“When I was a kid at 12 or 13, practicing my Beethoven on the piano, I was also building analog synthesizers out of bags of components in my bedroom.”
I’m convinced Max Richter is a linguist. Yes, he may be more famous for his albums and film scores, but the way in which he describes art he treats his medium as a language. And it’s not just music. As we talk about his work in film, ballet and on record, each art form in Richter’s eyes is subject to a certain “grammar,” a texture to the way it communicates to an audience and performers.
That may sound sterile, but in Richter’s world it only makes the art more spectacular. With the release of Three Worlds: Music from Woolf Works, Richter has combined the structures of ballet, prose and music together. The record collects his music from a ballet based around the works of Virginia Woolf and shows his love for each medium in thrilling turns. We discussed writing eulogies, the profound influence of Woolf and his eventual IDM album.
For the opening song you have the actual voice of Virginia Woolf on it. In the press release, you seemed giddy that you were able to find it. When you realized you had that at your disposal, were you like “I have to put this in a song”?
Of course. I mean, when we started thinking about the project, this goes back to the ballet which is the source of the record, I discovered this recording, which is the only recording of Virginia Woolf in existence. And I just thought, having obviously used a lot of spoken word and found sound in my work over the years, I thought this was a perfect jumping off point. Not only that it was a recording of her actually speaking, but also what she was talking about. She’s talking about words, language as this kind of living thing. It just struck me as very evocative.
Last time I interviewed you, we spoke about how some of the titles on [Sleep] were based on the words of Yeats or Murakami. I continue to wonder about that. It seems like spoken word is a very important part of your music. What does it add to your music?
I guess I’m trying to evoke the experiences and content of the material in a way that’s intelligible to people. For me, music is my first language. Music feels very precise and very vague at the same time. When you hear something you feel like you’re being spoken to about something, but also you don’t know exactly what it is. Since a lot of my music has a political and social sort of hinterland to it, it’s a way to be quite specific to how the music relates to—how it conveys the stories and what the stories are.
You use the phrase “musical grammar” in the press release. You could think of that in tempos and time signatures, but it could also be the emotional content.
Exactly. I think of a project like a collage, where you’re trying to assemble an object which conveys a set of feelings or an emotional atmosphere in its totality. All the different elements have to work together to do that. And that is building the grammar, I think. Whether that’s instrumental sound, or electronic sound, or found objects, or text or even the titles of pieces can evoke particular things. All of those things have to add up to something.
So after “Words” you have “In the Garden,” “War Anthem” and “Meeting Again.” I realized that they had similar themes just played at different tempos, but I didn’t realize until I did some reading that these songs were based off of characters. I was wondering if those themes were meant to represent different personality traits or similar actions that those characters had done.
It’s not completely one to one. The way that those things relate to one another is sort of—that whole first section of the record is about Mrs. Dalloway. And Mrs. Dalloway is really about someone telling them self a story about their life, sort of remembering their life. But it’s also a fictionalizing—a creative reinterpretation of meetings, relationships. In some ways idealizing and in some ways judging things from a new perspective. And the relationships that go through that novel are all tied up at the end. So you get this music which is kind of remembering itself, so there are repeated themes, transfigured themes and things brought into new relationships all the time.
You’ve been incredibly busy. You’ve done film scores, TV scores, your own work, the Vivaldi Recomposed. Sleep was an experiment to itself, you’ve done ballet—does the purpose behind making the music change how you make the music?
Yes, they are different. Every storytelling medium has its own properties. The dynamics between the various elements: the acting, the dance, the music, the cinematography or the conveying of text—in all these different media they impose restrictions and conditions just because of the character of the medium itself. Music for TV or music for cinema is not the same as a record because it’s not meant to hold your attention completely on its own. So they are very different and I treat them as very different. Film and TV is a very collaborative medium. It’s a medium where you’re sort of puzzle-solving with a group of people that somehow catches fire. Where as a record or ballet or a concert piece, any sort of standalone project, the music is the alpha and omega of the thing and it has to convey the whole story in a purely musical language. So that’s a completely different kind of approach.
For ballet, does the dance have its own grammar that needs to match up with the music?
Yes, it does. And I really, really love working with ballet, with choreographers because I’m really an outsider to that language. For me it’s like being on another planet, I don’t know anything that’s going on. And I have some sort of feeling of witnessing a ritual process which has its own rules and its own internal coherence, but I just don’t understand it. My world is full of text, and information, and language and structuring on paper. And to witness this sort of physical grammar being born—it’s an amazing process and incredibly exciting.
Jumping off of pairing your music with other artistic forms, my favorite movie of last year was Arrival and your song, “The Nature of Daylight” is used in a alongside Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score. How were you approached for its use and did you know how it was going to be used?
We got the inquiry in the normal way, which is just they call up my publisher and they say they want to use la-la-la or whatever piece in the movie. When I got this call I was a bit, honestly, very doubtful about allowing it for several reasons: The first thing is that “On the Nature of Daylight” had been used in Shutter Island, Disconnect and various other settings. And I felt like it was getting to the point where the original intention, which was a comment against the situation in the Iraq war in 2003, that original intention was starting to get kind of lost by all the new associations. The other reason is that I’ve known Jóhann for 10 years and I knew that if someone opened their movie and closes it with my music—it’s going to be really hard on him laughs. It’s going to be really hard on him!
So those were my two doubts about it. And Jóhann was actually very supportive of the idea that I allow the license. Because he’d been battling away for months on end trying to replace this music, which they had structured the beginning and the end of the film around. So that made me think, “oh well maybe this is ok.” And then Denis [Villeneuve, director of Arrival] explained his rational for using the music. And I think it works very powerfully in the situation.
The second portion of Woolf Works is based on Orlando which, I was reading up on it, and it seems very surreal. The main character switches sexes and lives for hundreds of years. There seems to be a supernatural aspect to it. And I was wondering if that is what influences the jump to electronic editing and sounds on “Modular Astronomy.”
All the Orlando music is based on the principle of transformation as a theme. You know the character has his biography of 400 years, changes gender from male to female and goes on incredible adventures. It’s very colorful, sort of sci-fi, almost proto-sci-fi in a way. So I wanted to evoke this image of transformation. Orlando is a big set of variations on a 16th century tune called “La Follia,” which was used as a sort of depiction of madness. A lot of composers have used this theme over the years, probably hundreds. And “Modular Astronomy” takes the principle of transformation to the maximum degree. It uses the “La Follia” material and builds kind of a hybrid language. I programed some patterns into an analog sequencer and then found a way to harvest that data out of that sequencer, playing this “La Follia” material and then scooped up that data and incorporated it—basically generated notation from that. Then the orchestra recorded that notation. Then that audio was further processed in the digital domain. To me this evokes the journey of Orlando. That image of transformation, that constant flux. So really the musical atoms themselves made that journey too.
So that brings up the question: when are we getting the full IDM, Boards of Canada album from you?
Well I love the Boards so much laughs! I mean, the thing for me is that all of these things blend together. All my records are really electronic. They just don’t really feel electronic. I mean, The Blue Notebooks is a totally electronic record. I mean, it’s got violins and pianos, but with a track like “Shadow Journal” it’s very produced and electronic object. I don’t know, I’ve always loved electronic music, it’s always been a big part of what I do. When I was a kid at 12 or 13, practicing my Beethoven on the piano, I was also building analog synthesizers out of bags of components in my bedroom. It’s always been part of my language.
So the last questions I have are about “Tuesday.” Obviously you have so much respect for Virginia Woolf. It feels like you’re writing a eulogy for a person who influenced you a lot, but you never met. How did you do that?
I feel like any artist, if you love their work, you have a sort of communication, a confident engagement. You do feel you know them in some way. In a sense, Virginia Woolf’s life was very troubled. She had mental illness, depression a lot of difficulty. And her creative output, the things she managed to achieve, are in spite of that; they are a testament to the redeeming qualities of creativity. I feel like the project is a celebration of that. Although “Tuesday” is somber and it does have the solo soprano voice submerged in this kind of oceanic texture, which obviously echoes Virginia Woolf’s suicide, I hope it has some luminescence in it as well. Her work is full of life, it isn’t relentlessly dark. All of her work is full of incredible textures and colors and sensations and brilliant ideas.