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PACMF09: Kim Paisey previews "Kropotkin" by Sam Richards


When I heard that this year the Peninsula Arts Contemporary Music Festival was celebrating 200 years of Darwin, was I surprised that Sam Richards was debuting his latest piece named after the Russian 'free thinker' Kropotkin? Not at all. In a world where people, government and society itself, are constantly contradicting one another and uprooting what we thought was right (and turning it on its head) it is the smaller, more constant parts of life that stop us from completely giving up and going insane. Music has always walked hand in hand with the highs and lows of society as a way of making ethical statements.

In 1902 the Russian anarchist Kropotkin's book “Mutual Aid: A factor of Evolution” was published. He wrote it while living in exile in England. “Mutual Aid” discusses and argues an alternative view on species survival, challenging Darwin's theory. Kropotkin suggested that members of a species have to interact with one another successfully to stay alive, and that cooperation between species plays a vital role. This new idea contradicted Darwin's idea that all species are in a state of natural selection in which survival of the fittest was the only real answer for survival.

Sam Richards uses aspects of Kropotkin's ideas from 'Mutual Aid' in his latest composition. This composition – called “Kropotkin” in honour of its inspiration - is a statement and answer to Darwin's theory. Sam shines light onto the idea that survival is determined by cooperation as much as by fitness, or in this case, musical fitness.

Sam's musical learning has been coloured by great musicians and opportunities, which include – while a student in London - working with Cornelius Cardew. This was  where Sam first discovered musical democracy. He also attended Alfred Nieman's improvisation classes. Sam's interest in folk music led him to field work within this genre. He documented folklore in the West country where he worked with farming communities, moorland people, children and Gypsies. This passion for folk music strongly shaped the 'take' on music he has today.

“Kropotkin” is the latest in a fascinating string of compositions by Sam Richards that share similar structures which can only be a success if solo or small group contributions are worked together in a semi-improvised form. Other works in this series are 'Erratic movements of the Ear' (1994), 'The tunes of Cheng 1' (1996), 'Midwinter Ceremonies' (1997), 'About Time' (1997), and 'Hearing Things' (2005).

Within composition Sam believes it is as important to take into consideration the environment the piece will be performed as well as the actual notes - thus he specifies the environment in which the piece is to be played. Generally speaking the performance of his pieces requires a large number of musicians distributed over a large space. (However this isn't always true. I recently witnessed Sam's “Fish Music 2” performed in Plymouth Aquarium by a small string orchestra and four hand-picked soloists. The music was completely determined by the fish in the tank and the dynamics of their swimming.) For “Kropotkin” Sam will require the whole ground level of the Roland Levinsky building at the University of Plymouth.

You are never likely to hear a Sam Richards piece sound the same twice. Sam's ideas on notation are miles away from the Western style most musicians are used to reading. His compositions use a variety of notation - standard, adapted standard, graphic, text and verbal notation. These give the musicians a lot more freedom within the piece than that found in most conventionally written music. Which means – for the musicians - a lot more fun and power than usual.

When society is unsure or in trouble music always plays a big part in inspiring or reassuring. In 1969 during the Woodstock festival, Jimi Hendrix's interpretation of “The Star Spangled Banner” - sandwiched within “Purple Haze” - threw up many ethical considerations. Music has this effect on society; whether it's an underground music scene standing up for a group of people that are unheard or unfairly treated, or huge publicised events like the Live Aid concerts, music influences us not only as individuals but as a society. These musical utterances have shaped, and will continue to shape, our future. Sam Richards premiering his composition “Kropotkin” at a festival dedicated to Darwin, is a musical utterance that is designed to stick.

Kim Paisey

Sunday 1st March 2009

1.30pm: Talk Free event
Theatre 1, Roland Levinsky Building, University of Plymouth
On the Composition of 'Kropotkin' - Sam Richards
Sam Richards gives a pre-concert talk introducing the ideas behind his composition Kropotkin.

2.00pm: Concert Free event
Theatre 1, Roland Levinsky Building, University of Plymouth
Kropotkin - Sam Richards
Composition, improvisation, group and solo playing, coexist in Sam Richards’ new work for large group. It is inspired by Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid (1902), a rebuttal of crude social Darwinism, Kropotkin saw cooperation as a greater factor in life than competition. In this experimental piece cooperation between many players is fundamental. 

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