Festival interview: Max Richter – 'I thought the critics would destroy me’
Composer and soundtracker Max Ritcher talks about recomposing Vivaldi's The Four Seasons and the milkman who educated him in experimental music
This article is from 2015.
Once upon a time there was so little interest in the unclassifiable Max Richter that his early work was being deleted. Ahead of an EIF debut, he tells us how he prevented a Vivaldi classic becoming a degrading jingle
Growing up in the 1970s, a visit from the milkman was part of everyday life. For most people, it simply meant a regular top-up of dairy, but for Max Richter it brought about a musical epiphany that was to shape his entire career. Calling round to the Richter household for payment one afternoon, their milkman heard an adolescent Max practising Mozart sonatas on the piano.
‘He took it upon himself to educate me in experimental music,’ recalls Richter during our chat at London’s Royal Opera House. ‘So, in the morning he’d leave pints of milk and the latest Philip Glass on vinyl. And that was in the late 1970s, before the internet, when you couldn’t hear that kind of music unless you were a really obsessive collector. So I had a real head-start.’
At the tender age of 12, Richter had already been composing for years, albeit mainly in his head (‘I didn’t really understand it was something you could actually do’). The arrival of Glass and his contemporaries lit a fuse in the young pianist, who then began building his own synthesisers with soldering irons. From there, studying music and composition at the University of Edinburgh and Royal Academy of Music introduced Richter to an even wider range of influences, until it was time to strike out on his own. Firstly he co-founded the contemporary classical ensemble, Piano Circus, then worked with groups such as Future Sound of London and Roni Size before creating a series of solo albums.
All of which makes Richter something of a headache for record-shop owners and shopping websites, wondering how to categorise him. File him under classical, electronic, soundtrack and several others: they all make sense. Although for Richter himself, it’s just music. ‘I’m suspicious of the idea of categories in music and this idea of things being in boxes,’ he says. ‘To me that seems unnatural. I write the music that somebody with my biography would write, and the thing that’s always driven me is an enthusiasm for the material. I sort of follow the notes to where they want to go.’
In recent years, wherever those notes go, plenty of listeners have been following. His solo albums Memoryhouse, The Blue Notebooks, Songs from Before, 24 Postcards in Full Colour and Infra have slowly gathered Richter a legion of fans. Over 50 films feature his work, including historical drama Lore, the award-winning animation Waltz With Bashir and Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island. While on stage, his music has been used by dance companies around the world, as well as the National Theatre of Scotland productions Black Watch and Macbeth with Alan Cumming.
In the last year, Richter has played to sell-out crowds at the Royal Albert Hall in London and Sydney Opera House, while this August he makes his debut at the Edinburgh International Festival. Was this how he thought his career would pan out? ‘No,’ he laughs. ‘I assumed no one would ever listen to my music; and for quite a lot of years, I was right. No one did listen. Memoryhouse came out and there wasn’t a single review and zero sales, and after about a year it was deleted. So I recorded The Blue Notebooks on a little indie label, and my attitude was, “well if nobody is listening, I might as well keep doing what I’m doing”. It took ten years before anyone starting paying attention at all; there really was tumbleweed in the beginning.’
Richter’s perseverance eventually paid off, although his explanation for keeping going says much about his approach to music-making: ‘I just had to keep doing it, it’s not like I have any choice about it.’ That deep, almost primitive need to compose perhaps explains why Richter’s music has such a profound effect on his listeners. There are moments of unmitigated beauty and poignancy in Memoryhouse which can’t fail to move. Festival audiences will discover this for themselves when it’s played live alongside Richter’s most popular recording to date, Recomposed: Vivaldi – The Four Seasons, featuring the brilliant violinist Daniel Hope.
Recorded in 2012, that reworking of the perennially popular violin concertos (which can also be heard during Wayne McGregor’s piece with Ballett Zürich) was born out of a desire to fall back in love with music which, to his ears, had almost been played to death. ‘I felt the Vivaldi was like a beautiful landscape; but no matter how beautiful it is, if your commute is the same every day for 20 years, that landscape just disappears and you stop seeing it. That’s really the experience I had with The Four Seasons, which is a beautifully made, adventurous and interesting work. I fell in love with it as a child and then fell out of love with it, because I commuted through it for 20 years, through TV and advertising. It just became like a jingle, which I felt was degrading to the work. So this was me trying to take a new route through that beautiful landscape, sort of off-road, to rediscover it.’
Some would argue (though most certainly not Richter himself, who looks horrified when I even suggest it) that his recomposition of The Four Seasons is even better than Vivaldi’s. Others who haven’t heard it may, quite understandably, wonder what a ‘recomposition’ even is. In short, over 75% of the original score is gone, replaced by Richter’s own music. Yet the entire work is most definitely identifiable as Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. ‘It’s funny isn’t it?’ says Richter. ‘There are whole movements where there is basically no Vivaldi, in terms of actual notes. “Spring One” probably has only four bars of Vivaldi in it, but it feels like it’s all Vivaldi. It’s odd. It’s a bit like walking around a sculpture, you just sort of see it from a different angle.’
Taking such a well-loved work and reinventing it was a risky move on Richter’s part, but one which, again, he felt he had no choice in. ‘I just had to do it, I needed to get it out of my system,’ he says. ‘I thought the critics would probably destroy me for it, but I just did it anyway. And honestly, there has been a little bit of that but not much; I thought it would be worse. Generally speaking, people have taken it in the spirit in which I wrote it; which is as an act of affection. It’s a conversation with the original, but it’s also trying to shine a light on it afresh. And I think people have accepted that.’
Max Richter: Recomposed / Memoryhouse, 24 Aug, 8pm, £10–£32; Ballett Zürich, 27–29 Aug, 7.30pm, £10–£32. Both shows at Edinburgh Playhouse, Greenside Place, 0131 473 2000.