Tip! On the outskirts of late 1970s Olympia, Washington, something stirs, sings, and breathes. Cheri Knight, a music composition student at the Evergreen State College, is developing her practice in a quaint but adequately equipped campus recording studio, amalgamating with the sonic timbre of the surrounding time, space, and place, while devoting to her own inner maxims. At once performative and meditative, electronic and organic, collaborative and self-contained, Cheri’s early compositions are simultaneously complete and sketches of a ceremonial process at play. American Rituals captures the artist’s environmental emergence, unearthing a unique compositional voice and signposting a regional sonic ethos.
The path to Evergreen seems gently preordained for Cheri, a whisper in the trees. Growing up in a musical household in Western Massachusetts, she learned to play piano and clarinet, demurring from notated music but composing piano pieces in the minimalist mode of Erik Satie and folk songs inspired by Joni Mitchell. In high school, her class studied John Cage’s work, an epiphanic moment for the young artist. The group also visited a studio outside Amherst where she encountered the modular limitlessness of a Moog synthesizer. Cheri studied philosophy and music at Whitman College in Washington, and then took a year to build a stone house with some friends in New Hampshire. She settled at Evergreen soon after, carrying with her a zeal for improvisation, creative investigation, and hands-on experimentation.
The seven works anthologized on American Rituals are foremost an expression of Cheri’s elemental approach to creating, rather than writing, music. Polyvocal chants, spoken-word collages, primal post-punk excursions and hymn-like incantations are bound together by a performative energy; a Cage-ian commitment to the present moment which harbors a meditative interior. The first piece Cheri made at Evergreen manifested when a multi-tracked mic test spontaneously evolved into a vocal ostinato. This experience of layering her own voice allowed Cheri to see images of the sounds she was making “in real time.” In Cheri’s music, language takes on a playful, fluxist, material quality as it is patterned in space.
This word play is most evident in pieces like “Prime Numbers” and “Primary Colors,” which uses speech as an elemental material forming our changeable perception of the world. Channeled through the human voice, which is instrumentalized in every piece on American Rituals, language becomes a mutable force and a virtuosic apparatus. Spoken, sung, recited, incanted, chanted, instructed, whispered. It asks us to breathe, in and out. It tells us stories, reads us instructions, reminds us of water. Through rhythmically repeated speech patterns and flowing turns of phrase, the voice conveys ritualized patterns of everyday material becoming beautiful and strange, musical and memorable, conceptual and devotional.
The musical output of Evergreen entering the 1980s should not be underestimated in its contribution to the burgeoning Seattle-Olympia DIY axis, with pieces on American Rituals evidencing a contagious ethos and aesthetic. K. Leimer’s Palace of Lights label first issued Cheri’s “Primary Colors” and “Hear/Say” as part of its 1982 compilation Regional Zeal, Mouth Music From Olympia Washington, while “Prime Numbers” and “Breathe” were included on the Steve Fisk-produced compilation Dub Communiqué the same year. But beyond catalog crossover and collaborative evolution, there is a shared sonic energy coursing through American Rituals which speaks to an absorption of place, of atmosphere, of weather.
During a peer pilgrimage to the 1981 New Music America Festival in San Francisco, a change in weather was forecasted when Cheri met composer and theorist Pauline Oliveros. She spent part of her final year at Evergreen independently studying at the Zen Arts Center in Mount Tremper, New York, with Pauline and her partner, the performance artist Linda Montano. Aligning with both luminaries amplified the artistic and philosophical resonance of Cheri’s work, bringing tenets of Buddhism and Living Art into both her artistic and life practice.
Following these principles, Cheri’s art eventually did become absorbed into life: living on a farm with goats in rural Massachusetts, writing songs, playing in bands, and eventually drifting away from music and into other things. But as is often the case, the path taken is never forgotten, only temporarily out of mind.
With the help of old friends and new, the music of American Rituals was salvaged (not without hundreds of emails and phone calls) from master tapes stored in the collections of various peers and recording engineers from the extended Evergreen set, and is re-presented / represented now with care.
Cheri Knight’s American Rituals arrives in vinyl and digital formats July 15, 2022 from Freedom To Spend. A portion of the proceeds from this release will benefit Draft Gratitude, a draft horse rescue in Winchester, New Hampshire dedicated to saving the lives of senior working horses.
Think of the music of Olympia, Washington, and a familiar history unfolds: Beat Happening and Kill Rock Stars, riot grrrl and a young Nirvana. A heavyweight legacy, but these well-told stories also have a habit of bulldozing the smaller, slighter histories that came before. In fact, the Olympia of the early 1980s was a wide-open creative space where a loose community of DIY musicians drifted across the borders of sound art, new-age music, modern composition, and free improvisation. American Rituals uncovers one of these all but forgotten histories: a set of playful, experimental, wholly original recordings made in the early ’80s by Cheri Knight, a music composition student at Olympia’s Evergreen State College.
Hailing from Western Massachusetts, Knight grew up in a musical family, playing piano and clarinet before her head was turned by the music and ideas of John Cage. Through her studies she discovered the possibilities of synthesis and met the composer Pauline Oliveros, whose philosophy of deep listening proposed new ways of understanding and experiencing sound. But you get the sense, listening to American Rituals, that the real genesis of Knight’s music was the access she was granted to Evergreen’s on-campus recording studio. You can hear her formulating her own musical language using just her voice and simple instrumentation, fashioning a unique sound world out of loops and layers.
Knight utilizes a range of sounds on American Rituals: guitar and bass, piano and chimes, rhythms beaten out by hands or on struck metal. But her voice is at the root of her music. On pieces like “Hear/Say” or “Primary Colors”—they’re less songs than chants or mantras—Knight multitracks her voice and weaves it into tessellating patterns. Some of her music adopts the dry tone of an educational text: On “Prime Numbers” she counts upwards, her vocals panned hard left and right, accompanied by music with a faintly post-punk feel; padding drums and shard-like intrusions of guitar brings to mind a band like the Raincoats. But the track also evokes one of those animated musical interludes you might see on an old episode of Sesame Street, a half-remembered earworm both comforting and strange.
As part of her academic work, Knight spent time at New York’s Zen Arts Center and studied Buddhism. Her music doesn’t generally express spiritual themes, but there’s a devotional sensibility to American Rituals, an underlying sense of mindful practice. “Tips on Filmmaking,” the album’s best track, blends chants, handclaps, and dancing marimba to sound like music from a peaceful ashram. “Breathe” takes the form of a meditation exercise—breathe in, breathe out. Still, there are none of the dizzier nostrums common to new-age music. American Rituals feels relatively clear-headed, guided by an academic sensibility.
There is an umbilical link between Cheri Knight and a later generation of independent music from the Pacific Northwest. The selections on American Rituals first came out on regional compilations and cassettes like 1981’s Dub Communiqué, compiled by Steve Fisk—later producer of Nirvana and Screaming Trees. (That compilation also featured a track by one Bruce Pavitt, who around this time had recently started work on his own zine, Subterranean Pop—the rest is history). On another timeline Knight might have slotted into this burgeoning Pacific Northwest alternative history, but life took a different route. She moved back to rural Massachusetts, where she lived on a farm and raised goats. She still played music now and again, but the playful, experimental sounds compiled here gradually passed into memory.
American Rituals feels of a piece with other recent rediscoveries made by Freedom to Spend and its parent label, RVNG Intl.—releases such as Ursula LeGuin and Todd Barton’s Music and Poetry of the Kesh, or avant-garde autodidacts like Anna Homler aka the Breadwoman, whose sonic explorations sprang from somewhere instinctual and personal. As an anthology, American Rituals is relatively lean, collecting just seven tracks in 40 minutes. But what’s here is worth treasuring: the sound of an artist with a bit of learning and a lot of vision, breathing a new sound to life.