The Blue Notebooks stands as a high-point of the composer’s practice as well as a perfect entry point into his body of work.
One hopes that someday Max Richter’s The Blue Notebooks will lose its potency. The European composer’s 2004 album of Philip Glass-style minimalism was written directly following the US invasion of Iraq, and many of the lyrics draw on Franz Kafka’s writings during the First World War. The fact that Richter’s compositions still retain their harrowing somberness is a testament both to the frustratingly cyclical nature of civic progress and the composer’s often unmatched ability to portray specific emotions in a way that appeals on both a cerebral and corporeal level.
Although Richter might have garnered more notoriety for his eight-hour ambient excursion Sleep, The Blue Notebooks stands as a high-point of the composer’s practice as well as a perfect entry point into his body of work. His merging of a pop sensibility with the complex language of contemporary classical music might be more commonplace now than it was upon the album’s release, but Richter’s approach is still unique. He has a decisive way of treating instruments and harmonies that stands apart from other post-minimalist work that might favor airiness over impact.
One thing that gives The Blue Notebooks a singular flavor is Richter’s specific, often odd use of production and mixing techniques. The muffled, claustrophobic atmosphere on “Shadow Journal” threatens to toss the listener into a dense pit of sound, but the harmonic progression is too passionate to disregard all levity. “Old Song” places the main piano line far in the back of the mix, making the music sound distant and deteriorating. These studio techniques are among the many ways Richter manages to create a diverse record out of material that relies almost solely on arpeggiated piano patterns and repeating string motifs for a compositional language.
Renowned British actress Tilda Swinton reads the spoken-word pieces that appear on many tracks, and her delivery is the perfect addition to the music. Her dry, measured tone doesn’t ever feel stuffy or disinterested; it speaks to the album’s pensive reckoning with extended periods of discomfort and confusion. One of her most memorable performances arrives on “Old Song” in two simple words: “Noise/ Peace.” Both in the sound of The Blue Notebooks and its political occupations, this feels like a manifesto: A constant oscillation between the unsettling effect of sonic clutter and the glory of empty space and silence.
To commemorate the 15-year anniversary of The Blue Notebooks’ original release, Richter has attached a bonus disc of extra material. Thankfully, he forgoes the usual demos, half-finished ideas and other random minutia that would interest only the most dedicated of superfans in favor of material that alters, reimagines and updates the original music. Remixes, re-recordings and alternate arrangements of some of the album’s highlights showcase Richter’s restless spirit and the inherent flexibility in his compositions.
The two tracks that stray farthest from Richter’s normal fare are remixes by dance producers Jlin and Konx-Om-Pax. On the latter’s treatment of “Iconography,” part of Richter’s defining touch is lost. The ghostly choruses and reverbed synthesizer from the original are easily recognizable, but these touchstones fade away as the track progresses. The thumping dance beats and distorted bass lines, however well-executed, feel at odds with the consistently inward-looking atmosphere of the rest of the album.
The downfalls of Konx-Om-Pax’s contribution are exactly what make Jlin’s remix of “Vladimir’s Blues” so awe-inspiring. The original track, even though it’s just more than a minute long, is one of the most immediately beautiful moments on The Blue Notebooks. The constantly evolving bass line and tasteful rubato are massively expressive and endlessly listenable. Throughout Jlin’s remix, her signature use of interlocking rhythms and scattered percussion programming is present, but the best elements of Richter’s composition are still the focal point. She retains the delicate treatment of space and texture that “Vladimir’s Blues” had, and even with the new track’s beat-oriented structure it never breaks kinship with the album’s contemplative nature. Even better, it imagines the alternate perspective of an artist with different experiences, processes and aspirations toying with the same emotional and sonic palette.
In addition to these outside contributions, Richter himself offers three new versions of the standout track “On the Nature of Daylight.” Each one takes the composition into an alternate direction for a distinct mood and taste. On top of the original’s slow ascent and single-line string writing, the “Orchestral Version” offers a lush romanticism while the “Entropy” edit softens the composition’s edges and fills in the gaps between notes for a droning, ethereal mix.
Of all the iterations of “On the Nature of Daylight,” the version titled “This Bitter Earth” is by far the most arresting. Pulling the vocal track from Dinah Washington’s soul hit of the same name, Richter takes his already affecting music and uses the naked human voice to add another layer of tangible meaning. The political reckonings that underlie the album come to the fore here, letting Washington’s crisp voice hang and echo into the mix while she offers hope in the face of endless suffering. This is no naïve optimism; rather, it feels like a move towards solidarity in the face of relentless turmoil.