Monday, November 03, 2008

Maxfield Documentary

My apologies for having lost the hat tip, but someone recently pointed to a very good 1974 radio documentary on the electronic music of Richard Maxfield made by Charles Amirkhanian, complete with excerpts from a 1960 interview with Maxfield by Will Ogdon.  (As a bonus, there is a very strong piece homage to Maxfield by Amirkhanian himself in the program).  

The interview presents a lively picture of Maxfield as a proponent and exponent of the then-novel ideas of incorporating chance techniques into composition and indeterminant elements into realisation or performance of compositions. These ideas were, of course, associated first with John Cage, but it is exciting to see how readily they were taken up and wrestled with by other artists, in this case, a composer who had come from Berkeley and Babbitt's Princeton as a card-carrying 12-tone composer with a significant portfolio of instrumental compositions (many or most of which are in the library at UCB), had made his European grand tour as a student, in which his encounters included time with Henze and with Darmstadt composers.  Embracing neither Henze's more conventional aesthetic nor the more avant-garde Europeans, Maxfield returned to the US as an enthusiast of Cagean techniques and, in particular, their application to electronic and magnetic tape media.  He succeeded Cage as an instructor at the New School and his students included La Monte Young and others associated with Fluxus and Judson Dance.  Aside from his invention with improvising complex electronic instruments from minimal means, Maxfield was a virtuoso splicer, working as an editor for a classical record label, for which he once   — or so the story goes — inserted a four measure repetition into a well-known classical warhorse which went undetected by critics.

The importance of Maxfield to the development of a live electronic music aesthetic should not be underestimated.  In addition to his compositions, Maxfield produced a pair of essays (initially printed in An Anthology, edited by Young and MacLow and reprinted in the Childs/Schwarz anthology of writings by contemporary composers) that outline possibilities for restoring spontaneity to the performance of recorded media — including parallel live performances, treatment of the tape recorder as a live performance instrument, and creating new versions of tape compositions for each performance — that remain vital ideas today.  Those essays, and the LP of Maxfield's music put out on Barney Child's Advance label, were important to me from high school days, and I am sure were a great influence on many of my contemporaries. 

Maxfield's biography, artistically, is marked by the change in allegiances from youthful neoclassicism to an academic 12-tone style and to the experimental tradition, a path that was not altogether unisual.  According to an unpublished memoir of Maxfield by his companion  (who happens to have lived for many years in the house next to that of my parents in Southern Californian, the lattice of coincidence being what it is...)  through much of the 1950's,  the most turbulent change — to experimental music — was not only musical but accompanied by personal upheaval, and Maxfield's life and psyche were increasingly out-of-control; his was not one of the stories of someone who successfully negotiated the 1960's, ending instead, as Slonimsky put it, with "self-defenestration" from a Long Beach hotel.   

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this excellent post on a much underappreciated composer.