A beautiful and painful mix of emotions.
“Busy” does not begin to describe Max Richter in the ‘10s. TV and film scores, experimental masterpieces, solo records, a recomposition of Vivaldi, scores for ballet–there’s not much the English composer hasn’t done in the last seven years. Perhaps the most profound achievement throughout all of it is his ability to still sound singular. Even through the diverse and battling influences that come from dance or cinema, Richter is always instantly recognizable.
That trait becomes even more impressive during Three Worlds: Music from Woolf Works. This music for ballet is based on the writings of Virginia Woolf, a double whammy that might swallow a lesser composer. But Richter, as always, handles it with grace.
The work is split into three sections: Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando and Tuesday. Mrs. Dalloway serves as the introductory passage and contains the album’s most conventional sounds. Based around a repeating motif that is warped and slowed over three songs sandwiched between spoken word segments, Mrs. Dalloway reflects the moods and themes of its source material with ease.
The prose of Mrs. Dalloway focuses on memory but Richter explains that it’s a “fictionalizing—a creative reinterpretation of meetings, relationships.” As the music, and time, moves on, these themes change. “In the Garden” is nearly pop, but “War Anthem” slows the central melody to a challenging dirge. “Meeting Again” closes the trio and reaches a middle ground between its siblings as a mournful violin pierces the slowly tumbling piano line that rolls the song forward.
After the brief and spacy interlude “Memory is the Seamstress,” Richter launches into Orlando, the most experimental section. It’s fitting, as Orlando was a strange and nearly proto-sci-fi novel following the story of a human who mysteriously changes sexes and lives for hundreds of years. Richter focuses on the theme of transformation, feeding his orchestra in and out of computers and compressors to get a cosmic and off-kilter feeling. “Modular Astronomy” is the perfect lead, punching out viciously and bouncing in unpredictable ways. “Entropy” is smaller, quieter, but infinitely spookier, letting small electronic sounds ping-pong across a vast space. “Morphology” features a deep layer of bass sounds, a sly reminder of Richter’s nocturnal ambiance on his last record, Sleep, while “Possibles” holds truly alien sounds, like distant chimes beamed in by satellite. Orlando is deeply unnerving in places and utterly confusing in others, but that’s the point. Much like Woolf’s story of transfiguration, Richter is dedicated to weaving all the sounds he has at hand into something inscrutable and grand.
Orlando closes on a simpler note, the calm and tiny “Love Songs,” mostly comprised of a piano breaking through the electrically bent madness. It’s a beautiful rest before the emotional devastation of Tuesday, based on Woolf’s suicide letter to her husband before she drowned herself. Read out loud, it is a crushing piece of prose filled with illness, death and mourning. In print, it has a surprising and beautiful symmetry. Even at the end, Woolf was creating flawless works.
Richter provides a perfect eulogy for Woolf. The music works circularly, slowly adding elements over a repeating framework introduced at the end of the monologue. At 22 minutes long, it is not for the faint of heart, and I nearly broke down crying during my first listen. Richter’s restraint makes “Tuesday”– it doesn’t go for a straight gut-punch, instead moving with grace toward a building low end and the addition of a soprano, whose voice seems to be coming under the waves. When it does roll into its climax, it is breathtaking and magnificent, one of Richter’s finest singular pieces. Horns, full string sections, booming electronics all merge into a singularity before everything fades and only a chiming piano and violin remain next to the river.
When Richter spoke with Spectrum Culture in 2015, he explained that he found Woolf’s pieces a “testament to the redeeming qualities of creativity” even in the face of mental illness and sorrow. The composer brings about those qualities throughout Woolf Works. Tuesday, even at its most desolate, is still sublime, never allowing itself to be weighed down in sheer depression. And that, in a sense, is the genius of both Richter and Woolf Works. He does not just blend disparate instruments together, but also a beautiful and painful mix of emotions.