Creation myths and the creative process: Matthew Ritchie at MIT

Posted on February 24, 2015 by Sharon Lacey

“The project started with a general interest in creation myths”; that is how artist Matthew Ritchie describes the genesis of his multimedia performance piece, The Long Count/ The Long Game. He further explains his approach to such grand narratives began with “less of a big question and more of a very small question” about the creative act itself, which is “how do I make art?”

Ritchie developed The Long Count/ The Long Game over several years with a number of key collaborators. The multi-faceted process included a few visits to MIT, where Ritchie workshopped ideas with MIT students and composer Evan Ziporyn, Kenan Sahin Distinguished Professor of Music and Faculty Director of the Center for Art, Science & Technology (CAST), during a 2009 performance with Bryce Dessner of The National. Last fall, Ritchie drew inspiration from visiting the MIT Media Lab, which he asserts, “loosened the conceptual framework,” for aspects of these works. Ziporyn says he is glad that MIT could serve this “small, though hopefully vital, part of the process.”

The Long Count/ The Long Game was recently performed at the ICA in a museum-spanning production that featured Ritchie’s collaborators, Aaron and Bryce Dessner (The National), Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond), Kelley Deal (The Breeders) and Evan Ziporyn, together with an ensemble selected by Ziporyn that included MIT alumni Nick Joliat and Krista Speroni.

Matthew Ritchie with collaborators on The Long Count / The Long Game (clockwise from top left: Evan Ziporyn, Aaron Dessner, Shara Worden, Bryce Dessner, Kelley Deal, Matthew Ritchie), ICA, Boston, 2015. Photo: Courtesy of the ICA.
Matthew Ritchie with collaborators on The Long Count / The Long Game (clockwise from top left: Evan Ziporyn, Aaron Dessner, Shara Worden, Bryce Dessner, Kelley Deal, Matthew Ritchie), ICA, Boston, 2015. Photo: Courtesy of the ICA.
Matthew Ritchie with collaborators on The Long Count / The Long Game (clockwise from top left: Evan Ziporyn, Aaron Dessner, Shara Worden, Bryce Dessner, Kelley Deal, Matthew Ritchie), ICA, Boston, 2015. Photo: Courtesy of the ICA.

The narrative for The Long Count / The Long Game borrows from the Mayan book of creation, the Popol-Vuh. Ritchie particularly focused on the “hero twins” of the myth. According to Ritchie, “it’s not really a heroic story, mostly because the twins suffer. It’s a very anti-Western perspective on the hero-myth. They die and are reborn, and die and are reborn. Their fathers have gone through the same cycle, as have their mothers. So it’s very nonlinear.”

For The Long Count / The Long Game, Ritchie also drew upon baseball imagery because the sport particularly interests the Dessners, who grew up in Cincinnati when the Reds swept the ’75 and ’76 World Series. Ritchie notes, “In general, I love using the language of games whether it’s a poker or craps, because it’s so evocative,” and since baseball occupies “mythic space” in American culture, it is suited to the Popol-Vuh narrative.

The Long Count / The Long Game: Collaboration

The cyclical nature of the narrative extends to the working process itself, with all the collaborators taking on multiple and evolving roles with each performance. For The Long Count, Ritchie “looped back in” elements from Remanence/ Remonstrance, a piece performed in Spring 2014 at the ICA, which was co-composed by Ziporyn, Bryce Dessner and sound designer David Sheppard. Ritchie explains, “Evan’s role, and everyone’s, has evolved. Everyone plays multiple parts — improvised parts, rigidly composed parts. The Long Game is a new piece that David, Evan, Kelly and I made together.”

Ziporyn and Deal performed their new composition The Long Game on the ground floor space of the ICA, in front of a large-scale installation of Ritchie’s painting Remanence. The evening culminated in sound and video performance of The Long Count, a 2009 work that has been produced in numerous venues with variations to the score and the imagery in each staging.

On this occasion, Ziporyn assembled and led the ensemble for The Long Count, which included MIT alumni Nick Joliat and Krista Speroni and many musicians from his Critical Band, a group originally dedicated to the music of Steve Martland. Like that music, Ziporyn says, “this music requires classical as well as jazz/rock skills: you have to be able to negotiate complex notated parts but also make it rock.” Ritchie agrees, “The piece cannot be performed without a very specific group of players — really highly talented who have to be on their game. It’s a lot of intricate work in a very compressed space and time, and it’s very physically demanding.”

For Ziporyn, Joliat and Speroni represent the ways in which MIT students are fashioning lives and livelihoods that bridge art and technology. Speroni majored in Brain & Cognitive Science, and most of her musical studies at MIT were in Senegalese drumming (through RAMBAX) and Balinese gamelan (through Galak Tika). She is currently pursuing a career as a singer. Joliat, who earned a Master of Engineering in Computer Science and Engineering from MIT and his PhD from the Media Lab, designs custom musical sequencing software for a Hollywood composer and plays in Galak Tika with Ziporyn. Joliat worked as the coder on a previous project for Ritchie and was the keyboard player for The Long Count.

Much like the orchestra, the imagery itself is reconfigured for each performance. Ritchie likens it to shuffling a deck of cards, with fragments of video cut and recut: “The video is all cued live, so it’s lots of little scenes that are all being triggered. We were able to tune it up right to the players. The players are all playing a different speed every night, so it’s a different show every night.”

Preliminary work for The Long Count / The Long Game: Matthew Ritchie on campus

During IAP 2009, Bryce Dessner was an artist in residence at MIT, where he, Ritchie, Sheppard and Ziporyn presented “Darkness Visible,” a two-day lecture/ performance event at the Broad Institute in late January. As Ziporyn recounts, “I put together a student ensemble, and Bryce performed with them in concert. He was working on The Long Count and wanted to try some things out, so we brought Aaron and Matthew up. We ended up doing several of these pieces with video in that performance. It was the first public showing of that material, performed by MIT students.”

Ritchie describes a more recent visit to the MIT Media Lab with Deal and Ziporyn in 2014, which had an impact on the creative process underlying The Long Game:

“What we got out of our visit was a liberating sense of the potential of the technology. I don’t like to put it front and center, but I do like to use everything that can be used. So things like the sound knife that Kelley was using to scrape the floor — that definitely came out of thinking about the stuff we saw on our trip. At the end of our trip, they said to us, ‘well, you just really want stuff that does stuff, right?’ — which is sort of how artists think. And we were like, ‘yes, can you give us stuff that does stuff?’ Then we’ll experiment with it. That’s what we do. We brought that attitude from the lab back into The Long Game. So we were experimenting, and we came up with all sorts of effects and interactions that would not have happened, I think, if we had not had that freedom of going to the Media Lab. So it really is as much about their failures as their successes. What I love are all the relics of their failed projects.”

When asked about the role of technology in his work, Ritchie responded, “The work is very much about the Greek word techne,” a term that means craft or art in a much broader sense than our modern equivalents. Techne refers not only to an art object but also to the underlying principles or knowledge necessary to produce art. It seems an apt term to characterize what artists like Ritchie derive from visiting MIT, for the experience often shapes both the creative process and the artistic product.