“Music”, says Max Richter, “is – to me – principally a way to talk to people. It’s about having a conversation, and if you want to have a conversation you have to speak intelligibly. You also have to have content: something to say. I wanted to develop a language that was plain-speaking and direct…”
Born in West Germany in 1966, but raised in England, Britain’s Max Richter has spent much of his life refining his approach to musical communication. Recognised nowadays as one of the most influential composers of his generation, his endeavours have spanned three decades, encompassing diverse fields, from his own successful solo recordings to extensive work for stage and screen.
Despite his music’s all‐embracing nature, he was classically trained: educated in Bedford, England, where he’d lived since he was a child, he studied composition and piano at Edinburgh University, then London’s Royal Academy of Music, before joining Luciano Berio, the innovative Italian composer, in Florence. Back in London, he co‐founded Piano Circus, a six-piano ensemble, in 1989, and he spent much of the next ten years championing the minimalist works of, among others, Arvo Pärt, Steve Reich, Terry Riley and Michael Nyman.
His developing ‘language’ covered a broad spectrum of styles, from the Renaissance to the Romantics, from electronic to experimental music, and even what he calls “the more experimental sounds coming out of rock music”. It was, in fact, the latter that led him to FatCat Records, who signed Richter to their 130701 imprint after he contacted the label, inspired by their release of albums by Iceland’s Sigur Rós and Canada’s Set Fire To Flames. By this time, he’d already released one album, Memoryhouse, in 2002, but the company behind it, Late Junction, had closed soon afterwards, and the record was deleted by the time its follow‐up, The Blue Notebooks, was released in 2004.
Over the years, Richter’s work rate has proven prolific. Further solo artist albums have been released, among them 2006’s Songs From Before, which featured Robert Wyatt reading excerpts from texts written by Haruki Murakami, and of which David Bowie enthused to The Times the following year, “It has the power to produce tears … I find it hard not to contribute a vocal when the fancy takes me.” In 2012, he released his first album for Deutsche Grammophon, Recomposed: Vivaldi · The Four Seasons – a collaboration with violinist Daniel Hope, conductor André de Ridder and the Konzerthaus Kammerorchester Berlin – and he followed this, in 2015, with his acclaimed magnum opus Sleep,a concept album over eight hours long which explored the science of sleep.
Extraordinarily, an hour-long version has now sold way in excess of 100,000 copies, and, despite the complications implicit in its performance, the full-length work has been enjoyed live regularly around the world, its audiences provided with beds instead of seats.
Richter, of course, has also worked extensively as a soundtrack composer, and can be heard across an unusually wide range of films and TV shows. He’s accrued a large number of prizes, including Best Composer at the 2008 European Film Awards – for the Golden-Globe-winning, Oscar-nominated Waltz With Bashir – and Best Original Score for a Television Series, The Leftovers, at the 2014 International Film Music Critics Awards. In addition, his scores have accompanied the likes of Oscar-nominated Saudi Arabian drama Wadjda, the BBC series Taboo, and “Nosedive”, an episode of cult show Black Mirror. He’s also contributed music to Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival and Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, as well as to art installations by Turner-Prize nominee Darren Almond and much- admired digital art collective Random International.
Inevitably, Richter’s collaborative work extends beyond the screen. Among other notable achievements, he teamed up in 2008 with British contemporary dance choreographer Wayne McGregor for Infra, which was staged at London’s Royal Opera House. They joined forces once more in 2014 for Kairos, which drew upon Richter’s reinvention of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and again in 2015 for the Olivier-award-winning Woolf Works, which received outstanding critical acclaim. His music was also employed for the National Theatre of Scotland’s staging of Macbeth, with Alan Cumming in the lead role. Furthermore, Richter acted as producer for 2005’s Lookaftering, the first, highly praised album in 35 years by reclusive English singer–songwriter Vashti Bunyan, which featured contributions from musicians including Devendra Banhart, Joanna Newsom and Nick Drake’s arranger, Robert Kirby.
Asked what unites his various, varied pursuits, Richter’s answer is as firm as it is philosophical. “My work is always ‘about’ something”, he says. “Without a definite social purpose, creative work is a less compelling proposition. I feel strongly that creativity can have a positive part to play in society and individual lives, and that is explicit in the work I do. I very rarely just ‘write music’. I’m trying to tell stories, or talk about something, or ask questions. I always want to take whoever’s listening on a complete journey.”
It’s something for which he’s proven to have a consummate gift, and his own journey is still underway. 2018 will see him as busy as ever, whether performing Sleep in its entirety in various unlikely settings across the globe, or curating a weekend of shows and films at London’s Barbican, or working on new, as-yet-unannounced recordings. In addition, as well as undertaking extensive tours of the US and Germany, he’ll celebrate Deutsche Grammophon’s expanded reissue of The Blue Notebooks. Its re-release is timely: the album was in part initially inspired by the then imminent outbreak of war in Iraq, and Richter is painfully aware of the equally troubling political and social challenges confronting the planet today. Fortunately, he’s found a language with which he can communicate across borders and boundaries. The conversation he began all those years ago continues, and, as it does, more and more people are joining in… (Information as of March 2018)