Particle physics experiments

Rediscovering Cheri Knight’s Long Lost Musical Experiences

Cheri Knight, “Prime Numbers” (Freedom to Spend)

Cheri Knight’s musical experiences in the early 80s while attending Evergreen State College may have gone unnoticed except by her classmates, including Stranger Genius Steve Fisk, the co-founder of Sub Pop Wayward Music’s Bruce Pavitt, Marc Barreca and Steve Peters. — if they hadn’t been rescued from obscurity by reissue label Freedom to Spend. Fortunately, diligent digging by RVNG Intl. subtag resulted American rituals, a newly released seven-track collection of the composer/bassist/vocalist’s wonderfully idiosyncratic takes on minimalism, repetition and vocal layering. Fans of Pauline Oliveros, Steve Reich and Laurie Anderson should take note.

Incidentally, I had the pleasure of interviewing Knight for a feature in the current issue of the arts quarterly magazine maggot brain. During our conversation, she shared how she fell in love with synthesizers after hearing Wendy Carlos’ track Bach lit album at the age of 10. This early love of weird sounds later drew Knight to Evergreen State, which in the late 70s had a large collection of analog synths. Also inspired by the drone work of Pauline Oliveros, deep listening practices and Zen Buddhism, Knight used these synths and the myriad of percussion instruments housed at the school to create the pieces on American rituals.

(It should be noted that after graduating from Evergreen, Knight moved to western Massachusetts and found herself playing bass and singing for the country-rock band Blood Oranges and recording two solo singer-songwriter albums in the 90s. These efforts proved that Knight could cut it artistically in the straight world, but her personality did not blossom in this high-pressure world, and she left the music business to focus on floriculture.)

On American rituals, Knight improvised it all, though the tracks sound meticulously planned. There is a complexity in the vocal arrangements which is impressive, especially for being spontaneous. As she has proven in her rock-oriented works, Knight has a pretty, conventional voice. It is remarkable how well he excels in blood oranges and in the more mysterious modes of American rituals.

You can hear the extraordinary wordless vocal expressiveness of Knight, Peters and double bassist Alex Stahl in “Water Project #2261”, as piano, vibrations and glockenspiel patterns unravel in exquisite melancholy. Another noteworthy track is “Breathe”, a raw, martial funk track reminiscent of K. Leimer’s band Savant. Knight coos, “exhale, inhale” with serene wisdom as she strums a haunting, steely bass line amid applause. Its lyrics sound like a soothing mantra, but the music is actually tense, causing fascinating cognitive dissonance.

“Prime numbers” may ostensibly sound like a tribute to a sesame street segment (a compliment; that kids’ TV show had lots of great music), as Knight fervently intones, “We’re all numbers, 1, 2, 3/We’re down to numbers/It’s all numbers”, his vocal parts sway intricately, obliquely funky bass twangs and energetic clapping. But even though the track creates the feeling of a community campfire ditty, it alludes to darkness with the realization that people can be reduced to statistics.

When I interviewed Bruce Pavitt for the maggot brain feature film, the former KAOS DJ said “Prime Numbers” was his “favorite recording to come out of [the Evergreen] stage. The hypnotic, a cappella vocal composition pairs well with Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman”, which received significant airplay at KAOS, and I believe was inspirational. One-time evaluation.

In our interview, Knight talked about his obsession with nature and physics, how this relates to his love of synthesizers and how their sound waves influence each other. “One of the things I love about my conversations with [Oliveros]Knight told me, “was talking about real physical forces in the world and how cool they are as an element of compositions and improvisation.” [work]…how things react in certain spaces, the natural reverberations, the echoes, the things that happen out there in the world…a lot of the early stuff that came out of that era – especially on the west coast – were related to the nature of the sounds. It was about synthesis and different tape effects that approximated very powerful natural sounds and natural forces that affect sound.

You can hear and buy American rituals here.