Dr. John Richards (Reader in Music, Leicester Media School, De Montfort University)

Wonky shapes and wrong code

At the 2017 symposium, Richards started his talk by quoting Tim Long, “let the objects speak for themselves”. He also explored an idiosyncrasy of the room, a composition which he called “a piece for PowerPoint”; he used a black and a white screen, and the humming created by the audio cables to organise sound. He explained that a lot of his work involves a similar method, creating music using sound.

After his PhD in composition, Richards turned his back on the idea of composing and spending hours and hours at a computer. He explained how he enjoys making music that is tactile, he is interested in the material of sound and the type of material, timbre, spectrum and noise. He described how his work has become more and more noisy. However, Richards does not like having the reputation of being a “noise musician” as noise is an unwanted sound; he makes choices with the sounds he creates music with, and they are not unwanted.

He refers to quotes and books that resonate with him:

  • Henry Cowell, “The Joys of Noise” (1929).
  • Daniel Sudow, Ways of the Hand (1978).
  • Laurie Anderson, “there is not enough dirt in virtual reality”.
  • David Tudor, “composing inside electronics”.

Dirty Electronics is how Richards describes his research as it means getting your hands dirty and working with noise. His first exploration was through the notion of instrument, and his journey has been through sound to get to the idea of objecthood and materialism. His work sees a shift away from the subject and more towards the object; instead of playing an instrument, he has some sort of relationship with the instrument. Richards describes his approach as looking at the “very thing that is making the sound”. He also asked himself, why electronic sound? He doesn’t have an answer for this, he suggests that perhaps he is trying to make sense of it. He is not interested in technology, but concerned with the human aspect of it and relationships with technology.

Richards has made many simple interfaces, but doesn’t like the term ‘interface’ as it suggests a go-between. Although the work that he has made has been commercialised, he does not call himself an engineer. He described his objects as deliberately problematic; many of his artworks and performances have a scenario where things can be difficult to control, clumsy or break. Richards explained how it is not about making things efficient, he is interested in design questions and strives to exaggerate certain problems.

Richards has an interest in creating music with motors as it is related to the loud speaker; rotating motors create a wave form and an electric current. He showed an example of a printer motor with a pair of scissors attached, he explained how his research often focuses on incorporating objects that have a latent action.

Although Richards does not listen to it at home, he is a fan of improvised music. He likes to witness the effort and the struggle, as you have to work hard to achieve something. This is evident in his objects as an effort is required to achieve the sound, and it is not obvious how you can make music from it. Richards explained that the action is as equally important as the sound, and he has an interest in how sound changing over time affects how the sound is perceived.

The electronic norm is the singular DJ, but he has more of an interest in groups, event based performances, DIY, and what he calls “worshipping” the object. During these events, the building acts as an analysis; the building is a way of studying the object and will inform the player how to use it and create some sort of extended relationship between the maker and the resulting action. Sometimes videos and recordings are made, but he tries to avoid this as the artefact is what he gains from the extended events, e.g. circuit boards. Richards would design circuits which have particular shapes or patterns as the visual aspects, form and function of the components are very important; the design of the circuits often involves a collaboration with artists. The object is a replacement of the CD or the score, and the object has its own compositional ethos. Therefore, the object is not an instrument, but it is somewhere between composition and instrument. Richards concludes by describing his work as “a little bit fluxus” for creating deliberately impossible situations, but also describes his work as not too serious. He aims to push the limits of the norms associated with circuit boards to create objects that are as unconventional as possible.

You can view some of Richards’ work here.