Richard Wolfson

Musician with Towering Inferno
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The Independent Online

Richard Wolfson was a musician, composer, film-maker, critic and journalist, best known as one half of the uncompromising music group Towering Inferno, which he formed in 1985 with his lifelong friend and musical partner Andy Saunders.

Richard Jonathan Wolfson, musician, composer, film-maker and journalist: born Solihull, Warwickshire 25 April 1955; died London 1 February 2005.

Richard Wolfson was a musician, composer, film-maker, critic and journalist, best known as one half of the uncompromising music group Towering Inferno, which he formed in 1985 with his lifelong friend and musical partner Andy Saunders.

Five years in the making, their 1993 album Kaddish was a harrowingly intense concept album which used the Holocaust as a central theme, realised through an ambitiously eclectic range of musical styles, from a cappella singing, Jewish cantor and acoustic folk music to thrash-metal, jazz-rock and avant-garde classical modes.

It was widely acclaimed upon its small independent release - most notably by Brian Eno, who marvelled at what he considered "the most frightening piece of music I have ever heard" - and eventually secured a wider audience a few years later when it was reissued by Island Records. Between 1995 and 1999, Wolfson and Saunders toured the work intensively around the world with an 18-piece band and a multi-media show, playing at opera houses and concert halls, climaxing with three sold-out performances at the Melbourne State Opera House.

Richard Wolfson was born in 1955 to Eric and Elizabeth Wolfson, an Orthodox Jewish couple of respectively Polish and Russian descent. The youngest of three brothers, Richard was brought up in Solihull, where he developed a hatred of authority at an early age thanks to the brutal methods employed by his piano teacher. He soon stopped taking lessons, and never pursued classical training again.

His experiences at Solihull School followed a similarly autodidactic route. Despite their misgivings, he shocked his teachers by acquiring grade A A-level passes in English and Music, and a grade one in S-level English, without apparently doing any work.

At the same time, Wolfson's earliest musical obsession was with the Scots mystic folk duo the Incredible String Band, whose songs he performed around Birmingham with a small folk group. In 1972, he met Andy Saunders, with whom he formed the avant-rock band Missing Morris, a furrow-browed distillation of the era's most "difficult" musical influences, from Messiaen and Miles Davis to English art-rockers such as Henry Cow and Soft Machine, and groundbreaking German ensembles like Can and Faust.

Between 1974 and 1977, Wolfson studied Music and Theatre at York University under Wilfred Mellers, whose teachings reinforced his determination to break down the distinctions between classical and pop music. Moving to Brixton upon graduation, he worked with groups such as the Sadista Sisters and Fischer-Z, although his most significant musical alliance of the period proved to be with his old friend Saunders in the sax/piano jazz outfit the Art Hammer Duo.

The duo became part of the capital's modern jazz scene, working most fruitfully with the expatriate South African jazz community whose number included Julian Bahula and the great alto and tenor saxophonist Dudu Pukwana. Over the next decade, Wolfson and Saunders toured widely throughout Europe and around Britain.

In 1985, the duo instigated the Towering Inferno project with the film-maker Arthur Howes and visual director Roger Riley. The intention was to devise a platform for the juxtaposition of diverse music genres, from rock to ambient, folk to jazz, pop to classical; and to present this eclectic mix within a performance context that utilised the music as the driving force behind a series of visual projections, many of them incorporating 8mm and 16mm film footage shot by Wolfson himself on Art Hammer Duo and Towering Inferno tours of Europe.

An encounter with the Hungarian poet Endre Szkárosi at the 1986 D'Art Room Festival in Bologna convinced the duo to investigate their own Jewish roots, an interest which led to the development of Kaddish, a grand work exploring "the contradictions of barbarism and civilisation, innocence and corruption, seduction and repulsion, promises and lies, hope and despair".

Between 1988 and 1993, they brought in various drummers, string players and cantors to help realise their vision, along with art-rock heroes of their youth such as the Henry Cow drummer Chris Cutler and the Soft Machine saxophonist Elton Dean, recording much of the album in the Regent's Park Diorama. It was some of the most uneasy listening music ever put on record, dividing opinions starkly, but leaving no room for apathy. Using triple-screen back-projections, the live performances were just as confrontational as the music, blending old documentary footage of Nazi parades with holiday home movies, foreign television commercials, slo-mo footage, buzzwords like "Sex", "Power" and "Hate", and flaming swastikas and Stars of David.

Some critics found the approach lacking in subtlety, but Wolfson defended its impact. "We tried to avoid clichés, but some of the imagery is very one- dimensional," he explained in an interview at the time. "A burning swastika held there for two or three minutes does something quite interesting - it's simple and full of evocative resonance."

Following four years of touring Kaddish, Wolfson successfully studied for a master's thesis, "Towards a Theory of Live Music/Film and Performance", at the Royal College of Art, and also established himself as a film and music critic for the Financial Times and Daily Telegraph. At the time of his death, he and Saunders were only months away from completion of their follow-up project, The Other Side, on which they had been working for five years.

Andy Gill

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