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.