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Experimental music group Ghost Ensemble to bring their “sensuous sounds” to the Central Coast

Ghost Ensemble is coming to the Central Coast this week for their first California tour since March 2020.
Sarah Krasnow
Ghost Ensemble is coming to the Central Coast this week for their first California tour since March 2020.

An experimental music group called Ghost Ensemble is coming to the Central Coast for its first California tour since March 2020.

Ben Richter is the director of Ghost Ensemble as well as the group’s accordionist. He said his approach to composition varies depending on the project, but “Rewild” took some time to unfold.

“Something that I think is really important to Ghost Ensemble in general is developing musical ideas and pieces over a long period of time that allows this sort of organic experimentation with composers and performers,” Richter said.

The group first formed in 2012, and though some of the musicians have come and gone, he’s worked with many of them for a long time.

“And I've gotten to know more about all the really cool things they can do with their instruments,” he said.

One of those musicians is fellow musician and composer Sky Macklay, whose composition “Harmonifriends” will be one of the pieces performed in San Luis Obispo. Macklay said that the piece combines two key elements of her creative process.

“One is doing sonic sculpture installation work and then writing chamber music,” Macklay said. “So this piece has two of my inflatable harmonica sculptures, which are called harmonitrees.”

Macklay described them as handcrafted vinyl forms that inflate into something shaped like a Christmas tree. She said she’s constantly thinking about the physical properties of sound and the infinite ways that vibrating bodies can be manipulated to create different pitches, timbres, and shapes. Embedded in the forms are deconstructed harmonica pieces.

“So that when the shape is inflated, it plays a happy kind of major triad drone through the harmonicas,” Macklay said. “Those sculptures are part of a gallery installation, but I wanted to combine them with chamber music to just use their sounds as part of the bigger instrumental ensemble… and also the sort of theatrical nature of them inflating and deflating.”

Sky Macklay with her harmonitree.
Tori Camera
Sky Macklay with her harmonitree.

Macklay referred to herself as a sound-obsessed person. While composing “Harmonifriends,” she was thinking about the temporal connections between the harmonitrees and certain instruments in Ghost Ensemble, like Richter’s accordion.

“And so I'm just putting all these sounds together with the ensemble in a kind of dramatic arc. I would say it's generally a very happy piece exploring the joy of friendship and the kind of sensuous sounds that you can get with all the people,” she said.

In addition to Richter’s “Rewild” and Macklay’s “Harmonifriends,” the ensemble will perform “Air in G Minor” by Lou Harrison. The late innovator and influential composer lived in Aptos near Santa Cruz from his late thirties until his death in 2003 at age 85. Richter said the piece was chosen by Ghost Ensemble’s flutist Margaret Lancaster who coedited the new edition of the score with Santa Cruz composer Larry Polanski.

“During the pandemic, we had some streaming concerts of solo and duo musicians, and this is one of the works that Margaret performed for her Ghost Ensemble presents remote concert. And we loved it — we’ve really enjoyed bringing it into the concert hall. It’s a flute feature with several members of the ensemble accompanying as a drone,” he said.

And what about the name, Ghost Ensemble?

“I don't have a good story for it other than it popped into my head one day, and I thought it sounded cool,” Richter said.

Still, Macklay thinks the name is a good fit.

“Because we are interested in music that affects perception and consciousness and deals with perhaps ephemeral small sounds in addition to very gut-moving big sounds, but I think all of these things are sensations that you might associate with the supernatural or ghosts,” she said.

Coincidentally, this spring tour does include a handful of performances in Santa Cruz at Evergreen Cemetery. Their music can indeed feel other-worldly, and yet both Richter and Macklay are clearly well-versed in theory. Richter said he loves letting that intellectual knowledge serve the exploration and imagination of a piece.

“Rather than, you know, creating a system that takes over, really letting the sort of conscious systems serve the unconscious magic. I think that's where the really exciting music is for me,” he said.

Richter said this is an area that really interests the ensemble — the liminal, magical zone between improvisation and fully composed parameters.

“All of these musicians have so much to offer and giving them the opportunity to do what feels right in the moment will always pay off,” he said.

When it comes to the audience, Richter said he doesn’t want to create music that’s only for people who have been instructed on how to appreciate it. It’s one of the things he loves about Pauline Oliveros, an American composer, accordionist, and innovator of electronic music, who also mentored Richter and Ghost Ensemble in the early years.

“You know, her music is all about shifting your mode of awareness and relating to the world around you in a new way, in a deeply attuned and interconnected way….I really believe in that kind of radical inclusion in terms of who the music is for,” he said.

It’s difficult to classify the ensemble’s genre. A radio or streaming platform might label them as experimental, classical or contemporary classical. Macklay said Santa Cruz composer Andrew Smith, whose work they perform, once referred to their music as stoner classical.

Ghost Ensemble performing in March 2020.
Steve Gunther
Ghost Ensemble performing in March 2020.

“Which I think is a very evocative label, and well, hopefully our music will bring you to a state of altered consciousness, whether there are other mind-altering substances involved or not,” she said.

Both Macklay and Richter are in their 30s, and both have been composing music since they were teenagers. Richter has some advice for young aspiring musicians.

“Bang pots and pans and sing and make the sounds that are fun for you to make,” Richter said.

He said that somewhere in the world, if it hasn’t been recorded over yet, is a cassette of him at five years old labeled “Ben’s Tape.”

“I think I was whacking a book with a spoon and singing about busting out of jail. That was my rock and roll song,” he said.

Then, he started writing songs and experimenting on a midi sequencer.

“And I started just sort of fooling around experimenting, like a 13-year old with a MIDI sequencer does,” he said. “And I accidentally wrote a bunch of minimalist music, because I was like, wow, what if I just press play and tell it to do this chord for an hour? Wow, what are these weird beating warping sounds that keep happening?”

Macklay said that the old-school attitude was waiting until you had a formal music education before you’d try to compose.

“I really think that that attitude is gone by the wayside, and from a very young age, as soon as someone is learning an instrument, they should be encouraged to compose, as Ben was saying, just by playing and just by using the vocabulary that you have on your instrument, to combine it new ways to make your own music,” she said.

She said there are a lot of resources nowadays to help someone who wants to improve their skills.

“There's a lot of places for people to learn — cool summer camps and workshops and online classes. So I think, just go for it. And find some friends and teachers to help you on that path,” she said.

Richter’s final advice was this: “The most important thing is just to explore and give yourself the permission to discover things that sound cool to you and run with it.”

That's exactly what he and Macklay have done with Ghost Ensemble.

Ghost Ensemble is playing at the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden Wednesday, May 17, from 5:30-7:30. The KCBX Arts Beat is made possible by a grant from the Community Foundation San Luis Obispo County.

Melanie Senn was born in Camden, New Jersey (the resting place of Walt Whitman), but was raised in California. She earned her bachelor’s degree in Latin American Literature from UCSB, and after living a couple years in Mexico, Argentina, and Chile, got her master’s degree in English. She had a 25-year teaching career, including 17 years at Cal Poly where she taught essay writing and argument. Now she dedicates her time to writing and audio storytelling, and hanging out with her with her two teenage sons and their dad, musician Derek Senn.
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