations with characterful instrumental playing, an engaging counterpoint between a style of phrasing that is influenced by the Chicago free jazz scene with a more technology driven exploration of granular timbres.
Tap, Rattle, and Blow is an apt opener, with both the title and the musical materials serving as a presentation of the kinds of standard material we will hear coming from Ricks’ and Coulter’s instruments. Coulter interrupts burbling material on the toms with disjunct punctuations on cymbals, gradually building up concurrent layers of activity. Ricks introduces himself with truncated phrases run through a harmonizer before he lays out for a Coulter solo. A flute sample emerges midway through the track, opening up a more expansive dimension to the sonic space. Ricks lays into some bluesy material on the horn, before he adds processing that transposes the instrument down in register and adds a washy reverb, revealing haunting, underworld sonorities.
Late Night Call revels in the subtle timbral distinctions in non-pitched electronic sounds; early dial-up modems, bad telephone connections, and poor TV or radio reception come to mind as we listen to this ecology of resistors, currents, and connections. Mechanics’ Choice establishes a four note ostinato as a pad over which Coulter improvises on found objects and gongs. A reverse processing effect turns the texture inside out, distorting it as the sound envelopes fold back upon themselves.
Charming Ways uses a varied vocabulary of samples including recordings of spoken texts (from radio or television) as a backdrop for soloistic material on trombone. Coulter focuses on friction based material in accompaniment, dragging, scraping, and rubbing on surfaces to create sounds that are taut. The final section of the track switches to discrete, isolated percussive attacks, pops and clicks that call as much attention to the air around them as to themselves.
Button Drop is percussion focused, featuring non-pitched sounds played by Coulter and electronic sounds that inhabit the same soundworld. A rich and asymmetrical counterpoint develops that exists somewhere between polyrhythm and energetic symbiosis. I-S3eM is the longest track on the recording, and as such takes a longer view on charting out its structural arc. Many of the musical ideas are present throughout, fading and remerging in different guises. Disembodied sounds characterize the extended opening, as Ricks’ trombone peaks out from the depths with a gurgling passage. Coulter’s choice of timbre helps to frame the sectional divisions, as he moves to more prominent snare and tom material midway through the track and the eerie high register flute sample fractures into prismatic shards. We hear a return of Ricks’ low register, poignant trombone work to close the track, a fitting end to a piece that retains a cyclic orientation over its seventeen minute length.
The opening of Slurry gradually crossfades from a texture foregrounding bird chirps to bell and chime sounds. As the texture becomes more dense, we hear momentary harmonized trombone evoking organum. Sped up recordings of spoken voices appear in the mix — as the texts are further obscured the amalgam fuses into a swirling gesture. Slurry closes with a serene passage on glockenspiel, a strikingly simple ending to an album that covered such complex timbral territory.
On Precipitations, Coulter Ricks occupy an effective middle ground between timbral sonic examinations and performance driven, motivically focused improvisation. The album finds time to inhabit specialized sonic spaces, only to zoom out and travel to unexpected places. Not surprisingly, it’s improvised music by two adventurous composers, not content to be restricted within any codified vocabulary, but instead pushing against boundaries to find new territory, always framed by their collective intuition about what makes a satisfying whole.
- Dan Lippel
Recorded March 13 & 15, 2021 in Casper, WY
Recording and mixing: Ron Coulter
Mastering: Troy Sales, February 2023
Design by M. Lewis Barker
Steven Ricks (b. 1969) is described in BBC Music Magazine as a composer “unafraid to tackle big themes.” He creates work that is bold, innovative, ambitious, and diverse, and that often includes strong narrative and theatrical influences. His music is performed and recorded by several leading art- ists and ensembles, including counter)induction (NY), New York New Music Ensemble, Canyonlands New Music Ensemble (SLC), Talujon Percussion (NY), Hexnut (Amsterdam, NE), Links Ensemble (Paris, FR), Manhattan String Quartet, Earplay (SF), NOVA Chamber Music Series (SLC), Empyrean Ensem- ble (SF), NY Metropolitan Opera soprano Jennifer Welch-Babidge, pianist Keith Kirchoff, guitarist Dan Lippel, flutist Carlton Vickers, and violinist Curtis Macomber.
Ricks has received commissions and awards from the Fromm Music Foundation, the Barlow Endowment, SCI, and Center for Latter-day Saint Arts, among others, and his music has been featured at multiple national and international conferences, festivals, and symposia, including ICMC, SEAMUS, NYCEMF, ISIM, KISS (Kyma International Sound Symposium), Third Practice, Festival of New American Music, and TRANSIT (Leuven, BE). Recordings of his music appear on multiple labels, including New Focus Recordings, Bridge Records, Albany Records, pfMENTUM, Vox Novus, and Comprovise Records. Ricks received degrees in music composition from Brigham Young University (BM), the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (MM), the University of Utah (PhD), and a Certificate in Advanced Musical Studies (CAMS) from King's College London. He is a professor in the BYU School of Music where he teaches music theory and composition and is the Music Composition and Theory Division Coordinator (2016 to the present). He is former Editor of the Newsletter for the Society for Electro-Acoustic Music in the United States (2012–19), and was director of the BYU Electronic Music Studio for 20 years (2001–2021).http://www.stevericks.com
Ron Coulter is a percussionist, composer, and improviser. He has toured internationally appearing in all 50 U.S. states, Europe, Canada, and Japan with artists such as the Glenn Miller Orchestra, Vinny Golia, David Murray, Sam Newsome, Matthew Shipp Tony Malaby, Linux Laptop Orchestra, Hugh Ragin, Sandy Duncan, Bolokada Condé, Music from China, Wyoming Symphony, Michael Zerang, Eric Mandat, Gino Robair, Chris Corsano, and Tone Road Ramblers, among others. Ron has presented at conferences, including: ISIM, PASIC, NIME, LiWoLi, BMC3, JEN, CMS, a.pe.ri.od.ic, Futurisms, Soundlines, RadiaLx, VU Symposia 1-3, and the JVC and Montreal Jazz Festivals. He is co-founder of the Percussion Art Ensemble, duende entendre, Drm&Gtr, SeFa LoCo, and founder of the SiiS, WyExSs, and Creative Music Series. Additional interests include noise, intermedia, interdisciplinary collaboration, and organizing Fluxconcerts. Ron has composed 420+ compositions for various media.
Electroacoustic composer/performers Steven Ricks and Ron Coulter opt for a kind of hybridization of percussion and electronics (in Coulter’s case), and of trombone and electronics (in Ricks’), to produce the effects they want to evoke. The seven jointly composed, jointly performed works on a new (+++) Panoramic Recordings CD show how Ricks and Coulter implement their particular search for auditory engagement – at least on the part of an audience already committed to experimentation and avant-garde sounds. The opening Tap, Rattle, and Blow is aptly titled, since tapping, rattling and trombone blowing are important elements of its aural world. Late Night Call is a kind of “found music,” combining now-rare-or-obsolete sounds such as those of a dial-up modem and poor TV or radio reception. It may serve as a reminder, to those who remember the sounds in the real world, that it is good to have moved beyond them (beyond most of them, anyway). Mechanic’s Choice is strongly percussive, with an emphasis on gong sounds mingled with those of other objects that can be directly struck, their reverberations then enhanced electronically. Charming Waysincorporates snippets of words spoken on TV and radio into a mixture of trombone notes and the sounds of rubbing and scraping. Button Drop is the most strongly percussive work on the CD, mixing the comparatively straightforward sounds of a typical battery of percussion with modified, electronic ones that complement and extend the directly played material. The longest work on the disc, which bears the overly enigmatic title I-S3eM and lasts 17 minutes, includes sections that fade in and out, ones that emphasize different registers (high and low), and ones that allow somewhat unexpected material (such as trombone sounds) to peek through a kind of aural curtain established by the electronics. The last work on the CD, Slurry, mixes several elements heard earlier, including spoken bits, high flute in birdsong mode, bells, trombone emissions, and a mallet-struck keyboard (the glockenspiel). Although not intended as a summation of what has come before, Slurry is a good 10-minute overview of or introduction to the entirety of the recording. Listeners unsure of whether or not they would be interested in an hour-plus of these creations by Ricks and Coulter may find it useful to start at the end of the disc and sample the works that appear earlier only if they find the concluding one congenial.
— Mark Estren, 7.21.2023
New Music has its fair share of pretentiousness—composers who feel called upon to be shamans, gurus, prophets, and social critics—so it is refreshing to run across an album in the scruffy casual category, like two guys in a garage. I’m not denigrating what can happen under such circumstances—two guys in a garage built an airplane that flew at Kitty Hawk, and computer technology that launched Microsoft. But in the normal run of things, expectations would be looser. While appreciating the laid-back air of the improvised music created by duo composers Ron Coulter and Steven Ricks, I also got an impression of riffs tossed off in the moment without much in the way of second thoughts or disciplined effort.
I hasten to add that the composers’ first thoughts come from a deep background. Coulter and Ricks are sophisticated in their chosen process. They are also performers, and there’s an upbeat feeling to Ricks on trombone and Coulter on a combination of drum set, tuned percussion, and found objects. Tommy Dorsey and Buddy Rich might swing in their graves hearing this style of music-making. There’s a major entertainment factor.
Both partners are listed as contributing to the electronics side in this collection of seven pieces averaging around nine minutes, titled Precipitations. What we hear fluidly blurs the distinction between acoustic and electronic sounds, because over a longtime collaboration, Ricks and Coulter have developed “hybrid instruments,” as described in the online booklet. “Precipitations is their first recorded project as a duo, zeroing in on each of their hybrid setups, enhancing Ricks’s trombone and Coulter’s percussion with various batteries of electronics, effects pedals, and microphones.”
Largely because that description would feel alien to general listeners, I began this review pointing out that the results aren’t daunting. Anyone who gravitates toward jazz improvisation will be in the groove of this music. As always with New Focus releases, Dan Lippel’s commentary is lucid and helpful. For example, he adroitly captures the tone of techno mixed with hip in the second piece on the program. “Late Night Call revels in the subtle timbral distinctions in non-pitched electronic sounds; early dial-up modems, bad telephone connections, and poor TV or radio reception come to mind.”
Considerable variety is added in ingenious ways. Setting aside his trombone, Ricks joins in the percussion piece, Mechanic’s Choice, where a four-note ostinato beats continuously while he and Coulter perform on found objects and gongs. The effect is arresting. Keeping this sequence of rapping and tapping to six minutes was also a wise decision unless you are a born percussion devotee.
I prefer the pieces that employ trombone, and further interest arises when the soundscape created by electronics is as haunting as in Charming Ways. While the trombone part remains acoustic and boldly bluesy, the layered tapestry of backdrop scraping, rubbing, and squeaking noises are blended into ghostly snippets of radio and TV voices.
Each piece has its own contours and flavor, so there’s no risk of sameness. My one reservation is that, for me, the bulk of ingenuity has gone into creating the sonic picture. The actual events that unfold on percussion and trombone aren’t very distinctive. Skill and enthusiasm certainly emerge, which is important to note. But I didn’t take much musical interest in the playing for its own sake. Fortunately, Precipitations is carried along by the imagination of Ricks and Coulter, which I was happy to experience.
— Huntley Dent, 10.01.2023
The iconoclastic composers/performers Steven Ricks and Ron Coulter bring their inimitable prowess to these spontaneous and unpredictable pieces that blur the eletronics with trombone and percussion.
“Tap, Rattle, And Blow" opens the listen with the lively brass and wild percussion that’s complemented by a flute sample and bluesy nods, and “Late Night Call” follows with timbral manipulations and pitch-less electronica unfolding with nods to dated technology.
In the middle, “Charming Ways” emits plenty of adventurous samples of spoken text via the random percussive bouts and friction sounds, while “Button Drop” spotlights Coulter’s exciting percussion in rich, asymmetrical ways.
The final piece, “Slurry”, builds into a thicker appeal of harmonized trombone, calm glockenspiel and even the sounds of birds chirping.
An extremely inventive body of work that pairs performance art with sonic exploration, Ricks and Coulter turn improvisation into a refined science here, where reverb moments, haunting bits and much emphasis on timbre is nothing short of stunning.
— Tom Haugen, 2.04.2024