“Music”, says Max Richter, “is – to me – principally a way to talk to people. It’s about having a conversation, and if you want to have a conversation you have to speak intelligibly. You also have to have content: something to say. I wanted to develop a language that was plain-speaking and direct…”
Born in West Germany in 1966, but raised in England, Britain’s Max Richter has spent much of his life refining his approach to musical communication. Recognised nowadays as one of the most influential composers of his generation, his endeavours have spanned three decades, encompassing diverse fields, from his own successful solo recordings to extensive work for stage and screen. Despite his music’s all-embracing nature, he was classically trained: educated in Bedford, England, where he’d lived since he was a child, he studied composition and piano at Edinburgh University, then London’s Royal Academy of Music, before joining Luciano Berio, the innovative Italian composer, in Florence. Back in London, he co-founded Piano Circus, a six-piano ensemble, in 1989, and he spent much of the next ten years championing the minimalist works of, among others, Arvo Pärt, Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Michael Nyman.
It was during this 1990s period that Richter began to broaden his horizons significantly beyond his classical background (though, notably, his own interests already accommodated everything from folk to punk). After being hired as a pianist by electronic duo Future Sound Of London, he began to collaborate with them, even composing a track for their 1996 album, Dead Cities, as well as contributing to later recordings. This led to work with drum-‘n’-bass legend Roni Size/Reprazent, and Richter’s experiences orbiting these various worlds helped shape the path he was soon to pursue as an artist in his own right.
“All these things came together,” he elaborates, “and I found my way towards my own language, partly inspired by my dual love of classical and electronic music, but also framed by my interest in music as a narrative biographical medium and by my interest in meta-texts and music as social commentary. And, above all, I wanted to be plain-spoken and direct. I felt there was no way the classical-music establishment would allow me to write the sort of music I wanted to write and give me any sort of a platform, so I looked for alternative ways to connect to an audience.”
His developing ‘language’ covered a broad spectrum of styles, from the Renaissance to the Romantics, from electronic to experimental music, and even what he calls “the more experimental sounds coming out of rock music”. It was, in fact, the latter that led him to FatCat Records, who signed Richter to their 130701 imprint after he contacted the label, inspired by their release of albums by Iceland’s Sigur Rós and Canada’s Set Fire To Flames. By this time, he’d already released one album, Memoryhouse, in 2002, but the company behind it, Late Junction, had closed soon afterwards, and the record was deleted by the time its follow-up, The Blue Notebooks, was released in 2004.
If Richter’s expectations for this new recording were meagre, his budget to make it had been even less: the entire album was recorded in just three hours, and – according to an interview conducted with the resourceful composer to celebrate the tenth anniversary of its release – “I had to blag the tube fare home off a journalist who attended the sessions.” Nonetheless, The Blue Notebooks was swiftly recognised as a pioneering work, an accessible and accomplished suite that provided an invaluable bridge in and out of classical music. In so doing, it underlined how instruments normally associated with the classical world could serve a substantial purpose beyond those realms, connecting the dots between a broad and unlikely range of styles. Among them was the flourishing, so-called ‘post-rock’ scene – of which Sigur Rós and Set Fire To Flames were a part – and, though The Blue Notebooks could hardly be considered analogous, it was this that provoked Richter to refer flippantly to the musical language he was cultivating as “post-classical”.
“I’d have these conversations about what kind of music I did,” he says, “and there was no label for it. I came up with the phrase as a joke. It was half serious, half provocation, just to start a conversation. But it kind of stuck.” It’s arguably testament to the fact that Richter’s work has remained so unclassifiable that there is still no agreed term for it, despite the wealth of similarly inclined artists and composers who have emerged in his wake. Epithets like ‘New Classical’ and ‘Neo-Classical’ are more controversial than satisfactory, but the success Richter has enjoyed since The Blue Notebooks suggests that such discussions are anyway redundant.
Over the years, Richter’s work rate has proven prolific. Six further solo artist albums have been released, among them 2006’s Songs From Before, which featured Robert Wyatt reading excerpts from texts written by Haruki Murakami, and of which David Bowie enthused to The Times the following year, “It has the power to produce tears … I find it hard not to contribute a vocal when the fancy takes me.” In 2012, he released his first album for Deutsche Grammophon, Recomposed: Vivaldi · The Four Seasons – a collaboration with violinist Daniel Hope, conductor André de Ridder and the Konzerthaus Kammerorchester Berlin – and he followed this, in 2015, with his acclaimed magnum opus Sleep, a concept album over eight hours long which explored the science of sleep. Extraordinarily, an hour-long version has now sold way in excess of 100,000 copies, and, despite the complications implicit in its performance, the full-length work has been enjoyed live regularly around the world, its audiences provided with beds instead of seats.
Richter, of course, has also worked extensively as a soundtrack composer, and can be heard across an unusually wide range of films and TV shows. He’s accrued a large number of prizes, including Best Composer at the 2008 European Film Awards – for the Golden-Globe-winning, Oscar-nominated Waltz With Bashir – and Best Original Score for a Television Series, The Leftovers, at the 2014 International Film Music Critics Awards. In addition, his scores have accompanied the likes of Oscar-nominated Saudi Arabian drama Wadjda, the BBC series Taboo, and “Nosedive”, an episode of cult show Black Mirror. He’s also contributed music to Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival and Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island. Richter has recently completed scores for Hostiles starring Christian Bale, White Boy Rick starring Matthew McConaughey, Mary Queen of Scots starring Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie as well as the HBO series My Brilliant Friend, based on the novels by Elena Ferrante.
Inevitably, Richter’s collaborative work extends beyond the screen. Among other notable achievements, he teamed up in 2008 with British contemporary dance choreographer Wayne McGregor for Infra, which was staged at London’s Royal Opera House. They joined forces once more in 2014 for Kairos, which drew upon Richter’s reinvention of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and again in 2015 for the Olivier-award-winning Woolf Works, which received outstanding critical acclaim. His music was also employed for the National Theatre of Scotland’s staging of Macbeth, with Alan Cumming in the lead role, as well as for art installations by Turner-Prize nominee Darren Almond and much-admired digital art collective Random International.
Furthermore, Richter acted as producer for 2005’s Lookaftering, the first, highly praised album in 35 years by reclusive English singer-songwriter Vashti Bunyan, which featured contributions from musicians including Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom and Nick Drake’s arranger, Robert Kirby.
Asked what unites his various, varied pursuits, Richter’s answer is as firm as it is philosophical. “My work is always ‘about’ something”, he says. “Without a definite social purpose, creative work is a less compelling proposition. I feel strongly that creativity can have a positive part to play in society and individual lives, and that is explicit in the work I do. I very rarely just ‘write music’. I’m trying to tell stories, or talk about something, or ask questions. I always want to take whoever’s listening on a complete journey.”
It’s something for which he’s proven to have a consummate gift, and his own journey is still underway. 2018 will see him as busy as ever, whether performing Sleep in its entirety in various unlikely settings across the globe, or curating a weekend of shows and films at London’s Barbican, or working on new, as-yet-unannounced recordings. In addition, as well as undertaking extensive tours of the US and Germany, he’ll celebrate Deutsche Grammophon’s expanded reissue of The Blue Notebooks. Its re-release is timely: the album was in part initially inspired by the then imminent outbreak of war in Iraq, and Richter is painfully aware of the equally troubling political and social challenges confronting the planet today. Fortunately, he’s found a language with which he can communicate across borders and boundaries. The conversation he began all those years ago continues, and, as it does, more and more people are joining in…