This article was originally published in 2008
Listening to Max Richter’s The Blue Notebooks for the first time, it’s hard to shake the impression that you’ve heard it before; you don’t feel so much that you’re discovering it, as being reunited with it.
Richter is best known as a classically-trained composer, albeit one with a keen and unusual interest in production. Inspired not only by the likes of Messiaen and particularly Philip Glass (whose penchant for plangent piano arpeggios and a decidedly romantic, cinematic “minimalism” he shares), but electronic artists as diverse as Basic Channel and Kraftwerk and, perhaps most saliently, post-rock outfits in the emotionally grandstanding Godspeed mould, Richter’s work might best be described as classical music in which the studio is the principal instrument.
The title of his outstanding debut album, Memoryhouse, made explicit from the off Richter’s enduring thematic obsession, an obsession which matured into real artistry on The Blue Notebooks – only four years old and already well established as a classic of “quiet music”. Richter paints an imaginary cityscape in which dreams and reality, past and present, collide and coalesce; elliptic fragments of Kafka and Milosz, read by Tilda Swinton, add to the sense of existential drift. Piano, violin, cello and viola figure prominently in the melancholic mix; a tremulous architecture of field recordings and “antique electronics” surrounds and suffuses the more traditional sounds.
2006’s Songs From Before was a similarly spell-binding, more hauntologically attuned affair, with Robert Wyatt taking over from Swinton in the role of narrator. Richter’s plangent melodies are deeply submerged in an aqueous haze of tape delay, analogue synth layers and shortwave radio crackle: this is classical music in dub. 2008 saw Richter with Music For 24 Postcards In Full Colour, a collection of 24 short sound-sketches which interrogate the idea of the ringtone [of which more later].
Richter’s reputation might rest largely on the aforementioned album sequence, but he’s been busy with many other projects and commissions over the past fifteen years. He worked with The Future Sound of London on their 1996 LP Dead Cities, and produced Vashti Bunyan’s sublime 2005 comeback album Lookaftering. More recently, the Berlin-based composer provided the score for Ari Forlman’s animated memoir of his participation in the ’82 Lebanon War, the Oscar-nominated Waltz With Bashir.
As FatCat prepare to release deluxe vinyl editions of The Blue Notebooks and 24 Postcards in Full Colour, FACT spoke to Max about projects old and new, and the centrality of storytelling to the composer’s art.
“It all started with the milkman. In the morning outside the front door there would be two pints of milk, half a dozen eggs and the latest slice of hardcore minimalism.”
What were your early musical epiphanies? Where did music really begin for you?
“It all started with the milkman. When I was in my early teens the guy who delivered the milk noticed I was into music, so he would drop off all these crazy records for me to check out. In the morning outside the front door there would be two pints of milk, half a dozen eggs and the latest slice of hardcore minimalism by Philip Glass in the original LP format from Point Records…
“I always listened to a wide range of music, both classical and popular, so there are many many things that were important to me. Discovering Bach and then, as a teenager, earlier polyphonic music – Byrd, Tallis and the Elizabethans. Then the masterpieces of the 20th century and more recent music…Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, Messaien’s Quartet for The End of Time, Boulez’s Pli Selon Pli, and Le Marteau sans Maitre, Stockhausen’s Gruppen, and Carre and Trans. The music of Xenakis had a big impact, the ideas of John Cage, Takemitsu, Grisey, plus discovering the American minimalists.
“In the world of ‘popular’ music I was always into artists that really used the studio as an instrument in whatever genre, so that means the early electronic acts – Kraftwerk, etc, but also the psychedelic guitar-driven music of the late 60s, like early Pink Floyd, and the Studio One music of King Tubby et al. I was just fascinated by how machinery could evoke so much feeling and so much of a sense of personal stories being told.”
“I suppose because the music is made in the studio from the scores, the studio becomes part of the instrumentation – so the (vinyl) record is the basic document. I’m devoted to the classic technology of recording – 2” 16-track tape, analogue mixing, vinyl. That’s it for me – that’s the sound I love.
“Live performance is a great way to explore the material too, but it’s a different thing – audience dynamics, setting and various other factors all play a part. I do play live from time to time and have a great group of players I’ve been working with for years – they have recorded all my records too.”
“My life can be divided into the years before and after I heard the filter opening up on the bassline of Kraftwerk’s ‘Autobahn’. I don’t think I’ve got over it yet.”
At what point in your life or career did you begin to intuit the importance and potential of production and “ambient” sound?
“I have always been into sound – It’s an addiction really – I was the kid drooling over the low end or the drum sounds on Beatles records when everyone else was singing along to the vocals. My life can be divided into the years before and after I heard the filter opening up on the bassline of Kraftwerk’s ‘Autobahn’. I don’t think I’ve got over it yet. The other thing that did it was Eno’s masterpiece, Discreet Music, with its mind-blowing B-side remix of the Pachelbel Canon. I wish I’d thought of that!”
The Blue Notebooks is now four years old. Looking back on it, it how do you feel? Does it trigger any particular thoughts or emotions? Is there anything you would change about it if you could?
“I haven’t listened to it in its entirely since I made it so its hard for me to comment. When we play the material live we always have a good time, and it’s great to hear those texts – the lines by [poet Czseslaw] Milosz that open up ‘The Trees’ is a kind of touchstone for me – “…and the trees were even higher than in childhood, because they had been growing during all the years since they had been cut down”. Amazing that he allowed me to use it.”
You’ve recently scored Waltz With Bashir. How does scoring a pre-existing visual work differ to working from scratch?
“Film scoring is a mix of writing music and puzzle-solving: the music has to work but you don’t want it to stomp all over the film – so it’s a pretty interesting set of challenges. Waltz is an outstanding piece of art and it was pleasure to work with Ari on it – he is very into music and pretty much let me do whatever I wanted. Ideal!”
“Film scoring is a mix of writing music and puzzle-solving.”
The dense literary references in The Blue Notebooks and Songs From Before, the ringtone idea at the heart of of 24 Postcards: do you like to have some kind of thematic or conceptual focus for a project, rather than simply composing out of nothing, so to speak. Could you see yourself ever making an explicitly non-conceptual work, if indeed there is such a thing?
“No – it’s the ideas or the stories or the questions that get me started.”
“I thought about what a waste it was to have several hundred million loudspeakers walking around the world with nobody caring about writing for that incredible medium.”
Memory seems to play a big part in your work – both explicitly, in the titles (Memoryhouse, Songs From Before) and narrations, but also in the very texture of the music…
“I’m interested in how stories and reality interact – in how we narrate and fictionalise our own lives and history – I just think it’s a fascinating human process and so revealing of what motivates us. I’m interested in making connections and asking questions in what I do.”
“I’m interested in how stories and reality interact – in how we narrate and fictionalise our own lives and history.”
You seem very concerned with isolation, walking, the occult resonances of the city – psychogeographic themes, broadly speaking. Is the individual adrift in the city a theme which interests you? What’s your own relationship with (the idea of) the city?
“Yes, I’m very interested in the urban experience – it is a kind of shared reality for most of us – and will only get more so. How we find meaning in our urban lives seems like a big question to me. Also the city itself is kind of a collective act of writing – a fiction we live in.
“I’ve just moved to Berlin – every new city feels like landing on a new planet, so I’m kind of adrift at the moment – spending most of my time getting lost – which I love doing.”
“I’m interested in all sorts of artists that work creatively with sound and use their chosen language in thoughtful ways. Off the top of my head, recent and otherwise: Battles, GAS, Autechre, Es, Arvo Part, Planet Mu, Godspeed et al, Philip Glass (still), Meredith Monk, but also… Purcell, Dufay, Dunstable and other dead folks. 33.3 should have been huge for Play Music, same goes for Rachel’s for Systems/Layers.
Do you consider Songs From Before, The Blue Notebooks and Memoryhouse to be a loose trilogy? There seem to be all kinds of conceptual and musical links between them. If so, is the sequence over? Or will this become a tetralogy and so on in time?
“They are a trilogy – so far! Really I just keep writing all the time – the records are just a kind of slice through that process – I suppose they hang together because I’m still obsessed with the same things? But in reality they are part of a continuing series of overlapping things.”
“I’m kind of adrift at the moment – spending most of my time getting lost.”
Working with Tilda Swinton and making The Art of Mirrors – what’s been your relationship with Derek Jarman’s work over the years? What appeals to you about his work and do you feel it has any resonances with what you do? What exactly is The Art of Mirrors?
“Jarman was important in so many ways both as a filmmaker and because he was one of the artists who was really making political work at that time . So for me, seeing those films in the toxic right wing conformist culture of the 80s was just such a relief – it seemed like it was possible to have ideas after all. I love his connection to the punk sensibility too – those films are rough but so very alive – and because of that, very beautiful.
“The Art of Mirrors is an hour of music that coexists in performance with a sequence of Jarman’s super 8mm home movies from the 70s. It’s a piece I’m very fond of and have been tinkering with over the last couple of years. I plan to release a recorded version of it in late 2009 – maybe including the films if possible.
“Working with Vashti was just a joy. She is such an interesting person, and the material was just so exciting to work on. We spent absolutely ages on that record, really building it up from individual atoms over many months. Making any record is really a kind of lab experiment – you don’t know what you are making until its done – and it was fascinating to go through that process with Vashti – building a new palette of colours that would connect to her previous work while still telling her stories for now.”
“FSOL were one of the most creative folks around during that brief era when the electronica scene – even in the mainstream – was really wide open to innovation and experiment. It was so interesting to be involved in some of that work – I learned a huge amount about how I think about music and sound by working with people who approached things in a radically different way – really starting from the machines themselves, rather than any sort of musical theorising. I think the work we made together reflects that collision in all sorts of ways.”
“Seeing Jarman’s films in the toxic right wing conformist culture of the 80s was just such a relief – it seemed like it was possible to have ideas after all.”
Where and how do you work?
“I have a studio that feels more like a store room or maybe an unfinished industrial site? It is filled with lots of semi-derelict equipment, synths, computers, pianos, boxes of stuff, cable, coffee pots, paintings, carpets, wine glasses, radios, rolls of tape, hundreds of books, scores, cassettes, scribbles, drawings, records…Pencils and manuscript paper litter the floors. It’s a kind of total mess – which is how I like it.
What distracts you?
“I’m nocturnal – everything distracts me!”
Kiran Sande 2008