SAM RICHARDS BIOGRAPHY
I was born in 1949 in London, England. An early interest in jazz and popular music, fed partly by my father’s record collection and partly by rock ‘n’ roll, led to classical piano lessons at age 7. After an interruption age 8 due to an accident I resumed piano eventually at age 13, doing the usual grade examinations and music festivals, neither of which thrilled me in the slightest. However, I did have an excellent piano teacher, Donald Snoad, whose enthusiasm for music definitely fired mine.
I had an ambivalent relationship with classical piano and classical music in general. Although I liked much of the music I never saw myself as a performer of it.
Encounters with experimental music had an altogether different, much more immediate flavour for me. I spent much of my teens and student years in London absorbed in the music and ideas of John Cage, Cornelius Cardew, the Fluxus Group, AMM, Lamonte Young and Terry Riley. I both took part in and organised many improvisational music events in London during the mid-to-late 1960s, performing in new pieces by Cornelius Cardew, creating collaborations with electronics pioneer Hugh Davis, and many musical happenings at the Arts Lab in Drury Lane and elsewhere.
Having attended, in Perivale, West London, a very “unposh” school (a dump really) that had no sixth form and no music, I went on to Chiswick Polytechnic to do the music A Level course. After this entirely positive experience I went to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama to study with composer, pianist and improviser Alfred Nieman. I had already met Alfie through his evening classes in improvisation. I liked him immensely, and he was keen to teach me composition, adding in classical piano lessons as my first study. In 1967-68 I did the first year of a three-year course at the Guildhall, feeling throughout the by now familiar tension between liking classical music and having no sense of commitment as a performer of it.
The contrast between the improvisation approaches of Cardew/AMM and Alfie Nieman was great. Where Alfie's approach was formal, using classical techniques such as variations, sonata or rondo, AMM was free form and exploratory.
Where Alfie placed emphasis on music leading to new dimensions in sound, AMM favoured sound per se leading to a new musical framework. For many years I found myself haunted by this tension between two perfectly reasonable positions.
Twice, in 1967 and 1968 I was awarded full bursaries to study composition with the French avant gardist Michel Decoust at the Dartington Summer School of Music in Devon. These highly creative experiences, plus a glimpse of the thriving arts college at Dartington served to entice me away from London. The transfer in 1968 from the Guildhall to Dartington College of Arts relocated me to Devon where I have happily based myself ever since. Dartington, in those days, offered courses for teachers. I signed up conscious that I no interest in school teaching.
Dartington was an entrancing, liberating but sometimes frustrating experience, promising much but not always delivering. During my time there I composed and performed many pieces, mainly under the hypnotic influence of American experimentalism. I also got deeply into improvisation, often, but not always, in groups rather than solo.
FOLKSONG & ETHNOMUSICOLOGY
In London, alongside my activities in experimental music, I had dabbled in the worlds of folksong and ethnomusicology. In particular, recordings on the Nonesuch and Folkways labels – commercially available for the first time but still relatively rare (you had to know where to look) - excited my interest in what is now speciously called “world music”. On the other hand, the British/American folk song revival, of course, had a popular profile. Somehow within a year of moving to Devon my interest in folksong took over.
On leaving college in 1971, the school teaching profession and myself having mutually agreed not to bother one another, I divided my time between singing with “Staverton Bridge”, an a cappella folksong trio, and folklore fieldwork mainly in the Westcountry. The fieldwork included oral song and music traditions of Exmoor and Dartmoor farming communities, Gypsies, children’s’ lore, as well as industrial and urban song.
To these were later added field trips to Newfoundland and a number of other parts of England. The resulting folklore archive is now housed by the University of Plymouth and the British Library National Sound Archive.
With a degree of hindsight I realise that one of the attractions of what some folklorists have called “the vernacular milieu” (primarily non-commercial, non-institutional, non-academic, grass roots music and song) was my impulse to discover the music people create when they are relatively distant from formal and/or commercial forces. Experience in the field showed me that it really isn’t that simple, but I had a great time finding out.
RETURN TO COMPOSITION & IMPROVISATION
Although I never gave up composing and improvising they did take a back seat for a while. Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s I toured, broadcast and recorded with various folk line-ups. In the mid-80s, however, I returned to composing and improvising. The music-theatre piece “Fool’s Holiday” (1988) marked a return to experimental music. It was staged by Theatre of Public Works under their Director Peter Kiddle. It played around the Westcountry and then at the BritEsch Festival in Luxembourg.
Throughout the 1990s my musical activities were largely concentrated on four main areas, which overlapped continuously: compositions using landscape both as a discipline and template; large scale longish pieces involving many performers (these involved all kinds of scoring and called for improvisation and interpretation as well as some straight playing of notes); smaller pieces using graphic and other non-standard scoring methods; improvisation, both freeform and planned.
During that time I acquired a local reputation as a maker of visually interesting scores. Exhibitions of scores were presented at the Exeter and Plymouth Arts Centres and the Plymouth Barbican Theatre. To this day, and even in the face of computer graphics, I like to take time to hand-write scores, graphic or otherwise.
Into the diverse mix of current musics I have also added concerns with the social, political and cultural impact of music making. In the 1970s and early ‘80s my interest in these aspects of music had led me to work closely with traditional communities as a folklorist. In the 1990s the same kind of impulse led me, in 1995, to help found the Totnes Jazz Collective, for at least twelve years highly successful forum and monthly jazz club for local and national musicians. My own contributions to the TJC were decidedly experimental including a large community event, an eighteen-piece band in homage to Sun Ra, freeform improvisation and many new compositions. A combination of new management at our venue kicking us out, and the loss of a small but necessary grant pretty well scuppered the TJC.
Various grants, commissions, gigs as a jazz pianist and part time teaching jobs helped me survive, although by the mid-‘90s a health problem (CFS/ME) seriously limited my activities.
Since the year 2000 I have gradually increased my activities once again. Continual questions and investigations into many contemporary musics, their current social contexts and cultural ramifications – not to mention my large personal collection of CDs and vinyl of music of all kinds – provide a useful background for the large amount of part time teaching I now do for the Plymouth University and, until 2007, Dartington College of Arts.
My teaching covers 20th and 21st century pop and rock, folk music, living traditions, the 20th century, the study of audience and childhood, jazz and “world music” (I still can’t write that without quotes), improvisation and composition. In 2002 I issued the CD “Love Among The Ruins” –surprising myself by returning to singing and song writing after a fifteen-year (at least) gap.
"Love Amongst the Ruins" was created with the indispensible of Richard Douglas Green, sound engineer. My collaborations with Richard were, for a while, an ongoing facet of my creative life. Sometime in 2011 there will be a new CD of "Ten Uneasy Pieces", created with Richard, plus other compositions.
In 2003 I married the American composer and pianist. Lona Kozik. Lona’s abilities as a classical pianist resolve that lifelong issue of mine of liking the music, and therefore wanting it in my life, but feeling unequipped to play it. Now I hear it around the house and I don’t have to lift a finger.
However, Lona is more than simply a classical pianist. She is a composer, has been in a rock band, and increasingly an improviser. Currently she is studying for half the year at Mills College, Oakland, California.
We live in Totnes, Devon. I continue to compose, and to perform as a piano improviser and local jazz musician. I regard improvisation as my primary practice from and into which all other musical ideas flow. I have completed a fourth book, a study of popular singers as demigods.A fifth book "The Engaged Musician" is a book of essays about music today - in many of its facets.
Recent first performances have included "Hallsands", an allegory in music, and "Four Sea Studies" premiered by the Torbay Symphony Orchestra under Richard Gonski. "Hallsands", with the Sea Studies, was performed and recorded by Soundart Radio and braodcast in September 2011.
My current projects include a large scale composition taking the ten tors of Dartmoor as points of departure. I initiated the Totnes Improvisers Orchestra (TIO) and continue to improvise with musicians Lou Gare, Lona Kozik, Elie Fruchter, Tim Sayer, James Kirt and others - not forgetting the eclectic "The Jazzlab" with Tim, Mick Green and David George.
I continue to compose music, but am also writing a history and celebration of Dartington College of Arts.
THE DARTINGTON COLLEGE CRISIS
In November 2006 the news broke (via a press leak) that the powers-the-be at Dartington College of Arts were planning the closure of the college on its present unique campus, and "relocating" (another word that should only ever be written in inverted commas) to University College Falmouth, 86 miles away. As part of the campaign to save the college I contributed website articles analysing local political structures, the functions of the arts generally, and, on one occasion, a satire the basis of which was that I was putting myself forward for election as college principal. It was obviously a spoof, and could not, by any stretch of the imagination, be taken literally. Despite this I was suspended, called to a hearing and sacked on the grounds of "gross misconduct" and "insubordination". The military style of these accusations probably says all that need be said. An Appeal Hearing on June 5th upheld these decisions and the penalty. However they did say that if I apologised to the Principal I could be reinstated. Although I followed the guidelines given by the Appeal Hearing, college principal Andrew Brewerton rejected my apology, at which point I went to the press. There are many other details that don't belong here. Suffice to say that I was sacked froma college I had association with for over thirty years. The Dartington experiment as a whole tried to combine education, the arts, meaningful employment and community.
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