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Max Richter is a Composer
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Max Richter is a Composer
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Max Richter is a Composer
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1 July 2012

Max Richter is a Composer

Interview by Patrick Pittman
Photography by Traianos Pakioufakis

Patrick Pittman on Max Richter

The sound of a piano, in an empty room. Strange textures underneath.

Then, somebody sits at a typewriter, and the keys begin to clack.

Then a voice. It says:

Everyone carries a room about inside of them. This fact can even be proved by means of the sense of hearing. If someone walks fast and one pricks up one’s ears and listens, say in the night, when everything round about is quiet, one hears, for instance, the rattling of a mirror not quite firmly fastened to the wall.

The words are Franz Kafka’s. The voice is Tilda Swinton’s. The piano, and the typewriter, and the lurching sadness and pain of the new century, those are Max Richter’s. So opens his Blue Notebooks, one of the towering achievements in classical music of the last decade.

Through compositions like Memoryhouse, or his unforgettable soundtrack to Ari Folman’s Waltz With Bashir, Richter’s music pokes and prods at ideas of war and decay. His is a music which questions what it means to be human in the face of the world’s stark horrors. He’ll call it protest music, but nobody will be singing these songs around campfires.

Over breakfast, we talk about the things everybody is talking about—the collapse of the global economy, the Occupy movement, Europe crumbling. The sounds of Erik Satie are playing in the background, and then, bizarrely, Max’s own reworking of Satie begins to pipe through the speakers. Two singular composers of different ages.

The sun is shining over Berlin Mitte. Amidst the bombed out ballhauses, gentrified cafes and tourist traps, we wander down a laneway to the back of an old building, the railings on the windows depicting what appear to be children playing. Max explains that the building, before the war, was a music school for Jewish children. The burdens of history are never far from view in Mitte. We retreat up some winding stairs to a stark white room, full of analogue equipment and a grand piano.

This story originally ran in issue #32 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #32 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #32 of Dumbo Feather

Patrick Pittman: We’re sitting in this stark white room, full of all this amazing analogue equipment. This looks like quite a collection you’ve been pulling together.

Max Richter: Obviously making a record is fundamentally a technological process, so the tools that you use have a big effect on it. I curate all of that very carefully, maybe a bit obsessively. I’m a little bit unusual in the kinds of stuff I use—it’s a sort of museum culture. But that’s to do with what I think a record is—for me, a record is a black object, not a shiny silver disc. These things have had, in my life, a particular sound and a particular feeling, and that’s the sound and feeling I’m interested in. So, you know, I use a lot of old stuff to make these things.

How do you go about collecting that?

There is a community of crazy people around the world who are interested in this stuff. You can buy old things and pick them up and trade them, and also there are studios which support this. Not that many, but a few. Funnily enough, there is a bit of a resurgence in recording on tape, which is something I never stopped doing—for a few years, I was really the only person who’d want to do it. I’d give everyone a major headache when they saw me, like, ‘Argh, help! Help!’ They’d try to find really old engineers to work with you, but actually now there is a bit of a feeling that actually this is better. In a way that vinyl has come back, it’s the sort of tactile quality of the sound, and also, you know, the way that working on the tape actually happens, you can’t just do five hundred takes until you’ve got something which you’d like.

It slows you down and it means you do have to reflect, and that’s one of the beautiful things about the rewind button on the tape recorder.

It’s not instantaneous, it’s maybe not exactly what you want, and then you press rewind and you’ve got to wait a minute before you can do another take. It’s great, it’s actually, ‘hang on a minute let’s just think about what we’re doing.’ I really value all of that.

That analogue quality, it feeds into your music in other ways—all those clattering typewriters and strange textures that emerge from beneath the instruments and electronics…

Yeah, it’s very tactile. It’s also about a kind of intensity that you get from spending time on something. I mean, I use a computer as well but that very neutral, transparent mechanism that is the computer paradoxically seems to take away some intensity. I’m not quite sure if it’s got to do with the amount of time you spend with something, but that’s really what I’m looking for, you know, that intensity, that sense of focus. It seems like things that slow me down help me with that.

It’s not like I turn that tap off. It’s just on; it’s just what happens when I sit in a room or walk down the street. That’s not always brilliant for living a life, but that’s another story.
Max Richter

I’m interested in your compositional process. You come from somewhere very traditional, but you do still, as you say, use computers, and you do a lot outside of traditional instrumentation.

My compositional process really starts with who I am as a human being. I write the music that somebody who had had my experiences would write, and I’m never not writing. As a kid I was always composing, right from the beginning. I was moving structures, music, and ideas around, assembling them and reconfiguring them in my head.

Did you have a word for that at the time? Could you conceive of the fact that you were composing?

No. I thought everyone did this. I remember having conversations with friends and parents—‘You know when you do that and it kind of does that’—and people would look at me like I was insane! It slowly dawned on me that I was doing something very specific, which is composing music.

It’s not like I turn that tap off. It’s just on; it’s just what happens when I sit in a room or walk down the street. That’s not always brilliant for living a life, but that’s another story.

I’ve had a very traditional European art music training, which was a music degree and music colleges, composition lessons and piano lessons and all of that composerly stuff that people do. Also the kind of popular music culture that was around as I was growing up, which is basically the punk, new wave era, post-punk and then going forward from there to electronic music, that’s a landscape as well. In terms of evolving stuff now, and the way I have worked over the years, I write the things I’d love to hear if I hadn’t written them.

I’ve previously read you comparing your process to writing fiction in some way.

It completely is.

For me, music is a branch of story telling. It’s writing, and I think that the grammar—the way a thing interacts and the dynamic of a piece and of a record, or even individual pieces—is incredibly important,

and the way that things butt up against one another and context and meaning can be created. It’s simultaneously a text writing thing and a mining operation, digging into material. I’m not sure what documentary music would be, but I do think it’s music fiction, or fictional music. That’s what I’m trying to do.

If it were documentary music, or could be, what are the stories you’re most driven to tell?

To some extent everything everyone does is autobiography, you can’t really get away from that, and that’s a hugely important part of my work whether I like it or not. I’m a person and the things I do reflect what I’ve been doing and where I’ve come from. But, say on Memoryhouse, there were various socio-political moments where I’ve just thought, This is something I’d love to talk about. The records I make and the music I make are one-to-one—they are for a person sitting in a room, it’s that sort of very even-handed conversation. So, say in Memoryhouse, I came across a text in a book called Children’s Voices for Kosovo, which were poems written by really young kids in Kosovar schools during the conflict. There were a couple of texts in there which just stunned me, partly because they were rather sad, but also because they had an incredible poetic quality. Memoryhouse is an old record now, but those were urgent and current concerns at that time. I was thinking about this the other day because the girl, Abonita, who writes this, she was eleven years old, so she would now be in her twenties, assuming she survived—this is an amazing thought, because in my brain she’s frozen at eleven.


The Blue Notebooks is, in a way, protest music. There’s a piece called ‘The Shadow Journal’ that has Chezlaw Milosz’s text about the cities on a distant plain, and this was all written and recorded against the backdrop of the Iraq invasion. The other strand is obviously Kafka, and I think he is an amazing figure. He remains current all the time; he’s described as the Patron Saint of Doubt, which is a very contemporary condition.

I come across these sparks to start things and I then want to talk about them, and the way I talk about them is by writing music.

When you make “protest music”, do you feel some kind of responsibility to truth in what you’re doing there? Do you research, or are you working from feeling?

I think the feeling is the thing, ultimately, but that has a kind of truth. Trying to be authentic to the material and follow it to its logical conclusion, and to present and render it faithfully—that’s my job. It’s more important to have faithfulness to the material and to the work and to my experience of it.

Are modern audiences receptive to your kind of protest? Do you feel people hearing it?

No [laughs]. In the same way any music I write inevitably has an autobiographical component, people who hear things, or come to any kind of artwork or text, inevitably imprint their biography onto it. When people are talking about a piece of music, they’re really talking about themselves, they’re really talking about how it connects to them and what it makes them feel. I don’t like the idea of music being like a lecture, I want it to be more like a conversation.

How do you enable yourself to have that conversation with your listeners? Composition is such a detached form, particularly when you’re not performing so much.

I was thinking about this the other day. Often in the cinema, my favourite bits of the film are shot by the second unit, not by the main crew—the cutaways to stuff going by in the landscape or contextualising montagey type things, when there’s a pause in the story and a landscape and it’s almost like you can project yourself into that.

In a way I think of my music in that way; it’s second unit music, where there’s a landscape for somebody to step into. I’m trying to make that space for someone to think into.

Many people these days are coming to your work through your scores and your commissions. You’ve talked a lot about your personal drive and how you create music—is it different when you’re creating those works?

Yes. A piece of music, like concert music or a record, is a thing which lives on its own; that’s it, somebody’s putting the record on or they’re sitting in a concert hall, and that is one hundred per cent of the work. For me, that’s where there is maximum intention and coherence, and that’s where I want all our energy to be—that’s a very direct one-to-one conversation. With a collaborative piece of ballet or film, the music is part of the landscape, but it can’t be all of it. In other words, you can’t have anything on the screen in the case of a film, and it is more like a puzzle or a Rubik’s Cube; it’s like trying to work out how the music can be a part of something effectively and tell a story and grow it. It’s something that can catch fire between all the different strands. I’m quite interested in that because there’s a lot of craft approaches to that—it’s almost like carpentry, it has to be exactly right, and that appeals to me on a workmanly level. Also, because almost my whole life is me sitting in a room, it’s actually nice to be working with a director, to have that one-to-one exchange and conversation.

With something with Waltz with Bashir where the story is so particularly harrowing and specific, scoring that must be a delicate process.

Waltz was a little bit unusual. Ari Folman had written it listening to The Blue Notebooks on loop as he wrote, so I was, in a way, embedded in the material before I started. But when I read it, I just thought it was perfect for me. The film is about is the nature of reality and memory and storytelling, and it’s about recovering facts and trying to work out what is imagined and what’s real—for me that’s one of the puzzles about being a person, the way that we narrate our own lives. We’re constantly re-ordering, and being a person is a storytelling act. That’s one of the things that makes me want to write music.

I come across these sparks to start things and I then want to talk about them, and the way I talk about them is by writing music.
Max Richter

Your newest release, Infra is interesting—it was commissioned for a dance piece but as an album it very much stands alone.

Yes, Infra also had a lengthy gestation. Initially it was a commission for the Royal Ballet by the wonderful choreographer Wayne McGregor. His initial brief to me, he said, well it was twenty-five minutes and that’s it. So I then started to write material, and we were talking about various themes, and he was also working with Julian on his little animated stick figures—they’re rather beautiful LED animations which he makes—and these strands went in parallel for a while.

When I started to work with it, I felt, as a record, it had a different dynamic trying to get out of it; it felt like it just wanted to grow a bit. It grew and evolved into a piece almost twice the length of the stage ballet, and it was a real pleasure to take another trip through the material and find another way for it to live.

So there was just a point where you thought, Oh I’ve made an album…

Exactly. That’s often one of the most exciting things when material starts to take on its own life. Often, you read in interviews with fiction writers, they start talking about the characters just going off and running away. You think, That can’t be right, how can that be right? But material does do that—it wants to go in a particular way.

Last year, I was writing a piece of theatre for the first time. I was writing the dialogue and had these particular characters and didn’t really know how to make things work in a dialogue-driven way, and then found myself in rehearsal with actors. There was this strange privilege where I could sit down with actors who’d been intensely in my characters for some time, and ask them about the parts where I’m stuck. What would my characters do?

That’s amazing.

My neighbour is a translator and she lives on her own—a very quiet bookish life—and I was asking her recently, ‘Do you ever get lonely up there, just translating away?’ And she said, ‘Well no I’m in a room full of characters, I’ve a house full of people.’ It’s an amazing, amazing idea.

So you were composing from the start. Was there a point where you started to find your voice as a composer?

I don’t really know, I’m probably still trying to find my voice. As a lot of very young artists in all fields do, I veered wildly in the beginning. You just try stuff and see what feels like you. Everything just slowly fed into the language I’m using now. I went and had some lessons with Luciano Berio in Italy and he was incredible, and then there was a lot of early nineties electronica. That was a big moment in London and I was involved with that, which fed into the palette. I worked for a long time as a piano player with a multi-piano ensemble playing American minimal music and post-minimal stuff. All those things came together, plus there was the whole storytelling thing. As a kid, I was always doing music but for a long time I thought, Maybe I’ll be a poet. I like that sense of image-making and narrative, so those things all flowed together. The records are the first time that I started to put the pieces in place.

Was Memoryhouse your first big orchestra piece?


Because it’s a very ambitious work in its way, but it still stands up, now. Was that a challenging thing, that first big piece?

Yes, and no. I mean, I always bet the farm, I just do [laughs]. I can’t not do that. Often I’ve fallen flat on my face because of that, but sometimes it works.

I’m really fond of Memoryhouse. There are things in it I would change, but when we re-mastered it a couple of years ago, I listened through to it and it was like meeting an old friend—I hadn’t heard it for years and I thought,Hey, I like this, which is unusual for me. In a way, it’s a classic first album—it’s all those things that person was trying to say and never got a chance to say, so I’m going to say it all now, so it’s about four hours long! It was also about trying to find a language that could accommodate all these different things, and so it’s kind of experimental as well—let’s see if this works and let’s see if that works.

Finding that language with established players as well—were they a little bit like, ‘What’s this punk kid up to?’

A bit, yeah. You know orchestras can be tricky anyway. Mostly they’re great but there is a kind of, ‘Oh we can’t play that. We’re all going to get RSI if we play that piece again.’ But the BBC Symphony are a good orchestra. Once they calmed down a bit they were fine, you know. An orchestra is a community, it’s always an extraordinary machine; it’s a social structure, they do have their own culture and you have to think your way into it.

Have you found yourself with particular players that you’re comfortable with?

Certainly the guys who’ve recorded all the records, they’re mostly London players who I know really well—those guys are my voice. We’ve extended it a bit to include people in Berlin and also in the States, so there’s now this sort of gang of players. Funnily enough they’ve grown into a community of players who not only play my things but also Jóhann Jóhannsson and Nico Muhly use them. There’s a little cloud of people that have joined up in this way of thinking about music.

Has moving to Berlin changed much about your work?

Not really, no.

You carry your own country with you a little bit, especially with music. A lot of the things I think about musically, they’re hundreds of years old really, it’s just back there somewhere isn’t it?

Whether I’m in London or if I’m here, it makes no difference at all. Now I’ve got connections to a few players over here, and the guys in London transplant and we do projects all together. I think maybe because of where I am in Berlin Mitte, which is very international anyway, it’s a little bit less dramatic. If I were in Munich or somewhere, or much more Germany Germany, I think it might be more obvious, but you know, people say this is the centre of the British arts scene [laughs].

The British and the Australian arts scene. It’s just one of those things though, there’s always one city in the world that’s at that moment in time where it’s at the epicentre of creative culture—Paris in the twenties, London in the sixties, New York in the seventies. It seems like it’s Berlin’s moment right now.

Yeah it is. It’s funny, it keeps being Berlin’s moment—you always think it’s going to shift somewhere but people just keep coming. I guess it’s got a lot of catching up to do historically, there’s still lots of energy coming towards it of all sorts and economically of course, in Germany.

Earlier, at breakfast, you were telling me a great story about Vashti Bunyan hearing somebody whistle her song, and that being the most validating moment for a musician. It got me wondering, you once made an album where the tracks were intended to be used as ringtones. Have you ever heard anybody’s phone ring with them?

No [laughs]. I really enjoyed making that record and I liked the idea of a tiny thing being as important and as powerful as a big thing. I love the fragmentary nature of it and the way that they jump against one another. But I don’t know if anyone at all has got them on their phone. I had some that I didn’t use on the record, and there’s a whole bunch more after the twenty four, and I had some of those other ones on my phone for a little while, but mostly my phone is on silent.

You know that particular person who has the embarrassing ringtone that, when it rings, they do that uncomfortable dance? I like to imagine the person that would do that to your ringtone…I can hear so many influences creeping through your music, from very traditional classical through to contemporary electronica. If I was to throw a question out there so vague as, Who are the musicians or composers that inspire you, where would you land?

Well there’s a lot of different things. Starting way back in classical music, there are figures from all eras. One of my big things is Renaissance and Elizabethan music. Purcell is, historically, the first composer who, when I heard him, I just freaked out. His music is an amazing blend of expressive, humane, and feeling, but also technically just like a Swiss watch, you know—perfect; so well made it just blows your mind. Then there’s the German version of Purcell, Bach. Bach is like Mt. Everest; I always feel like talking about Bach is like talking about the force of gravity—we don’t have an opinion about it, there’s nothing to say, it just is. For a musician, there’s Bach and then there’s everything else.

I love lyrical music; I listen to Schubert constantly and he’s a wonderful composer. When I was a kid, I listened to Mahler constantly, but now I don’t really listen to him anymore—I don’t need to because he’s just embedded in me. Then, obviously, there’s more contemporary composers, like John Cage and Iannis Xenakis and these people who invented a new language—

they wrote music as though there was no history, they just started something new.

I drone on about Kraftwerk quite a bit but I love them. One of the real things that lit the fuse for me was hearing ‘Autobahn’ for the first time. The way it starts, after that extraordinary vocoder, the way the filter opens up on the bass line—it’s still incredible.

It’s one of those bits of music that you wish you could hear for the first time again.

I was just completely blown away! I heard it on the TV as a kid and at that time it really wasn’t easy to find out what a piece of music was. I chased it down and bought the record. As a musician, there’s before hearing it and after hearing it. It’s as big as that. It inspired me to get one of these synthesizer kits and build a synth with a soldering iron.

And then all the post-punk, new-wavy bands, and Manchester music at that time as well. There’s lots of fascinating, creative music out there, but ultimately, my touchstones are in classical music. That’s the beginning, because classical music is about notes—Bach sounds fantastic no matter what you play it on, it doesn’t matter, the notes are great in themselves. That’s the acid test which I apply to my own stuff—if there are notes, I want the notes to be great. I don’t want to depend on effects or colour; I want the text to make sense.

You’ve had a phenomenal amount of output and you’ve done some amazing things. Are there any unfulfilled ambitions?

I don’t know. I like doing what I do and I want to keep doing it, and I do feel very lucky that I can do this. Given the way the economics of doing music are, these days, I feel incredibly privileged that I get an opportunity to do it at all. I always feel like it’s a bit of a miracle—here I am and these people are actually going to play what I’ve written. To have the opportunity to have that conversation with listeners and to be able to reflect on what you’ve been doing, it’s an astounding privilege. To have an idea and be able to chase it down and follow it and develop it—that’s incredible.

Patrick Pittman

Patrick is a writer, editor, broadcaster, former editor of Dumbo Feather and one-time nightshift carer of a supercomputer. More at patrickpittman.com

Photography by Traianos Pakioufakis

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