Mourning the loss of Richard Nunns

Richard Nunns, an incredibly important and influential New Zealand musician, has died. His label boss STEVE GARDEN pays tribute.

[Note: Steve sent this out as a Rattle label email, but Witchdoctor thought it worthy of further dissemination.]

Picture by Tim Cuff 021 110 5786 – 29 December 2009 – Dr Richard Nunns holding a putorino (a Maori instrument made from matai wood) at his Nelson home, New Zealand.

With enormous sadness and respect, we mourn the loss of Richard Nunns.

Richard succumbed to Parkinson’s disease on Monday, June 7, 2021. He was and will continue to be one of Rattle’s most important collaborators, an artist with extraordinary musical vision, commitment, passion, and fearlessness.

I met Richard in 1991 at Airforce Recording Studio (Auckland) where I was working on a project at the time. I went in early one morning to do some preparation and heard the most beautiful sounds coming from the control room. I sneaked in to have a closer listen, and there was Richard and his musical partner Hirini Melbourne laying down a piece called Raureka, which was to be used as part of a film soundtrack.

 

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It didn’t take long before Richard was enthusiastically telling me about his collection of taonga p?oro, and how he and Hirini had been touring the country (mostly to Marae) to breathe new life into what was a silent but hugely important part of our cultural identity. I knew at that moment that I was going to record with Richard and Hirini, and in mid-June 1994 Rattle released the seminal, ground-breaking, hugely influential Te Ke Te Whe.

We set two weeks aside to record Te Ku Te Whe, which Richard and Hirini thought was absurd. “Two weeks?!” Richard said, ” We’ll be out of here in two hours!” They almost were. The album was all but done by late afternoon, apart from a few loose ends that were tidied up the following day.

For Richard and me, Te Ke Te Whe was the start of a 25-year working relationship that resulted in 18 albums, half a dozen commissions, and an audio archive that will enable him to contribute to yet-to-be-realised projects, which he was especially pleased about.

Richard loved to play his instruments. If anything, he could be overly enthusiastic and sometimes had to be persuaded to not play! He loved challenging situations and had an abiding aspiration to see taonga p?oro engage with all areas of music culture, from the freest and most avant-garde improvised music to pop. If he was asked to participate, he wouldn’t hesitate. It didn’t matter what style the music was, because first and foremost he was committed to spreading the word about taonga p?oro, encouraging new players and ensuring that the instruments have a place within the widest range of settings.

Richard was easy and fun to work with, although he sometimes resisted direction, preferring to make his own choices with respect to the instruments he would play and how he would play them. Which was fine, because everything he did was usable, but also because he offered his contributions with complete trust and faith. He would always say, “I’ll just give you a bunch of stuff and you can sort it out”. That trust, respect and confidence in each other’s strengths and abilities served as the basis for every project we worked on.

The time spent recording was usually brief. Richard was the archetypal ‘one-take wonder’. After an hour or two we’d be done, then we’d be off to lunch or dinner and hours of witty conversation. He loved anecdotes and sharing tales of his musical and cultural adventures.

While one wouldn’t describe Richard as a “religious” person in the strict sense of the word, he was nevertheless one of the most spiritual people I’ve met. He was alive to the world in a profound and personal way and had reverence for that which wasn’t known or provable but resonated deep within. He brought this “resonance” to every recording, such as the album with Marilyn Crispell and Jeff Henderson (This Appearing World), which offers a vivid example of the concentration and stillness he would bring, an “in-the-moment-ness” that had an almost “prayer-like” reverence and sense of occasion.

He loved serendipity and improvisation, not just in a musical sense but as something profoundly connected to living and being. He was a massive sponge and an enthusiastic orator, but gentle and mindful of others, never overbearing, and always in the moment.

He loved being in the company of friends, family, and fellow enthusiasts – he was enthusiastic about everything! Having an unquenchable thirst for culture – books, music, art, film, dance, philosophy, history, ethnography, science, the natural world and the metaphysical – Richard could engage with anyone on virtually any topic. He was into it all. And he was funny. He loved irony, word-play, in-jokes, jesting, teasing and fondly taking the piss. But always in fun, never malicious or self-aggrandizing. He respected others. He was a renaissance man in the best and fullest sense.

While the relationship Richard and I had was primarily professional – we rarely hung out or contacted each other outside of the projects that brought us together – he was like an elder brother or cousin to me, a member of the family who lived in a different part of the country with his own friends, but with whom it always felt easy and natural when we were together. We understood each other, liked each other’s company and enjoyed working together, after which we would return to our respective lives until the next project brought us together again.

I sense that Richard had many such relationships, not just in here in Aotearoa but in every corner of the globe. I count myself as very lucky to have had the opportunity to be one of his collaborators.

Go well, old friend – your breath will linger long and proud…

Steve Garden, June 8, 2021

 

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