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