A World Beyond Composing
Max Richter is arguably one of the finest composers in the contemporary classical world. From the deep melancholy of 2002’s Memoryhouse to his exquisite re-imaginings of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, he seems to have an intuitive understanding of human emotion and how to elevate us.
Richter takes the best of what the classical tradition has to offer and combines it with everything that’s great about modern music, mixing swelling strings with electronics and spoken word. While he remains modest about the significance of his work, his fans understand that a voice like his is sorely needed. In a musical landscape dominated by the overly manufactured, Richter creates compositions that are disarming in their honesty.
His name has seeped into the public consciousness through his collaborations with numerous filmmakers, lending his talent over the years to help tell stories including the Academy-Award winning Waltz with Bashir and HBO’s hit drama The Leftovers. In his solo albums including The Blue Notebooks and Songs from Before, Richter has repeatedly taken influence from fiction and poetry, his methods reminiscent of his forerunner Philipp Glass. Now for his latest project entitled Sleep, he’s taken guidance from the renowned neuroscientist David Eagleman in order to create an eight hour long concept album inspired by sleep science and the lullaby tradition. Whatever Richter comes up with in the future we can only guess, but we’re sure it will continue to spellbound and delight us.
You’ve spent a big period of your life living in Berlin. We recently interviewed ‘A Winged Victory for the Sullen,’ who are also half based in Berlin , it’s obviously an exciting place to be at the moment in terms of the neo-classical scene. What do you feel that Germany, as opposed to British culture has given you?
Well firstly I should say my musical universe was formed by growing up in the UK. England gave me a classical education but I also experienced punk, post-punk, new wave, the Manchester dance scene. I witnessed all of that first hand, rather than having to read about them in magazines. The UK is where everything happened.
Germany has an entirely different attitude to what culture is. It has a classicising tendency. Everything becomes part of the cannon in one way or another. Berlin is an eclectic city. It has a sort of omnivorous cultural process going on where lots of different things influence one another. I think it’s great that Dustin’s around and Jóhann Jóhannsson and Nils and all the guys. I was at a party at Peter Broderick’s house one time in Berlin. Dustin O’Halloran was there, Ballmoreah were there, Nils Frahm was there, I think Efterklang were there as well. Everybody was there. It was kind of a historical moment. It’s very interesting what’s going on in Berlin.
Classical music seems to be at an interesting juncture. You’ve said in interviews that marketing departments find it difficult to label your work and that you’re more interested in letting the music do the talking.
Yeah, I’m not interested in labels at all. I think as listeners we’re so used to experiencing music that fits neatly into boxes that it can be hard to step back and fully realise what music can be when it’s free from these labels.
"I was at a party at Peter Broderick’s house one time in Berlin. Dustin O'Halloran was there, Ballmoreah were there, Nils Frahm was there, I think Efterklang were there as well. Everybody was there. It was kind of a historical moment."
When I first heard The Blue Notebooks back in 2001 I was overwhelmed and intrigued. I didn’t know how to define what I was listening to. It seemed too melodic for classical but too melancholic and intelligent for pop music.
For my part I’m just writing the music that I want to write. And that direction is partly determined by my enthusiasm and my interests, and partly determined by my biography. I have a couple of music degrees and I worked as what you might call a “serious classical musician” for several years. But as a kid I was also building synthesisers from components in my bedroom. In terms of subject matter and content, it’s just things that move me and speak to me.
Classical music seems to have been blocked up, almost congested with a stuffiness. Do you think that’s maybe why the younger generation have had difficulty getting into it?
Yeah sure. But now guys like Nils Frahm and Dustin O’Halloran are making music with an amazing amount of intelligence and thoughtfulness and the structure of what they’re doing has a classical sensibility. Even though I don’t think they would agree with that. They’re not explicitly connecting themselves to that tradition but they operate as big C composers rather than producers. I think this was one of the things that I felt working with Future Sound in the early nineties. Their approach to electronics was very cognitive and considered. It stuck me that there was an overlap of what was going on in the Future Sounds studio and what was going on in university music departments.
Your music is very arresting, very emotional, melancholic and confronting. But talking to you it doesn’t seem as if that’s necessarily who you are as a person. So where do you think that aspect of your work comes from?
That’s interesting. For me it’s all about stories and about subject matter which causes me to want to write music about it. Memoryhouse is really about a journey through Twentieth Century politics. It’s about big wars, the conflicts and the political dynamics of the century. Those are the sorts of things which make me want to write music. As well I feel that there’s already too much of everything in the world and that I feel like I need a good reason to write a piece of music. In that sense I’m very much a minimalist. If I didn’t feel like I needed to communicate something then I wouldn’t write anything. The Blue Notebooks is similar. If you think of Memoryhouse as a sort of externalised commentary then The Blue Notebooks is an internal mirror of that. It deals with the same sorts of questions. It’s also a political record but viewed from an individual standpoint.
Making art is sort of a way to deal with the problem of being alive. It’s an attempt at a zone of control. One of the things that music can do is to provide a kind of solace, and given the state of the world and the state of our psychological universe, melancholia seems to me an appropriate condition.
So are you a melancholic person?
I don’t know about that. I’m very introverted. I’m not sure the two necessarily go together, but maybe they do.
It’s interesting to hear you talk about the political nature of your music. That’s not something I’d immediately associate it with. But your work obviously says something about the human condition and The Blue Notebooks was set against the backdrop of the Iraqi invasion. So maybe I can ask what your thoughts are about the current political problems we’re experiencing? And do these issues come up in your music?
Sure, absolutely. The big question of the moment is, how are we going to adjust to the huge polarity we have building up? Both in terms of ideologies in politics and economics. All of these things are coming together in a perfect storm. We’re going to need some radical solutions and clear thinking about how to accommodate the needs and desires of all these different groups of people. It’s an incredibly challenging time I think. Unfortunately right now I don’t think it’s being handled well at all. Certainly if you think about the kind of narratives that are coming out of the right wing government we have here, about swarms of migrants and all this crap. It’s horrifying that in the year 2016 we can have that kind of a conversation at all. It’s just so depressing. It makes you feel like we haven’t made any progress at all in the last hundred years. Anyhow we are where we are. But the arts is an area where these sorts of questions can be raised.
"Making art is sort of a way to deal with the problem of being alive. "
Max Richter on how music can provide solace.
You mentioned being introverted. Is that a way of shutting yourself off from the world because it’s too much to deal with?
Yes possibly. It goes back to this idea of music being a solace. Music is something I can control. When I put that note on that piece of paper, that’s where it is. It remains there.
I think we underestimate people’s intuitiveness when they listen to music. I agree that music is more profoundly communicative than words are. When you listen to music like yours, I’m sure that people feel a kind of conversation taking place.
Yeah its instrumental music but we know what is being described in some intuitive way. And that magical directness of music is one of its great qualities. I spend long hours refining things to get them to speak in the most direct possible way with the minimum amount of material.
But of course music is an interesting language in that it’s both specific and vague. That’s the paradox of the musical medium. I think if you listen to a work that you connect to closely in some intuitive way then it can have a very specific meaning. It’s a one-on-one relationship with the artist and you feel as if you’re being spoken to about something. You may not actually really know what it is that’s being said, but you have a feeling of communication and that’s something which I very deliberately make present in the music I write. It’s basically the aim of my work.
However the question of what exactly is being communicated, what is the text behind these sounds? Well that’s a much more difficult question because music is abstract. It is not something that can be easily translated into words. That is also the magic of what music is. Heinrich Heine said “Where words leave off, music begins”, and I’m very happy about that. Words aren’t everything. There are whole other dimensions of human experience which are best left undescribed by language.
"The album has been written about mostly as if it’s a kind of sleeping tablet."
Max Richter on his latest LP Sleep.
Your albums The Blue Notebooks and Memoryhouse in particular really managed to strike a chord with listeners. When you’ve finished making a record like that do you know that you’ve hit on something truly remarkable? Or are you unsure about what you’ve made?
It’s about intuition really. I work and work until I feel as if I’ve gotten to a stage where I’ve achieved something resembling what I had set out to achieve. I mean I never really feel like I’ve fully achieved it. But I’ve got a provisional map of that territory that I was looking for, what I think is a workable theory. And at that point the only way to see if it’s really a workable theory is to release the record. Then you get all the feedback from the audience.
So it seems as if in a way you’re disconnected from the music?
I wouldn’t say that. I am very connected to it but the music is more interesting and important than my involvement with it. Does that make any sense?
Not really. Could you explain what you mean?
Well I have a sense that musical material takes on a sort of intentionality once you start to work with it. And I feel like my job is to enable this to happen in the most interesting and fruitful way possible. Of course I’m the author of these works but there is a sense in which, in the same way novelists speak of their characters taking on a life of their own, musical material can surprise you by doing something completely unexpected. My voice is part of that process but I’m more interested to see what happens. I’m always waiting for surprises. That’s my process.
So let’s talk about the latest album, Sleep. You worked with the neuroscientist David Eagleman in the process of making the album. Can you tell us a bit about your interest in science and technology and about the ideas behind the music? Because it seems as if the album has been trivialised a bit.
You’re right, it has been trivialised. The album has been written about mostly as if it’s a kind of sleeping tablet. Either a sleeping tablet or some sort of record attempt. [Laughing] And those are the two stupidest things that could be said about the project. A lot of different things come together in it. It’s not a one dimensional work. It’s the outcome of a lot of thinking, a lot of enthusiasms, and a lot of questions for me personally.
I’ve had a long standing interest in the nature of our consciousness and the varying modes in which we experience that, whether it’s waking or sleeping, or altered states. Listening to music I would say is an altered state. So I asked myself, would it be possible to compose a work which was specifically intended to be experienced while sleeping? And if so how would it sound? And what are the properties it should and shouldn’t have? I started to consult with David about that some time ago.
I encountered David first during another project, an opera of mine called Sum which was based on his book of the same name. He’s a very bright fellow and a sparky thinker. His day job, aside from writing speculative fiction is to run a neuroscience lab at a university in Texas. His main interests are memory, synaesthesia and perception in time and those are all musical concerns as well. So he was my perfect sounding board for some of the things I wanted to try and do with the work.
Within human culture there is obviously a deep connection with the experiences of sleep and sound, embodied in the lullaby tradition. That’s pretty much universal in human culture and that for me was a jumping off point because it was evidence that this project was viable. Looking into the details I started to think about the kind of sounds that a piece made to be inhabited while sleeping should contain. That then led into the research of various kinds of frequencies and tempo. So the science informed the sorts of materials, the sorts of Sonics, the sorts of structures. But it’s still an artwork first and foremost. A speculative artwork which is asking the question, how can music and sleeping coexist?
What’s the response you’ve had from people? Have you had much feedback from listeners?
We’ve had a lot. The main feedback has been along the lines of “Yes, it puts me to sleep,” or “it’s put my kids to sleep,” or “It hasn’t put me to sleep because I couldn’t stop listening to it.” It has evoked responses in a lot of people I think simply because the experience of sleep in universal. And oddly enough that’s not something I’d considered at all, the fact that I was making this piece that everyone already had a connection to.
Max Richter Website
Sleep | Amazon
First: SLEEP – Mike Terry
Second: Rhys Frampton
Third: Wolfgang Borrs
For me it embodies a spirit of optimism and confidence in the future, which a lot of modernist architecture of that era had. You find a similar attitude in the architecture of Brasilia. It’s this vision of the future as a bright and shiny place where we’re all flying around in jet packs. Looking back now from the jaded twenty-first century maybe it seems a little naïve but I love the spirit it embodies.
Tiny miracles. The language he chooses for them is extremely rigorous and contrapuntal. It’s very technically demanding but he makes it sound so easy.
A book I’ve read every year for about twenty-five years. I love Joyce. It’s kind of annoying because some of the attitudes expressed are disturbing but it’s such a rich universe. I love that early modernist explosion of ideas and language and I think it’s a rich book that you can pretty much keep reading forever.