by Steve Garden

Obituary: Richard Nunns

by Steve Garden

Obituary: Richard Nunns

Richard Nunns succumbed to Parkinson’s disease on Monday, June 7, 2021. The following tribute has been provided by Rattle record label owner Steve Garden.

Richard Nunns was and always will 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 soundtrack for a film.

It didn’t take long before Richard enthusiastically told me about his collection of taonga pūoro, 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 would record with Richard and Hirini. In mid-June 1994, Rattle released the seminal, ground-breaking ‘Te Kū Te Whē’.

We set two weeks aside to record ‘Te Kū Te Whē’, 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 Kū Te Whē’ 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 who knows how many yet-to-be-realised projects, which he loved the thought of.

Richard loved to play his instruments. If anything, he could be overly enthusiastic and sometimes had to be persuaded not to play! He loved challenging situations and had an abiding aspiration to see taonga pūoro engage with all areas of music culture, from the freest improvised music to the straightest pop. If he was asked, 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 pūoro, encouraging new players and ensuring that the instruments have a place within the widest range of musical 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 often 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. He 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 devotional reverence.

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, wordplay, in-jokes, jesting, teasing and fondly taking the piss. But always in fun, never malicious or self-aggrandising. 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 here in Aotearoa but in every corner of the globe. I count myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to be one of his collaborators, but more importantly to have known him as a friend.

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

Steve Garden, June 8, 2021