A Conversation with Max Richter; Composer, Pianist, Producer and Collaborator

Max Richter

Hailed as a “modern day musical genius” by The Line of Best Fit, internationally renowned composer, pianist, producer and collaborator, Max Richter is one of today’s most influential artists. Through his ground-breaking works, captivating recordings and innovative performances, he has forged new paths in contemporary music and culture – garnering awards, critical acclaim and surpassing a billion streams and a million album sales. Richter’s distinct melodic language has allowed him to hold a series of bold, emotive and thought-provoking musical discussions. The latest of these is Voices­ – reacting to the political and social upheaval that has rippled through many societies around the globe over the past decade – a unique musical space in which to examine, question, absorb and meditate on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Richter’s 2004’s The Blue Notebooks – chosen by The Guardian as one of the best classical works of the century – ruminated on the contemporary Iraq War, 2006’s 24 Postcards In Full Colour addressed unfettered technological change, 2010’s Infra was made in response to London bombings of 2008, while dream-weaving eight-hour opus SLEEP from 2015 sought respite from growing digital encroachment. Alongside these original, self-driven narratives, Richter has composed for a series of handpicked, yet varied soundtrack projects. Among his film scores are Golden Globe and European Film Academy Award-winner Waltz with Bashir, Miss Sloane with Jessica Chastain, Hostiles starring Christian Bale, White Boy Rick with Matthew McConaughey, Oscar-nominated Mary Queen of Scots and the sci-fi drama Ad Astra starring Brad Pitt. His TV projects include HBO’s cult drama The Leftovers, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, My Brilliant Friend and Tom Hardy’s Taboo, gaining Richter his first Emmy nomination. His music is also featured in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, Denis Villeneuve’s Oscar-winning Arrival and, more recently, hit BBC drama Normal People.

In this exclusive interview, I speak to Max Richter about his music, and how the power of music can help educate us, and change the world.

Q:  What is the role of music in our lives?

[Max Richter]:  There are multiple connections between human beings and music. Most fundamentally- we respond emotionally to music- sound is communicative, it affects us, it causes feelings and connections. Sound making and listening are communal activities, they’re communicative activities… music moves us, and when we listen to it, we feel transported.

Q:  When it comes to major events in our lives, what is the cultural and social role of music?

[Max Richter]:  It seems instinctual that we respond musically to events. I remember reading a text about Tibetan folk music, there were a series of interviews and in one- the interviewee was asked about the significance of singing when riding horses. The person said, ‘I don’t really understand why you’re asking this as a question… when you get on a horse… you sing… it just happens…’ – We have music for getting married, for having dinner, for dancing, for burials, for rituals and religions… Music gives us a space for understanding, and for reflection.

Q:  Why, and how, did you decide to make music about human rights?

[Max Richter]:  In 1948/49, we saw this great consensus emerge about how the world should be. The war had just come to an end, the whole world had experienced a great amount of suffering, and so people knew how the world should not be and hence it was an ideal time to create a blueprint for something new. For most of the 70 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted, there has been a haphazard progress towards those ideals, but that progress feels like it’s being eroded through the rise of populist politics, authoritarians and subversions of our dignity such as those we witnessed at Guantanamo. I feel as if our world is moving away from the ideals we subscribed to, and I wanted to reflect that through music.

I wanted to also reflect the topic through how I composed. The way an orchestra is normally structured is cast in the image of what people in the 18th century thought society should look like. It’s very top-down, a hierarchical power structure… reflecting the vision of society at the time. I wanted to subvert that by creating a new orchestral structure that reflected how society could be so it came through the musical DNA. I wanted to create something hopeful and uplifting from this dark material of our times as a metaphor for the questions we are facing as a society.

Q:  How is technology changing music?

[Max Richter]:  In terms of how music is written, most of my writing looks very similar to the way Beethoven, Mozart or Bach would have approached it- I use pen and paper… that’s my background, and as a classical musician I often find it’s quicker for me to work on paper than on a computer. Alongside this, I do work extensively with electronics, synthesizers and technology in the studio environment… so my music is- in some way- a hybrid language between classicism and modernity, perhaps hypermodern.

When it comes to music consumption, we’ve had an explosion of platforms that have atomized the delivery and consumption of music, and I’m really for that- it’s democratized music. Previously, there were a lot of gatekeepers that controlled how you were supposed to listen to music… you’d walk into a record shop, and there was a special room for classical, and different genres in different places… that’s all gone now, and you can follow your enthusiasm and affection for music however you want to. There’s something beautiful and liberating about that.

Q: How do you approach composition for visual arts?

[Max Richter]:  Whether you are working on cinema, tv, ballet or opera – every artform has its own dynamic. A film score is not a symphony, or can it be… when you compose for film, you are part of a larger storytelling structure made up of acting, direction, lighting, cinematography and much more. Collaborating on these projects is a puzzle-solving exercise where you- as a composer- are looking for those things that music can do which the other elements cannot; it’s hard to define, and it’s something that relies on instinct. It’s also hugely enjoyable being part of this jigsaw of figuring out how music should fit together- concert music and records are completely different, there are no parameters, you have a blank sheet of paper and you are trying to discover something meaningful… composing for the visual arts is very different.

Q:  What do you hope your legacy will be?

[Max Richter]: I don’t really think about legacy, I’m more interested in my next thing, my next project… my writing is driven by a love of music, and an affection for being around music, and for telling stories… I don’t have a grand plan; this is my life.

View Interviewee Biography

Hailed as a “modern day musical genius” by The Line of Best Fit, internationally renowned composer, pianist, producer and collaborator, Max Richter is one of today’s most influential artists. Through his ground-breaking works, captivating recordings and innovative performances, he has forged new paths in contemporary music and culture – garnering awards, critical acclaim and surpassing a billion streams and a million album sales. Richter’s distinct melodic language has allowed him to hold a series of bold, emotive and thought-provoking musical discussions. The latest of these is Voices­ – an astonishing new composition which he describes as “a place to think and reflect”.


Reacting to the political and social upheaval that has rippled through many societies around the globe over the past decade, Richter’s ninth studio album Voices finds him creating a unique musical space in which to examine, question, absorb and meditate on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The piece, which was premiered at London’s Barbican in February 2020, involves a radically reimagined orchestral setup in which the traditional instruments are inverted in favour of a bass-heavy sound. Into this sonic landscape Richter has woven “crowd-sourced” vocal readings of the Declaration, alongside a wordless 12-part choir, solo violin, soprano, piano and narrator.


Voices is a piece which has been hovering around for a long time,” Richter explains of the work’s decade-long gestation. “It came out of this idea of the world being turned upside down, our sense of what’s normal being subverted, so I have turned the orchestra upside down in terms of the proportion of instruments,” says Richter. “There is a huge number of double basses, a huge number of cellos, and much smaller upper strings – plus a solo violin. That is a metaphor which made sense to me.”


Into this heavy atmosphere, Richter offers the balm-like words of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. A vision of a common humanity adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 as a means not just to piece societies back together after shattering horrors of the Second World War, but a guide to try to prevent anything so brutal from ever happening again. It was drafted by a group of philosophers, artists and thinkers convened by Eleanor Roosevelt.


Readings of the text provide the “spine” for Voices. Actor Kiki Layne (If Beale Street Could Talk) recites large parts of it, there are samples from Eleanor Roosevelt’s first ever reading of the finished document, and around a hundred other readings in multiple languages come from individuals who submitted their own recordings in response to the composer’s social media call out.


“You have a darkness in the instrumentation and then you have the brightness, if you like, of the possibility within that declaration,” suggests Richter. “It’s very easy these days to get a bit gloomy and overwhelmed by the kind of debates that are going on, which will feel very polarised and negative. But the thing about the Declaration is, if you look at that document, as a species we are beset by problems but we have already come up with the answers for a lot of them. There is something amazing about that, something very hopeful.”


“It’s not a legal text, it’s an aspirational text,” suggests Richter of the Declaration that is at the heart of his new work. “It’s also flawed. If we were to write it now it would be framed differently – but it’s a document which shows the potential when people manage to actually talk to one another.”


A composer whose production vision has seen him consistently explore new electronic spheres, a musician whose performances have taken him around the world, Richter’s entire musical ethos is about creating a conversation with his audiences because it is the power of communication and an exchange of ideas that has shaped him as an artist. His music encompasses not only solo albums, but ballets, theatre works, concert hall performances, film and television series and art installations.


A classical pianist and Kraftwerk devotee from his teens, born in Hamelin, West Germany, in the late 1960s, but raised in Bedford, a whirl of home-built synthesisers, piano practise and minimalists records delivered by the milkman (a local artist who provided gold tops and an alternative musical education on the side) launched the young Richter into an academically rigorous apprenticeship at Edinburgh University and the Royal Academy Of Music, before leading him to study in Florence with one of the figureheads of late 20th century modernism, Luciano Berio.


Yet after a period of live performance and collaborations with electronic pioneers, including The Future Sound Of London, in the 1990s the genre-spanning musical conversation Richter was enjoying inspired him to conceive his own minimal, yet truly expressive musical language when he made his solo debut in 2002 with the album Memoryhouse – described by Pitchfork and The Independent as a “landmark”.


“The modernist tradition I had been trained in had really lost sight of the fact that, for a language to have any sort of impact on people, they have to be able to understand it. It has to have a comprehensibility about it. I wanted to build a language which had that,” he recalls. “For me, that meant returning broadly to tonal music, and to music which had a directness about it; a plain-speaking quality for somebody who isn’t conservatoire trained. I wanted to speak directly, so that the work felt simple. Making things which feel simple but can convey substantial ideas with intellectual rigour is pretty difficult, but that is my process; conveying my ideas in the clearest, purest way possible.”


Equally as significant as the language he created, is what Richter is saying with it. 2004’s The Blue Notebooks – chosen by The Guardian as one of the best classical works of the century – ruminated on the contemporary Iraq War, 2006’s 24 Postcards In Full Colour addressed unfettered technological change, 2010’s Infra was made in response to London bombings of 2008, while dream-weaving eight-hour opus SLEEP from 2015 sought respite from growing digital encroachment.


Alongside these original, self-driven narratives, Richter has composed for a series of handpicked, yet varied soundtrack projects. Among his film scores are Golden Globe and European Film Academy Award-winner Waltz with Bashir, Miss Sloane with Jessica Chastain, Hostiles starring Christian Bale, White Boy Rick with Matthew McConaughey, Oscar-nominated Mary Queen of Scots and the sci-fi drama Ad Astra starring Brad Pitt. His TV projects include HBO’s cult drama The Leftovers, Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, My Brilliant Friend and Tom Hardy’s Taboo, gaining Richter his first Emmy nomination. His music is also featured in Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, Denis Villeneuve’s Oscar-winning Arrival and, more recently, hit BBC drama Normal People.


Richter’s compositions have not only proven hugely successful, but they have also evolved over time. 2015’s SLEEP continues to enjoy global attention with live overnight performances in iconic locations (with audiences in beds, not seats), international radio broadcasts (with the original eight-hour live broadcast on BBC Radio 3 earning two Guinness World Records), a film documentary, and a cutting-edge new app, not to mention 450 million streams. Meanwhile Richter’s 2012 record Recomposed: Vivaldi – The Four Seasons (which topped the classical charts in 22 countries) was reimagined in 2018 as a thrilling theatrical performance using puppetry at London’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Furthermore, his work with experimental French musician and filmmaker Woodkid brought the duo a Grammy nomination for their music video The Golden Age.


Richter’s most recent commissions are from the city of Bonn to mark the Beethoven 250th year anniversary, and a further collaboration with British choreographer Wayne McGregor – following their acclaimed Royal Ballet production Woolf Works – based on Margaret Atwood’s Maddaddam trilogy of novels.


“What is really satisfying to me about making a piece is then putting it in front of an audience. I learn a lot about the work I’ve made when we play it,” Richter explains. “That’s a fascinating experience because you understand it in a different way in the collective, in the community. I’m really interested in hearing how the work affects people and what they bring to it. It’s important.”


Having built an accessible, inspiring new language, Max Richter’s enthralling and vivid musical conversations are open to all.

 

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas S. Shah MBE is an award winning entrepreneur, strategist and educator who has built businesses in diverse sectors around the world for almost 20 years. He is also a consultant and advisor to numerous entrepreneurs, business and organisations globally.

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