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.