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Photographs by Sara Sanger

Mal Français: 'Triste Sin Richard' is a deliberately terrible translation of 'Sad without' you-know-who.

Atonal and Hormonal

Triste Sin Richard: not your everyday classical punk septet

By Gabe Meline

It was a blowout party, the kind they'll talk about for years to come. The local punk house was being sold, and hundreds of people turned out for one last chance to live it up inside its hallowed walls. On that night in June, one could barely squeeze inside the house, let alone get into the packed living room, where setting up in the corner was--a string septet?

Huddling beside a dirty stove, listening to kids with talent beyond their years play classical music at a packed-to-the-gills punk party, I had my first encounter with Triste Sin Richard. I'd never witnessed such a thing before, and I thought for sure they'd get murdered. At the very least, I expected the roomful of partygoers to drown out whatever songs the quiet stringed instruments were playing.

But people listened. While stray furniture burned in the backyard and people drenched each other with beer in the kitchen, the living room stayed quiet and attentive. Beautiful, dissonant chamber music filled the house.

Triste Sin Richard had achieved the impossible and silenced the biggest party of the year.

The group, ranging in age from 16 to 20, are not affiliated with any youth orchestra or school program, and can probably best be described as an indie-classical band. Nonetheless, Triste Sin Richard have turned heads, shattered preconceptions and created a repertoire of breathtakingly complex music that you'd expect to hear at Avery Fisher Hall.

I was instantly hooked. What was it about composing chamber music that appealed to these kids? I spent the summer with Triste Sin Richard trying to find the answer.

 

In the current crop of popular music, strings play a much larger role than they did, say, 10 years ago, when cranked-up amplifiers were a requisite ingredient for attention. As both mainstream and indie rock get quieter and more nuanced, having a string section gives a band a VIP pass to the backstage of cool. Modest Mouse, the Arcade Fire, Cursive, Carla Bozulich, Wilco and Out Hud, to name just a handful, have all stumbled across the notion that interesting music can be made even more interesting by adding some strings.

Guitars play an even lesser role in the music of Canada's Godspeed You Black Emperor!, a large string ensemble that sound like a pulsing, swelling apocalypse, and the three cellists in Rasputina--one of whom performed on Nirvana's final tour--have been making gothic avant-pop for nearly a decade. Just last year, San Francisco's Joanna Newsom made one of the most exciting indie albums of 2004 on a harp. Yes, a harp.

An early harbinger of the string trend was a 1996 album called Music for Egon Schiele, a pared-down trio recording of piano, cello and viola by Rachel's, a classical-punk collective out of Louisville. The album's stirring, melancholy ambiance, inspired by the Austrian painter's tragic life, mirrors even the heaviest emo music. Heaps of critical acclaim landed the group an opening slot for PJ Harvey and paved the way for groups like Triste Sin Richard.

"They could get a lot of studio work as a string section," said a San Francisco recording studio owner about the Sonoma County group. "There's such a need for it now." And though the members of Triste Sin Richard have their so-called dream list of musicians they'd like to collaborate with--Tom Waits, Aphex Twin, Tin Hat Trio, Björk--no one in the group wants to get too distracted from the original goal of performing original music.

 

The players in Triste Sin Richard each have a formal background in school bands and youth orchestras. But, sitting around a cafe table before a midsummer performance in Sebastopol, most agree that playing their own music on their own terms is more fulfilling.

"I play in the symphony too, and it's so strict and rigid," says 16-year-old cellist Ben Sudduth, eliciting nods from his bow mates. "But in the past couple years, playing with these guys, I've found that you can apply everything you know from being classically trained."

Viola player Megan Hall, 18, agrees. "I play a lot of classical music with orchestras, but not with people like this. It's different. I love it."

Sudduth has been listening to the Flaming Lips and Elliott Smith lately. Hall is into both the timelessness of swing dancing and the surrealism of Neutral Milk Hotel. Like her band mates, Hall must often confront the public perception that classical music is for squares. "Some people think it's really cool," she concedes. "But some people think I'm a nerd."

Asked if playing classical music gets in the way of having a regular teenage life, 20-year-old trumpeter Peter Bonos laughs, "This is the most teenage thing I do." Echoing the rebellion inherent in the group is 19-year-old Richard Laws, the indispensable bassist and namesake of the group. "We're going out of our way," he quips, "for what no one else likes."

Leila-Anne Brusseau, 17, doesn't need to go too far out of her way to alienate people--all it takes is using the c-word. "Whenever I tell people I'm in a band," she says, "and they ask what it's like, and I have to use 'classical' in there somewhere, they're always, 'Oh, that's . . . cool.' And they try to change the subject."

Brusseau herself bridges the supposed dichotomy between classic and modern style. She wears dark eye makeup and dyed black hair along with vintage dresses and heels. If she were not playing with Triste Sin Richard tonight, she says, she would be going either to a tea party or to see a San Diego punk band called Cheap Sex.

Along with fellow violinist Molly Mills, Brusseau is incredibly proficient with a well-rosined bow. She is perhaps one of the few teenagers in the world prone to spontaneous outbursts about both the Rogers Sisters and Noël Coward ("He's the master!" she gushes. "He's the most amazing person that ever lived!"), but Brusseau shares an equal enthusiasm for the great composers that most of her friends dismiss on whim alone.

"People are always, like, 'Oh, that's boring,'" she explains. "And then I'm like, 'Have you ever heard Shostakovich?' And they haven't."

 

Throughout the duration of the house party--which involved several other bands, three cops and one hospital trip--everyone was talking about the string septet. "It was really bizarre, because we got such a good response," says Hall, "with all these people staring at us."

It was apparent that the people expected to hear Pachelbel's Canon and not the heavily syncopated complexities of the group's original compositions. "We were playing Richard's First Quartet," recalls Sudduth, "and there was this man in a skirt right behind me, blatantly drunk, leaning over me and reading my music, trying to clap along to the rhythm."

In assembling the band's repertoire, each member is welcome to contribute compositions. Rehearsals have the atmosphere of a composer's workshop, where music can be auditioned, ironed out and rearranged, and because of the material, this can be a lengthy process. A typical chart might embody the rugged experimentalism of Harry Partch, the "harmonic unison" of Ornette Coleman or the sad dissonance of Bartok's string quartets.

A sharper comparison, compositionally, can be drawn between the unrefined potpourri of Moondog, the blind street musician who often sat in on rehearsals with the New York Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall. Better known for his Viking helmet and cape than his vast catalogue of intriguing music, Moondog absorbed every influence around him; both the sounds of the street and the orchestra have a place in his compositions. Such is the case with Triste Sin Richard, who rarely acknowledge--let alone adhere to--borders of defined musical styles.

The group take the DIY, we'll-play-anywhere approach to performing, and have appeared at rock clubs, restaurants, coffeeshops and even a video store. Instead of waiting for an opening at the local concert hall, they talk about wanting to play guerrilla shows inside the mall, at the post office or in Santa Rosa's downtown square, where, ironically, classical music is piped over hidden speakers in an effort to keep teenagers from loitering.

Many patrons of the arts claim to adore classical music, but the group have had their worst receptions at upscale events. A few weeks prior to the eviction party, for instance, Triste Sin Richard performed at a fundraising dinner for the Sonoma County Cultural Arts Council, held at Petaluma's Sheraton Hotel. They were told Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey would be there, and a promise of free sandwiches was thrown in to sweeten the deal.

But the supposedly prime setting for a warm reception turned ice-cold. "I think they were expecting Bach," explains Sudduth. "I saw fear in their eyes." Patrons talked among themselves in far corners, and the group found themselves snubbed by a roomful of people purporting to give a damn about the arts.

"We got no response at the Sheraton. There wasn't anyone even looking towards us," remarks 18-year-old cellist Chris Votek, still sounding frustrated. "And we still haven't gotten our sandwiches."

 


Young Master: Eighteen-year-old Chris Votek turns everyday items into music-making tools.

Votek is Triste Sin Richard's musical director and primary composer. In the brief time that I have known him, I've seen him play 10 different instruments. To Votek, music can be found in everything. Once, while walking together through a parking lot at midnight, I happened to yawn, and the next thing I knew, Votek had started humming a melody based on the tones of my yawn; it's a safe bet he could transpose "The Entertainer" for the rotary phone.

Sitting in his bedroom just over the hill from Jack London State Park in rural Glen Ellen, Votek recalls that forming a classical group wasn't a conscious decision. "I actually thought about putting together a more rock sort of band," he explains. But after talking to some friends from his high school orchestra about recording some classical pieces he'd written, he changed his mind. "I think they thought it was a cool thing to be in a band."

For three years, Votek also played in the Coma Lilies, a local instrumental rock band. When the band decided to add strings for more texture, Votek taught the band's songs to a new bass player and started composing for his new role as the band's cellist when, suddenly, the position disappeared.

"I wasn't happy about it," says Votek, "but it has been good. I'm happy with what I'm doing now."

Votek's bedroom is an average teenager's room, with posters and magazine clippings of bands like Radiohead and Fantômas taped all over the walls. A thrift-store organ (unlike most young musicians, Votek has never owned an actual piano) sits in the corner next to a desk with his laptop computer. It's here, using music-notation software, that Votek composes and arranges for his classical group.

"I could form a rock band right now and have a rockin' good time," Votek says, "but we wouldn't have as much access to different facets of music." One of the things that appeals most to him about Triste Sin Richard is that it allows him to work with proficient musicians. Writing charts is much more rewarding, he notes, "when people have the trained background to extract what the composer wants."

He considers himself lucky to have found such a dedicated group to play his music with. "There's way too many unenthusiastic musicians in the classical realm," he observes, citing his time spent in school orchestras, youth orchestras and pit orchestras. "At young ages, a lot of people have it pushed on them, even if they don't really like it," he sighs, "and they're not very happy."

Votek's is largely self-taught, and he's the first to admit his limited knowledge of famous composers. ("I don't know shit about all that stuff I'm supposed to know about," he laughs.) But he does have his favorites. He's especially drawn to Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, and on his nightstand is a book about Dmitri Shostakovich's relationship with Josef Stalin. When I casually accuse Bach of being too mathematical, Votek leaps to his defense.

"The reason Bach and Beethoven have statues of their heads on people's pianos," he says, "is because they innovated music and made something new." But to Votek, a strictly classical background isn't a requirement for looking at the techniques of the past and building upon them. "When I'm composing," he says, "I have a better time asking myself 'What would Aphex Twin do here to make it cool?' rather than 'How would Beethoven voice this to make it perfect?'

"The most important thing, to me, is to innovate in some way."

 

A coffeehouse performance on an August night at the end of summer is one of Triste Sin Richard's best, and includes more original and daring compositions than ever. When he's not shaking handfuls of silverware, Votek adds new dimensions to the group's sound by bowing the edges of a xylophone's keys or frantically beating rhythms on the shell of his acoustic guitar.

A new chart called "Flock and Roll" starts with blissful, discordant horn notes, long and languorous, that sometimes mingle just a half step away from each other. Suddenly, the song cuts fast out of the gate like a high-speed crime chase, flurrying above an ominously repeating staccato bass line. There are brief snippets of a blues riff, and then the literal winding down of the song as Votek and Laws grab their instruments' tuning pegs and loosen the strings into floppy oblivion. The song is over.

"I thought the muscles in my arms were going to jump out of my skin," remarks Laws, recovering from the sheer speed of the number, "which is a good thing to me."

"Flock and Roll" is a composition by Adam Berry, a French horn player who sometimes plays with Votek, Laws and Bonos in a more jazz-based offshoot group called Effecto Partido. Like his occasional band mates, Berry sees no borders in music. "If you listen to a lot of Chris' music, it's really flavored by pop music of the last two decades," he explains. "Mostly it's 'classical' because of the instruments used."

This is most evident when Triste Sin Richard begin their next chart. It's an arrangement by Brusseau, familiar but hard to pin down, then it finally clicks at the song's chorus. Of course! It's the Buggles' new wave hit "Video Killed the Radio Star."

Throughout the evening's set, this group that have been playing together for less than a year experiment more than ever, as the members keep finely tuned to each other's sense of rhythm, discord and conversational interplay. This is a coffeehouse, however, and to round out the set, Triste Sin Richard throws in some concertos by Bach for good measure.

All of this is an encouraging sign for a group on the cusp of recording their first album. The next week, they pile in their cars and drive to a recording studio at a large, Spanish-stucco residence outside Hopland. After only one day, the band have laid down most of the tracks for what could easily be another Music for Egon Schiele. Time is of the essence; this month, Votek leaves town to attend the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia.

Votek's college plans don't necessarily mean the end of the band, and he's already talking about returning periodically to perform. At CalArts, he plans to continue studying music, and he'll no doubt evolve into an even greater creative force. His goals are modest. "As long as I'm not completely starving," he jokes, "I'll be happy."

 

I had a brief delusion that Triste Sin Richard would always be around. I thought I'd be able to see them banging on dishes, running their instruments through effect processors and thrashing their bows to wisps of horsehair every night of the week. I expected more collaborations with rock bands, like the time they played Tchaikovsky's "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy" with Girls in Suede, and I imagined all the unusual places where they could set up and perform. More than anything, I always wanted to see what would come along next.

But I'm heartened, at least, by the fact that Triste Sin Richard came along at all. The appearance on the scene of a formal group embracing experimentalism and daring composition signifies an exciting shift not only in taste but in the capacity for dedication among the young. Plus, it ensures the immortality of what we call classical music, that beautiful cultural strain perpetually accused of being dead.

"When professional orchestras keep performing the same pieces over and over--Beethoven's Ninth, The Nutcracker--that's what's killing it," explains Berry with a calm assurance. "When you're performing new music, like what we're doing by writing it and performing it right away, the music is very much alive."


Triste Sin Richard's album will be released in October. In the meantime, some of their music can be sampled at www.myspace.com/tristesinrichard.

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From the September 14-20, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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