In “Spaceship City,” for example, everyone is plugged into a computer simulating life, couples are made to reproduce, and at the age of 80 they are ejected from the craft and left to float in space. In “New York of Brains,” a post-apocalyptic world is described with a giant cube filled with 10,000,456 human brains in liquid-filled containers. “Completely cut off from human perception,” wrote Frasinelli, “they can sublimate their thoughts for as long as the life of the sun, free to reach the supreme goals of wisdom and madness, perhaps to reach absolute knowledge.” All the other ‘ideal’ cities describe similar visions relying heavily on technology, although the descriptions are mocking to cities that existed at the time of publication.
“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 heard of avant-rock, hybrid electronics, and plunderphonics, yet completely obscured by the vagaries of history, is Richard Maxfield.” (David Toop, Ocean of Sound)
Young Maxfield seemed destined to scale the heights of midcentury musical modernism: during the 1950s he studied with such heavies as Sessions, Krenek, Copland, and Babbitt, as well as with Dallapiccola and Maderna while in Italy on a Fulbright Scholarship. But in the later part of the decade his interests began to turn toward experimental and electronic music, and it is in this domain where his influence, though subterranean, is still felt.
In 1959, Maxfield took over John Cage’s class on experimental music at the New School for Social Research in New York City. He used this forum to teach techniques of “pure” electronic music (using synthetically generated sounds, as opposed to those recorded by microphones), albeit of a style quite distinct from the usually austere productions of Stockhausen and company in Cologne. According to La Monte Young, who studied with Maxfield and was one of his earliest advocates, Maxfield was the first American composer of purely electronic music. But Maxfield also worked with recordings: his 1960 tape piece Amazing Grace is a surrealistic collage based on the recorded voice of a revival preacher.
Maxfield’s electronic music combines purity of sound with a twittering, frenetic energy that anticipates the atomized textures of much later electronica. In Pastoral Symphony, as in the longer kindred composition Night Music, electrophonic production, driven to its extreme, miraculously evokes the primal, pre-human utterances of insects, birds, and cosmic rays.
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”)
UPDATE (18 May 2011): Greg Davis has put together an excellent compilation of Maxfield’s music, plus some writings and an interview. It’s available for download at Root Blog. Have at it!