Richard Maxfield was born in Seattle on February 2, 1927. He was musical at an early age, claiming, "I could read music before I could read words." He played piano and clarinet as a child, played clarinet in the Seattle All Youth Orchestra, and wrote a symphony when he was in high school. He enlisted in the Navy when he was 17 and continued to compose music during his one year in the service.
Maxfield attended Stanford University for one year, where he continued to compose, and his works were played on the University radio station. Upon hearing Roger Sessions' The Trial of Lucullus, premiered at Berkeley in April 1947, he decided to transfer to the University of California to study with Sessions. As an undergraduate at Berkeley he studied in the graduate composition seminar from 1947 to 1951. He was graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Berkeley in 1951 and was awarded the Hertz Prize.
The Hertz Prize allowed Maxfield to study for a summer with Ernst Krenek in Los Angeles and then to travel through Europe, where he met Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and Luigi Nono, and where he probably first heard electronic music. He studied with Aaron Copland at Tanglewood in 1953. In 1954 and '55 he studied at Princeton with Sessions and Milton Babbitt, and received an MFA in 1955. He won a Fulbright Scholarship in 1955 and returned to Europe to study with Luigi Dallapiccola and Bruno Maderna in Italy. He remained in Europe through 1957, where, through Christian Wolff, he met John Cage and David Tudor.
In New York in 1958, Maxfield attended John Cage's course at the New School and in 1959 replaced Cage as the instructor. He taught the techniques of creating electronic music from purely electronic sources, without microphones, and it was because of this course that the New Grove's Dictionary of Music acknowledges him as "the first teacher of electronic music techniques in the U.S."
Maxfield's earliest preserved electronic work, Sine Music, was composed in 1959. His most productive years were from 1959 to 1964, during which he completed at least twenty-four compositions. He worked as a free-lance audio engineer and as a full-time recording engineer for Westminster Records from 1960 through '62.
On his way to Darmstadt in the summer of 1959, La Monte Young met Maxfield in New York City. On returning to Berkeley, Young presented Maxfield's electronic music in concerts in the Bay Area and in 1960, after completing two years of graduate study at Berkeley, Young also won the Hertz traveling fellowship and went to New York to study electronic music with Maxfield at the New School. Young was Maxfield's teaching assistant and became one of the principal performers of Maxfield's work. Through working closely with Maxfield in 1960 and '61, Young has observed that, "much of Maxfield's tape music was created through a technique which included pre-recording and electronically manipulating sound sources of various duration, then cutting lengths of tape containing these sounds and putting them in large glass mixing bowls. He would randomly draw pieces of tape from the bowls and splice them together placing blank tape of various durations between each of the pre-recorded sounds. What was interesting was that although this was theoretically a Cageian aleatorical approach, Maxfield reserved the right to put back any sounds he did not like and continue to draw new sounds until he found the piece sounding in a way that inspired him. Sometimes several of these reels of spliced together sounds and silences, called inter-masters, were played simultaneously on separate tape decks in concert or mixed together to form a new stereo or mono original master. His compositions were extremely well-crafted, using a sparse, static form and exhibiting a wry humor and unusual sophistication." Young points out that Maxfield was the first American composer to build his own equipment for the purpose of generating electronic tape music and was possibly the first American to compose purely electronic music as distinct from "musique concrete" composed of non-electronic pre-recorded sounds.
The tape elements of Maxfield's compositions, which included both concrete and electronically generated materials, were all produced in his own studio in New York. His equipment was rudimentary: several kit-built, sine-square wave generators, two tape recorders, a homemade mixer and a homemade turntable, microphones, a "Dynamic Spacexpander" (a kind of reverberation device), possibly some filters, and inexpensive switches, amplifiers and speakers. In 1962 Maxfield said about his work, speaking of himself in the third person, "Much of his music has as its source material recorded sounds of the instrumentalists who in performance improvise with electronic tape (which is playing their earlier recorded sounds, now distorted by electronic manipulation).... He is generally quite selective about his raw material and its alteration, but quite free with regard to placement (organization) of the finished product and the improvisation going on simultaneously."
Maxfield performed his works in New York in the late 50's and early 60's at both uptown halls and downtown lofts and performance spaces. In what was historically New York's first loft concert series, directed by La Monte Young at Yoko Ono's studio in 1960-61, Young presented two evenings of the work of Maxfield as well as concerts of the work of Jennings and other artists who were creating new and radical work at that time. David Tudor, Terry Riley, Terry Jennings, Dick Higgins and George Maciunas were some of the other artists with whom Maxfield worked. He was Musical Director of the James Waring Dance Company and his work was performed regularly in major concert series, at the Living Theatre, and for dances by Aileen Passloff and Paul Taylor.
In 1967 Maxfield left his tape music, scores and equipment in the care of Walter De Maria. He moved to San Francisco, where he taught at San Francisco State College in 1966 and '67. He moved to Los Angeles in 1968. In 1969 Richard took his own life.
De Maria kept the cartons containing Maxfield's belongings until 1975, when he asked the Dia Art Foundation to take over responsibility for their care. At that time, William Dawes took all the materials to his studio where he began the work of cataloguing and archiving Maxfield's music. Working with La Monte Young and funded by the Dia Art Foundation, Dawes produced two concerts of Maxfield's music as part of the Dream Festival, a large concert series curated by Young and Marian Zazeela in the Spring of 1975. Continuing under the auspices of the Harrison Street Dream House Project of the Dia Art Foundation, Dawes later organized and catalogued all of the Maxfield materials. The tape works, scores and equipment have been cared for and kept in storage by MELA Foundation since 1985.
Copyright (c) William Dawes 1989