Eric Richards, American experimental composer, dies at 84

Eric Richards, whose music exemplified the spirit of experimentalism and adventure in modern avant-garde American music, died on April 20, 2020, at Mary Manning Walsh nursing home in Manhattan. The cause of death was renal failure. He was 84. Mr. Richards was born in 1935 in New York City. He lived most of his life on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. He spent his final years dividing his time between both Manhattan and Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Mr. Richards began his musical studies at Oberlin Conservatory. He later attended and graduated from the Mannes College of Music. Although Mr. Richards studied composition briefly with American composer William Sydeman, he was for the most part self-taught. While at Mannes, he studied Schenkerian analysis with some of its most recognized theorists, including Felix Salzer and Carl Schachter. He subsequently did graduate work in music at New York University with noted musicologist Gustave Reese. In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s Mr. Richards was on the music theory faculty at Mannes College, influencing a generation of musicians. Without the constraints of accepted formal or technical procedures, his music is an important part of the American experimental music tradition — one that also includes composers Harry Partch, John Cage, Morton Feldman, La Monte Young and James Tenney.

Mr. Richards created his sound world from a collage of musical fragments juxtaposed in close proximity, often at different tempi, saturating the musical time canvas with various nuances and shades in pitch and instrumental color. Many of Mr. Richards’s compositions emanate from a single instrumental sound source multiplied many times (11 oboes, 72 clarinets, l0 double basses, 7 trumpets). A single performer using multi-track recording techniques usually realized these compositions. Using various imitative and masking techniques, the individual voices (tracks) move in and out of the musical surface at different rates of forward motion. The composer has described the overall effect as “a sort of composed-out web of different reverberations or echo of echoes.”

Mr. Richards often emphasized the critical role his observations of America's natural landscape played in his musical compositions and “the way objects at different distances in the landscape could be indistinct at one moment and come sharply into focus at another.” The innovative nature of Mr. Richards’s music is paralleled in the originality of the different forms of graphic musical notation his scores employed. These scores were executed both by hand as well as through the use of various print media.

Notable performances of Mr. Richards’s work include concerts dedicated either in part or entirely to his music (The Kitchen, NYC; Lotus Music, NYC and Issue Project Room, Brooklyn). He held frequent fellowship residencies at both the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire and Wurlitzer Foundation of Taos, New Mexico. His choral composition “though under medium…” was commissioned and recorded by the Gregg Smith Singers (Turnabout). Additional recordings of his music are available on both the Frog Peak and Koch labels. In 2007, New World Records devoted an entire recording (“The Bells Themselves”) to his music. Seesaw Music, Soundings Press, Lingua Press and Frog Peak Music publish his music.

Although Mr. Richards’s music largely eluded widespread public awareness, he developed a devoted and loyal following among composers, performers and conductors of avant-garde music, recording engineers, and other artists — many of whom regard him as a “composer’s composer.” Eric Richards is survived by his sister Lois Broido and his two nieces Belinda Broido and Amy Rabenhorst.

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