- Observation and Memory:An Interview with Eric Richards
Though he is not yet widely known, American composer Eric Richards has been a continuous and highly respected presence in the avant-garde community since the 1970s, and his music has been gaining exposure in recent years.1 Richards is part of a generation of composers who came of artistic age during the counterculture of the 1960s, when liberal experimentalism and interdisciplinary curiosity were pervasive in various arts. Like other New York artists, Richards took special note of recent developments in the downtown visual arts scene that had been garnering international attention. Abstract expressionism, with the dramatic spontaneity and bold physical presence of works by painters like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, was gradually being supplanted by the sensually vibrant and emotionally detached aesthetic of minimalism. The carefully measured reductionist techniques of artists like Frank Stella and Donald Judd produced works that focus on an essential quality of a limited collection of materials, creating an immediacy of effect that many artists of the period sought to capture in their own media. At the same time, figures such as Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns incorporated [End Page 180] found objects and recognizable images into their multilayered paintings and combines, which inspired Richards and others to reevaluate the use of pre-existing melodies in their work.
Responsive to the physicality and immediacy evident in these different trends of modern painting, Richards cultivated a musical style that highlights the timbral qualities of acoustic instruments and voices as well as the physical context in which the sounds are produced. His mature works, which feature a small assortment of motives that gradually unfold in kaleidoscopic variations, suggest an affinity with principles of minimalism that emerged in the 1960s. While several minimalist elements in music—including repetition, cyclic patterns, and gradual processes—were greatly facilitated by the advent of magnetic tape technology, Richards has never written electronic music. However, the use of tape-recording techniques has been important to his compositional method. Much as a painter might sketch an object from different angles to gain familiarity with its visual features, so does Richards conceive of the tape recorder as a device to facilitate close and repeated listening of a sonic object that can be manipulated in a variety of ways. By overlapping several layers of activity, as well as altering the tape speed and direction, Richards reveals multiple dimensions of a recorded sample, which he carefully assesses, transcribes, and uses as raw material in his compositions. Through techniques of augmentation, diminution, repetition, variation, and transformation, Richards constructs homogeneous works that present constantly shifting perspectives of a rich soundscape—one that appears to be inhabited not only by physical sound, but also by one's memory of the sound.
Richards's inquisitiveness and his empirical examination of sound for its own sake is a distinguishing feature of composers who comprise the American "experimental" tradition, one with which Richards identifies. While certain experimental composers have gained a measure of fame, and made a significant impact on the history of American music, there are numerous other composers of this tradition whose life and works remain underrepresented. Typically, the experimental nature of their work results in a musical style that does not command widespread attention (James Tenney, for instance, often explained to the layperson that he was a composer of "unpopular music"). This is frequently coupled with the reclusive nature of several of the individuals themselves, who are deeply immersed in their own idiosyncratic work, and, as Richards remarks, carry dispositions that are rarely conducive to participating in fashionable trends in the arts:
It is curious, many of the people whose music I like best—particularly Harley Gaber, Charlemagne Palestine, and Michael Byron—kind of dropped out for different reasons. That's a whole area of American music that I think is important, but that no one has written about or gone into—it wasn't part of "the scene," partly because [End Page 181] of the personalities of these different people. They were not what David Riesman [in The Lonely Crowd] would call "other-directed," they were all very inner-directed people who could not really be...