Composer Steven Ricks's music reflects a sophisticated and complex relationship to modernism, vernacular language, musique concrete, and conceptualism, creating works that mashup these different strains with the finely tuned sense of collage and the irreverence of remix. In these probing electroacoustic and ensemble works, Ricks observes and occasionally lampoons the detritus of American sonic culture, but ultimately finds hope and beauty within it.
|Ten Short Musical Thoughts
Ten Short Musical Thoughts
|Young American Inventions
Young American Inventions
|Scott Holden, piano
|Flexible Music: Tim Ruedeman, saxophones; Dan Lippel, guitar; Eric Huebner, piano; Haruka Fujii, percussion
|Borrowed Wings (mea culpa)
Borrowed Wings (mea culpa)
|Floating, Just Above Tomorrow
Floating, Just Above Tomorrow
|What follows is not a song, but...
What follows is not a song, but...
|Ossifying (Keeping us from ...)
Ossifying (Keeping us from ...)
|Hexnut: Michaela Riener, mezzo-soprano;Ned McGowan, flutes;Susanna Borsch, recorders;Anton Weeren, trumpet;Ere Lievonen, piano
|Sounded along dove dōve
Sounded along dove dōve
|Canyonlands New Music Ensemble: Carlton Vickers, flutes;Noriko Kishi, cello;Jason Rabb, percussion;Morris Rosenzweig, conductor
|Young American Inventions REMIX
Young American Inventions REMIX
|Scott Holden, piano
|Keith Kirchoff, piano
Steven Ricks‘ new release “Young American Inventions” begins with a quirky automated voice greeting the listener, immediately inviting us into his conflicted relationship with technological affect, cliche, and populism. Ricks builds collages from whatever source catches his fancy, from Milton Babbitt quotes and drum samples in the piano and electronics piece Young American Inventions to Steely Dan and Steve Reich in the ensemble work Extended Play to automated voices worthy of a credit card call center in Ten Short Musical Thoughts and Ossifying. His purpose is not to mashup for mashup's sake, but instead to provoke us to consider these fragments of our musical culture divorced from their original context. In this way, Ricks combines several strains of American compositional tradition, a Cagean awareness of found objects and found sounds, an academic modernist’s approach to pitch and rhythm, and a minimalist’s penchant for repetition with variation. Geometria Situs, the one vocal work on the recording, is inspired by two photographs by Edward Burtynsky of highway and strip mall culture. Stephen Tuttle’s poetry first ruminates on the soulless nature of these landscapes, but in the second poem, finds beauty in the geometry of the sprawling infrastructure. Ricks' artistry echoes this conflicted relationship with the sounds of our era, neither isolating himself from the wider world of vernacular aesthetics, nor embracing it unquestioningly.
Producers: Steven Ricks, except Tracks 3-6, Judith Sherman
Engineers: Jon Holloman (tracks 2, 14), Judith Sherman (tracks 3-6), Micha de Kanter (track 8), Carlton Vickers (track 10-12), Jeanne Velonis (assistant on tracks 3-6)
Mastering: Troy Sales
Track 2 - Recorded at Madsen Recital Hall, BYU, 4/26/2007
Tracks 3-6- Recorded at Academy of Arts and Letters, NYC 2/24/2009
Track 8 - Recorded at de Jong Concert Hall, BYU 9/25/2013
Track 10-12- Recorded at de Jong Concert Hall, BYU, 5/8/2008
Track 14- Recorded at de Jong Concert Hall, BYU 7/26/2011
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
America has always been a cultural melting pot, and throughout the 20th century composers grappled with the idea of what it means to make specifically American music.
American composers like Charles Ives were inspired by Protestant hymns, patriotic songs, and parlor music, while others like George Gershwin were influenced by jazz and popular music. Henry Cowell and John Cage were inspired by all sounds, opening themselves up to “the whole world of music” (as Cowell famously stated). Still others like Steve Reich and Philip Glass preferred to strip down the vast musical possibilities and instead focus on observing the internal processes of the music through repetition, phasing, and gradual transformation.
So in a melting pot filled with such rich and diverse musical influences, how can any composer make truly American music? Composer Steven Ricks explores precisely this question in his new album, “Young American Inventions.”
The album combines several colorful strains of the American compositional tradition into a mashup of music as innovative, ambitious, and diverse as America itself. His musical influences range from modernism and minimalism to found sounds and strip mall culture. Each of the eight pieces on the 14-track album explores our conflicted relationship with technological affect and mainstream media, inviting the listener to consider fragments of our musical culture divorced from their original context.
Fittingly, the album begins with a mixed-up, mashed-up electroacoustic piece titled “Ten Short Musical Thoughts.” The musical thoughts are intentionally scatterbrained—Ricks presents a series of texturally diverse episodes garishly narrated by an automated voice with an untraceable accent. The result is a witty, mottled musical collage that transports the listener through a number of distinctive (and often unidentifiable) timbres and textures.
The piece is followed by the title track, a piano and electronics piece named after English composer Steve Martland’s “American Invention” and David Bowie’s “Young Americans.” From its pointillistic piano plinks and its echoing electronic waves to its straightforward drum samples and long stretches of near-silence, the piece is a conscious reflection on mashup culture. And in true 21st century fashion, Ricks also includes a “Young American Inventions REMIX” later on in the album, recycling fragments of his original composition to create an entirely new work.
Next on the album is “Extended Play,” named after the “EP” records made popular by punk and indie bands in the 1970s. (EPs are longer than singles, but shorter than full studio albums.) The piece’s four distinct movements mimic the common four-track EP format while making musical nods to the funky jazz of Steely Dan, the circling piano motives of Steve Reich, and even the ethereal surrealism of Jefferson Airplane. The work is scored for the unusual instrumentation of saxophone, guitar, piano, percussion, and boom box. Yes, boom box.
The electroacoustic “Ossifying (Keeping us from…)” takes quite a different approach to music: inspired by John Cage’s philosophy, the piece aims to irritate, causing productive aural discomfort in order to “keep us from ossifying.” The piece is an eclectic amalgamation of sonic disturbances, ranging from bowed cardboard to stereophonic static to echoes in an indoor water park.
The only vocal work on the album, titled “Geometria Situs,” is a jumbled, jittery piece inspired by two photographs by Edward Burtynsky of highway and strip mall culture. Scored for mezzo-soprano, flute, recorders, trumpet, and piano, the piece is a poetic rumination on our banal existence in this crowded, crazy world.
The piece is followed by “Sounded along dove dōve,” an electroacoustic composition in which Ricks digitally manipulates the recorded speech of a poem written by Martin Corless-Smith. Fragments of speech flatten out into hums or are transformed into stutters and flurries, evoking some of the poem’s haunting maritime imagery.
Ricks again switches gears for “Waves/Particles,” a three-movement exploration of energy and matter through music. The piece transports the listener through a musical illustration of atomic structure, fully charged and ever-changing.
The album comes to a close with “Stilling,” a programmatic tone poem of sorts for solo piano. Based on the poem of the same name by Donald Revell, the piece is a surprisingly intimate ending to an intentionally chaotic album.
Within just over an hour, the album skitters and jitters through the history of recorded sound, exploring the furthest reaches of American sonic culture. And in the end, Ricks abandons the electronics, the remixes, the recordings, and even the boom boxes, and instead writes for a single instrument—translucent, ethereal, and unplugged. - Maggie Molloy, Second Inversion on KING-FM Seattle, June 15, 2015
Contemporary music isn’t for everyone, especially so when it includes electronica. That’s due in large part because not only do you have to deal with unfamiliar harmonies and strident dissonances, you also have to contend with the added layer of artificially created sounds. But if you were to put your preconceived notions and prejudices aside for a moment and just listen to this music, you might be in for a surprise. You still might not like what you hear, but you just might end up mesmerized with the bizarreness of it all — and perhaps surprised by what some of today’s composers come up with. There are, after all, a lot of creative minds writing music in the first quarter of the 21st century.
One of today’s most imaginative – and leading – composers is Brigham Young University’s Steven Ricks. Despite BYU’s decidedly conservative bent (to put it mildly), Ricks is in the forefront of today’s trends and one of the most daring and stimulating American composers. Ricks does his own thing. He doesn’t follow; instead, he forges ahead and sets new boundaries and pushes the limits of how the concept of music can be defined.
His new CD, Young American Inventions, taken from the title of one of the pieces on this disc, is a vibrant and aurally striking look into the 46-year-old composer’s world. The eight works on this recording were written between 1997–2014 and are mostly for a combination of traditional instruments with electronics. But there are also a couple of pieces just for conventional instruments as well as two that are strictly electroacoustic. The album shows the range of Ricks’ imagination as well as his mastery of electronics and his deep understanding of traditional instruments.
A couple of the works stand out. Waves/Particles from 2008 is an intricate weaving of live with recorded sound. It’s a well-crafted and well-conceived and executed work that is intoxicating in its effect. It envelops the listener and draws him into Ricks’ mystical, mysterious world. It was recorded in BYU’s de Jong Concert Hall and performed by members of Canyonlands New Music Ensemble: Carlton Vickers, flutes; Noriko Kishi, cello; and Jason Rabb, percussion. The University of Utah’s Morris Rosenzweig conducts.
The other piece on this disc that is memorable is the electroacoustic Ten Short Musical Thoughts from 2002. It’s a finely textured and richly woven work that blends sounds and text in a compelling and quite interesting fashion.
Ricks is a composer who has a lot to say and he knows exactly how to say it. You might not like what he comes up with, but he is without question a composer whose voice needs, and deserves, to be heard. His music is bold, forceful and challenging, yet also captivatingly poetic and lyrical. - Ed Reichel, June 15, 2015
The ‘10 Short Musical Thoughts’ Steven Ricks’s computerized curator introduces are potentially on par with the weaker sections of the Troll 2 soundtrack. While it lacks the ability to stand on its own, it does function as a direct introduction to the more nuanced, but mostly incoherent ‘Young American Inventions’. In a series of unconnected, unprepared mash-ups, the solo piano interacts with, avoids, and ignores bursts of electronics and beats. It’s a meditation on 21st Century culture that is better done in ‘Geometria Situs’. The beginning radio dial switching grounds the listener and offers material for quotation and transformation in the quintet. The ensemble slips through several styles, and the quiet courage of the final two minutes may be the deftest setting on the program. © Kraig Lamper, 2015 American Record Guide
Let me say at the beginning here that this disc contains music of a rather experimental nature. It has underlying complexities and this is not the kind of CD one would have playing at most parties except perhaps to clear the room. That being said this is not bad music but it is challenging listening.
I had not been familiar with Steven Ricks (1969- ) or his music prior to receiving this disc for review. Ricks earned his B.M. in Composition in 1993 from Brigham Young University, and M.M. (also in composition) from the University of Illinois at Urbana in 1995, a Certificate of Advanced Musical Studies from King’s College in 2000 and Ph.D. from the University of Utah in 2001. His teachers have included Morris Rosenzweig, Sir Harrison Birtwistle, Bill Brooks, and Michael Hicks. He is currently on the Board of Advisors of the Barlow Endowment, and an Associate Professor of Music Theory and Composition at BYU where he also directs the Electronic Music Studio. His works fall primarily into the realm of the “electroacoustic”. His training and interests seem to put him into orbits that likely include Milton Babbitt, Mario Davidovsky, Lejaren Hiller and perhaps Salvatore Martirano (all, by my definition, great composers but difficult listening and with electroacoustic outputs primarily). I must confess that I know relatively little about the forefront of electronic music these days and I am working on catching up on this history (which seems to exist almost completely separate from classical music per se). Even the hybrid of “electroacoustic” music seems, for this writer at least, to remain rather marginal in terms of its listening audience and its prevalence in the concert hall.
Now, having loaded the reader with these prefaces, apologies and excuses, I move on to the music itself. I listened numerous times to the tracks on this disc. Sometimes I listened with direct intention and concentration, other times I listened with this disc playing ambiently (can I use that term here?) whilst pursuing other tasks (not recommended). The music is assertive and, at times downright intrusive. I get the feeling overall of a great deal of experimentation and complexity that nearly raises Milton Babbitt’s famous question, “Who cares if you listen?”. Certainly the composer and performers care but that doesn’t rule out the likelihood that this music may speak to a limited audience who are better trained and more familiar with these techniques/ideas. What I like about this disc, though, is that bold, experimental, doesn’t matter who is listening approach. Were it not for such innovation a lot of good musical ideas would never have been expressed. This music is experimental and perhaps more than a little “inside”, meaning that other composers/scholars might get things that the average listener would probably miss. Call it an adventure. Curiously I was/am intrigued by Ricks’ interest in algorithmic composition (an iffy genre as well, I know). I was pleased to find that he has available for free download on his site a program he wrote called Universal Music Machine and I have been rather entertained by it both as a compositional tool and as a teaching/learning method. And I promise to post mp3 files of any masterpieces I might generate.
There are 9 separately identified pieces here written between 2001-2014. Two are multi-movement works and all but two involve electronics in performance to some degree. The opening track, Ten Short Musical Thoughts (2002) serves well as an introduction. It makes use of sampling and of algorithmic composition. Indeed these are short musical ideas with some spoken word comments integrated with the music. If you are not watching/listening closely you may miss the transition between the opening track and the next, “Young American Inventions” (2007) for solo piano and electronics. The title, a mashup of David Bowie’s “Young Americans” and Steve Martland’s “American Inventions” reflects Ricks’ eclectic interests and fascination with both contemporary classical as well as popular culture. Pianist Scott Holden navigates the challenging keyboard part accompanied by the electronic score. Here is where Ricks’ work reminds me of Mario Davidovsky’s “Synchronisms” series.
The four movement, “Extended Play” (2007) continues the pop culture references as the composer states that those four movements are intended to mimic or approximate the four tracks which are found on most vinyl EP productions. The ensemble composition, which is also full of more specific references to both classical and popular music, is executed by Flexible Music and is the most easily accessible work on this disc (to this listener’s ear). “Ossifying (Keeping us from…) (2012), listed as “electroacoustic” is a piece of sound art like the opening track (no live performers in the concert hall here) and is one of the most experimental pieces on the disc. It seems both deeply personal and inextricably self-referential. “Geometria Situs” (2012) is the musical portion of a multimedia work called “WRENCH” which was written for and performed by Hexnut. Mezzo-soprano Michaela Riener handles the delicate vocal lines with grace and ease. “Sounded along dove dôve” (1999) is the last of the non-live “electroacoustic” pieces and, like its predecessors, is similarly cryptic and self-referential, a puzzle perhaps, in which the components of language itself are used as determinants of the settings of the texts.
A bit of an “aww” moment occurs with “Waves/Particles” (2008) which is performed by the Canyonlands Ensemble conducted by the composer’s former teacher Morris Rosenzweig. Rosenzweig founded the ensemble in 1977. This is both homage and acknowledgement between the two generations of artists. It is lovingly played. “Young American Inventions REMIX” (2014) invokes another pop culture metaphor of remixing a song. This is another iteration/elaboration of the material in the earlier version of this piece. Scott Holden is the soloist once again with the electronics.
“Stilling” (1997, rev. 2011) is a piece for solo piano. This is described by the composer as being an impressionistic piece, perhaps a sort of tone poem. The language is thorny and modern. The very capable pianist here is Keith Kirchoff. The lucid liner notes are by Jeremy Grimshaw. The New Focus recording is clean and clear. So if you enjoy adventures in experimental/electroacoustic music this is your disc. - January 26, 2016