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05 November 2012

Without Erasing: The Missing Music of Richard Maxfield

Writing in his book Ocean of Sound some years ago, David Toop observed: "If Richard Maxfield had not committed suicide in 1969, and if his electronic music pieces were not so difficult to find or to hear, then our idea of how music has changed and opened out during the past thirty-five years might be very different." Toop penned those remarks back in 1994; and, even at this much later date, the thought still holds true. Before jumping to his death from a hotel window ledge in Los Angeles at the age of 42, Maxfield could be considered one the chief pioneers of electronic music on American shores.

Despite the archival cornucopia that it offers, Reissue Culture has had its share of oversights, and Maxfield has been one of them. Only a few of his compositions have seen digital reissue over the years, with works like the three-minute "Amazing Grace" or 1963's "Pastoral Symphony" turning up on a few scattered compilations. Depending on which account you go with, when he left New York for the West Coast, Maxfield entrusted his tapes to artists Walter De Maria; who passed them along to La Monte Young, who in turn reputedly entrusted them to the Dia Arts Foundation.

Terry Riley, being interviewed in the course of a game of "Invisible Jukebox" in The Wire back in 1999 shed some light on Maxfield's neglected legacy. Maxfield, he asserted, was one of the most brilliant yechnicians in American electronic music. Aside from reputedly having built much of his own equipment, Maxfield was also reputedly something of a wizard at tape-splicing -- stoically patient, exacting and precise when it came to the task of taking things apart and putting them together viz the yarns and reels of magnetic tape. La Monte Young similarly testified to the artist's skills:

"He was an incredible electronic music teacher and master engineer. I used to go up to his mixing studio when he worked at Westminster Records in 1960-61 and observe him editing those old reel-to-reel tapes. He was the most amazingly adept tape handler I have ever seen. He worked so fast his hands and the tape were a constant blur... He really understood electronics; he was very creative and experimental. He taught electronics and composition at the highest level."

Much of Maxfield's technical expertise came from his workaday duties for the classical music division of CBS Records. Aside from tightening up the performances of various symphonies and the like, this also routinely meant cutting out whatever intrusive noises might've issued from the audience that night, such as the interludinal coughs and throat-clearings from season ticket holders. One piece Riley spoke of in the interview was "Cough Music," in which Maxfield took these extracts (from the performance of a Christian Wolff piece) from the cutting-room floor and spliced them together in the order his choosing, subjecting the sounds to varying degrees of processing and manipulation. I'd long been curious about this piece, and was only recently finally able to hear it...

In the same Wire piece, Terry Riley also said of Maxfield:

"He had a fantastic ear for different kinds of sounds, just using sine wave generators he did great work. Later he did a lot more concrète stuff; one year he brought this piece out to play called 'Dishes.' He was washing dishes one night and turned his tape recorder on, so he was making found object pieces, too."

Which I suppose makes his a precursor to concrète-variety "microhouse" in a way, anticipating Matthew Herbert's Around the House by some thirty-plus years. But Richard Maxfield released only a handful of recordings during his lifetime, and only a few have been reissued over the intervening years.

A few years after having read about Maxfield's work, I acquired this item, done as a one-off, sampling-based collaborative project by a trio of East Coast electronic doodlers, released in 2002 via the Pittsburgh-based Kracfive label. It went largely unnoticed at the time, by I liked the album very much. One track in particular grabbed my interest, making me wonder if it wasn't conceived as a tribute to Maxfield's "Cough Music" by way of Kraftwerk's "Tour de France"...

Original Instrument - 'Coughio'

Occasionally mid-grade mp3 bootleg collections of Richard Maxfield's known recorded works have appeared on the internet in recent years. Just how what and how many works Maxfield composed and committed to tape is mainly a matter of conjecture. Some compositions exist only in the form of rumor and anecdote, the recollections of his colleagues. This webpage offers what's thought to be a comprehensive inventory; but as the frequent appearance of blanks and question marks indicate, the accounting involves a fair amount of guesswork. Of these, one wonders how many have survived -- considering the shelf-life of magnetic tape and its rate of disintegration. At some point, one figures, a multi-disc anthology of the composer's work -- complete with an accompanying book on his life, work, influence on and contributions to the formative years of electronic music in the United States -- might've already seen the light of day.

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And on a related note: Continuo bids farewell. But last time I checked, there was no similar cross-post on Continuo's Documents tumblr as of this morning.

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