Sarah Ritch

5 Questions to Sarah J. Ritch (composer, cellist)

Sarah Ritch

Sarah Ritch

Sarah J. Ritch is a composer and cellist currently based in Chicago. She has studied composition at Roosevelt University and sound design at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and is currently enrolled in an MS program in computer science. She is also a member of the free improvisation band Sound Collision Alliance. I spoke with Sarah about her latest composition which will be premiered by the Anaphora ensemble on their upcoming concert, Sounds of Chicago.

How did you come about the new piece you’re writing for Anaphora?

When [clarinetist and co-founder] Cory Tiffin mentioned to me that Anaphora was looking for a new piece for clarinet and percussion, my eyes lit up… as would anyone’s! When he asked if I’d give them a piece for said instrumentation, I heartily accepted. In general, I like ear candy. For me, music is rarely just about the notes, the melody, the rhythmic structures…the basic elements. So I wind up using mixed ensembles for most of my work… I like a dynamic palette to work with.

The concept of the piece stems from my current studies in computer science. There is an enormous amount of study in abstract mathematics that goes into the study of computation. It was unavoidable for me to search for connections between the mathematics and music theory. I had been toying with the idea of expressing concepts of mathematics through music, specifically, asking the question of how to do so.

I had been reading a little on fractals, specifically Strange Attractors. The idea of two almost identical patterns that, through a recursive formula, quickly become unpredictable was something I felt would translate very easily into music. The simplest way to show this would be through just two musical parts and what better instrumentation than clarinet and vibraphone? My blog goes into deeper detail, but essentially: you have two voices which start out very similar and over the course of the piece are constantly changing and evolving. There are recognizable patterns and just enough variation to model musical form.

I worked out the formula and variables using a combination of mathematics and western music theory/form, then a computer was used strictly for the heavy lifting and to ensure no mistakes in the realization. Once my program spit out the pitch material, I worked it into a more expressive form using intuition and idiomatic translation for the instruments.

While this piece is primarily rooted in mathematical principles, much of your other work is based on improvisation and timbre-focused composition. Would you assert—as composers like Sophia Gubaidulina have—that it is necessary to have a balance of intuition and mathematical structure in music? Or do you believe a successful composition can exist with one of those elements exclusively? Has writing this new work shaped that belief at all?

I prefer to say that there is no difference between intuitive composition and intuitive mathematics (or more accurately, using intuition in proofs of mathematic theorems). I believe that when a person says they compose exclusively through intuition, they are “missing the forest for the trees.” Meaning, music theory fundamentals are mathematic: note values = fractions, repeat = loop, pitch names are nicknames for frequencies which we know have their own structured patterns following the harmonic sequence, etc.

While a person may choose to use strict formula or intuition to apply music, the abstract theories have equivalence in mathematics. This piece fell into place so naturally once I had focused the idea and proved, to me, that this idea is true. But I am still just scratching the surface.

What is your ultimate goal in expressing math through music? Or is it simply to be able to do so? Do you think one could view this work as a sort of realized musica mundana? That is, the music is in the math, and math is in everything?

My ultimate goal is to explore an itching curiosity and create some ear candy in the process. I think “the music expresses the math, and math is in everything” is a beautifully poetic way to describe it.

Is there a particular direction you see your compositional style going in? Or do you feel like it’s more of a constant conglomeration of different aspects; from your more traditionally orchestrated pieces like Polar and For the Mute, to your improvisations as a cellist, to your electronic drones like 16 Days? Do you ever feel that your interest in a variety of musics spreads you too thin, creatively?

I am a curious person; I have a need to explore and understand. I think my practice in music and performance is reflective of modern society. Through the level of social interaction and knowledge transfer globally due to technology, we no longer need to be specialists of narrow fields; we can be connoisseurs of all. With the flood of information at our fingertips, I think we will see more and more multidisciplinarianism in all fields.

Ultimately, I do try to bring together these different practices when I can. Sometimes, I also just feel like writing a song. I have no idea where my style will wind up, but I am enjoying the process of evolution. My field of interest is far and wide and I do have to prioritize my efforts. For instance, I am also very interested in genetics, astrophysics, and needlework, but those passions have to wait for a lull in my music and art practice to be obliged. I would say, I’m not spread too thin, rather, there isn’t enough time in the day!

What’s next after the Anaphora premiere? Anything else on your plate, performance or recording wise?

I just finished a short set of songs which, if I am lucky, may make it to a recording by one of Chicago’s local vocal ensembles. I don’t want to say too much about it as the details have yet to be decided. Then in February, Patricia Morehead of CUBE will premiere a new piece of mine for oboe and electronics. I have put my performances on hold for the Fall so I can be with the family I have out in New Jersey, but I am excited to say that I have just gotten approval from my label, PanYRosasDiscos to release an e-book based on my piece, The Sandman, with artist (and my sister) Noelle Garcia.

For more info, visit Sarah J. Ritch’s blog: