John Keil Richards B.S. '46
Finding the Key to Utopian Music
Three scraps of paper containing music penned in blackberry juice. That's all John Keil Richards, a professor emeritus of education at Lewis & Clark and a retired 52-year veteran of the Oregon Symphony, had to work with when he began reconstructing an Aurora ländler. The historic waltz-like piece was originally composed and performed at Oregon's Aurora Colony, a utopian Christian community that thrived from 1856 to 1921.
"If you have the musical skeleton and are skilled in music theory, you know what the next note may be," says Richards, director of the New Aurora Colony Brass Band. The process, he says, is like that of a paleontologist reconstructing a dinosaur from a few bones.
"If you have absolute pitch, you can kick a garbage can and name the pitch," he says. "When I see a note on paper, I hear it in my head and can visualize what may follow. Music has structure and repetitive patterns that lead you naturally to the next note or phrase with near certainty."
In 2005, staff at the Aurora Colony Museum discovered several boxes of handwritten music, hidden away in a basement since the colony disbanded. A friend who volunteers at the museum asked Richards, a history buff, to review the compositions. Richards was amazed at their beauty and complexity. Penned by colony founder William Keil (no relation) and three professional composers he brought from Missouri, the music features polkas, waltzes, serenades, and marches as well as nods to the classics.
Richards works alone and with band members to reconstruct the music by ear before it's entered into Sibelius, a computer program for music publishing.
"The first time I played the colony's music was with some of the top wind musicians in Portland. They were astounded--and hooked--within the first eight measures."
Richards says playing Aurora music is challenging, uplifting, and addictive. He has never had to ask twice for musicians to join him in concert.
The New Aurora Colony Brass Band is made up of 10 to 24 musicians, many with Oregon Symphony experience. The band played the colony's music at 11 concerts in the Northwest last year. Future concerts will showcase Civil War–inspired music from three successive periods--1884 to 1896, 1896 to 1916, and 1917 to 1920--culminating in performances celebrating Oregon's 150th anniversary in 2009.
In addition to his Aurora Colony gig, Richards currently instructs students in the art of playing tuba and other brass instruments. Previously, he helped set up Lewis & Clark's instrumental music program, taught music and educational psychology, and served as an associate dean.
Connections to Lewis & Clark also run deep in his family. His wife is a graduate (Cheri Ann Egbers Richards B.S. '56), as was his late first wife (Dorothy Richards B.A. '65, M.A.T. '79). In addition, four of his five children graduated from Lewis & Clark: the late Melody Speros B.S. '64; Carol Richards Ellis B.A. '73, M.Ed. '74; the late Dr. Jay Richards B.S. '78; and Jonelle Richards B.A. '80.
For his own part, John Richards says, "I came to Lewis & Clark in the 1940s, and I'm still here."
--by Pattie Pace
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