A meorial service for the late Richard Burns took place in Syracuse Saturday, Juanuary 11, 2003. He was the co-inventor of the Packburn Transient Noise Supressor, an advanced record collector, superb recording enginner (Overtone Records, among others), and long-time friend. I prepared th what follows for a memorial booklet but thought it worth sharing it more widely as well.
Richard Burns will be recognized as among the founding fathers of the evolving understanding of 19th century performance practice, a development parallel with the acceptance of the recorded sound archive as a legitimate academic presence. At Yale and, later, Syracuse, his evangelistic enthusiasm opened the ears of many to what could be learned from old recordings and how this knowledge might be applied to modern performance. Overcoming hostile indifference by previous generations of academics to anything but print and manuscript-based research, his class at Syracuse may well have been the very first formal course worldwide to focus on deciphering what past generations of musicians have passed on to us through those scratchy discs.
His passion for old recordings is further reflected in the conception and execution of his design for a device to substantially reduce impulse noise from shellac records, the Packburn. Collectors of old records develop a mental facility at haring past sonic imperfections but the listener-off-the-street comes equipped with no such switch in his brain. One benefit of the Packburn was to contribute toward overcoming this barrier to entry into the audio time-machine.
We were record collectors together, a small, obsessed band of music lovers with the gift of musical recall sufficient to track a performance we were hearing with those we had heard before. Comparing as the music unfolded enhanced rather than diverted us from additional listening enjoyment. We allowed ourselves to be exposed to how others conceived a piece in the broadest of ways and in the most minute detail. Our occasional face-to-face meetings were filled with…"you know the place just before the cymbal crash in the last movement?" and similar references that must have baffled the less deeply immersed. "But the Lener does it this way," and either he’d sing or I’d croak out a phrase or two. "Ah, but was that on their first or later recording?" asked the other. "Hmm. I guess I’ll have to pick that one up, too." So, in due course, our floors sagged a bit more. These acquisitions were made less to add to out troves and more so that when that issue came up again, a sonic example was to hand (or so we rationalized it.)
Dick’s flexible mind saw past the accepted ways of hearing and doing things and opened to many the treasure chest of our precious, ever accumulating audio heritage. Knowing him enriched my own life as well.