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Max Richter: Creativity and Culture are Part of How Society Talks to Itself

Max Richter: Creativity and Culture are Part of How Society Talks to Itself
Nenad Georgievski By

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An accomplished composer working across chamber and orchestral music, ballet, theater, installations, film and TV music, Max Richter has built his career on defying expectations, diversity, and taking chances. Over the course of 20 years, he has continually produced captivatingly idiosyncratic music that seamlessly and imaginatively blends a minimalist aesthetic with gentle ambient music. As such, it sits somewhere between the beautifully tragic, tranquil, life-affirming, and many things in-between. With Richter, music's social and political function is not lost and he finds inspiration in broader concepts and themes related to literature, politics, conflicts, protests, and activism. With Voices (Decca Music Group, 2020) he addresses the subject of human rights in a big way.

Initially inspired by the inhuman treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay prison camp, Voices is based upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Richter uses a myriad of global voices to read excerpts from the Declaration in order to voice his concern over the constant mistreatment and violation of human rights worldwide. In a world that is witnessing the rise of autocratic and hybrid regimes, the disregard of human dignity and rights, the mistreatment of migrants, climate change, growing poverty, and a pandemic, Voices reflects the composer's concern at a world gone wrong. The work utilizes music's power to unite people from different cultures, religious backgrounds and political persuasions and invites reflection upon these unprecedented times. Surrounding the voices is Richter's breathtaking score, a moving blend of sweeping strings performed by an "upside-down orchestra" that ebb and flow with the grace and intensity of the emotions they represent.

Also, his epic Sleep (Deutsche Grammophon, 2015) album, an 8-hour concept album inspired by the neuroscience of sleep receives an upgrade in the form of an application. Its users can download it and choose its purpose—for sleep or meditation. Furthermore, this part of Richter's oeuvre is at the center of the Sleep documentary which provides a glimpse into Richter's work and personal life, as well as the ideas behind Sleep and the locations where the all-night sleeping concerts have been held.

Apart from these works, his music has been featured on more than 50 soundtracks for films and TV with films such as Waltz with Bashir, My Brilliant Friend, Arrival, Mary Queen of Scots and Ad Astra, to name but a few, or TV series such Black Mirror and Taboo.

This interview took place with the help of the Zoom app and began with a conversation about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Richter was sitting in front of a bookshelf in his home studio and kindly shared his thoughts on different matters. With the lifting of the lockdown and the imposing of health protocol measures in Macedonia, concerts and social events have slowly started up again, and incidentally, the first music that was played at all was Richter's, an open air solo piano recital by pianist Dunya Ivanova (who has been performing works by contemporary classical composers from Glass, Pärt to Sakamoto and Richter). What better way to start life anew?

All About Jazz: At the moment, the world is going through a global health crisis caused by the coronavirus. How has the COVID-19 crisis affected you artistically and personally?

Max Richter: Well, personally, I guess the same as everyone. We've been locked down here with the family and the kids. It's starting to feel like a very long time now. I miss being able to see my friends like everyone and to go out and do stuff. But in terms of my creative work, it hasn't really changed very much because I'm just sitting in a room writing notes on paper. So, in a way, I'm very fortunate. All my friends and colleagues who are players or in orchestras or who are in bands, their whole life has been on hold. Although we canceled a lot of concerts, playing concerts is not the biggest part of my life. My life is mostly composing. I've been very fortunate. Clearly, this is a kind of age of anxiety we are living through right now.

AAJ: What sort of responsibility do you feel as a musician right now given the state of the world?

MR: I can't speak for other musicians but for me personally, I do think that creativity, music, art, books, movies—all these things can be a great sort of help i.e. a great source of comfort or diversion or elevation even, kind of inspiration for people. And that's one of the reasons I love being around music, that sort of uplifting effect that it can have. And I think creativity and culture are part of how society talks to itself, how we try to figure out what's going on, and how to make sense of the world. I think it's really valuable especially in difficult times like these.

AAJ: Please talk about how the Voices album emerged? What was the creative process behind it and the ideas and emotions that propelled it?

MR: It starts in 2010, the events of Guantanamo. Like everyone, I was shocked by the news that came out of the camp by the way people were being treated and all the stories around that. And I wrote this little piece "Mercy" in response to that really and as a way for me personally to figure it out. And then, over the years, Yulia (Mahr), my creative partner and I, started thinking about making a bigger piece, and I was just writing all the time, new material around this piece, around this theme, around this story with a view to making it a bigger piece in response not only to that but into what else is happening over these last 10 years. This feeling that this kind of liberal consensus that has been propelling the world post-WWII was starting to get eroded. The populist politics, authoritarian politics, financial pressures, ecological pressures, technological pressures -all of these things were starting to undermine that liberal project which for me felt like a loss. So, this really is the background of Voices.

AAJ: So how do these diverse, global voices serve the album's storyline?

MR: There are three kinds of voices on the record. There's first of all Eleanor Roosevelt's voice recorded in 1949. She was instrumental obviously in getting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights written. She convened the whole process. So I wanted her at the beginning of the record. The second voice we hear is Kiki Layne. I loved her narration in the movie "If Beale Street Could Talk" and I wanted a young voice to be the main narrator because the text of the Declaration is really about potential. It's about human potential, it's about the future, and it's about possibility -possibility for a better world, actually. Kiki's voice has that youthful energy and it's a very soft voice. I really love that. And then, the third kind of voices we hear are the crowdsource recordings. We put out the call on social media and hundreds of people sent in recordings of the Declaration in their native language. And we used those as a kind of landscape for the music to inhabit. I really wanted to have all these different voices in different languages in the project really to foreground the universality of this text. This text is for everyone. That's what so magical about it.

AAJ: The album Voices gives emphasis to human rights everyone is entitled to and criticizes the systematic abuse of those rights. It was released in the midst of a pandemic where the coronavirus crisis revealed the brokenness of the systems we live in—political, financial, health -on every level. It showed all of the inequality and gaps among the classes, and with the lockdowns worldwide, people's basic rights were suspended. The crisis also increased these inequalities and abuses of power. Where do you see the value of music connecting people at this moment?

MR: I think the COVID-19 crisis has, as you say revealed all the kind of fragility and weakness of our pre-existing system, the inequality, the unequal distributions of wealth and power and privilege, and all of these things that have come to the fore in this pandemic. It's hit those people who are least able to look after themselves. It's hit those people the hardest. We have another thinking to do like what kind of world do we'd like to emerge from. In a way, there's a pause that we are all living through is also an opportunity to kind of a restart. And I think part of that thinking process has been to do with creativity. People have returned to music and books and movies, and a sense of community, actually, when it mattered most, which is when we are under pressure, which we are of course, right now. So I think creativity can really be an incredibly important part of a moment like this and Voices is a small contribution to that conversation that we are all having right now.

AAJ: Let's talk about the Sleep project. With the new documentary, insight was provided about the locations where the all-night concerts have happened like Paris, L.A. Berlin, Australia. What was the initial idea behind Sleep?

MR: Sleep was written really as a creative inquiry into how music and sleeping could beneficially co-exist. It's a question about the difference between hearing and listening, and it's a question about where musical experience happens. Is it in the conscious mind or does it affect us in other ways? It's also a kind of protest music against our screen-based kind of hyper-busy, 24/7 lives. And it was written actually in response to my sense that we are chronically sleep-deprived. We are getting ever more so, so we are very wired and we need a place to rest. And a piece of music can be a place to rest. So I made this big piece and it's kind of an experiment really. It was intended to be listened to overnight or experienced while sleeping. But actually, people have found all kinds of utility for this music in their waking lives. And that's part of the fun of making the piece. People then find a space for it in their lives that you weren't expecting. So it's really been nice to see how the journey of Sleep has unfolded, you might say.

AAJ: How did the idea behind it evolve into an 8-hour music cycle? It breached the standards of ordinary listening.

MR: A piece to be experienced while sleeping has to be more or less the right length to sleep through. So 8 and a half hours, that seemed about right. I think it's more or less the recommended adult sleeping time. It was a real voyage writing and making that piece. Of course, performing it live is always very special and it's always a completely shattering experience for us as performers because it's a lot of music. It's hundreds of papers of music to play.

AAJ: What was it like to perform it at its full length during the all-night concerts?

MR: It was an amazing experience because when we first played it, I really didn't know what to expect. But very quickly what became clear was there was a hugely strong sense of community in that performance because people are in bed. That's a very vulnerable state and they are in bed with hundreds of strangers all around them. So, there is a lot of trust involved in being in that audience. Then the performer-audience dynamic is completely subverted by the piece because rather than really project the music what we are doing actually is we are accompanying what's going on. So in the performance of Sleep, the main thing that's happening is people are sleeping and we are providing an acoustic landscape for them to inhabit. And that's really, really interesting. Actually, it's a wonderful experience to perform it, although it is incredibly exhausting.

AAJ: What does the Sleep application do compared to all the aforementioned (the album, the concerts, the documentary)?

MR: The app extends the personal relationship that someone can have with the material. Sleep is in a way utility music but utility dimension can be enhanced by the app because you can ask the app to make a piece last any duration you like. And then the algorithm behind the app will still make a musically coherent satisfying structure of that duration. And that's very clever and I'm really happy about that. I feel like the app is a new door into the piece. I'm very into this idea of a piece of music having multi-entry points if you like. So the app is a new way through it.

AAJ: In the Sleep documentary, there was a scene where you were in a room full of keyboards and antique synthesizers you were saying that you are combining the acoustics with electronics, and are using the studio as an instrument (which slightly echoes Brian Eno's ideas). Can you describe the overall philosophy that you bring to your work as a composer?

MR: I see the acoustic and the electronic instruments and the studio, they are all tools and they are a continuum. I don't see this separation between classical instrumentation and electronic instrumentation or a computer. I mean, these are all tools to realize our visions and to tell our stories. And I'm very happy to use whichever tool seems appropriate to tell that story. Obviously, if I'm writing a string quartet then I'm gonna be writing on a piece of paper with a pencil. Whereas if I'm doing something say in a movie or some electronic thing then I'll be working directly with the machines. And I see that as perfectly natural really.

AAJ: You've written music for films, TV series, ballet, etc. Do all these projects influence each other?

MR: In a way, yes. Every project is a blank sheet of paper, to begin with, and part of composing is discovering that world -the world of that project. And in discovering it you learn new things. And that's one of the nice things about doing creative work, you are always finding stuff you weren't expecting to find. So, I guess they influence one another in a sense in that there is a kind of ongoing learning and development happening. Hopefully. So, every project grows from the one before.

AAJ: When you are writing music for films do you ever take into consideration how it might sound outside of the context of moving pictures it was initially composed for?

MR: Not really. Almost not at all. Film music is a different thing. I regard that as something which really is made and part of the universe of the film. I think of film music as really serving and collaborating with the images and the director and the actors and the editor in a very deep way. And the music has to really be part of the texture of the reality of that film. Whether it can live on its own outside the context of the images and the story, that's in a way not a question for me because I'm only interested in how it articulates the life of that world. That's my job in a film.

AAJ: Last year I was impressed by the Ad Astra soundtrack and not so much by the movie. Its ending kind of derailed the whole film and the momentum it was building towards the end. But the soundtrack gave the film another dimension and it stands strongly on its own. What drew you to this project?

MR: I knew James' work as a director and have admired him for a long time. He is one of the best directors working, I think. And he is a very serious and thoughtful guy. He is also serious and thoughtful about music. I loved the story, the simplicity of the story. A character gets into a rocket and goes on his journey. There is something mythic about it. It's an Odyssey in the true sense. The hero's journey -all of these mythological things come into play, which is very appealing. And the other thing about a story of that sort is, it's a beautiful blank canvas for music to inhabit. The visuals in that film were absolutely extraordinary. It's a beautiful space for music to live in. So I was very much drawn to it.

AAJ: So what were the most important aspects of that film to capture for you emotionally?

MR: There are two kinds of music in that film. There is the emotional music which is to do with the psychology of Brad Pitt's character and then there is the other side which is almost a kind of documentary aspect in the score. What I mean by that is that I used data that I gathered from the Voyager probes which were launched in the '70s. And I used that to make computer model instruments from that data which I could then use to generate the score appropriately depending on where Brad Pitt's character was on his journey. So, when he is flying past Saturn or wherever you are actually hearing material which was gathered at Saturn by the Voyager probes and sent back to Earth. There is this kind of whole other registry in the score which is almost like a map. It's like a star map made up of sounds. Every time you see a planet, you are hearing material from that place which I really enjoyed. It was a beautiful opportunity.

AAJ: Your music is multifaceted and layered-it carries a sense of discovery, it can be soothing, it has an incredible emotional depth and fragility -It can be complex on an emotional level. What do you hope to communicate with your art?

MR: It's the reason why I started working in music, there is my love of music when I was a child and the reason why I still love it is because I felt that in music I found a place to think and also almost like a safe space, you might say, in the world. The world is complicated, unpredictable, difficult, very often -like look at our situation right now. But music is something different. It offers us a kind of solace. It offers us a kind of reflective space and it also has the potential to elevate us. To elevate us to be the best of ourselves. I think that's what is so wonderful about music and certainly, that's what I get from it listening to the music I love. So, I guess I would sort of hope to convey some of that in the work I do.

Photo Credit: Rahi Rezvani

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