THE RISE OF MAX RICHTER | FEATURE
David Nobakht charts the ascendance of a pianist and composer whose ambient approach to classical music has led to head-spinning streaming figures and stardom on the downlow, with his latest release out this week.
Arguably the most moving album of 2020 was Voices, by contemporary classical composer Max Richter. Created over 10 years as a response to, and protest against, a world turned “upside down” by political and environmental chaos and human rights abuses, its followup album – Voices 2, released this month – is equally engaging.
While Voices 2 does not include actress Kiki Layne narrating the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights, it does pack as much of an emotional impact as its predecessor, with Richter’s piano pieces augmented by many of the same musicians who featured on Voices. Going for a walk to clear Groundhog Day lockdown staleness with Voices 2 on your headphones is a thought-provoking, emotionally rewarding experience. Moreover, anything with Richter’s name on is highly unlikely to be disappointing listening.
There seems to be three possible pivotal moments on Max Richter’s journey to his current world-renowned, widely respected status: over a billion streams of his music, and well over a million album sales. Born in West Germany during the 1960s, Richter grew up in the small English market town of Bedford. Hearing his parents play Bach albums when he was young, the “logical” arrangements grabbed his attention, and Richter started composing mentally before he touched a musical instrument. Piano lessons, when they began, were marked by punishment with a ruler if a wrong note was played – common in the 1970s – and abruptly stopped.
Richter, a little older, took up piano lessons again with a different tutor less given to corporal punishment. When Bedford became a hotspot for gigging punk bands during the late 1970s, the teenager got to see the likes of The Clash, whose angry energy and social commentary appealed to Richter; so too did the futuristic, otherworldly sound of Kraftwerk, who inspired many a night of bedroom synth-building.
That first pivotal moment, then: the local milkman, of all people, heard piano practice sessions as he passed by each morning. The milkman told Richter that he should be listening to modern composers and left Philip Glass albums outside the door for Richter to borrow. Glass’ minimalist approach can be compared to Richter’s epic 2015 piece Sleep: eight and a half hours long, and made as a reaction against the constant intrusion and bombardment of digital traffic imposed by modern living. The turmoil of the last year has only increased the popularity of Sleep’s embracing minimalist tones.
After studying composition and piano at Edinburgh University and London’s Royal Academy Of Music, Richter felt “restless”. He had wanted to develop his own voice and style, but had found the studying programme too rigid to do so. Modernistic approaches to composing were not in vogue at that time: complexity was in, simplicity most definitely out.
The second pivotal moment for Richter came on being introduced to maverick Italian composer Luciano Berio, via a friend. Berio had taken classical music in a new direction with his Sinfonia composition in 1968, notable for its use of multiple speaking voices. Berio worked against the grain, took risks and pushed the envelope when it came to utilising electronic sound, while marrying old and new.
Richter sent Berio a dense, complicated piano piece he had written, seeking feedback. Berio “laughed”, asking Richter what he was trying to achieve on a “human level”, but took the younger pianist under his wing to study in Italy. Decades on, listening to 2014’s Recomposed By Max Richter: Vivaldi, The Four Seasons – a deconstructed/reconstructed version of the titular work – you hear an element of Berio’s rebellious approach. Richter strips back Vivaldi’s work and takes it in an enthrallingly new, vivid aural direction.
After a stint with the Steve Reich-inspired Piano Circus ensemble in the early 90s, Richter guested on some electronic releases. The Future Sound Of London’s dystopian-themed 1996 album Dead Cities featured Richter throughout, and a co-write on one track, Max. A few years on, he provided the majestic string intro to Lucky Pressure, a single from the In The Mode album by Roni Size and Reprazent.
Richter could have remained a gun for hire on releases such as this, adding analogue colour to the digital realm. What happened next, though, set the scene for the third pivotal moment: in 2002, Richter’s collection of original classical pieces Memoryhouse was released on the BBC’s Late Junction label. Sounding, in hindsight, like an album primed to appeal to listeners of electronica, post-rock and classical, all did not go as planned.
“Unfortunately, I don’t think it had a single review when it came out, and essentially no sales,” Richter later told Self-Titled. “In a way there was something quite liberating about that, because it meant there was absolutely no pressure on me … I’d made this record and no one heard it, so I thought in that case, I don’t have to worry about pleasing anyone.”
The album that followed in 2004, The Blue Notebooks, is the third pivotal moment that set Richter on his way. Richter describes it as “a meditation on violence and its repercussions, inspired by both the Iraq war – which was looming” – as well as his own “experiences.”
Screenwriter Ari Folman had The Blue Notebooks on repeat while writing his first film Waltz With Bashir, a depiction of his experiences as a soldier in the 1982 Lebanon War. Its release in 2008 included a score by Richter, who would go on to provide numerous other big screen and TV soundtracks (Taboo, Hostiles, The Leftovers and My Brilliant Friend are four from an ever-expanding list). On The Nature Of Daylight, from The Blue Notebooks, stands as evidence of Richter having found his voice, developing a style which would, in time, resonate with millions. Like Philip Glass and Luciano Berio before him, he had dared to be different, gone against the grain and stuck to his guns.
The Blue Notebooks, Voices and Voices 2 all retain a sociopolitical aspect at their heart: a common thread running through all Max Richter compositions, and perhaps a quiet protest to a challenging world. We the listeners can both reflect, and be moved by the fragile beauty, light and darkness that haunts this music. As for the aforementioned Memoryhouse album, all but ignored at the time – it is now regarded as a seminal classic, of course.
Max Richter’s Voices 2 is out now on Decca Records. Info: www.maxrichtermusic.com
words DAVID NOBAKHT photos MIKE TERRY