Composer, pianist, producer, remixer, collaborator extraordinaire: Max Richter defies definition. An enigma he may be; what is beyond argument is that he is one of the most prolific musical artists of his generation.
Inspired equally by The Beatles and Bach, punk rock and ambient electronica, Richter blends baroque beauty with minimalist methodology, classical orchestration with modern technology.
The result is a monumental body of work encompassing concert music, operas, ballets, art and video installations, multiple film, theatre and television scores and a series of acclaimed solo albums incorporating poetry and literature.
His latest challenges include having taken one of the most recognisable pieces of music from the classical canon – Vivaldi’s Four Seasons – and “recomposed” it for the 21st century.
Born in Germany and brought to Britain as a small boy, Max began taking piano lessons at a young age. His fast-growing knowledge of classical music was tempered by his discovery of punk rock: a voyage of discovery that continued through Stockhausen and the American minimalists.
He studied at Edinburgh University, graduated to the Royal Academy of Music and completed his studies in Florence under the influential avant-garde composer Luciano Berio.
“I had a very classical musical training but I was totally into what was going on around me at the time in the UK in the early 1980s – and that was electronica and punk,” Max explains. “The first gigs I went to were The Clash and Kraftwerk when I was 14. I loved the primitive energy of punk but at the same time I was studying classical music academically and using soldering irons to build analogue synthesisers in my bedroom. For me those things have always flowed together.”
These are the diverse influences at work in Richter’s music: the minimalist aesthetic that traces a path from the composers of the early 1960s (Reich, Glass) through to punk rock and Brian Eno’s invention of ambient electronica in the 1970s; a formal classical education and the experimentalism of the avant-garde; the cut-up methods of electronic dance music and today’s cannibalistic remix culture.
Richter began his career as a founding member of Piano Circus, a contemporary classical group that played and commissioned works by Steve Reich, Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass and Brian Eno. Max stayed for ten years and five albums, gradually incorporating electronic elements and found sounds – the building blocks of what would become one of his trademarks.
Next came a period of collaboration with electronic musicians The Future Sound of London (1996–98), and Mercury Music Prize winners Roni Size and Reprazent (2000).
Breaking away from his collaborators, Richter embarked on what would become his first “solo” album, the orchestral work Memoryhouse (2002), which included electronic sounds, recordings and voices. Later used as the soundtrack of a BBC documentary, Auschwitz – The Nazis And The Final Solution (2005), it was recently given its live premiere at the Barbican (2014).
His next album, The Blue Notebooks (2004), was his first with Fat Cat Records and featured actress Tilda Swinton reading extracts from Kafka. “One of the reasons I sent my demo to Fat Cat was because I heard the first Sigur Rós album and it sounded to me like Arvo Pärt with guitars,” he says. “So I knew it would be a good home for me.”
That was followed by Songs From Before (2006), with Robert Wyatt reading from Haruki Murakami, and an album of ringtones, 24 Postcards In Full Colour (2008).
His most recent solo album, Infra (2010), inspired by TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, features piano, electronics and a string quartet. It is an extension of Richter’s own score for a Royal Ballet-commissioned collaboration with dancer Wayne McGregor and artist Julian Opie for the Royal Opera House.
Max’s music has formed the basis of numerous other dance works, including pieces by Lucinda Childs, Netherlands Dance Theatre, Ballet du Rhin, American Ballet Theatre, Dresden Semperoper, Dutch National Ballet and Norwegian National Ballet.
Recent commissions include the chamber opera Sum, based on David Eagleman’s acclaimed book, for The Royal Opera House, London, and Mercy, commissioned by Hilary Hahn.
In the art world, Richter has composed the soundscape The Anthropocene for Darren Almond’s film installation at London’s White Cube gallery (2010) and has twice collaborated with digital art collective rAndom International, contributing scores to the installations Future Self (Berlin 2012) and Rain Room (London 2012/New York 2013).
His film scores include the award-winning Waltz With Bashir (2007) for Israeli director Ari Folman, and his music has been used in more than 30 other films and trailers by directors including Martin Scorsese (Shutter Island, 2010), Clint Eastwood (J. Edgar, 2011), André Téchiné (Impardonnables [Unforgivable], 2011), Ridley Scott (Prometheus, 2012) and Terrence Malick (To The Wonder, 2012).
He has also produced two folk records: Sixties legend Vashti Bunyan’s comeback album Lookaftering (2005) and former Sneaker Pimps singer Kelli Ali’s Rocking Horse (2008).
Max Richter’s many awards include the European Film Award for Best Composer (for Waltz With Bashir) and further prizes for his scores for Lore and Die Fremde (When We Leave).
He has also recently won Germany’s prestigious ECHO Klassik award for the album that resulted from a 2012 invitation from Deutsche Grammophon to “recompose” Vivaldi’s Four Seasons: a widely acclaimed success that has just been re-released with additional remixes and ambient interpretations that Max calls “Shadows”, as well as a live concert DVD.
Richter picked his favourite bits of the score and reshaped them into “new objects”, layering and looping familiar fragments to reinvigorate a work diminished by overuse in elevators, TV ads and as telephone “holding music”. “I only kept about 25 per cent of the notes but there’s Vivaldi DNA in all of it,” says Max. “I kept the gestures and shapes, the textures and dynamics. There are bits of Vivaldi and bits of me daydreaming about the original, thinking aloud about it.”
Richter believes the composer would have appreciated what he has done with his 300-year-old work. “Vivaldi was a kind of rock star himself: an incredible violinist with long red hair, who formed an orchestra of young women to play his music and had women fainting at his concerts. Composers have always recycled and borrowed other composers’ work, as Vivaldi did himself, so I think he would have had some sympathy with this project.”
In March 2014, as a result of this successful partnership with the Yellow Label, Max Richter signed an exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon. The next chapter of his extraordinary career is now set to unfold...