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Life as a masterpiece

img  Tobias Fischer

One of the qualities I most admired in Richard Lainhart was his remarkable sense of sympathy and understanding. For a musician as gifted as himself to have only released a handful of albums over the course of a four-decade-long career and received only scant medial attention until the later stages of his life might have been traumatic for some of his colleagues. Richard, however, treated these setbacks as facts of life rather than blows of fate, eventually finding a fulfilling balance between his dayjob as a tutor and his passion as a composer of intense, focused electronic soundscapes. The fact that the same digital distribution opportunities, which made his music accessible to a larger audience than ever before, were also instantly cancelling out any serious chance of ever being able to live from it, must have come as a disappointment even to him. And yet, he never allowed what he deemed unavoidable to dampen his spirits. Until the very end, his gaze was firmly pointed to the future, which he awaited with insatiable curiosity and a healthy sense of scepticism alike. Not just to me, but to his many friends as well, this confidence, clarity of vision and calm came as a beacon of comfort in turbulent times and it made us erroneously believe that he would go on to live, if not forever, at least until he was old and grey. In the end, he didn't even reach his well-deserved pension: On December 30th, 2011, Richard passed away of infectious complications in the wake of a tumor operation, just a month short of his 59th birthday.

His death didn't make the frontpages of any major newspaper, and yet the outpouring of grief and disbelief, which rapidly spread across the web, was heartwarming. Everybody, it seemed, had a story to tell about Richard, and wanted to share it. So did I. A personal memory I will never forget was my encounter with him at the prestigious Schiphorst music festival in the middle of the Northern German countryside. I'd taken a several-hour long car trip to make use of this rare chance to meet up with him, and although this was the first time we shook hands, it instantly felt as though we'd been friends for years. It was a beautiful Summer day and he and his wife Caroline Meyers were looking forward to a long weekend of music and performances, during which Richard was to give a solo performance as well as interpret Olivier Messiaen's Quartet for the end of time together with Avantgarde multi-instrumentalist Thomas Zunk. While the organising committee were providing the guests with an outlook of what to expect over the next few days, we were sitting in the grass, drinking soda and bagging in copies of the Cranes Fly West CD we were about to release on the Ex Ovo label. It was a moment of great simplicity and free from any pretensions, yet it was nonetheless filled with a sense of excitement, which I could sense when Richard immediately took his copies to the sales stand after we'd wrapped them in a protective plastic envelope. It was something I'd already come to understand from our regular email conversations prior to the Schiphorst encounter: Despite his modesty, Richard was well aware of his capacities, took as much pride in his accomplishments as anyone and fostered great ambitions in creative terms. Later that day, we had a chat over a piece of quiche and beer and the conversation revolved around topics as diverse as 9/11, new ideas in music as well as the intricacies of the Messiaen interpretation he was about to deliver. There were a lot of loose ends and openings for future talks and when I left early to catch my train, it was always clear that I would make up for it by meeting up again soon. The cab arrived late, but the driver put down a furious ride, taking bizarre shortcuts, while filling me in about his passion for jazz. When I arrived at the station, my train was fifteen minutes late and I managed to get home as planned. Barely two years later, I would have badly wanted to have missed that connection for another round of beer and conversations.

Unanswered questions
And so, as they always must, some questions remain unanswered. It would have been fascinating to know, for example, what Richard's career would have looked like had he been interested more in 'getting his name out there' and building a sustainable financial future in the industry than actually getting some creative work done in the studio. His body of electro-acoustic work between 1971 and 1976, when he was studying with Joel Chadabe at the State University of New York at Albany and was still under influence of pioneers like Morton Subotnick, were second to none and could and should have earned him a position alongside famous contemporaries like Peter Michael Hamel who, like him, were interested in skilfully through-composed meditative states outside the limits usually created by compositional formats.

As a litle boy, Richard's first interest had initially been directed at Jefferson Airplane, Cream, Jimi Hendrix, and Frank Zappa – bands and musicians, who, as he put it, were able to reconcile the seeming paradoxes of 'power and beauty'. Using his father's Ampex reel-to-reel, his own bass guitar and an effects pedal, he set about creating his first own experimental compositions. Silver Apples of the Moon and Switched-On Bach were seminal works for his artistic development back then and when he found out about Joel Chadabe's Coordinated Electronic Music Studio,which he later described as "probably the largest and best-equipped analog synthesis studio in the US at the time", he was instantly fascinated – even more so, as he admired Chadabe's music and philosophy as well as his capacities as a teacher. Under his supervision, he would gradually develop his own approach, later termed "One Sound", as part of which a single source, and its gradual transformation over the course of a piece's duration, would constitute the actual composition. The job of the composer lay less in the actual manipulation and arranging of musical building blocks, but rather in finding sounds which, in themselves, contained enough complexity to make for a rich and rewarding listening experience.

This concept of this music, simple and all but immobile on the surface, yet complex and vividly changing underneath, predated the contemporary electronic drone movement by roughly two decades. Also, since it obviously related to the pioneering work put down by predecessors like La Monte Young (whom Richard praised for his interest in harmonics and tuning), his good friend Phil Niblock as well as Charlemagne Palestine, there would probably have been an obvious audience for it straight away. Everything, therefore, was pointing in the direction of a successful recording career. Alas, things panned out differently. Although Richard described the US as the focal point of electronic music at the time, he also admitted that much of this groundbreaking work was being performed behind closed university doors. The odd spectacular sales success was mainly an exception in a country, which still reveled in classic rock and AOR. In Europe, where electronic music had broken through into the pop charts on a much wider scale and where there was a tight network of fans and publications, Lainhart would, without a doubt, have gotten his record deal earlier. As it happened, he only released his debut These last Days in 1987 and despite some moments of utter brilliance – the glassy stillness of "Hall of Mirrors" comes to mind – the album was somewhat unrepresentative of his aesthetics. Follow-up Walking Slowly Backwards was slated for release in 1992, but never saw the light due to the unfortunate folding of Ron Goldberg's Periodic Music label. And so, it would take more than a decade, before Lainhart's music was to be published again, when Niblock's XI imprint issued the warmly received 2CD retrospective Ten Thousand Shades of Blue- By then, of course, others had already filled the void on the market.

Conquering the stage
Unflinching, Richard decided to focus on what many today consider the most important part of an artistic career anyway: the stage. His countless live performances, next to his position as an instructor, got him into contact with hundreds of musicians, and turned him into an important figure on the music-tech scene, which greatly benefited from his insights. Slowly but surely, his work started spreading, even to the other side of the Atlantic. Sometime during my school days, I browsed through the experimental music bins of The Hague's record store Plaatboef and discovered a copy of These last days. I was instantly hooked by what I considered a refreshing take on the electronic music I'd known before. Several years later, I re-discovered and re-appreciated the album and decided to take a look on Richard's webpage. He had just put up his entire back catalogue for free listening, at least wishing for his music to be heard, if, as it seemed, it could not be sold. Hearing it, meanwhile, led many to fall in love with it and within a year, his work started being released to an unprecedented degree. Some of these newer albums belong, at least from my point of view, to the very finest he's ever written, such as the awe-inspiring hypnagogue masterpiece The Deep Blue of Twilight, still available for download from his bandcamp page. Next to his beloved Buchla modular synth, the guitar was becoming an increasingly important tool for him, leading to a further reduction of his music to the essentials and bringing him ever closer to a full realisation of the One Sound ideal. Some of the pieces on Cranes Fly West have this particular quality, including one of my personal favourites, "An Open Window in an Empty Room', a ten-minute, naturally resonant drone space gently flooded by the sounds of nature and birds, which Richard loved so much – perhaps even more than the realm generally referred to as 'music'.

Ron Goldberg has written a moving obituary about Richard, in which he claims that "Lainhart was one of the seminal figures in contemporary American electronic music". I'm afraid that, in the absence of any tangible 'classics' or charts successes, posterity will not see it quite that way. And yet, unlike some mega-stars, which got their major news stories and fifteen minutes of fame, only to be quickly forgotten after their death, his presence is still felt today. There is something consoling in the fact that Richard lives on not just in his own music, but in the work of some of the artists he has influenced as well – including, among others, Japanese drone builder Hakobune, whose While Shadows Sweep Across The Lawn on Somehow Recordings isn't just a moving tribute, but also captures the essence of what his music was about with almost clairvoyant precision. Clearly, there are many dimensions of greatness and if we can look beyond the typical definitions of what constitutes an 'important' artist, perhaps we can recognise that if the purpose of art is to inspire, then Richard's life was his creative masterpiece. 

It hurts to know that we never got round to release the official version of Cranes Fly West while he was still around, that we never continued our debates on music while it was still possible and that I didn't find more time to review and promote the music of an artist whom I considered one of the most exciting voices of our times while he could still have appreciated it. And yet, the sadness is offset by a consoling certainty. Would he be reading this, Richard would most likely have asked me not to be so hard on myself about the inevitable facts of life – as with so many things, I'm sure, he would have understood.

By Tobias Fischer

Releases by Richard Lainhart are available from Musikzeit, Periphery, Vicmod and Ex Ovo.