Listen to a raw and raucous Nirvana concert at Metro in 1990. Hear Slint performing a knockout cover of Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” at Club Dreamerz. Check out a rare live set from local postpunks End Result, or New York’s ESG in 1984 at Lakeview’s long-defunct countercultural nightclub Medusa’s. Or peruse more than 1,000 recordings of MacArthur fellow and local jazz great Ken Vandermark, along with dozens from late free-jazz saxophonist Fred Anderson. 

This 2003 Ken Vandermark album is one of many Malachi Ritscher recordings that became commercial releases.

These are just a small selection of the thousands of live recordings made by Malachi Ritscher from the early 1980s until his death in 2006. Most but not all were made in Chicago, sometimes with bootlegging equipment tucked inside his jacket, though more often with the enthusiastic consent of the musicians. It’s a treasure trove of audio, thoughtfully recorded and engineered. The quality of the recordings is by and large pristine—clear enough that several have become commercial releases. 

Malachi Ritscher recorded this Test album in 1999 at the Velvet Lounge.

Though Ritscher considered these recordings his most notable activity, it was his death that for a moment held the attention of the world. Early one November morning in 2006, during rush-hour traffic, Ritscher lit himself on fire on the side of Chicago’s Kennedy Expressway in protest of the Iraq War. He draped an American flag over his head and placed a sign nearby reading, “Thou Shalt Not Kill. As Ye Sow So Shall Ye Reap. Your Taxes Buy Bombs and Bullets.” 

For Ritscher, art and politics were not divided neatly into separate categories. “Art and music can express outrage, inspire action, or soothe and distract; please think about priorities and be involved in things that matter,” he wrote on his blog, another avenue by which he tirelessly documented the music scene. 

Widely described as a private person, Ritscher was nonetheless well-known in various small, eclectic, tight-knit music scenes in Chicago. For years he attended gigs across the city multiple times per week—sometimes hitting two concerts in the same evening, such as an August 1989 doubleheader of George Clinton at Metro and Slint at Dreamerz. Bruno Johnson, founder of jazz label Okka Disk, calls him “always present.”

Ritscher was intensely focused and generous with his time and attention. Often he recorded the same acts week in and week out, such as free-jazz groups NRG Ensemble and DKV Trio. Others may not have had the funds to record in proper studios, and Ritscher’s work was sometimes a godsend to them. He would not only record and master these sets but would also provide copies to the musicians, often within days. 

The 80s and 90s were a heady time for the improvised and experimental music scene in Chicago—an impressive number of venues hosted these acts, including CrossCurrents, the Empty Bottle, Urbis Orbis, Lounge Ax, HotHouse, Club Lower Links, and the Velvet Lounge, to name just a few. Promoter, gallerist, and musician John Corbett organized several regular concert series. In 1994, Johnson founded Okka Disk, which helped to further the career of Fred Anderson in his final years. Ritscher’s recordings cover improvisation, free jazz, and harder-to-categorize music such as Psychic TV and Glenn Branca. His archive not only tracks the progression of his preferred groups but also provides an overview of the scene in its entirety. 

In the days leading up to his death, Ritscher sent his last wishes and the keys to his apartment to Johnson of Okka Disk. He also posted an obituary and something of a suicide note to his website (both linked in the Reader’s coverage of his death). But he didn’t specify what he wanted to happen to his recordings. Johnson gave the collection to Experimental Sound Studio, a recording facility and hub for experimental sound programming, where it is housed in dozens of boxes. ESS’s mission is to support artistic innovation and nurture a community for sonic art, making it a fitting home.

Ritscher’s recordings are part of ESS’s Creative Audio Archive, which was created in 2006 and also includes archival material from Sun Ra and experimental-music label Penumbra Music, and they’re in the process of being digitized. It’s painstaking work that requires copying each concert over in real time. ESS’s media and archive manager, Matt Mehlan, says one reason for the incremental progress is the difficulty of funding this work.

“The material that we have is niche,” he says. “It’s sad, really, because I think all good music is experimental at one point. The best music in history was the music that expanded things. This collection, this is what moves culture forward.” 

To an untrained ear, something like free jazz can sound dissonant or hard to follow, but for those invested in the music, it’s intoxicating—like a code that only some can crack. “Once you get into the music, it really kind of captures you,” Johnson says. “It’s one of the interesting things about it. Once you’re in it, then it sort of becomes your existence. It takes effort—it’s not like listening to a pop tune.” 

While Johnson is unclear about exactly what he hopes to see happen with Ritscher’s collection, he’s open to anything that helps get the music out into the world. Since much of the collection currently exists only on CD, cassette, or digital audio tape, getting it properly transferred is an important first step.

In the time before smartphones and the ubiquity of social media, public acts such as Ritscher’s self-immolation also could easily fall under the radar—mainstream media had a greater role in deciding what was newsworthy. Though the impact wasn’t immediate, his death ultimately generated news stories in the Guardian and the New York Times, after a memorial in the Reader. It inspired rallies in support of his anti-war beliefs, a play, and a number of songs. 

While this last bold act helped distinguish Ritscher’s life on the world stage, his audio archive is perhaps a more enduring representation of his legacy. “It definitely is the most positive part of it. I mean, his death was really tragic,” Johnson says. “So it’s nice that this is there, because it is long-lasting and it is beautiful. And it is really connected to him.”