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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.