Sunday, November 20

sine music and sound constructions : the music of jack ellitt and richard maxfield

--> -->"The strings, wood-wind, brass and percussion which are used in European orchestras are only a few components in the gamut of world sounds. And the ensemble of colour, however experimental or futurist it may be, is limited to the choice of these few components. It is therefore apparent that those who are experimentally inclined toward sound should now leave the old musical means of expression, and get hold of newer means which will allow fuller development and realisation to their restricted urge."-Jack Ellitt, 'On Sound' (from Life and Letters Today, pp. 182-84, December 1935)
"Ellitt died in 2001, less than 18 months after Doris had passed away. The couple had no children and maintained little contact with other relatives. Tragically, many of Ellitt's recordings and documents were disposed of after his death. The three complete recordings that were salvaged by Roger Horrocks (
Journey #1, Interlude and Homage to Rachel Carson #2) join Light Rhythms to form a frustratingly-small yet fascinating body of work from a hidden pioneer of twentieth century electronic music."
- Clinton Green, September 2011

Working in the early 20th Century on the optical soundtrack of film, British composer Jack Ellitt (b. 1902, Manchester) may have constructed some of the first pieces of Musique Concrete, well before that term was coined to describe the possibilities the new technology of tape lent to music construction in the 1940s. The fertile working relationship Ellitt, then living in Sydney, had with New Zealand filmmaker Len Lye produced a dynamic and experimental modernism that embraced the potential of new technological mediums, a conversation segueing from film, to sound, and back again, which would mark both artists for the rest of their lives, long after their collaboration had ended. Ellitt's pioneering status as an Australian experimental composer has only recently been codified, thanks to the archival attentions of Clinton Green of Shame File Music, and the interest of film historian and Lye biographer Roger Horrocks, whose foresight in securing various reel to reel taps from the composer has meant that these tapes have survived. The tantalising glimpse these few extant recordings, set alongside Ellitt's essay 'On Sound', give us is of a thinker working largely outside the canon, a reticent and isolated composer (who Stockhausen once wrote to, but who didn't reply to the letter), a pointer, perhaps, to the many alternate stories of modernity that are yet to emerge.


"It seems to me that pure electronic music
is self-sufficient as an art form
without any visual added attractions or distractions.
I view as irrelevant
the repetitious sawing on strings and baton wielding spectacle
we focus our eyes upon during a conventional concert."
-Richard Maxfield, 'Music, Electronic and Performed' (from An Anthology of Chance Operations, edited by La Monte Young, New York, 1963)

“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 ideas of how music has changed and opened out during the past thirty-five years might be very different…. At the heart of avant-rock, hybrid electronics, and plunderphonics, yet completely obscured by the vagaries of history, is Richard Maxfield.
-David Toop, Ocean of Sound, 2001

A precocious early history of scholarships and prizes attended Richard Maxfield's (b. 1927, Seattle) youth before the U.S. composer's first exposure to electronic music in the early 1950s, via contact with Luigi Nono, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Pierre Boulez on his first foray to Europe. By 1957, he had met David Tudor and John Cage, and enrolled in the latter's course at the New School, although unlike the many other illustrious pupils concurrently under Cage's tutelage, he then went on to teach the course in 1959. The previous year, he had composed his first purely electronic work, 'Sine Music (a Swarm of Butterflies Encountered over the Ocean)', an astounding piece of minimal pointilism unplaceable within American music at the time. As La Monte Young, who was to become Maxfield's teaching assistant and one of the major performers of his work in the early 1960s, later wrote, Maxfield was the first American composer to build his own equipment for the purpose of generating electronic tape music, and was also possibly the first American to compose purely electronic music as distinct from Musique Concrete, or music composed of non-electronic pre-recorded sounds. Works which obviously use taped recordings of performers playing, then cut up and re-composed using an aleatory method of blind selection, include the incredible 'Piano Concert for David Tudor' of 1961, when Maxfield was regularly performing works in the burgeoning downtown loft scene, starting with the first series directed by La Monte Young in Yoko Ono's loft in 1960-61, alongside works by co-experimentalists, minimalists and fluxus artists such as David Tudor, Dick Higgins, Terry Riley, and George Maciunas. Maxfield's tape music, scores, and equipment (some of it built by the composer) were placed in the care of Walter De Maria before Maxfield's tragically early death in 1969.



1. Jack Ellitt, 'Journey #1' (complete version) (8.59)
2. Jack Ellitt, 'Interlude' (7.23)
3. Jack Ellitt, 'Light Rhythms' (5.12)
4. Jack Ellitt, 'Homage to Rachel Carson #2 (Len Lye)' (1987) (16.26) (all tracks from Jack Ellitt - Sound Constructions, Shame File Music (sham066), 2011)
5. Richard Maxfield, 'Sine Music (a Swarm of Butterflies Encountered Over the Ocean)' (1958)
6. Richard Maxfield, 'Pastoral Symphony' (1959), from An Anthology of Noise and Electronic Music: Fifth A-Chronology, 1920-2007
7. Richard Maxfield, 'Night Music' (1960), from New Sounds in Electronic Music (also featuring Pauline Oliveros and Steve Reich)
8. Richard Maxfield, 'Piano Concert for David Tudor' (1961)
9. Richard Maxfield, 'Piano Sonata 2' (1948/49)
10. Richard Maxfield, 'Perspectives II for La Monte Young' (1961)
11. Richard Maxfield, 'Bacchanale' (1963)
12. Richard Maxfield, 'Amazing Grace' (1960)
13. Richard Maxfield, 'Cough Music' (1959)

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