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Contemporary Sculpture Becomes Original Jazz At SDMA

Dewain Valentine’s 1978 “Circle, Blue-Violet” is transformed — using science — into a work of original avant-garde jazz by local trumpeter Steph Richards

San Diego-based trumpet player and UC San Diego music faculty Steph Richards ...

Credit: Courtesy photo

Above: San Diego-based trumpet player and UC San Diego music faculty Steph Richards is pictured in an undated photo.

When it comes to dissonance, San Diego-based avant-garde jazz trumpet performer and composer Steph Richards likes to look for the shimmer.

For the San Diego Museum of Art's SDMA+ collaboration with local chamber music group Art of Elan, they asked musicians, including Richards, to select works from the museum's permanent collection and pair them with musical performances.

It's a model SDMA+ has used with a variety of performing art groups and mediums in the past: ballet, youth symphony, Shakespeare, chamber groups, spoken word and more. With classical music performance, groups generally select either traditional or contemporary pieces that are evoked by a piece of visual art.

Richards, however, wrote an original composition.

"Hopefully what you'll hear with this piece is this sort of shimmering, long or saturated piece," said Richards, who teaches in the music department at UC San Diego. "It just exists in its own space."

Existing in its own space is an apt descriptor of the work of art she selected, too. "Circle, Blue-Violet," by DeWain Valentine is an oversized work of contemporary sculpture, a stunning translucent blue disc.

Photo credit: San Diego Museum of Art

"Circle, Blue-Violet," by American sculptor DeWain Valentine, 1978.

That shimmer is something Richards finds in harmonics and microtones. Western music deals in semitones, or half pitches, and microtones sit within those intervals. Closer to the nearest note than the standard interval, a microtone can sometimes come off as either a dissonance or a bend or gradient. To a traditionally trained ear, this dissonance is like a midpoint on the way to a resolution. But experimental musicians tend to embrace and languish in those microtones.

Like microtones, harmonics also feel interstitial, existing in the spaces between what is comfortable in music. In physics, harmonics are soundwaves that rest atop another soundwave, and are generally found by a musician manipulating their instrument rather than using keys: fingers lightly pressing a string, a mouth pushing air harshly until a higher, double-pitched sound is achieved. A simple (perhaps oversimplified) way to describe the sound of some harmonic tones is somewhere between a sustained chime and a gentle screech.

On the trumpet, harmonics and microtones are all controlled by the embouchure — the shape of the mouth against the instrument's mouthpiece. The trumpet, with just three actual keys, is almost entirely controlled by changes in mouth shape or air force, and lends itself well to bending sounds and experimentation.

In the piece, Richards also enlists the use of a harmon mute and a bowed instrument called a waterphone.

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Because jazz, Richards said, is traditionally a cyclical form of music, in her composition inspired by "Circle, Blue-Violet," she takes the physics to the next level.

"Let me just push up my glasses on my nose first," Richards joked. "I totally looked up, what are the pitch frequencies? What’s the actual frequency of this color of blue violet? Is there a way that I could maybe be literal about that?"

Richards encapsulated not just the translucency and simplicity of the art, but also the actual color using frequencies and pitches in her music.

She gave the piece some shape and movement, beyond the harmonics and tonality. Despite the minimal aesthetic of the contemporary sculpture, the musical structure is complex — almost, as Richards suggested, nerdy. But in one way, her musical style hearkens back to that circular disc.

"I’ll say one thing about jazz actually. We don’t think about it as a minimalist form because it's based on virtuosic variation all the time. But at the foundation of jazz, we have this form that’s cyclical, these chord changes that are repeating," she said.

Richards recorded a video performance for the project with SDMA, and it will be available to watch online on Tuesday.

Next month, she'll release a new single from a forthcoming album, "Supersense." She also released a full-length jazz album, "Take the Neon Lights," in 2019. Her style of jazz has an experimental edge to it, but it's gritty and melodic too. You can listen to her interview on NPR's Fresh Air about that album here.

As the SDMA summer-long partnership with Art of Elan comes to a close, the museum announced a new set of dates for collaborations with the San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory, beginning August 25 and running through September 15.

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Julia Dixon Evans
Arts Calendar Editor and Producer

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI write the weekly KPBS Arts newsletter and edit and produce the KPBS Arts calendar. I am interested in getting San Diegans engaged with the diversity of art and culture made by the creative people who live here.

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