When she was about 12, remembers pianist Jill Richards, she decided that music was “all I ever want to do”. So it has been. In Richards’ words: “the love affair hasn’t ended”. A few decades on, and the pianist has a career with at least two faces. As a respected concert pianist, she presents both classical and contemporary repertoire here and overseas in formal settings. But, increasingly, she’s also the pianistic co-conspirator in risk-taking multimedia projects that interrogate image, time, place and sound itself.
Richards’ most recent album Kevin Volans’ Etudes, sees her interpreting a set of piano studies by the composer while he, also on piano, revisits work by Frans Liszt. Her musical partnership with South Africa-born, Ireland-based Volans is perhaps the most sustained of all her collaborations: it stretches back almost a quarter of a century. But there have been many others: with the late jazz reedman Zim Ngqawana; composers Philip Miller, Michael Blake and Paul Hanmer; visual artists William Kentridge and Barend “BJ” Engelbrecht; violinist Waldo Alexander; sound artist Joao Orecchia; film-maker Jurgen Meekel; and more. The collaborations provide a constant infusion of new ideas for her engagement with the instrument novelist James Baldwin dubbed “[just] … so much wood and wires and little hammers and big ones, and ivory.”
Piano-playing started out far more conventionally for Richards, however. Durban-born, she moved with her family to Joburg when she was five. Later, her mother, like many middle-class parents, “sent me to the lady down the road for piano lessons.” Having exhausted what that teacher could provide, her next tutor was concert pianist Philip Levy, who set more challenging and unpredictable playing assignments: “He broke all the rules; I adored him.” Meanwhile, she was discovering the power music could exercise over a listener, as she explored the classical albums she found at home. “It wasn’t particularly piano music at that stage,” she says. “In fact, the first recording where I found the sound absolutely thrilling was Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake – it gave me these deep-seated chills down my arms!”
The first piano recording to have the same effect, Richards recalls, was Russian pianist Shura Cherkassky’s interpretation of the Liszt Totentanz.
In her mid-teens, Richards also learned flute. Having accepted her daughter’s plans for a music career, her mother pointed out she’d need a second instrument for university studies. That entailed two years of highly structured learning from the then-principal flute of the SABC Orchestra. “It was such formal schooling – endless scales, to the point where I was pleading, ‘Please can’t I have a piece to play?’ But I learnt a lot of important lessons about all those old-fashioned values you need: discipline, rigour, hard work.” Those lessons served her in good stead during her studies: first-degree work at UCT and then two years at London’s Royal College of Music, during which she earned postgraduate diplomas and Associateships in both piano and flute. A year in Kansas followed, studying with Angola-born Portuguese pianist, Sequeira Costa.
Looking back on her early formal music studies, Richards believes there are additional elements that could enrich classical music programmes in future.
“There’s too little emphasis on the body in music teaching. Currently I’m getting very interested in issues of how freedom in the upper body relates to playing: crossed hands, big gestures, all that.”
“I’d been conscious of the issue of ‘arm weight’ for a long time in considering my own classical playing,” Richards explains. But, she says, her thinking evolved further when she started considering how her body behaved while she was improvising.
Improvisation isn’t alien to classical music: early performers often added their own musical ornaments to what they played, and the soloists of the Nineteenth Century – such as rockstar violinist Paganini – improvised extended cadenzas. But it is not part of the classical music curriculum. Although Richards had been interested in more experimental forms of New Music since her late teens, improvisation only entered her performing life after she met and worked with Ngqawana in 2010. The jazzman had found her performance of works by Hungarian composer György Kurtág intriguing, and wondered if they might collaborate.
“Man, Zim was such a gift in my life! He told me he’d like us to improvise together. I was a bit hesitant: ‘Improvise? But I’m a classical musician!’ I felt like an idiot. And he said: ‘Of course you can do it! Just listen to Ornette.’
It was like throwing me in the deep end and telling me of course I could swim! But he did it with such openness and generosity, that, in the end, I was improvising – and really enjoying it.
“It’s such a shame that people aren’t taught free improvisation, whatever kind of music they want to play. It’s such fun! But it also gets you thinking in a different way about both your sound and your technique.”
Understanding the embodied aspects of playing is important for Richards’ approach. The amount of direct keyboard practice she does daily depends on her upcoming concert schedule, but she has a routine of technical exercises to “warm up your hands and ear.” Staying generally fit is also vital; Richards walks and gyms regularly: “You don’t just want to be playing piano with your fingers. The energy should extend through your body right to the back of your shoulders. Especially since I don’t,” she confesses, spreading them on the table between us, “actually have ideal piano hands.” She points to the relative shortness of her fourth digits: “When I look at pictures of Richter and Horowitz, they have these large hands and all four of their fingers are the same length!”
Insights about the physicality of technique cross-fertilise between Richards’ approach to both scored and improvised playing. So does her understanding of composition. Here, the relationship with Volans has been important. “There have been a lot of conversations between us as he’s written me pieces. In that way, I’ve come to understand what computer people would call the back end of composing. Then, when I go back to, say, a Beethoven sonata, I also understand much better what went into creating the score, and I can use that insight to inform my playing.”
Etudes was only released in late June 2022, but has already garnered praise from critics. That longstanding friendship and multiple conversations between pianist and composer over many years while composition was in process mean Richards knows Volans’ works intimately. As she explained to music scholar Christine Lucia in 2009:
“…my perspective on the Etudes is quite different from other people’s. It’s analogous to my … I’m busy building the house; and I know it terribly well; I know it better than anybody else; because as far as I know I’m the only person in the whole world! [laughs] who plays Etudes 4, 5 and 6. And the first three have only had one other pianist have a go at them. That’s a different perspective from someone who’s coming from outside.”
Richards and Volans have similar outlooks on creating music. As well as sharing that interest in the components of composition, they share a painstaking, detail-oriented approach. Both care deeply about performance as an element of the work: Volans, for example, doesn’t declare a composition finished until he has heard it performed and adjusted it in line with what that experience tells him. Richards treasures working with composers who care what happens during the performance of their works. As she told Lucia:
“I have worked with a lot of composers, and some of them have been quite grim. They don’t actually care about their work. It’s like bad parents, you know? The ones who put their children in the front seat of the car without the safety belt. Really, you want to shout at them. For a performer it’s the kiss of death, because you think, ‘Well, if the composer doesn’t care, why should I?’ That’s one of the places where I have to separate my ‘friend’ self from my ‘working’ self. Really, I respect Kevin, because he’s 101% committed to what he does.”
And, clearly, both Volans and Richards adore the piano as an instrument. The passionate commitment to music Richards described from when she was 12, “is even more intense now I’m performing and feeling the keys under my hands… The piano is an extraordinary instrument. It’s so versatile, with so many colours and that beautiful singing tone. It’s also a gorgeously resonant wooden box. You aren’t confined to playing the keys: you can play inside, or tap the underside – almost anything.” Some years back, Richards dedicated a bequest she’d received to a trip to Hamburg, where she bought herself a Steinway.
Her enthusiasm for the less conventional uses of the piano’s wires, wood and ivory – and the noise-making gadgets such as toys, tinfoil, chains and glass she introduces to them – are what make Richards such a popular collaborator for experimental music projects.
Right now, those often happen in the trio Playgroup, with Meekel and Engelbrecht, which she calls “one of the happiest things ever – it does actually feel like play because of the joy in the unit.”
Playgroup evolved through a series of serendipitous meetings. For his Masters project, Meekel had been working with projected images and laser-light effects, with a soundtrack created by him and Richards. Richards was then the solo improviser when the work was presented at the Market Theatre. Meekel subsequently introduced her to visiting urban architecture scholar Professor Stefan Winter, who was contemplating a project focusing on cities and their sounds. Engelbrecht joined that planning process. “This was in lockdown, so we were all meeting by Zoom and not used to it yet. I didn’t really understand those meeting protocols – I just put up my hand and said ‘I wanna work with BJ’.”
One outcome was the album 20 Janets released late last year: short tracks grounded in, as the liner notes say, “sonic discovery…listening to people’s lives and activities [in the city]”. It’s an assemblage of found, fabricated and improvised Johannesburg sounds, with titles like Bottles, Sewing, Nail Gun and Rumble+Chicken, descriptive of the material that inspired each. You’ll hear lots of piano – but sometimes parts of it you don’t expect.
The physical, artisanal aspects of Richards’ approach to musicianship – to Lucia, she described herself as a “manual worker”; to me, she said, “my brain lies in my hands” – finds full expression in duetting with, say, the explosive exhalation of a gas burner. But so does her sense of fun. Her intense participation in the edgy landscape of musique concrète on a semi-darkened arts centre stage never lacks for moments of mischievous sonic surprise; her sober discussion of the discipline of performance is constantly leavened with laughter.
That anarchic humour echoes in Playgroup’s album title. “Janet is one of my dogs. When we’d finished the recording, we were all looking at one another, wondering what on earth we could call these 19 tracks – ‘Why not 20 Janets?'”
20 Janets is not the end of listening to, and playing with, the city. This year, Playgroup has concluded its year-long Sonic Excavations, exploring more deeply what Richards calls “the layers of listening in Joburg”. Meanwhile Cities, the new project, will lift off in 2023. Involving a range of performance discipines including dancers, and co-ordinated by Winter in Berlin, the work draws in artists from both cities, including multimedia artist Donna Kukama and TBMO vocalist Siya Mthembu.
Anybody who has attended one of Richards’ occasional house concerts will likely have met Janet the Airedale terrier. Richards’ two big, friendly dogs are usually dozing somewhere around when Richards throws open the doors of her Melville home with its steep, stepped front garden to present a selection of music she likes, played with and by people she likes. Covid stopped that in its tracks for two years, and Richards admits to missing it a lot. When she discusses current and future plans, getting the house concerts running more regularly again is a priority – that, and, (after what has been a tough couple of years) “doing more playing for myself”.
That doesn’t mean the end of travel and cross-national collaborations, though. Richards and Swiss drummer/composer Christophe Fellay are jointly steering a two-year project between their countries called Listening At the Edge, already approaching its third iteration. That, and Cities are the firmly booked plans; there are other ideas on the horizon, and – as with much of Richards’ career to date – completely off-the-wall serendipities will certainly pop up too.
After he’d reduced the piano to its bare wood, wires, hammers and bone, Baldwin went on to write: “While there’s only so much you can do with it, the only way to find this out is to try; to try and make it do everything.” Jill Richards won’t stop trying.