Rediscovering the Long-lost Musical Experiments of Cheri Knight

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

Cheri Knight’s early-’80s musical experiments from her time studying at Evergreen State College might have gone unnoticed by all except her fellow students—who included Stranger Genius Steve Fisk, Sub Pop co-founder Bruce Pavitt, Marc Barreca, and Wayward Music’s Steve Peters—had they not been rescued from obscurity from the reissue label Freedom to Spend. Thankfully, the diligent digging by the RVNG Intl. sub-label has resulted in American Rituals, a recently 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 quarterly arts magazine Maggot Brain. In our conversation, she related how she became enamored of synthesizers after hearing Walter Carlos’s Switched on Bach album at age 10. That precocious love of freaky sounds later drew Knight to Evergreen State, which, in the late ’70s, had a sizable collection of analog synths. Also inspired by Pauline Oliveros’s drone works, Deep Listening practices, and Zen Buddhism, Knight used those synths and the myriad percussion instruments housed at the school to create the pieces on American Rituals.

(It should be noted that after Knight graduated from Evergreen, she moved to western Massachusetts and found herself playing bass and singing for the country-rock band Blood Oranges and cutting two solo singer-songwriter LPs in the ’90s. These endeavors proved that Knight could cut it in the straight world artistically, but her personality did not thrive in that higher-pressure world, and she left the music biz to focus on flower farming.)

On American Rituals, Knight improvised everything, although the tracks sound meticulously planned. There’s a complexity to the vocal arrangements that’s impressive, especially for being spontaneous. As she proved in her rock-oriented works, Knight does have a conventionally pretty voice. It’s remarkable how it excels in both Blood Oranges and in the more arcane modes on American Rituals.

You can hear extraordinary wordless vocal expressiveness by Knight, Peters, and contra-bassist Alex Stahl in “Water Project #2261,” as spare piano, vibes, and glockenspiel motifs deliquesce into exquisite melancholy. Another standout is “Breathe,” a piece of stark, martial funk reminiscent of K. Leimer’s Savant group. Knight coos, “breathe out, breathe in” with serene wisdom as she strums a mesmerizing, steely bass line amid claps. Her words sound like a calming mantra, but the music is actually tense, causing a fascinating cognitive dissonance.

“Prime Numbers” ostensibly may come off like a tribute to a Sesame Street segment (a compliment; that children’s television show featured much great music), as Knight earnestly intones, “We are all numbers, 1, 2, 3/We’re brought down to numbers/Everything’s numbers,” her vocal parts intricately bob over obliquely funky bass twangs and peppy clapping. But even as the track creates the feeling of a communal campfire ditty, it hints at darkness with the realization that people can be reduced to statistics.

When I interviewed Bruce Pavitt for the Maggot Brain feature, the former KAOS DJ said that “Prime Numbers” was his “favorite recording to come out of [the Evergreen] scene. The hypnotic, a cappella vocal composition pairs well with Laurie Anderson’s ‘O Superman,’ which received significant airplay at KAOS, and I believe was an inspiration.” Spot-on assessment.

In our interview, Knight discussed her obsession with nature and physics, how that connects with her love of synthesizers, and how their sound waves impact each other. “One of the things I love about my conversations with [Oliveros],” Knight told me, “was talking about the actual physical forces in the world and how cool they are as an element in compositions and improvisational [work]… how things react in certain spaces, natural reverbs, echoes, things that happen out there in the world… a lot of the early pieces that came out of that time—particularly on the West Coast—were tied in with natural sounds. They were synthesis and different tape effects that were approximating very powerful natural sounds and natural forces that affect sound.” 

You can hear and purchase American Rituals here.