THE TERRIFYINGLY TALENTED GODFATHER OF BOOMKAT CLASSICAL STEELS HIMSELF FOR THE RE-REALISATION OF HIS FINEST WORK TO DATE
Not to denigrate any of us, but what did you do in 2013? Move from a flat you can’t really afford in one part of a city you don’t like to another flat you definitely can’t afford in another part of a city you don’t like because it’s got a cool bar and a pool hall? Swapped one unsatisfying admin assistant job for another unsatisfying admin assistant job? Watched another year idly drift by as your hopes and dreams wound round another meandering bend into a reservoir of disappointment and bitterness? Ah well, we’re all in the same boat right? Wrong.
There are people out there, people like Berlin-based composer and all round polymath Max Richter, who can answer that question in the following way: “I’ve been writing lots of music: I did a new score for an Ari Folman film – The Congress – and another one for a Saudi film, Wadjda, which was the first ever movie by a Saudi director, and I’ve been working on a record, and I’ve done a ballet … all kinds of things really.” It’d be easy to feel a sense of begrudgement towards someone like Richter if they weren’t so affable, entertaining and, most importantly, supremely talented.
Richter’s plangent, melancholic, heartbreaking works of contemporary classical – rain-lashed blends of blue note piano sonata, austerely autumnal strings and undercurrents of electronic manipulations – first came to public attention on 2002’s unspeakably sad Memoryhouse, which receives a high-profile reissue alongside a debut live performance at the Barbican early next year. He followed that up with the likes of The Blue Notebooks, which found him pairing his compositions with Tilda Swinton’s readings of Kafka, the sketchy – and we use the word with no sense of snark – ringtone-friendly explorations of time and memory found on 24 Postcards in Full Colour, and an installment of the legendary Deutsch Grammophon label’s Recomposed series, in which Richter went toe-to-toe with the master of the seasons, Vivaldi.
The notion of collaborative communication has always been an essential part of Richter’s working practices, to the point where he can discuss projects like Random International’s hugely successful Rain Room installation in revealingly casual terms; for him, this kind of close collaboration is in essence, “just a conversation really. It’s just like having a chat with someone, except that instead of using words, you’re sending bits-and-bobs of material. It’s fairly organic.” He sticks with the conversational schema, noting that, “even with new people, it’s just a way of finding your place in the conversation. You’re trying to build something by talking about it and the things you’re using to talk about it are bits of music.” At this juncture, it makes sense to reiterate that the conversations we have are a little different to the ones Richter’s having. It’s not every day Crack fields calls from Martin Scorsese’s people.
It’s easy to see why filmmakers clamour to work alongside Richter – his elegant arrangements have the unmistakable air of the filmic about them. But how does he pick who he works with? “They’ll send me the script and if I love the story we get talking” he explains. “Obviously if you know the director’s work then that’s great because you get a sense of whether or not you’ll get on with them. But even with younger directors, it’s all about establishing a relationship with someone where you think you’ll be able to work well together.” And what about the call from Scorsese? “Well, that was a bit of a different one,” he concedes, “in that they had a piece of music in mind off The Blue Notebooks and they wanted to extend it. It’s kind of a mash-up with the Dinah Washington song for the end titles, so that was all them really. But I did have a moment where I got an e-mail saying, ‘Oh, Robbie Robertson has done this with your track, do you want to hear it?’ And I was like, “Yeah, I do want to hear it!” That was an amazing moment. On one level, when that kind of thing happens, your life is complete.”
Thus far, our conversation had tacitly avoided engagement with the conservatoire sized elephant in the room: classical music. Richter isn’t hesitant to use the term, even if he refers back to a period when he semi- jokingly described his own music as ‘post-classical’. “There’s a grain of truth to it” he says. “It’s written down on paper, it’s about the notes, it uses acoustic/orchestral instruments; but it’s also produced, it’s made in the studio, it’s got electronics, it’s arranged maybe on a computer or with synthesisers: it stands in two worlds.” But the fact of the matter is, ‘classical’ as an idea, as an ideology is intimidating, distant, conservative and, potentially, constricting. Richter is in a privileged position wherein the happy marriage of his music and visual mediums allows for a cross-market penetration, and also allows him to critique the mystique surrounding classical. Where do the uninitiated begin? Is it OK to slip on Classic FM during a hungover wallow in the bath on a Sunday afternoon? “Sure … they play mostly, bitesize chunks of pieces, which is great. I think the thing about classical music is that it’s not really about the sounds,
it’s more about the forbidding culture that surrounds it. It’s like a museum with a barbed wire fence around it! In a way, that’s a social and economic construct which is weighed down by historical baggage.” He nonetheless implored those who prefer Brackles to Brahms, Rustie to Rachmaninov, to remember that, “the whole thing is about just using your ears and not worrying too much about the labels.” With artists like Max Richter around, hopefully that idea is a little more achievable.
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Memoryhouse is re-released on January 27th 2014 via FatCat Records subsidiary 130701, and will be performed at the Barbican Hall by the BBC Symphony Orchestra with Max Richter, conducted by Andre Ridder, on January 24th.
Words: Josh Baines