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Check out Steph Richards

Today we’d like to introduce you to Steph Richards.

Steph, we’d love to hear your story and how you got to where you are today both personally and as an artist.
While I never set out to be a musician, at a certain point in my life, I simply couldn’t ignore the need to play. I think many artists feel this way; our work is deeply fulfilling, but also a burden and a voice that we can’t seem to ignore. Sometimes it’s a difficult path to pursue, and there isn’t necessarily a lot of respect that comes from pursuing the life of a contemporary artist, but there is deep fulfillment and I’m grateful to be able to do what I do.

I’ve played music since before I could walk. There was a piano in the home I grew up in Alberta, Canada, and I learned to play by ear from an early age. For years I fooled teachers into thinking I could read music and it took me a long time for me to commit to learning the language of notation. I think it was because playing by ear gave freedom to the musical notes that could live in the air instead of on the page. I picked up the trumpet as a teenager — it was a sound with many faces; the powerhouse brilliance of a jazz band and a soft butterscotch of the orchestra. For years I was on a career headed towards classical and orchestral music, and it wasn’t until I finished a Master’s degree that I realized my true voice as an improviser and composer  After studying at the Eastman School of Music, McGill University and CalArts, I played commercial music in LA for a stint playing backup trumpet and touring with artists ranging from Kanye West to comedian Denis Leary. From those experiences, I learned a lot about theatrics, how to look and move on stage, and about the production side of things. They don’t teach these things in music conservatories, and although creatively speaking, I was ready to move on from backup work, I am grateful for the experience and knowledge that came from playing in front of thousands of people night after night.

I moved to NYC, knowing full well that the city would both crush me and push me to be better. As a mentor of mine, Henry Threadgill later told me, “..all the information is here…”. I connected with the late conductor/composer Butch Morris, who became a very close mentor. Playing in his groups shaped my politics about composition and intention and many of the people I work with, from Threadgill to my own bandmates Kenny Wolleson, Stomu Takeishi, Brandon Ross and many others came from Butch’s constellation of artists. I joined a wild contemporary ensemble called Asphalt Orchestra founded by the composer collective Bang on A Can, which led to fascinating collaborations with artists ranging from David Byrne (of the Talking Heads) and St. Vincent to Yoko Ono and choreographer Susan Marshall. Because we were a street band (of sorts), we played everywhere from the fountains of Lincoln Center to the streets of Mexico City and London UK. In addition to playing in jazz/improvised groups, I composed music for ensembles riding carousels, musicians performing underwater, and hundreds of musicians choreographed in football fields. I joined the curatorial team of the FONT Music (spearheaded by jazz trumpeter Dave Douglas) and learned how to produce an annual music festival in NYC. From that “pay it forward” mentality of supporting my trumpet community, I’ve heard and met many incredible players, and have learned about audience interaction, engagement and been inspired to work with players outside my musical sphere.

A few years ago, I joined the brilliant faculty of UC San Diego, where I continue my adventures and investigations into experimental and contemporary music. It’s a special place and one of the few departments in the entire nation that focuses entirely on experimental and contemporary music. Many music lovers in SD have no idea that world-class and hip things are happening up there in the music dept. In general though, compared to life in NYC, the West Coast has its own rhythm and breath, and I can feel my music changing and being influenced by the pace and space of living out here. SD is a unique place that brims with possibility, and I’m thrilled to be a part of this community.

We’d love to hear more about your art. What do you do and why and what do you hope others will take away from your work?
I can describe my work, but I can’t explain it, because what I do thrives in that space we simply cannot articulate. My goal is to continue to find new definitions of beauty, and to move music forward. It is a responsibility I believe all artists can carry. Preserving music of the past was never interesting to me, though I admire scholars that work to preserve our collective cultural memory to provide context and identity for the new ideas and artistic evolutions we create. But, my music doesn’t belong in a museum. As an experimental improviser and composer, I aim to make music for the moment and of the moment.

I’m a trumpeter, composer, conductor, and improviser. I work primarily in the avant/jazz and experimental music scenes and am interested in collaborating with other disciplines as well, especially film mediums. I approach the trumpet from a sound perspective first; I’m less interested in vocabulary and repertoire and instead seek to find acoustic ways in which my trumpet voice can be manipulated — whether that means putting the bell of my horn into a pool of water or deconstructing the actual instrument to find new sonic possibilities.

If you’re new to hearing experimental or improvised music, I often explain my concerts this way; when you hear the music perceive as if you’re hearing me dream. Although my music often lives in the land of abstract, there is no hidden meaning. It is the music of complexity, but it is not the music of exclusion. It is open to anyone willing to close their eyes, open their ears, and dream alongside.

What do you think it takes to be successful as an artist?
It has always been difficult to survive as an artist – now it is arguably even more difficult. Survival and success comes from within our own communities – artists and art-lovers, supporters and believers holding each other up. Realizing that it is your responsibility to create and support your own community is a major part of surviving as an artist; if I create opportunities for you, if I carry you, new opportunities will exist for me as well. We cannot create and perform in a vacuum — and if we musicians can be empowered to also be the producers, curators and presenters, we will create those authentic opportunities to play.  I’ve spent many years co-presenting an annual creative music festival each year in NYC alongside a team of fellow musicians; if we didn’t do it, those concerts wouldn’t have existed. I believe surviving as an artist is to create and carry your community.

San Diego has an energetic and thriving community but in terms of creative music venues we have very few. For San Diego to have a buzzing scene we need centralized city-planning that favors experimental, hip and funky performing art venues, led by diverse artists and curators that are willing to take risks.

Do you have any events or exhibitions coming up? Where would one go to see more of your work? How can people support you and your artwork?
I’ll be performing on May 22 at UCSD’s Experimental Theatre with the incredible SD treasure Joshua White on piano, and a week later on June 1 at LA’s Walt Disney Concert Hall playing a concert of Anthony Braxton’s music and my own quartet on June 12 at the Mr MusicHead Gallery in LA.  I have two critically acclaimed records out as a leader, titled Fullmoon (Relative Pitch Records) and Take The Neon Lights (Birdwatcher Records). Fullmoon was created in tandem with a short film titled Gong and is an electronic experimental record for trumpet and sampler playing against resonant percussion. Take The Neon Lights falls into the avant/jazz category, featuring a quartet of dynamos from NYC (James Carney, Sam Minaie, and SD local Andrew Munsey). The record is a restless homage to New York, a place I consider home, embracing its grit, grime, and ugly beauty. My upcoming record (set to release in early 2020) was composed in tandem with scents so it will include a Scratch & Sniff listening experience with the record. It features other NYC heavyweights Jason Moran (piano), Stomu Takeishi (bass) and Kenny Wolleson (percussion) and I can’t wait for it to hit the streets.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Cameron Ballansky, Andrew Munsey, Chris Weiss, Walter Wlodczyk, Aaron Vinton

Getting in touch: SDVoyager is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition, please let us know here.

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