What The Fluxus? Interview With Composer Sarah Ritch
Photo by Brent Faklis
This weekend local music collective Anaphora will put on the Interdisciplinary Arts Festival, a series of concerts on Thursday, Friday, and Sunday featuring music, sound installations, and other works inspired by the Fluxus art movement (a full schedule can be found here). Fluxus pieces, which make up the bulk of the festival, are usually just one or two sentence directives that produce strange displays; for example, Fulcrum Point’s concert last week contained a Fluxus work where a drummer played on the head of a helmet-wearing fellow musician. The resulting art is meant to be ridiculous and often laughter-provoking.
The festival is the brainchild of composer Sarah Ritch, the curator of Anaphora’s Contemporary Series and one of Anaphora’s four founders. The group, which also has a Classical Series headed up by two other original members, Ritch’s husband Aurelien Pederzoli and clarinetist Cory Tiffin (the fourth founder is Tiffin’s fiancée Lisa Dell, who handles publicity and booking), has been putting on innovative, entertaining, and affordable concerts since the group’s inception two years ago. We recently chatted with Ritch about the Interdisciplinary Arts Festival, its origins, and the importance of silliness.
Chicagoist: What is Fluxus?
Sarah Ritch: At its most basic, Fluxus is an interdisciplinary art movement developed in the 1960s. It crossed all boundaries, from painting to sculpture to music and performance art. It was closely tied to Dada and both were movements of anti-art and anti-bourgeois, intellectual, commercialized art forms, “anti-art” of course being more a statement than a reality. There were many pieces which called to attention to the absurdity of academia and intellectualism and some that were just focused on absurdity itself.
C: What was the driving force that got it going? Was it reacting to something in particular?
SR: Well, of course, but that’s a complicated question. You could say it was a reaction to abstract art and “serious” art, in general. Whenever a movement reaches its height and becomes too complicated, a counter movement always emerges. To me what’s important is that, I feel, this was the one movement that really incorporated all mediums of expression, and required you not to take yourself too seriously.
C: So that matters to you much more than being “against” any of the abstract or self-serious art?
SR: Of course. There is some fantastic serious music, paintings, artists, composers. For instance, I love Beethoven and Rothko. I just am not Beethoven or Rothko, so the Fluxus and Dada philosophies are what’s true for me.
C: Say more about how those philosophies are true for you.
SR: Well, maybe it’s a personality defect, but I incorporate humor in everything, sometimes in very subtle ways, if only as inside jokes for myself. I can’t take myself too seriously. I don’t think anyone should, really. Although it is an honor to be respected by others. One thing that made me very sad during my stay in musical academia was seeing the joy for music sucked out of conservatory students. Everything gets so serious and life-threatening: how you play this note, how you approach and leave it, is it appropriate for the style, the composer, the tonal system, etc. I found myself unable to casually listen to music anymore. I was always analyzing and finding the flaws! And I had to stop playing classically because of the pressure.
C: How does Fluxus differ from Dada?
SR: Dada was more focused on visual arts and was more politically charged. It also came about 40 years earlier. It laid the foundation for Fluxus. Dada was more assertively anti-war and anti-art where Fluxus is tongue-in-cheek.
C: How did you choose the Fluxus pieces – “pieces” probably isn’t the right word, is it? – for the festival?
SR: “Piece” is a good word. Well, I have a small group of friends who I ran wild with during my undergrad studies at CCPA [Chicago College of Performing Arts at Roosevelt University]. We had a ton of fun and got into a bit of trouble. Rules for performance were even altered because of us.
C: Dare I ask what you did?
SR: Well, there was one piece we did that was a “piano concerto” [written by Darren Bartolo, who is also taking part in the festival] that featured electric viola, guitar, and myself on the tambourine. I had seven music stands for my extremely complicated part. It wasn’t considered appropriate. A pair of my friends also choreographed an ’80s-inspired dance routine in short shorts and using rainbow streamers to a Scissor Sisters song. There was also “Trouser-geist,” a character developed by my good friend Sam Krahn. He wore pants on his arms and wore a paper bag over his face. We did these performances on the student composition recitals.
C: That sounds pretty Fluxus-ish.
SR: Yeah, mostly improvised late at night in the practice rooms. We made a spaceship from boxes we found once!
C: Did it work?
SR: For us. Anyways, I decided to do this festival with them and we picked the pieces we liked best, essentially.
C: But not all of the festival is Fluxus, correct?
SR: Nope. The piece [“Your Reaction to this Work”] we are premiering of Ryan Ingebritsen‘s is more a serious sound installation. We thought it would be fun to see what would happen when live musicians had to interact with the environment. My piece “Stutter” is actually more a performance piece in the vein of “watch this person suffer” style. And Spencer [Hutchinson], our closing act, is an electronic music performer and video artist.
C: Tell me about “Stutter.”
SR: Well, there is a soundtrack of a speech therapy lesson over which I read 20 pages of tongue twisters. Or until I stutter uncontrollably. This is a piece that is actually a reverse humor relationship. It is funny on the outside, but actually fairly personal as I went through a lot of speech therapy as a kid for my own speech problems.
C: Did that play in the genesis of the piece?
SR: Yes, I was interested in exposing myself. Well, getting out of my safe zone and making myself fuck up. Deconstruction.
C: What do you mean by “deconstruction”?
SR: Deconstruction of the process of eliminating your flaws. Letting them out.
C: How did the festival come into being?
SR: Well, I’ve always wanted to do this type of show. One of the reasons I joined in on the Anaphora party when it was in its conception. I felt we couldn’t just jump right into this type of thing, because I truly want to blend “serious” music with the Fluxus idea, to show that we can be friends. So I planned my concerts with a little edge each time, leading into this, I suppose. Basically, I don’t hate serious music, I hate the line between what’s considered serious music and pop or art or performance, etc.
C: I noticed Saul Garcia is playing a central role, hosting each of the three events. Tell me about him.
SR: [Ritch initially responded by directing me to the Wikipedia page for Marcel Duchamp’s alter ego Rrose Sélavy.] Saul Garcia is a very important character for me. He helps me cope with my insecurities and makes me laugh. I thought this was the perfect event to introduce him to Chicago formally. I used him as a pen name previously.
C: Will Sarah Ritch be at any of the festival’s events?
SR: Only through “Stutter.”
C: Do you know what the video work [that will accompany Hutchinson’s music] will be?
SR: I have no idea. I like surprises!