Composing a life of music, art, Cincinnati stories
“You don't write chamber music to make money,” composer Rick Sowash says, in describing what he calls his “curious career.”
So – he writes books as well as music, although that can be another marginal profession, is a Cincinnati tour leader, a public speaker, a sometime house painter, a publisher of books, musical scores and cds, and two days a week he works as a guard at the Cincinnati Art Museum
“I'm the wealthiest person I know, “ he says, citing the fulfillment he finds in pursuing these disparate ends.
Sowash's music is heard on classical music stations coast to coast. Last fall the Cincinnati Ballet
corps danced to one of his compositions in its New Works series.
His cello concerto was premiered in Carnegie Hall in 2008.
An occasional commission comes from orchestras celebrating a special occasion. For commissions, he composes to the strength of the musicians, he says. A standout horn player with custom-made trumpet might be highlighted, for instance, while weakness in the string section would be compensated for.
Bespoke tailoring, that is to say, for a classical suite. He's also composed music for documentary films.
Most of his compositions are done without commission, however, and can be heard on 11 self- published cd's, plus two more coming out in October.
Critic Ray Silvertrust, writing in the Chamber Music Journal, says of Sowash's work: “At times neo-classical, romantic, neo-romantic, or impressionist, the music is always original and never hackneyed or low-brow. Mr. Sowash's attractive music is always tonal although he does not, on occasion, hesitate to challenge his listeners by pushing tonality to its limits.”
The newest work, Sowash says, is “more expansive, has more instruments, more color.”
Cost for producing a cd is “$,6000 to $7,500, if you're lucky,” he says.“You need to hire musicians, recording engineers, a studio, piano tuner, a graphic artist for the cover, have a factory produce them and buy postage to send to 175 classical music stations.” Royalties make the postage an investment.
Jo, Sowash's wife, retired from nursing at Planned Parenthood almost a decade ago to help manage their publishing business. The stairwell of the Sowashs' 19th century Liberty Hill home is crowded with boxes of cd's, sheet music and books, as they distribute from there.
The books are about Ohio and its folklore, for older elementary school students. Sample titles: “Johnny Appleseed” (Appleseed is a hero of Sowash's) and “Ripsnorting Whoppers: A Book of Ohio's Tall Tales.”
He's available for day-long presentations at schools, making Ohio history come alive for the students. Sowash has also written and published, for a fairly specialized audience, a pretty booklet, “The Moderately Lazy Biker's Guide to Litchfield County (and just beyond),” complete with maps and comments on the road surface.
Bicycling, it goes without saying, is another Sowash interest. Litchfield County, in Connecticut, is where the couple frequently spends summers.
A brochure describes the possibilities for a custom-fashioned, Rick Sowash-led tour of Cincinnati, three hours for $150 for a group, shorter or longer times also available. He established the program a year and a half ago and is a member of the Cincinnati USA Convention & Visitors Bureau
Sowash pulls out his best Cincinnati stories for these events and is pleased to say things are going well. The American Queen Steamboat management has been in touch.
This 62-year-old man of many facets says he has been a house painter since college and now does six or eight jobs a year, “only for friends. I send out a notice, 'Have your house painted by a classical composer.'”
The part-time museum guard gig began four and a half years ago. “Full-time would probably be boring, but two days a week in the Cincinnati Art Museum is not,” he says.
“There my values are enshrined. I feel as though they are under hostile attack in many places, but there I can enjoy spending time hanging out with art from different eras, from all over the world. You change posts hourly. When no one is in the gallery, what do you do? Look at the paintings closely. See and understand better.”
The Museum functions as a nourishing environment for him, he says, and adds to that category the Mt. Auburn Presbyterian Church, where he sings in the choir.
“Many musicians go there. It's a mine of ideas. Music and books and cooking and gardens – they all connect in nourishing environments.”
Sowash grew up in Lexington, a tiny town in north-central Ohio, and lived in that general area until he and his wife moved to Cincinnati in 1994 for one reason, to give their two children the advantage of the School for Creative and Performing Arts.
It seems to have been the right move. Daughter Shenandoah, now 30, is a lawyer's assistant in Washington, DC, but also is a poet; son John Chapman (the real-life name of Johnny Appleseed), 27, is a professional musician in Cincinnati.
What Sowash wanted for his children was the talent-enhancing experience he had had as a child in the public schools of Lexington, population 4,000. For his children's generation, this could be found only in the special confines of a school like SCPA
. Two teachers profoundly shaped young Rick's future.
“I kind of wrote music at the age of 10 or 11, and at 12, in seventh grade, music teacher Roderick Evans led me into composing something for the school choir to sing. I said I didn't know how to begin; he said take four notes. Then do another four notes. Four notes fits the word Halleluiah. Then go up or down.”
He went to work, four notes at a time, the teacher mimeographed his composition and the choir sang it. He's been composing ever since.
“Jan Dunlap, the high school music teacher, also taught me what I think was 90 percent of what I needed to know, but at the time I thought it was only 10 percent.”
By the age of 18, he had a distinctive sound and his parents sent him to Indiana University, “a waste of time and money,” he says now, ruefully.
As a music major in the late1960s, early 1970s he was plunged into the atonal currents of the avant garde, but “I couldn't bend that way.”
College took five years with two quits and a new major in comparative literature, its net result “slowed me down. But by the time I was 25, I was back on track.”
That track eventually led to the comfortable house on Liberty Hill, where he and Jo now live on the first floor and rent out the second and third floors. Their tenants are opera singers.
“We can sometimes hear them singing,” says the musician, his face alight with pleasure.
“It's a grasshopper lifestyle,” he adds, referring to his varied ventures. But not a life style he would change.