Category Archives: Projects

In Roots and Groves, for piano quartet

I have always been attracted to trees. My fascination with them has been with me at least since adolescence—walking beneath them, planting them, writing about them, and studying them. I have written numerous musical works about domestic trees, but this piece is my first foray into the foreign. The Middle East is rich with histories, languages, and cultures in which trees and various flora are regularly invoked as symbols—symbols of land, struggle, peace, nationhood, and memory. Recent events have drawn my attention to the region and the trees—the living signs and symbols—that it hosts.

Although any attempt at summary risks oversimplification, the movements of this work for piano quartet have emerged from some of the following ideas:

I. Remembering and Oranges

Orange exports and the “Jaffa orange” were once a symbol of economic prosperity in Palestine. In 1948, Zionist militias appropriated the Palestinian land, the groves, the oranges, and with them, a powerful symbol of Palestine’s identity. Now known as the “orange robbery,” this citrus symbol of prosperity has transformed into a symbol of loss. Ghassan Kanafani wrote a short story titled “Land of the Sad Oranges,” in which he describes being forced out of Palestine through the voice of a young boy:

“When Ras Naqoura came into sight in the distance, cloudy on the blue horizon, the lorry stopped. The women climbed down over the luggage and made for a peasant sitting cross-legged with a basket of oranges just in front of him. They picked up the oranges, and the sound of their weeping reached our ears. I thought then that oranges were something dear and these big, clean fruits were beloved objects in our eyes. When the women had bought some oranges, they brought them over to the lorry and your father climbed down from the driver’s side and stretched out his hand to take one. He began to gaze at it in silence, and then burst into tears like a despairing child.”

II. Children and Olives

Olives are not only a precious commodity to their famers, they encode a history of their caretakers, their groves, their cultures. The fruit yields an oil that, for some, is not only used at every meal, but is the source of light as the fuel for traditional lamps. The Bible and Koran are filled with references to olives and their oil’s worth. Additionally, the regular maintenance of one’s olive trees is a social and family affair. Harvesting olives engages the community, and children can scatter through the groves, sometimes playing, and sometimes picking up fruit that has fallen to the ground which, if sold, can yield a bit of change. An olive grove, with aged trees, and burled ancient roots, is a place of labor, of life, of history, and heritage. The loss of olives, their uprooting, their burning, their displacement, is the loss of that labor, that life, that history, and that heritage.

“If the Olive Trees knew the hands that planted them, Their Oil would become Tears.” — Mahmoud Darwish


In Roots and Groves was commissioned by the Salty Cricket Composers Collective and premiered on March 11, 2016 in Salt Lake City, UT.

I. Remembering and Oranges

II. Children and Olives

Textbooks, Orchestras, and Data

Several years ago I created a poster presentation for display at the 2012 American Orchestras Summit hosted at the University of Michigan. I’ve since shared my research privately, or within limited social spheres [read: Facebook], but have never shared my work with a wider public.

My friend, Suby Raman, has recently gained some much warranted attention for his analyses of both the repertoire of the Metropolitan Opera and, more recently, gender in America’s top orchestras.

I am very much a believer in the utility and beauty of data visualization (and sonification), not merely to provide a pretty picture (or sound), but to provide fundamental insight into data by transforming it into information and, eventually, knowledge. Edward Tufte, almost indisputably our contemporary authority on the subject, wrote the following in his introduction to the seminal The Visual Display of Quantitative Information:

Modern data graphics can do much more than simply substitute for small statistical tables. At their best, graphics are instruments for reasoning about quantitative information.

“Instruments for reasoning” indeed. Repertoire has been on my mind since I began studying music within a University context. Although I, and virtually everyone else, within the discipline of academic music studies has some vague impressions in regards to the limited cultural, geographical, and chronological musics that are most frequently engaged in the classroom, my jaw dropped at just how limited it was only when I saw the data. I have witnessed others at conferences visibly stunned when presented with the following information, despite their expertise and even demonstrable erudition in music studies. “I had no idea it was that bad,” they’ve said. Self-rebuke and head shaking typically ensues.

I am not necessarily proud of the depth of the following visualizations; in fact, they are, for the most part, simply standard pie graphs and bar charts, but they, nevertheless, demonstrate to the eye, and consequently the intellect, the significance of their underlying data.

The epiphenomenal effects of artistic canonization and curation reach far beyond ostensibly benign choices of what we study or what we play. Curation unavoidably results in validation. In the classroom, the repertoire that is engaged is almost always accompanied by the implication that what is not being studied is, in fact, not worth studying. In performance, the repertoire that is frequently performed is almost always accompanied by the implication that what is not being performed is, in fact, not worth performing.

As I continue to research how to ensure our art (and our studies of it!) exert contemporary relevance, repertoire, canonization, curation, and their effects are still very much on my mind.

I have pasted the contents of the poster below. Click on the image near the bottom to see the information as it was originally presented on the poster.

harmony-examples“Despite the array of music theory textbooks currently published, Edward Aldwell and Carl Schachter’s book, Harmony and Voice Leading, a new edition of which was published in 2011, remains one of the most commonly used undergraduate theory textbooks in use by conservatories and institutions of formal music education. Despite the seemingly benign practice of selecting “appropriate” musical examples to demonstrate a variety of concepts, aesthetic values are conveyed and enculturated by means of such choices. In the case of Aldwell and Schachter’s textbook, a conspicuous Austro-Germanic bias dominates the musical examples, as shown in the figures to the left. Other popular theory textbooks demonstrate similar partiality, despite concerted efforts in recent years to make conventional music theory appear to be more widely applicable to a range of styles and repertoire.

orchestral-repThese students proceed to populate our professional music organizations, becoming members of orchestras, conductors, marketers, directors, etc., and the aesthetic bias continues to be propagated in these new contexts. Data from the 2008-2009 census, conducted by the League of American Orchestras, is depicted in the figure to the right, demonstrating similar, though certainly not identical, tendencies in orchestral concert programming.

To suggest that the Austro-German composers receive the most attention simply because their compositions are superior is both aesthetically and historically naïve. The origins of taste are a culturally complex phenomena, influenced by culture, class, wealth, and education. Regarding the latter, music theory, perhaps even more so than historical narrative, frames our musical understandings, systematically validating those musics which it is designed to most efficiently parse and invalidating those which do not so readily yield to conventional theoretical tools. Additionally, overly moralized language present in virtually every textbook generates a false sense of objectivity, an objectivity which breeds colonialist worldviews which later proceed to leak into marketing materials, mission statements, playbill notes, programming, publicity, performance practice, and policy-making.

Joseph Horowitz audaciously opens his history of Classical Music in America by characterizing classical music in the United States as a “mutant transplant,” a valuable perspective which is too often lost among the endless practicing, rehearsals, and concerts supported by both our educational institutions and professional performance organizations. While our mission statements and artistic objectives often contain claims of universal value, community development, and musical excellence, it is easy to forget that the vast majority of music performed is from a very distant place and time, and created by cultures quite different than our own. There is an almost insurmountable incongruity between our claims of providing great musical art to our audiences, which we sometimes go so far as to claim is the greatest musical art, and the relatively small coterie of Austro-German composers from several centuries ago whose music most frequently graces our stages.

Indeed, regardless of how diverse our activities may be, our repertoire is perhaps the most substantial contributor to our public identity, and the Eurocentric origins that are obvious to virtually any outsider or would-be concert-goer, are often taken for granted by those of us who engage in this musical practice professionally. Perhaps until we—as artists, musicians, conductors, and educators—are able to come to terms with the relatively narrow nature of our musical preoccupations, our aesthetic values, culture, and finances will always be out of step with the pulse of those who might otherwise become a devoted contemporary audience.”

How Our Education Precipitates Our Repertoire


“with bated breath” Performance, This Friday @ 8pm

This Friday in the Dougherty Dance Theatre on the University of Oregon campus my work “with bated breath” will be featured along with choreography by Tiffany Alexandra Taylor. The work has been a collaborative process and has been a long time in the making, resulting in a 12-minute production—my longest collaborative choreographic work yet.

Winter Loft 2010
Friday, March 12th @ 8pm
Dougherty Dance Theatre
Gerlinger Annex, University of Oregon campus
Admission — $3 student/senior, $5 general admission

Dance For A Reason — "Tangential" With IfillDance

One of my recent collaborations with choreographer, Valerie Ifill, and her newly forged company, IfillDance, will be featured later this month at Dance For A Reason, slated to be at the Hult Center for the Performing Arts’ Silva Concert Hall on January 23rd.

As stated on Dance for a Reason’s website:

In 1992, Geni Morrow had a vision of dancing up a storm of support for organizations that benefit our community.

They called it “Dance for a Reason.”

A brainchild of Geni Morrow, the first DFAR was staged in the auditorium of Agate Hall on the University of Oregon campus in 1993. Geni had reached out to a vast network of dancers, asking them to give their time and expertise to create an eclectic dance extravaganza. All profits were donated to St. Vincent de Paul, the first of many non-profit community organizations to benefit from this volunteer effort. The audience and the dancers for that first performance both numbered about 100 each!

As it gained momentum over the years, DFAR moved to Lane Community College. When even two shows on consecutive nights could not hold the enthusiastic crowd, DFAR moved to the Hult Center for Performing Arts. In 2005, it made its debut in the Silva Concert Hall to an audience of over 1800.

Dance for a Reason is Eugene’s most eclectic, energized and fun dance show! The annual dance performance and benefit showcases the variety of talented dancers, choreographers and movement specialists in our area. It also provides a financial boost to one of the many nonprofit groups working in our community.

This year’s Beneficiary is Greenhill Humane Society.

Indeed. It should be a fantastic show, presented for the benefit of a good cause.

A brief snippet of my music, Tangential, is featured below, as well as further details about the show.


The 16th Annual Dance for a Reason
January 23rd, 2010, 7:30 pm
Hult Center Silva Concert Hall

Reserved Seating | All seats $15.00
Hult Center Box Office online at The Hult Center or call 541.682.5000

Master's Recital — Sospiro — ECCE

In light of the pervasive yet productive insanity I’ve endured over the past few months, I wanted to give a belated shout out of thanks to all those who participated and played in my Master’s Recital last month. Over the course of the next few days I will be going though my site updating recordings with the most recent versions and performances.


Hot on the heels of my personal recital was the Sospiro concert on Nov. 17th, featuring my We Have Caused The Dawn for mixed chorus. The text for the work was excerpted from the last seven lines of a poem by my father, John H. Richards, and which is reproduced in it’s entirety below:

     In the cool, in the fox-tail light,
Stars still dimming,
     There, and there,
We slide, legs naked, brushing, from the down and satin bags
     And dress, cool as the air, fresh as the light.
Fasting, then we step along the creaking wooden path, gray,
     Lean as bone beneath our sandaled feet,
Into the rising ghosts of mist, which drift and swirl
     Above the fishy flowing spring.
The sunlight grazes, hot into the canyon, flashes
     On the ochre grass and burning green, vermillion,
Cobalt, through the standing brush and watercress.
     Tight, and tighter close we hold and as
The priest lifts up the sacred cup, I lift
     Your breasts.
The fire of our gaze, still and just,
     Lights brighter than the rising sun
And our embrace is cooler than the silent fish
     Beneath our feet.
We kiss, unite,
     The sky explodes
And we have caused the dawn.

— John H. Richards

ecce logo

ECCE’s Fall 2009 Concert in Beall Hall on Nov. 23rd, was equally successful. With only four, but potent pieces on the program (James Kallembach’s Two Movements for Cello and Piano, Makia Matsumura’s Hourglass for string quartet, Heather Figi’s Speak, and Mark Knippel’s Do I Really Have To Wait Until I’m Dead . . .) I believe the concert to be one of ECCE’s most successful showings of chamber music to date. In March of 2010 ECCE will be featuring Grayson Fiske as soloist in William Kraft’s Concerto for Timpani and Orchestra, . . . among other things 🙂 Many more details to come.