15. Max Richter–infra

Best of 2010There’s something about deftly controlled strings that can stir the heart and no man knows more about doing that than classical composer and audio manipulator Max Richter. "It’s a weird, emotional world’" he says of the sound of ‘infra’, "because it’s got a sort of hallucinogenic quality; some of it’s quite bleak." But don’t be put off, bleak can be truly beautiful and the minimalist nature of the sleeve is a fair indication of the stark isolation found within.

infra

Let’s be blunt about this: Instrumental pieces are often good, rarely great. The abstract musical vocabulary, conveying feelings without lyrical assistance, requires a delicate touch and ambitious execution. Max Richter does not make background music. All four of his previous albums command your attention and ‘infra’, expanded from the soundtrack to a 2008 ballet of the same name, is no different. At times agitated and claustrophobic, at others mournful and emotive, this is an album which needs time to breathe. While the pace hardly fluctuates wildly, the constant twists and turns create an emotional collage where you’re left contemplative and euphoric in equal measure.

Speaking to Richter earlier this year, he explained the process of creating this record: "I got an email from Wayne (McGregor) who’s the in-house choreographer at the Royal Opera House, he’s really into music, and he said do you want to do (the soundtrack to) this thing? Which was great, really interesting. There wasn’t really a brief. The brief was it was twenty five minutes, which is kind of ideal. I saw some of the animation (shown above the stage performance, created by Julian Opie) and little bits of choreography. We had one or two conversations about this idea of journeys and also about there being two levels on the stage. That started me thinking about lots of images and there’s lots of things that return in different ways. It’s like turning a bit of sculpture in your hands to get different perspectives on the material. I wanted (the recorded version) to be more immersive, more complete in a way, so it could stand on its own. In recording it, I started to find new things in the material I wanted to explore and it was nice just to take another trip through it and so this whole other kind of region of music evolved which is the journey pieces."

The recurring fragments Richter mentions hold this beautiful record together and, while there’s plenty of competition for the title, this may well be his best yet.

Read the two part interview in full here and here.

A Chat With… Max Richter – Part Two

In the first part of this sizeable chat with classical composer, producer and generally lovely bloke, we covered recording methods, sound quality, the ringtones inspired ‘24 Postcards In Full Colour’ and his early release, ‘Memoryhouse’. Time to bring things a little more up to date, including some reflections on his new album, ‘infra’, released on July 19th, which features tracks named only ‘infra’ or ‘journey’ along with a number to differentiate between them. Below you can find various additional parts from our conversation, the key parts of which will appear in a feature for Clash Magazine which will arrive at the start of August.

Max Richter 2

How did the original version of ‘infra’ come about?

I got an email from Wayne (McGregor) who’s the in-house choreographer at the Royal Opera House and he’s kind of really into music and he just kind of emailed me and said do you want to do this thing? Which was great, really interesting. There wasn’t really a brief. The brief was it was twenty five minutes, which is kind of ideal. So I just took it from there really.

And what did you set out to do?

It was interesting, because I saw some of the animation (shown above the stage performance, created by Julian Opie) and little bits of choreography. We had one or two conversations about this idea of journeys and also about there being two levels on the stage. That started me thinking about lots of images and there’s lots of things that return in different ways. It’s like turning a bit of sculpture in your hands to get different perspectives on the material.

How does the album relate to the original piece?

When I started recording it, I thought well, this music was originally made to be heard with dance and I just thought well, listening to something is different and I’m allowed to do something different that the music in the performance didn’t have to do. I wanted it to more immersive more complete in a way, so it could stand on its own. In recording it, I started to find new things in the material I wanted to explore and it was kind of nice just to take another trip through it and so this whole other kind of region of music evolved which is the journey pieces.

infra

With the tracks named ‘infra 1’, ‘infra 2’ and the like, what can we read into the order of the tracks?

I kind of employ lots of different ways of thinking about the music, I’ve got forensically detailed plans but sometimes you just have to kill the plan and just go with that kind of weird logic where you don’t know why you’re doing it but you just have to go with it. There was a certain amount of that I wanted to keep ‘infra’ alternating with the ‘journey’ pieces in the order it was. But then I started to make it and it made sense to have these kind of clusters of material.

infra 4’, which closes out the first half of the record, is a hugely emotive piece. Is there a particular message or feeling you’re trying to convey with such an intense track?

I guess one of the reasons I do work at all is because I’m interested in the intensity of that experience; there’s something kind of very real about it. It’s kind of difficult to analyse why you do things, and I’m probably not the best person to do that, but I guess I’m trying to get the maximum energy out of the material. On ‘infra’ it’s a weird kind of emotional world because it’s got a sort of hallucinogenic quality, some of it’s quite bleak. It’s got a lot of emotional moments so for me, I’m interested in communicating that very powerful feeling.

To what extent does your take on classical music borrow from the more conventional classical artists of the past? You’ve made no secret of borrowing certain phrases previously.

Well, I guess all music is kind of about music. I think there are very few people who make things that have just never been done. We make music because we’re into music; it’s sort of in the back of your head that there’s all these things kicking around all the time. Whether it’s The Kinks in terms of a rock band or some kind of a classical thing for me. It’s kind of under the surface, it’s a sort of background thing. Sometimes I’ve used, deliberately, kind of quotations for specific reasons, like in the ‘Waltz For Bashir’ score there’s a bit of Schubert that floats around quite a bit. I guess it’s just that I’m a music fan so everything kind of feeds in.

Max Richter Blue Notebooks

You also borrowed from the literary world for ‘The Blue Notebooks’, featuring readings from Kafka. What was the thinking behind that?

I just found these texts and thought they were fantastic. I started thinking about storytelling music and a way to present them, like a fan. You find something and you want to tell your friends about it, this is me telling everyone about these texts that I’ve just found. I started thinking about how those words and the music could live together, how they could connect and bounce off each other really. It just kind of evolved like a collage between those two elements, which seemed to make sense to me. That was a voyage of discovery for me.

Then, for ‘Songs From Before’, you brought in Robert Wyatt to read from Murakami…

Obviously, way back, Soft Machine were just an amazing band and he’s an amazing singer who’s done so much great work over the years. Also, the Murakami texts are quite romantic, but I didn’t want any kind of romantic delivery and I knew Robert’s voice and thought he’s so kind of plain and straight ahead and he would be perfect for it because it would go against that maybe quite sweet language and I thought it was fantastic, he did it so well.

SongsFromBefore

In terms of other people’s music, what are you currently enjoying?

I’m always listening to stuff on the classical front, from really old music to experimental things. I’ve been listening to a lot of early electronic music recently, like early Stockholm and all that very weird bleepy music coming out of the radio studios in the fifties and sixties. And then, on a more kind of contemporary side, I’ve been listening to the Eleh records. They’re kind of, they’re deliberately obscure, it’s kind of electronicy, almost like test tapes, but sort of quite trippy. On the pop side, I like the Micachu record, really well made and really great production like an explosion in a sweety factory.

Opportunities to have alternative music selected or curated for you are getting thin on the ground. Having originally released ‘Memoryhouse’ on its label, presumably Late Junction is an important radio show for you?

It always had interesting things going on, along with Mixing It. I got my musical education like everyone did from John Peel. That was an incredible thing, what was amazing about it was that it was THAT place and everyone got it there. The whole media universe has kind of atomised into all these little things. It’s probably out there, it’s just not that easy to find. You haven’t got that one place where you can go and hear everything that’s creative and alt. that’s going on. I don’t know if that whole mainstream marketing thing is worth now than it was – it certainly feels worse.

Although ‘infra’ is only just about to be released, can we expect more releases in the near future?

There’s a possible couple of film scores, including one for a really nice film for David Mackenzie, ‘The Last Word’. Aside from that, I’ve got a project coming out, hopefully next year, it’s kind of a big piece that’s going to be split across three records. That’s called ‘Voices From The Black Sites’ and I’m sort of deep in that at the moment.

2010 inverted

A Chat With… Max Richter – Part One

Last month I had the absolute pleasure of spending the best part of an hour in conversation with the person responsible for some of the most breathtaking releases of the last ten years. ‘The Blue Notebooks’ is regarded as one of the finest modern classical records, occupying a territory somewhere left of centre but by no means fluttering its eyelashes at the avant-garde types. It is, quite simply beautiful music and, beyond that, defies effective categorisation.

Max Richter

Our chat was in order to fashion a piece for Clash, which will run in the August issue, but, as is always the way with these things, there was rather a lot of stuff that hasn’t been used in that article which I thought would still prove interesting to anyone with more than a passing fondness for Max Richter’s music. His very fine new album, ‘infra’, a review of which will appear here in the next couple of days, is released on July 19th and so, in the run up to that, come two sizeable excerpts from that interview, covering his career to date, his recording methods and his views on the industry.

Some readers may not be familiar with your work. Assuming I could find one, I walk into a record shop to buy some of your music. Where is it filed?

That’s interesting isn’t it? Not in the classical department! I’m always in the alt-rock, kind of, where FatCat would be found and that’s the sort of connection really.

You previously commented that “writing music is dreaming out loud.” To me, that suggests that perhaps a lot of what you write is out of your control. Is that the case?

I think it is a compulsive, obsessive disorder in a way. Writing music is just what happens when I sit in a room, it’s not like I can do anything about it, but I’m quite happy about it. It’s out of my control but I’m quite happy about that, I like it. I think a lot about what I’m trying to do, but ultimately there’s a lot of things that happen that I’m not expecting but, in a way, I’m looking for those accidents and things to go in different directions. For me, that’s part of the fun; it’s kind of exciting developments that I wasn’t expecting. That’s what makes it different from having a plan and executing it. But I like all of that.

Presumably that means that there’s a lot of music you write which doesn’t get used?

It’s the tip of the iceberg, the records. I end up putting on one side an awful lot of stuff. It’s that fine line, if the geometry isn’t right, or it doesn’t lock in. But they all become part of the great compost heap of the future. Some things on the record will be like five years before, but I didn’t know how to use it. So there’s a continual rewriting thing going on.

You take sound quality very seriously. Your albums are released on heavyweight vinyl and recorded on 2” tape – why is it so important to you?

To me, I can’t do one without the other really. Part of the writing of the music is the recording – it’s completely seamless for me. It would be like using rubbish violins. It’s part of the sound world that I love. When I was a kid growing up everything was recorded that way. That’s just what I do.

Does the increasing tendency towards maximising volume and compressing sound – the ‘loudness war’ – frustrate you?

That’s a weird one. That whole loudness thing is kind of a sort mirror of our society generally, just quantity over quality. The louder it gets, it doesn’t really matter what the quality’s like. It’s the ultimate materialism. It doesn’t mean there isn’t some great really loud music being made. That decision’s being made by, I don’t know A&R or marketing people, who just go ‘that mix isn’t loud enough’. It’s just pretty sad when people spend incredible amounts of attention and love on making a beautiful mix and then it gets crushed. It does seem a bit of a waste.

With such attention to detail, do you envisage your records being suited to headphone listening or blasting out of speakers?

Well, they’re made to be listened to, I think. I don’t really know. I listen to records in a lot of different ways, going from having it on the cans when you’re out and about or when you’re at home, sitting down and listening to a vinyl album in a kind of reverent, ‘play the a side, play the b side’ kind of way. It really varies, a thing like ’24 Postcards’, that’s almost environmental in a way, it just fits the landscape. I think there’s many different ways to listen.

max richter 24 postcards

On the subject of ‘24 Postcards In Full Colour’, an album comprising 24 musical shorts intended for use as ringtones, is it a record which you consider to be part of your conventional discography or is it more a one-off, side project in which you tried something different?

It’s one that I’m really fond of. It really surprised me because I made it with this idea in mind but then I thought I’ll make these kind of things and that’ll be it but then I kind of fell in love with them as I was making them and it became more and more consuming. No, for me it’s absolutely a record. And the order, I guess, because of the way a lot of the pieces share material as variations on one another, isn’t that important. And that order is a listening order that I made but it’s made to be shuffled around.

You recently reissued your debut, ‘Memoryhouse’. Was that simply to satisfy demand?

It was really and also we had a chance to remaster it. I wasn’t happy with the original really, and it made more sense to me personally, to sort of complete the album really.

Was it strange listening back to it?

I liked it actually; it was like meeting an old friend. I really hadn’t heard it for a long time, we play it live sometimes, but I hadn’t really sat down and listened to it at all. Yeah, I really enjoyed it actually. It was like meeting someone you hadn’t seen for ages and just checking in.

max richter memoryhouse

Your records seem to feature a lot of noises and sounds from everyday life as samples and patterns. How do you go about finding and choosing those particular moments?

I wander around with those little mics in my ears that look like headphones, but secretly recording the world as I go by. The radio stuff – that’s just scanning the biosphere. On short wave radio, you hear all kinds of things. I just collect sounds all the time. It’s like curating the right sound to tell that kind of story.

And what stories they are. Part 2 of this interview will focus more on the new record ‘infra’, along with some comment on previous releases and what lies ahead. As I said at the start, for the cherry picked best bits, you’ll need to buy the August issue of Clash Magazine, although the thoroughly fabulous July edition has just landed, with M.I.A. on the cover and I’ll furnish you with my reviews from that issue in the coming week.

2010 inverted