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Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

PROFILE | Max Richter: ‘The Pandemic Has Changed All Our Thinking’

By Peter Goddard on August 13, 2020

Max Richter mines the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 for inspiration in his reflective new album, Voices.

Max Richter mines the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 for inspiration in his reflective new album, Voices. (Photo: Mike Terry)

Together with Universal Music Canada

Precise historical accuracy wasn’t Virginia Woolf’s abiding concern when she famously declared that, “On or about December 1910, human character changed.” In the same way of thinking, it’s possible to claim the character of music changed on or about 1960 with the earliest performances of Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima. What began as an eight-minute-plus exercise in radical notation by a young Polish composer forced art music out of its non-committal closet. Classical couldn’t put a chokehold on its outrage anymore.

To gauge activism’s progress with contemporary music some 60 years on, we need look no further than the recent release of Voices by Max Richter. To date, the biggest hit in the German-born British composer’s prolific 20-year career is Sleep, all of eight hours long of sonorities to snooze by, streamed a gobsmacking billion times. It’s now available as an app.

But — “I’m still not about to buy a yacht,” he tells me via Zoom. Richter has bridged having a broad popular media presence — TV (HBO’s My Brilliant Friend) and film (Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island) — with a genuine acceptance by all the right critics in all the right places. (The Economist says he’s, “the architect of the post-minimalist electronic revolution at the borderlands of classical music.”)

Voices by Max Richter
Voices by Max Richter

It’s yet another part of the success story that may have the most lasting impact: putting new bums in old seats. “The majority of listeners at Max Richter’s concerts appear to be in their 20s and 30s, a group which is conspicuously absent at most classical concerts,” says Daniel Hope, the thoughtful violin star who performs the composer’s Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi —The Four Seasons. A chart-topper in several dozen countries, the Vivaldi has been licensed for film, dance, architecture, and other art forms, more times than Hope says he can count. “Certainly in the hundreds,” he says. “This goes to show that Richter’s music, and music like his, is not only timely but here to stay. What I like about the Vivaldi Recomposed is that it preserves our heritage, treats it with respect, and yet opens it up to entirely new impulses, and let’s face it, age groups.

Of course, multiple composers (Palestrina, Gluck, Poulenc. George Crumb) have made non-confrontational music their métier. With Richter, non-confrontation is often the reason for the piece. “I’m interested in music which doesn’t monopolize the listeners’ consciousness in a sort of data domain. It sounds sort of contradictory,” Richter says. “I like a piece of music to have a sort of conversational space where a listener, when encountering the piece, can think about the music while it’s happening. This minimal, reduced language (is) looking for an active listener.”

That an increasing number of reviews do buy into this sort of quasi-psychological methodology points directly to a sea change in our understanding of classical, its nature, value and role on a planet with a pandemic on its hands. But here’s the real kicker. Richter’s work likewise challenges pop on all its spectra at the time of pop’s greatest fragmentation, indirection and diminishing centrality in our lives. Richter’s core achievement is bridging minimalism — and all theory-heavy deep thinking it comes with — and an uncynical embrace of the “simulation of old fashioned (quite flattened out, to be sure) Romanticism”, as Canadian composer John Rea succinctly summarizes it for me.

John Cage’s pale shadow hovers over Threnody (its original title, 8’37” referencing Cage’s 4’ 33”.) For Richter, its soulfulness was pulled from British music’s commonality that connects Henry Purcell to Ralph Vaughan Williams to Paul McCartney. “Britain is very much a melting pot,” he says. “Music cultures really do rub up against one another. Especially in that shared technological space that classical composers, pop and electronic artists operate in.”

Contemporary art music — read “atonal” — has mostly distanced itself from musical melting pots. The avoidance of “any unambiguous assertion of fact or feeling has traditionally granted music an exemption from direct political interrogation,” observes Peter Tregear, critic, award-winning conductor and Ernst Krenek scholar.

“Classical music in the main has shied away,” Richter went on, his tone measured. “[It’s] mostly been about music if you know what I mean — dots on paper. But you do get moments throughout classical history — and Penderecki’s Threnody is a very good example — where you have a very direct response to a historical event. Beethoven’s Fidelio and Ninth Symphony have an activist position. They are about somebody trying to figure out how people should be with one another in the world. I think it’s a legitimate thing for music to do, a natural thing for creativity to do. There’s the music of the counter-culture: Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, punk rock, all different ways where music talks about society and how it could be. But I think there’s another way which has to do with its role in society. There’s a kind of activist position in Voices and in pretty much everything I’ve done. I think of music as being a place to think and reflect on the world around us.”

Threnody and Voices are polar opposites in many ways, as were the times of their creation. The Penderecki is a Cold War product, music’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Voices, Richter’s ninth album, ten years in the making, is music’s Cinema Paradiso, an erotic romance with the technology of film and the feelings it can create. Threnody, where “strings sounding like percussion,” said Penderecki, envisions Hiroshima’s 75-year-old ashes still clouding the future. Voices embraces hope in its quietly embracing orchestral repetitions. Richter, always the prince of poignancy, wears his yearning on his sleeve and in his cello section.

Before the release of Voices, he’d said, “It’s easy to feel hopeless,” about the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. Yet a kind of no-nonsense defiance is to be found in Voices’ spoken text, taken from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, crafted in 1948 for the General Assembly of the (still young) United Nations by a distinguished group of intellectuals led by Eleanor Roosevelt.

“All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” Roosevelt reads in her wooden, privileged manner on a period recording. (In this everything’s-old-is-new-again mode we’re in, Voices’ Cold War connections draw attention to Bob Dylan’s late period tour-de-force single, “Murder Most Foul,” referencing John F. Kennedy’s assassination, Nov. 22, 1963.) “All Human Beings”, Voices’ opening movement, evolves a four-note ostinato under the spoken text, which is followed by others in brief, repetitive figures occurring in the following nine sections. In “Origins,” the next section, the piano offers the sure, steady but unhurried rhythm with hints — deliberate, surely — of the first movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, before aggressive strings frame the declaration’s insistence on everyone’s “right to return to their own country.”

Voices, released in two parts, has a second life as a film and concert piece, with an image-rich visual counterpoint from director Yulia Mahr, Richter’s partner for 25 years. The pictures — old people, old architecture, the planet nearly destroyed, the planet nearly saved — flow with their own logic as the voices themselves following closely on one another; some 70 languages were sourced worldwide over the period Richter composed Voices. Roosevelt’s declaration is taken up by Kiki Layne, the newly minted star from Barry Jenkins’ 2018 drama If Beale Street Could Talk, as spokesperson. To say Layne does a “voice over,” misrepresents Richter’s musical-cinematic thinking. She’s framed tightly in this layered acoustic landscape as dramatically as David Lean framed any shot of Peter O’Toole against a desert vista in Lawrence of Arabia.

Richter’s “upside-down” orchestra for Voices is built bottom-up from canyon to hilltops, with its the cavernous lower tessitura consisting of 12 double basses and 24 cellos, topped by six violas, eight violins and a harp. A wordless 12-voice choir fills out the landscape. Soloists are soprano Grace Davidson, violinist Mari Samuelson, with the composer on keyboards, and Robert Ziegler conducting. Much of Richter’s mountain of sound is reduced to a single melodic thread, reflecting the super-compacted nature of his music. “Mercy”, Voices’ final piece, draws the emotion to a close with piano and violins playing what in Richter’s world passes for gospel music.

Richter was four years old when his parents moved from then West Germany to Bedford, an old English market town. Bedford is alternatively described in his biographies as “sleepy” or “boring”. Richter cared for neither. He was musical, even if his parents weren’t, and music might be his way out. He took piano lessons, his parents insisting there was no career in it, and he dropped out of school at 16. It was his show of rebellion he’s said, which isn’t through yet, he claims. As social activists go, he’s been the real deal, ever since taking part in mass protests. His studies at Edinburgh University led to the Royal College of Music and the Uber Serious view of composition of the time that the more crammed into a little space, the better. It was the ’70s and ‘80s. Serial atonality wasn’t dead.

Max Richter (Photo: Mike Terry)
Max Richter (Photo: Mike Terry)

I told Richter of meeting Pierre Boulez, the Darth Vader of Serial Music, when he headed the Institute for Research and Coordination in Acoustics and Music (ICRAM), established by French Président Georges Pompidou. We sat in a quiet Paris park bench as Boulez calmly, even charmingly lambasted as backsliding any composer — Richter wasn’t on the menu at the time — who might be seduced away from the bracing rigours of atonality. (“Dust and shit,” is Boulez’s description of what happened in most concert halls.)

This was “mid-period Boulez, where you are flooded with data,” Richter explains, now laughing. “I studied within that tradition, but I came to feel it represented a kind of authoritarian position on the part of the composer, albeit almost all of them were avowedly left-wing and liberal. That was sort of contradictory to me. I’m very interested in material which doesn’t assert a kind of authoritarian relationship toward the listener.”

“Emotional directness is something that’s often meant with a degree of critical suspicion. That’s something I often found. As a composer, I was trained that ‘complexity’ was the same as ‘good.’ I was trained to write very complex music no one could play, and no one really wanted to listen to. I chose to break away from that and work in a language that was much more plain-spoken and direct and much more emotionally direct. That sort of shift in language has (while making music which is much more approachable) also removed all traditional signifiers of (what was then called) quality.”

Florence and Luciano Berio’s temporary studio in Florence was Richter’s next stop after London. “(Berio) had an extraordinary ability to see through this extraordinary amount of material in the music I was writing in what was called at the time in the UK ‘the New Complexity’, and he deflated it all.” (Sinfonia, one of Berio’s signature works, seems to be a model for much of Richter’s writing.)

“He had an incredible insight into what the piece of music was and at the same time what it was failing to convey,” Richter goes on. “It was spooky. It was like he was reading my mind. ‘Look,’ Berio would say, ‘what are you trying to say? Oh, by the way, that’ (should be) a C-sharp’. So, I have tremendous respect for Sinfonia.”

Sinfonia does flood you with data, but it does not have that quality Boulez’s music has of erasing the past. Sinfonia has a very generous attitude toward music history. It enfolds the whole of music history within it. Berio’s whole aesthetic was very inclusive and generous and musical in the best sense.”

I point to the entwining of voices, and poignant sonorities in Voices that recall The Transmigration of Souls, American composer John Adams’ Pulitzer-prize winning piece, written as a witness to the 9/11 catastrophe in New York City. (Richter lists Adams’ Naive and Sentimental Music as among his favourite works. Adams, it should be noted, calls his Transmigration, “a memory space” pre-figuring Richter’s assertion that music should be “a place to think.”)

“At the time (Adams’) piece met with a very frosty reception critically,” Richter points out. “In recent years, it has almost been rehabilitated. That is quite fascinating. Adams is a composer who blends a keen awareness of the world around him, the political sphere and the social sphere, in a language that is technically sophisticated but also very direct. His music is also very emotional. That piece clearly has an emotional directness because of the incorporation of the names (of the 2,977 dead),” which brought us back to Boulez. “In spite of himself, his very late music had much more direct, approachable character,” says Richter. “I think he was quite conflicted about that, actually.”

Post-Berio, Richter became a founding member of Piano Circus, which seated in a circle performed Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and Brian Eno, a relationship that lasted 10 years and five albums. The next step was a partnership with the electro-Wagenerian Future Sound of London. Richter was at his most dazzling composing with electronics. Then again, synthesizers were more responsible for Richter’s composition career than any college curriculum. Hearing Kraftwerk’s Autobahn in 1980 still figures as a life-changing moment. He loves director John Carpenter’s 1974 movie Dark Star, because it too featured early synthesizer.

Memoryhouse, Richter’s debut record in 2002, unfurled his anti-war colours, specifically in his reaction to the civil war in Kosovo. The Blue Notebooks of 2004 was, “written in the build-up to the Iraq war, at a time I felt was a turning point between the relation of politics and fiction,” he tells me. To him, Prime Minister Tony Blair’s pro-war advocacy was “mumbo jumbo”. The notebooks in questions are Franz Kafka’s Blue Octavo Notebooks, which provides a text for actress Tilda Swinton, who also reads work by Polish-American writer Czeslaw Milosz.

Infra, his first dance collaboration with British director/choreographer Wayne McGregor in 2010, and based on T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, looks to the July 7, 2005 subway bombings in London where 52 were killed, hundreds more injured. With Sleep (2015), it’s thought-out inaction that matters during its all-night performances with sleep-along-to-Richter ‘s band, with the audience in the beds provided. Here’s, “an invitation to pause as a kind of antidote to our data-saturated livers,” he says. “So, you just focus on one individual object, piece, music, or art. I like the idea you can relax into this big object.”

Sleep references in theme-and-variations format The Goldberg Variations — he’s a huge Glenn Gould fan — and I offer the familiar musicological yarn, furthered by Bach historian J.N. Fokel, that Bach wrote it for Leipzig keyboardist Johann Gottlieb Goldberg to soothe the shattered nerves of the sleep-deprived diplomat Count Kaiserling. Richter admits that Sleep doesn’t help him sleep.

John Rea suggests the filmic sense Richter brings to his writing, “aligns to a great extent with his overall approach to composing or, thanks to machines, to assembling film music. (It) belongs to a sub-genre I would names ‘movie minimalism’ or ‘oneiric minimalism’, where no matter who the composer happens to be, the music expresses without fail Vaughn Williams Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910).”

The arrival of Dolby sound systems in the ‘70s gave sound its own presence. With Dolby, film sound becomes a character. Here, “the visual and musical start to function for their own sakes,” notes French film theorist Roger Odin. The profound theatre-shaking bass notes in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind defined the nature of the parked spaceship as much as the craft’s spacey design. Sound, “is part of a composite art form,” Richter says. “It’s part of a bigger story-telling vehicle. Music has to be very sensitive and responsive to everything else that’s going along. Scoring a film is actually part of the puzzle of (finding) the role of music that feels inevitable in that (film) world. Naturally, that’s most of the time. Film music might have a much less informational density than you have in a concert work where the music is a whole thing. I like a piece of music to have a sort of conversational space where a listener, when encountering the piece, can think about the music while it’s happening.” (And to think The New York Times no less calls this “cinematic manipulativeness.”)

“(My) audiences do seem atypical in terms of classical music. They seem younger, people who are not necessarily classical music specialists, but who are interested in culture in a genre sense, cinema, culture and literature. Maybe this is due to my work in film. I also think that it’s because of (his music’s) incorporation of electronics, which are familiar to people who, say, listen to electronic music.”

There’s a pause. Is he thinking what I am: that with the pandemic, all of this is speculative? Already, he had to delay work on Wayne McGregor’s MaddAddam, based on the 2013 Margaret Atwood novel concluding the trilogy that began with Oryx and Crake (2003) and The Year of the Flood (2009). Destined this fall for the National Ballet of Canada and the Royal Ballet in London, “it’s been pushed (back) for a year due to general pandemic reasons,” says Richter, who worked with McGregor in 2015 on Woolfworks, based on three of Virginia Woolf’s novels, Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves.

Woolfworks are very idea-zy and wordy,” says Richter. “I can see MaddAddam as being more direct and visceral. (Atwood’s) trilogy, as ever is with her work, is prescient. It’s about a pandemic in its way — a big canvas with some brilliant writing. I’m very excited about the project because it’s full of drama. It’s very human and speculative at the same time.

“The pandemic has changed all our thinking. What I’ve taken away from it — probably as everyone has — is to actually try to remember the important stuff. It’s easy to get distracted when everyone’s rushing about. Normally, when I would release a record, I would be on an airplane for weeks just running about talking to people. That’s great. But having this enforced pause, this quiet time, allows you to connect back to the things that matter to you, family, relationships.

“I’ve been practicing the piano, which I haven’t done for 20 years, which is amazing…”


Max Richter’s Voices is out now on Decca Records, and available on CD, LP and streaming platforms worldwide.


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Peter Goddard
Peter Goddard
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