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New Classical Tracks: Prolific 'Outsider Composer' Rick Sowash Finds Inspiration In Ohio Roots

Courtesy of the artist
 

Courtesy of the artist

Julie Amacher | Classical MPR

Rick Sowash has been an elected public official, an arts administrator, a radio broadcaster, an innkeeper, a church choir director and a guard at the Cincinnati Art Museum. He's also composed more than 400 works. Five of his chamber pieces appear on his new release, Seasonal Breezes, featuring cellist Josh Aerie, the Sylvan Trio and a few other musical friends.

Sowash's music is rooted in the Ohio region where he grew up, and where he still lives today. His passion for composing was sparked by two remarkable teachers at a small, rural school in Lexington, Ohio: Mr. Dunlap and Mr. Evans.

"And I said to Mr. Evans, 'I don't know how to write music down. I wouldn't know how to do that.' And he said, 'Well, I'll show you. It's not that hard — you can do it.' I said, 'Well, I don't know what to do first.' He said, 'Come back with three or four notes that you like, and let's see what we can do with them.'

"Then Mr. Dunlap, the band director, heard about this kid writing pieces over in choir. He said, 'Why aren't you in the band?'

"I said, "Well, I play the piano.' But he said, 'You should be in a band, and you should write us a march.' So, he got me playing the drums, and I wrote a march for the band. After that I was just rolling along. And I found that immensely satisfying, and that was the springboard which made me into a composer."

I know that you've always wanted to write music that you say your grandmother would like. Why is that?

I want to write authentic music that comes out of who I really am. Grandma, even though she's been gone for 35 or 40 years, is still a kind of arbiter for me. I still think of it in those terms. I might push Grandma a little bit sometimes, but she's listening.

Most of the music that you compose is written for particular performers. That is the case for the chamber works that appear on your recording, Seasonal Breezes. Tell me about the cellist for whom you wrote the Sonata for Cello and Piano and how that individual's skill or desires may be reflected in that work.

Josh Aerie is a wonderful musician and a dear friend. I originally wrote the piece to which you just referred, however, for Terry King, a friend I've had for a much longer period of time. He's a wonderful cellist and a great inspiration for me. He never recorded the work, but Josh was very interested in this and brought the music to life and recorded it.

I almost always had a specific musician in mind, and I would think of that musician's personality — the kind of gestures they make musically, even the gestures they make with their hands, the kinds of jokes they laugh at and the kinds of things that turn them serious again. In some respects, those pieces are a portrait of those musicians.

What about Dark Forest? This is a work that you wrote for cellist Josh Aerie, and it was inspired by a Russian proverb. Can you share a little bit about that proverb?

"The heart of another is a dark forest." This proverb speaks to the isolation of human beings from one another, even the people to whom we are most close. I've been married to my good lady for 47 years, and even to each other, our hearts are a dark forest. We can't really see very far into one another's hearts. And if this is true of a 47-year-old marriage, how much truer is it of all our other relationships?

So much of my music is bucolic — sunshine and cornbread and eggs and bacon for breakfast. But sometimes I like to go to the darker things and try to explore those.

There's also another association that's fun to share. It's from the beginning of a great story by the Brothers Grimm, "Iron John." There was a king who lived in a castle near a dark forest — as soon as you hear that opening line, you say, "Ooh, a dark forest — I want to know more about that dark forest." And, sure enough, the story delivers.

I hope the title Dark Forest invites people to come into the world of that music with a certain predisposition — a certain preview, in a way, of what this might be like — and then I hope I can deliver that.

You've also developed and practiced a kind of unusual policy for the past decade of giving away your life's work, to the greatest extent possible, to whomever might be interested in discovering it. Why did you decide to do that?

I can't tell you what a joy it is to harvest your own work and then pass it around the table. I picture great bowls and platters of steaming food, with all my friends and fans gathered at this big table, and they were sharing it. You know, it's wonderful!

To hear the rest of my conversation, download the extended podcast on Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts.

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