URI music, art instructors bond over love of music

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Kirsten Volness and Jacob Richman
Kirsten Volness and Jacob Richman, adjunct professors at URI. Photo by Michael Salerno.

KINGSTON, R.I., Feb. 13, 2018—He first asked her out at the Blind Pig, a dance club in Ann Arbor, Mich., where they were both studying music.

It was the Halloween “Bang!” Jacob Richman was dressed as Teen Wolf. Kirsten Volness was a fortune teller. He’d seen her around campus and in music buildings, and thought she seemed “chill.”

It was clear that they both shared a passion for music.

He approached her during some indie-rock beat that neither can remember. Her reply, no—for personal reasons, not that he wasn’t bright, kind, handsome and funny.

“I wasn’t in the mood for dating anyone,” she says.

Fast forward a year: They bump into each other in the neighborhood where—they discover—they both live. A chat ensues. They friend each other on Facebook. One day, he sends her a message: “We should hang out.”

On June 30, they’ll tie the knot on a beach in Barrington in a low-key ceremony witnessed by relatives, friends and fellow musicians, who will provide the music. Richman and Volness—both adjunct professors at the University of Rhode Island—will be busy.

A formalizing of their union is exciting, they say, but not unexpected. They’ve been together 11 years, and pretty much knew after their first date that they were lifers, or, as Volness says, “We just kept hanging out.”

Besides their engagement and upcoming wedding, the couple has something else to celebrate.

Each won a $25,000 grant from the Robert and Margaret MacColl Johnson Fellowship Fund, administered by the Rhode Island Foundation. Established in 2003, the fund rotates among writers, visual artists and composers on a three-year cycle.

Richman and Volman, who live in Providence, will use the award—highly-regarded in the Rhode Island arts scene—to continue composing and creating 21st century music.

Volness joined URI in 2012 as a lecturer in the music department. Richman followed a year later and is now a lecturer in the art and art history department.

They are rising stars in the contemporary music world.

A composer and pianist, Volness, 37, writes pieces that combine electronics with traditional instruments to create music that is dynamic and immersive. Richman, 36, is a mixed-media artist who uses video, music and sound to create work in which the performers and audience interact.

Music is their bond.

He might ask her to check out his video; she might ask him for feedback on a bass part she is writing. They also share the inevitable struggles artists endure.

“You don’t get a lot of feedback as an artist,” says Richman. “When you’re working on a piece it can be very isolating. Having each other has been great for that.”

Richman first picked up a trombone when he was a 10-year-old kid in Sacramento, Calif. “I loved the purity of tone. It’s not harsh. To me, it’s like a human voice.” A double bass came three years later. He graduated from Harvard with a degree in music composition and video production, then got a master’s degree in media arts from the University of Michigan, which is where he met Volness.

Volness, born in Minnesota, learned how to play the piano before she could walk. Her mother pushed her high chair against the ivories when she was 1, and while her grandmother sang “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,” Volness played along. She started college early, enrolling at the University of Minnesota at only 16. She went on to earn her doctorate in music composition at Michigan.

Their schedules at URI are so different sometimes they don’t see each other until late at night. Volness is driving south on Interstate 95, while Richman is heading north. Still, they enjoy teaching and the personal rewards it brings. On weekends, they play in their band, Verdant Vibes.

The fellowships are appreciated, they say. Volness will use her award to produce and promote an album of original electro-acoustic music for strings and piano, and to create a multimedia opera. Richman wants to develop more computing tools, like robot sound machines, and to take on tour their Tenderloin Opera Company, which helps homeless people through music. They are co-directors.

Why does Richman love Volness? She is a talented musician, smart, quiet and thoughtful, and she seems “more like a Californian than a Midwesterner.”

Why does Volness love Richman? He is a talented musician, smart, polite and a great listener, and he has “a lot of good books on his shelf.”

Competition is not in their lexicon. “There’s no weird competitive dynamic between us,” he says. “I trust her opinion very much.”

He popped the question in November during a hike in Smithfield. Tito, their dog, took off over a hill. Volness ran after him. When she returned, with Tito in tow, Richman was on his knee, ring in hand. She said, yes. “Then we kept hiking,” she says.

They don’t have any big plans for Valentine’s Day. “I have a sound check,” says Volness. “I’m teaching a class,” says Richman. They might celebrate over the weekend in Boston—dinner at Thelonius Monkfish sushi restaurant, then off to Volness’ performance at the Boston Center for the Arts: “River Rising” and “Alone Together.”