Who Is…Max Richter
Personae: Max Richter
From: Germany, the U.K.
Composer Max Richter may have studied at London's prestigious Royal Academy of Music, but his work is informed not only by the Masters (Schubert, Bach), but also by the modern minimalists (Philip Glass, Brian Eno), as well as electronic dance music (he's worked with the Future Sound of London and Mercury Prize-winning drum 'n' bass producer Roni Size). En route he produced U.K. folk singer Vashti Bunyan's comeback album, Lookaftering, and composed the music for the Academy Award-nominated film Waltz with Bashir.
For eMusic, Richter reviews his unusual and eclectic resume and discusses his new album/soundtrack, Infra, originally commissioned by the Royal Ballet as a collaboration between Richter, choreographer Wayne McGregor and artist Julian Opie. Richter expanded on the original 25-minute score for his latest full-length album on Fat Cat.
On the music in his head:
As a kid, for as long as I can remember, I was always making up all this material in my head. But I didn't know what I was doing, that it was called composing and that you could do it as a job. I just assumed that everyone had music going around in their heads all the time.
On his baptism by fire in the Academy and London's early '80s punk scene:
I'm now grateful I had a very formal and rigorous classical training, though at the time I did it in a very grudging sort of way. I went to the furthest university from where my parents lived north of London — “I'll go to Edinburgh, that's really far!” But in parallel with this very formal and rigorous academic training, I was always involved with whatever else was going on: punk, post-punk, new wave, early electronic music. I was lucky to be at the right place and right time with punk. When I was very young, we went to see iconic punk bands like the Clash and Stiff Little Fingers, and I was very frightened by the real punks who were there.
On having his very own “Spacelab”:
When I discovered electronic music like Kraftwerk, it was a thrilling experience. I also found out you needed a trust fund to buy the machines they were using. So I got a soldering iron and bits of stuff and started building analog synthesizers. It was good fun. They didn't function all the time though. I'd have to nurse them along — something would blow up and then I'd have to fix it.
On working with the Future Sound of London:
In London in the early '90s, the whole electronic dance music thing was taking off. I started playing the piano and doing some arranging for FSOL. That morphed into much more of a collaboration and my working on [their 1996 album] Dead Cities for about two years. It was interesting to work with people who come at the material from a different perspective. We'd have conversations where we'd put something down, and I'd say, “That note needs to be a C sharp.” And they'd go, “What are you talking about? The vibe is great!” And I'd go, “Well, it's just wrong.” And we'd have this really interesting exchange where we'd try to understand one another. Quite often I'd just change stuff, and they'd sort of not notice or not care [laughs]. It wasn't really the note. The note is just a note. But for me the note is everything.
On working with eclectic folkie Vashti Bunyan:
Funny thing is, she had no idea what was going on [regarding her cult status]. Then one day she Googled herself, there were hundreds of thousands of hits, and she went, “Oh, there's something going on here.” But not having done work in a really long time, she needed someone to help her along, so Fat Cat connected us. Vashti is one of the nicest people you'll ever meet, and it was great fun to make the record. She had written probably half the album by the time we met, sketching it out on her newly acquired laptop, and we spent about a year meeting every week and restructuring and developing things. We had the time to consider every note — it was a very satisfying process.
On waltzing with Waltz with Bashir:
[Bashir writer-director] Ari Folman sent me the trailer, and I thought it was the most incredible thing I'd ever seen. I said I'd love to do [the soundtrack]. It turns out he had written the film while listening to a record of mine, The Blue Notebooks, on continuous repeat for a week. He said, “You've already scored the screenplay; now you've got to score the film!”
On composing for Infra:
Infra is written for string quintet and synthesizers and Norwegian shortwave radio. I love shortwave radios, I have loads of them. I love the textures, the grainy found sounds — I'm constantly recording stuff, finding bits and pieces, like a butterfly collector with a net, running around the woods and scooping things up.
One of the seeds of Infra is text from T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land. The poem is all about journeying and isolation. And in the classical music universe, Schubert's Winterreise is about the solitary journey. I thought, “This is incredible music, let's see what makes it tick.” I looked at how it was built, pulled out a couple of little fragments, and used them as jumping-off points to drive some of the harmonies. It was a nice way to imbue some of those ideas into my material without it being Schubert, though it has a bit of Schubert's blood running through its veins.