Sunday, April 18, 2004

Rick Sowash: Renaissance man, composer, Ohioan

By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer

One of composer Rick Sowash's recent compositions is "The View from Carew," which will be performed at Christ Church Tuesday.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/ERNEST COLEMAN
He calls himself an "outsider composer."

"I've never composed full time," says Rick Sowash, composer of 200 works and author of books on Ohio history and folklore. "I've been a radio broadcaster, theater manager, innkeeper and a county commissioner in Richland County, Mansfield. I think I'm the only composer of classical music elected to public office in America."

Sowash, who was born in Mansfield and lives in Mount Auburn, doesn't fit into any category. He's part American folk historian, part individualist composer Charles Ives and part Professor Harold Hill, the music huckster in The Music Man. His handlebar mustache, salt-and-pepper beard and plaid vest give him a "Johnny Appleseed" look.

But Sowash is one of the most-played living American composers on WGUC-FM (90.9). He wrote the soundtrack for a PBS documentary, Ohio: 200 Years, for the Ohio Bicentennial last year. And last May, the Cannes Film Festival featured his music at a soiree on the Riviera honoring Joanne Koch, former executive director of the Lincoln Center Film Society.

It's heady stuff. But mainly, Sowash writes for friends. On Tuesday, a group of musicians will perform his music for a noontime concert in Christ Church, downtown, including the recent composition "The View from Carew."

"I always picture him with a walking stick, even though he doesn't carry one," says Susan Olson of Columbus, who is writing her Ohio State University doctoral dissertation on Sowash. "He's a journeyer. He continues the journey every day. Every time I meet him, I'm meeting a different person. He's learned something new that he wants to share."

Outside the mainstream

As composers go, Sowash works outside of the mainstream, shunning publishers, bookstores and academia, refusing even to name his alma mater, preferring not to "give any credit where credit's not due."

What: Music Live with Lunch; "The View from Carew" and other music by Rick Sowash
When: 12:10 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Christ Church Cathedral, 318 E. Fourth St., downtown
Admission: Free; bring lunch or purchase it for $3.50. 621-1817
Age: 54
Jobs: Self-employed composer, publisher, speaker/humorist and author of books on Ohio; former commissioner of Richland County (Ohio), 1987-90
Family: Wife Jo; daughter Shenandoah and son John Chapman
Home: Mount Auburn
Education: Bachelor's degree in music composition and comparative literature (1973) "from a prestigious American School of Music which I hated so much that I refuse to name."
Newest CD: Enchantement d'Avril with Les Gavottes Trio ($14.95)
Next CD: Sanctuary at 3 A.M. (available on Sowash's Web site starting Friday)
Books: Critters, Flitters & Spitters; Ripsnorting Whoppers; Humor from America's Heartland and Heroes of Ohio: 23 True Tales of Courage and Character
Philosophy of music: "I've always been concerned with what audiences wanted. For me, music and friendship are closely related. I've written 200 works, and almost every one of them has been written for specific friends."
Favorite living composer: Peter Schikele (alias PDQ Bach). "He shows us that competent musical architecture and pie-in-the-fact humor are not mutually exclusive."
Web site
He's done things as diverse as accompanying silent movies and working behind the counter at Shadeau Breads in Over-the-Rhine. But he earns a living from his online book and music publishing business, co-managed with his wife, Jo.

It was his books that caused film producers Diane Garey and Larry Holt to call him during the making of Ohio: 200 Years. During their conversation, Sowash mentioned that he composed music. How good he was came as a surprise.

"Music for documentaries is a tricky business," says Holt, who has won an Emmy, a Peabody and been twice nominated for an Academy Award. "It's hard to get just the right mix of subtlety and presence, and Rick's music nailed it."

Holt describes Sowash's music as "classical but also edgy; melodic but not sappy," he says. "There is a power and intensity to the music that worked just right for the industrialization scenes, and a gentleness and playful quality that buoyed up the pastoral sections."

Rich Eiswerth, general manager of WGUC, likes that Sowash isn't stuffy or formal.

"We have currently in our rotation 11 different titles of his," says Eiswerth, whose station has co-produced one Sowash CD and is in production for another. "He strikes you as a real person."

Sowash calls his style American classical - "in the same neck of the woods as Copland and Gershwin."

A Francophile (his original family name is Sauvage, meaning "wild"), the French influence is obvious. The works on his latest album, Enchantement d'Avril - performed by his champions in France, Les Gavottes Trio - are evocative, tuneful and exuberant. Although the music sometimes sinks into Hollywood schmaltz, much of it is sophisticated and quite beautiful.

He's written about a dozen trios for the trio Les Gavottes, a clarinetist, cellist and pianist who live in southern France. Clarinetist Lucien Aubert contacted Sowash "out of the blue" about 11 years ago, after stumbling upon a CD of Sowash's clarinet music. Now they are close friends.

Virtually everything he writes, he writes for friends - not for money. Sowash composed "The View from Carew" (as in Carew Tower) for Angelo Santoro, principal clarinetist in the Cincinnati Community Orchestra, Clermont Philharmonic and Hamilton-Fairfield Symphony.

"He conveys feelings extremely well in music, which, I think, has to do with his background in teaching and communicating with young people," says Santoro, who will perform the piece again Tuesday in a trio arrangement. "I've played music of recent composers that is trash, but I've never played anything he's written that is not good."

"He's prolific," says Chris Miller, music director of Cincinnati Camerata and the Mount Auburn Presbyterian Church Choir, for whom Sowash has written music. "It's like having Schubert in your church."

Sowash experimented at the piano with "scary sounds" and other effects as a youngster. In seventh grade, a music teacher discovered him "playing around at the piano" and asked him to write a piece for the choir. The choir performed it at the spring concert.

"I was about 12, and I've been writing music ever since," he says.

He and his wife moved to Cincinnati about 10 years ago so that their children, daughter Shenandoah (named for Sowash's favorite American folk song) and son John Chapman (yes, after Johnny Appleseed) could attend the School for Creative and Performing Arts.

Sowash, who says he modeled his life on American composer Charles Ives - businessman by day; composer by night - produces his CDs from scratch, and distributes them on his Web site. He sends them to every classical radio station in America - about 200 - and gets lots of airplay.

Lesson from Beethoven

For Sowash, writing melodic, accessible music is easy.

"I do these long drives around Ohio, and think of intervals and build them into melodies," he says. "Little motives mean a lot to me, and big pieces grow out of these motives. The smaller the motive, the more you can do with it. That's a Beethoven secret."

Compared with the avant-garde music of past decades, his music is refreshing, says Olson. "He has brought music back to the heart, where there's real emotion, joyfulness, sorrow," she says.

Mainly, Sowash likes to think of himself as Ohioan.

"My sense of Ohio is of a sustaining land, rich, abundantly giving land," he says. "If you're going to have a flat tire, Ohio's the place to have it."


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