Fascinating music

Malachi Ritscher gave his heart to Chicago fringe music

Hear a raw, raucous Nirvana concert at the Metro in 1990. Hear Slint perform a jaw-dropping cover of Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” at Club Dreamerz. Check out a rare live set by local postpunks End Result or New York’s ESG in 1984 at Medusa’s, Lakeview’s long-defunct countercultural nightclub. Or browse over 1,000 recordings of MacArthur and local jazz greats Ken Vandermarkas well as dozens of late free-jazz saxophonists Fred Anderson.

This 2003 Ken Vandermark album is one of many Malachi Ritscher recordings that have become commercial releases.

These are just a small selection of the thousands of live recordings made by Malachi Ritscher from the early 1980s until his death in 2006. Most but not all were made in Chicago, sometimes with contraband material hidden in his jacket, but more often with the enthusiastic consent of the musicians. It’s a treasure trove of audio, carefully recorded and crafted. The quality of the recordings is on the whole impeccable, clear enough that several have become commercial releases.

Malachi Ritscher recorded this Test album in 1999 at the Velvet Lounge.

Although Ritscher considered these recordings his most notable activity, it was his death that for a time captured the world’s attention. Early one morning in November 2006, during rush hour, Ritscher set himself on fire on the side of Chicago’s Kennedy Freeway to protest the war in Iraq. He draped an American flag over his head and placed a sign nearby that read, “Thou shalt not kill.” As you sow, you will reap. Your taxes buy bombs and bullets.

For Ritscher, art and politics were not clearly divided into distinct categories. “Art and music can express outrage, inspire action, or soothe and distract; please think about priorities and get involved in the things that matter,” he wrote on his blog, another avenue he has tirelessly documented the music scene.

Widely described as a private person, Ritscher was nonetheless well known in various small, eclectic and tight-knit music scenes in Chicago. For years, he attended concerts across town several times a week, sometimes performing two concerts on the same night, such as a double in August 1989 from George Clinton to Metro and Slint to Dreamerz. Bruno Johnson, founder of the jazz label Okka Disk, calls it “always present”.

Ritscher was intensely focused and generous with his time and attention. Often he recorded the same acts week after week, such as the free jazz bands NRG Ensemble and DKV Trio. Others may not have had the funds to record at proper studios, and Ritscher’s work was sometimes a boon to them. Not only did he record and master these sets, but he also provided copies to musicians, often within days.

The 80s and 90s were a heady time for the improvised and experimental music scene in Chicago – an impressive number of venues hosted these acts, including CrossCurrents, the Empty Bottle, Urbis Orbis, Lounge Axe, HotHouse, Club Lower Links and the Velvet Lounge. , to name a few. Promoter, gallerist and musician John Corbett organized several series of regular concerts. In 1994 Johnson founded Okka Disk, which helped propel Fred Anderson’s career into his later years. Ritscher’s recordings cover improvisation, free jazz and harder to categorize music such as Psychic TV and Glenn Branca. His archive not only tracks the progress of his favorite bands, but also provides insight into the scene in its entirety.

In the days leading up to his death, Ritscher sent his last wishes and keys to his apartment to Johnson of Okka Disk. He also posted an obituary and something of a suicide note on his website (both linked in the Readercover of his death). But he did not specify what he wanted to happen to his recordings. Johnson donated the collection to Experimental Sound Studio, a recording facility and hub for experimental sound programming, where it is housed in dozens of boxes. ESS’s mission is to support artistic innovation and nurture a community for sound art, making it a suitable home.

Ritscher’s recordings are part of the ESS Creative Audio Archive, which was created in 2006 and also includes archival material from Sun Ra and experimental music label Penumbra Music, and they are in the process of being digitized. It’s meticulous work that requires copying each concert in real time. ESS Media and Archives Manager Matt Mehlan explains that one of the reasons for this incremental progress is the difficulty of funding this work.

“The hardware we have is niche,” he says. “It’s sad, really, because I think all good music is experimental at some point. The best music in history was music that expanded things. This collection is what drives culture .

To the untrained ear, something like free jazz may sound dissonant or hard to follow, but to those invested in the music, it’s intoxicating, like a code only some can crack. “Once you get into the music, it really captures you,” Johnson says. “That’s one of the interesting things about it. Once you’re there, it kind of becomes your existence. It takes effort, it’s not like listening to a pop song.

Although Johnson isn’t sure exactly what he hopes to see happen with Ritscher’s collection, he’s open to anything that helps spread the music around the world. Since much of the collection currently exists only on CD, cassette or digital audio tape, transferring it properly is an important first step.

In the days before smartphones and the ubiquity of social media, public acts such as Ritscher’s self-immolation could also easily slip under the radar – mainstream media had a bigger role in deciding which was noteworthy. Although the impact was not immediate, his death eventually generated news stories in the Guardian and the New York Times, after a memorial in the Reader. He inspired rallies in support of his anti-war beliefs, a play, and a number of songs.

While this last bold act helped distinguish Ritscher’s life on the world stage, his audio archive is perhaps a more enduring representation of his legacy. “That’s definitely the most positive part of it all. I mean, his death was really tragic,” Johnson says. handsome. And it’s really related to him.