Marianna Ritchey, assistant professor of music history in the Department of Music & Dance, discovered a deep interest in music as an undergraduate at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Ore. Ritchey currently focuses her research on young American composers in the contemporary capitalist landscape. With roots as an indie-rock musician, Ritchey approaches a diverse array of musical styles in her teaching and writing as culturally important and significant.
You’ve had a diverse, genre-spanning career in music, from playing in indie-rock bands to producing and performing a rock opera to writing about classical French Romantic composers. Can you describe how your interests evolved over time to lead you to your research foci today?
My interests in different kinds of music (pop/classical, generally speaking) evolved simultaneously. I kind of fell into majoring in music in college, thanks to randomly signing up for a music history class because I needed the credits to fill out my schedule. The professor was this amazing woman named Nora Beck, and that class changed my life; I had grown up taking piano lessons in the sort of thoughtless and desultory way a lot of people do, but I’d never really thought about music before, all the different ways it can sound and has sounded across time, and why those sounds are the way they are. Nora taught all kinds of music; because of her class, I learned about John Cage and Meredith Monk long before I learned anything about Beethoven. And it just really lit a fire under me. I immediately asked her to be my advisor and changed my major to music history. I wanted to be just like her and have her same job. This is how we make life decisions at 18.
At that same time, I was meeting the formative friends who would shape my life in other ways, particularly Katy Davidson (who has many amazing albums out, under the names Dear Nora, Weird Cactus, Key Losers, and Lloyd and Michael, which is our joint project). Katy and I were randomly assigned to be roommates our freshman year, by whatever algorithm the college used to figure out such things. They had a guitar and I had a banjo and we both knew like three chords. I was coming from this pretty nerdy background—not only with the classical piano lessons, but also my taste as a music listener up to that point involved almost exclusively things like They Might Be Giants (which I still stand by) and the “Batman” soundtrack (specifically the Danny Elfman one, and NOT the cool Prince one, which I had never heard of). Katy on the other hand was into really cool stuff like Pavement and Liz Phair. We started playing music together, and that year we formed the band Dear Nora with our friend Ryan Wise on bass—and in fact we named the band after Nora Beck! We all loved Nora. As the years went on, we played music constantly together and really developed a shared musical sensibility that has brought me a lot of joy. Katy is much more talented and dedicated as a musician than I am and I’ve always felt so grateful that I got to slide randomly into their orbit; collaborating with them is one of the joys of my life. Anyway, the point is that both the formative moments in my musical life happened essentially without me putting any thought into them at all—getting roomed with Katy, and signing up for Nora’s class because it happened to fit my schedule.
After college I spent five years living in Portland, Ore. and playing music. I kept playing in Dear Nora (playing drums and singing) until Katy moved to San Francisco. I also started writing my own songs and pursuing my own musical projects, and my songwriting was always influenced by the music I was learning about in school. I went through a period of trying to write songs that avoided tonal closure, because I was really into this class on Wagner I’d just taken, for example. Really weird long songs with 800 chords in them, about sea creatures or the end of the world. These were not super popular, I will say. I started a new band called The Badger King, with Jona Bechtolt, who is now in YACHT. We were an early laptop band—we played weird electro pop. It was with Jona that I wrote the rock opera you mention, which was a kind of psychedelic love story about dragons, and it had an accompanying silent film a friend of ours made. We performed it at this big festival of contemporary art in Portland, and then never performed it again or released it as an album. The folly of youth! Meanwhile I was getting to do things like tour all over the country in a smelly van full of my friends; in 2001 Dear Nora went on a two-week tour of Japan, which was amazing. In 2005 I went to grad school finally, and the performance side of my life kind of withered, which is fairly normal for musicologists and we all are sad about it. But also it’s fine; it felt good to move on to other intense, focused pursuits. I loved grad school so much. I also haven’t given up performing completely—whenever Katy and I are in the same town, we play music together, and while I was writing my dissertation we went on a tour of Australia with our band Lloyd and Michael. So that’s still a part of my life, albeit a very small one these days.
Boiling my scholarly pursuits down to the most fundamental place, I think what I have always been interested in is music’s relationship with its cultural moment; the idea that music sounds the way it sounds because of factors you can identify outside of it. This extremely basic observation carried me to UCLA, which at that time was kind of a hotbed for this kind of cultural approach, as well as for pop music studies; like for a long time, UCLA was one of the only places where you could write a dissertation on hip hop or something, and everyone there was interested in gender and sexuality, interdisciplinarity, etc. From grad school to today, my work has always been about connecting musical sounds to aspects of a cultural-historical moment, which was essentially what first captured my interest in those classes I took in college with Nora Beck. My dissertation was about this wonderful French Romantic composer named Hector Berlioz, and about how some of his music shares thematic and formal similarities with these weird, sad, sexy ghost stories that were popular in France at that time; I argued that these cultural products reveal similar anxieties about time, nation, history, and ideas of art itself. Now I work on classical music in contemporary American practice and the way musical sounds, values, and receptions mutually interact with capitalist ideology in various ways. My two research areas sound really different but at bottom they are fundamentally intertwined.
Anyway the short answer to your question is that I got interested in ALL MUSIC at the same time, and that combinatory understanding of music has never really left me, I think.
In the past, you’ve presented papers on popular artists like Kenny G. and Mariah Carey. Why did you decide to approach their music from an academic/research perspective? What is the value of approaching popular forms of music in this way?
In my mind there’s no real difference between “pop” or “classical” music in terms of the degree of interest they inspire or the revelations they can offer to scholarship. It’s all just culture—just stuff people make. There’s great, complex, incisive writing on classical music and also really boring and vapid writing; the same is true for pop music. For me it all just depends on the kinds of questions you ask of whatever music you study, and the kinds of criticism you subject it to, and the complexity of the ideas you construct from your examination of it.
You recently recorded some spots for WRSI, a local radio station in Northampton, Mass., where you talked about female rock and pop musicians you considered to be important or influential. How did you go about choosing who to talk about, and why?
I started from the desire to talk mainly about people who aren’t necessarily super well-known, and for some of the spots I also considered some aspects of musical production and reception that have served to obscure important contributions from women. For example, I talked about Carol Kaye, the legendary studio bassist who played on like 80% of the top hits of the 60s and 70s but whose name is only really known by aficionados. Her anonymity is due to a double whammy: she was a woman bass player in a male-dominated industry; and she was a studio musician—meaning, a behind-the-scenes person. And with the exception of some star producers we traditionally don’t pay much attention to behind-the-scenes people, especially ones who are women. But if you think about it, women have played enormously important behind-the-scenes roles in so many realms of artistic production, particularly at historical moments when they were forbidden (either legally or just by cultural norms) from taking part more publicly. Many of our Great Novels by men were typed up and heavily edited/shaped by their authors’ wives, for example, often without any acknowledgement of this labor. That sort of thing. I started thinking about how important studio musicians have been to all these classic periods of rock history—these consummate professionals who were paid hourly wages to play on a huge variety of hit songs. Some of them have attained a certain degree of fame—everyone knows The Wrecking Crew (the house band for Phil Spector at the Brill Building) and perhaps the Funk Brothers (at Motown), but I feel like it’s rare to meet someone who knows Carol Kaye. And she was IN the Wrecking Crew! Everyone reading this has heard Carol Kaye play the bass on a hundred songs, without realizing it, and I wanted to honor that contribution.
For the more famous and widely known people I talked about, like Sleater-Kinney, I wanted to publicize some of their politics, the political origins of this music in the punk and riot grrrl scenes of the Pacific Northwest, and discuss some of the issues in rock music that these women were responding to and critiquing (and incorporating) in their own work. I also did one on Debora Iyall, whose band Romeo Void I had just happened to discover recently—when I learned more about it and about her, I thought she would be a great person to publicize a bit, because of her arts activism with Native American kids as well as for the fact that Romeo Void is really cool. She was an art school kid who started this weird experimental new wave band, had a huge hit song, and then was abruptly dropped by the record label and had to kind of start a whole new life, which she found in arts activism.
Do you incorporate popular music into your classes? How do students respond to listening to popular music in a different way?
I definitely incorporate pop music into a lot of my teaching. Most obviously, I teach a Gen-Ed class on American pop music that focuses on rock. We talk about specific musical elements, so students really develop their ears and get quite adept at identifying different styles and genres; but the bulk of the class concerns cultural history, and uses the development of various rock sounds as a means of discussing all kinds of big topics, historical moments, political issues, etc. We examine the way music interacts with race, class, gender, capitalism, marketing, nihilism and despair, revolution, war, drugs, and lots of other things. I also teach a large Gen-Ed art appreciation course called The Lively Arts [MUS-150] that engages with a hilariously diverse array of art forms. In a given semester we might learn about photography, classical ballet, experimental cinema, poetry, jazz, and standup comedy. So in that class I also incorporate a lot of pop music—in particular, I find teaching non-musicians how to recognize and talk about different elements of music (e.g. melody, pitch, rhythm, etc.) is much easier when you use pop songs. Why not teach them about music by starting with musical idioms with which they’re familiar? It’s also really productive to compare radically different styles—so, we might take a Kendrick Lamar track and compare it to Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” in terms of how each artist approaches melody.
What are you currently working on/researching?
I research and think about our particular moment in the history of capitalism and the myriad ways classical music interacts with it. One aspect of my book project is that I look at a number of young American composers and performers who work within what is still generally referred to as “classical music” or at least “art music.” I examine the ways these people explain and promote what they do; the way their music is received and celebrated by critics and arts institutions; what kinds of new music get funding and awards from established organizations; and the way some of this music sounds. I argue throughout that we can see capitalist or market logic at work across this discourse in some fairly subtle and deeply-embedded ways. I’m interested in how we are all conditioned by certain aspects of the economic framework in which we live, and the way our assumptions and common-sense notions are shaped by the necessity of negotiating that reality. On the other hand I also write about the way the idea of “classical music” has become a symbol of certain things, and how that symbol can be deployed to promote certain ideologies or products that on their surface may seem really unrelated to music. For example, I have a chapter about the Intel corporation and its hugely expensive and elaborate recent marketing campaign involving Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The campaign specifically uses the symphony to make things like unmanned drones seem inspiring and heroic. So you have this massive global corporation that is generating the products required by the military-industrial complex and the surveillance state, but they’re associating these corporate/state activities with the notions of universality, genius, high art, and—crucially—commercial disinterestedness that have clung to Beethoven for 200 years. It’s really weird stuff.