One way of walking over the border, or crossing the ocean, or drifting with purpose through space and time into the time and space of classical music, is by finding a modern composer you like who is classically trained, but who makes their music using electronic instruments, computers and the recording studio. Try Max Richter. A pupil of Berio and one-time member of avant-garde classical ensemble Piano Circus, Richter is as at ease with the orchestra, that complex social machine, as with Moogs, samplers and sequencers. He's a composer with a deep, fluid understanding of classical music, from Bach to the minimalists, from Brahms to Harrison Birtwistle, and also of pop music from the Beatles to Battles. Someone who has collaborated with electronic musicians whose work is likely to be classified as ambient house or chillwave, and who gets as excited about hearing Kraftwerk for the first time as he did when he first heard Mahler, and later Xenakis.
PM: You are about to give the live premiere of your debut 2002 album Memoryhouse with the BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican. How do you feel about the record now?
MR: It’s a weird thing. You make a record and you live with it at the time so intensely. Then time goes by and it goes into another part of your brain and sits there. It’s been interesting to re-connect with it and come from the outside, in a strange sort of way. I’m very fond of it really, because it is a window through to what I was thinking at the time and what I was listening to.
PM: It was an amazing opportunity to make an album with an orchestra, and it seems to have formed a part of your life and been a template of what was to come.
MR: Yes, it was. All first albums are autobiographies, in a way: here is all this stuff I have been carrying around in my head for 20 years, and here is how I want to tell those stories. It was me reaching for a language that included all the things I had become interested in, so it is very classical, but it is also very electronic, with found objects and the like. It was an experiment to see if I could make this language tell a story, to see if I could make something of this hybrid of electronics and classical.
PM: To this day, no one really knows what to call this hybrid. The word hybrid suggests fusion, which traditionally means bringing the worst things of both elements rather than the best. Would a good name help the music reach a wider audience?
MR: It does become a problem, what you call this hybrid. At the time I jokingly called it post-classical; that was not meant to be serious, but it gained traction over the years. It didn’t really describe what I was doing, but it’s what the industry and the media like to have when they are faced with something that doesn’t conform to current labels. I always felt there was a kind of overlap between what I was doing and what the more adventurous post-rock bands were doing at the time, like Godspeed and early Sigur Rós. The word post-classical maybe referred more to post rock than anything literally beyond classical or to postmodernism.
Memoryhouse was preparing the way for a lot of the things I’ve done since
PM: It’s like nothing can get to the next stage without there being a tidy label.
Yes, it’s often driven by the marketing department. You hear all sorts of classifications - the other day I heard 'Boom Classical'. The thing with Memoryhouse is it just grew out of my interests at the time, the minimalists, the East European tonal thing of Arvo Pärt, and post-rock and electronica. As composers we are music fans first. People hear violins and they go – classical. Well, yes, it is that, but it is also something else. Memoryhouse was preparing the way for a lot of the things I’ve done since – you have some ideas, just some notes, and some stories, and one day it becomes a piece, an album; something takes over.
With the works of Xenakis, Stockhausen and Varèse venturing to new electronic frontiers in the 1950s and 60s, classical and popular music textures and techniques moved closer, bridging a divide that had only grown through the early decades of the 20th century. But classical music soon stepped back from the brink, retreating to familiar acoustic soundworlds and leaving these bold experimentalists as rogue offshoots from mainstream classical music.
PM: The classical world set up the potential for electronics, recording and manipulating sound, and then stopped. Pop took over, claimed the invention of sound and the development of the recording studio as its own...
MR: I had worked with Future Sound of London and other electronic musicians, and I saw that the studio was where everything happened. It seemed mad not to use it in the same way, even though what I was composing was based in a classical tradition. It was a great writing tool, and it was the world I wanted to be in. Using a studio allows you to open up and enlarge the composition as an object – to make different choices and explore millions of possibilities that become part of the writing.
PM: Why didn’t the classical world use the studio to continue innovations made in that world – and does it mean if you do use the studio in a pop way that you are prevented from entering the canon?
To some extent the classical music world is a museum culture, filled with old objects. The document they are dealing with is the paper score - that’s the thing they fetishise, and it is all structured around that idea. Freeform electronics, spontaneous events and things that exist in the moment are all outside that world. That’s what is great about the studio - it’s very alive. But ultimately they are very different ways of looking at the same thing - the notes, and the technology - working out how to express something you feel so that others can feel it too. When I was studying I thought there were some very interesting ideas happening in the academic world but it was like they had switched their ears off. It was an ideas-led thing, the working-out of a theory, and the score was like the manifesto of the theory. But it wasn’t about sound. The studio is all about sound and not theory.
PM: The classical world can seem like specialists talking amongst themselves, a community of connoisseurs. Did you want to break away from that?
MR: There is incredible music being made in that world, but it is more and more like a cult: a tiny audience and a tiny cross-section of composers all confirming their ideas of what good music is regardless of who else knows. I couldn’t see a way to be part of that and also enjoy writing music. You would go to a concert and people would bridle if a triad was used. It was all very oppressive and it didn’t make sense to me, especially since I was listening to electronica and it seemed freer and more creative.
I didn’t want to make music that felt like a lecture – I wanted it to be part of a conversation
PM: How do you want your music to be used?
MR: It all depends, but I am interested in the idea that there could be another space for people to walk around and find their own way into music. That’s why my pieces are very reduced, they’re not filled with me, with an overload of stimuli. I also didn’t want to make music that felt like a lecture – I wanted it to be part of a conversation. The whole modernist project was just so inward-looking, and for me music is a way of talking, it is communication. I am interested in making a connection, rather than it all being one way.
If you start with Richter as a way into classical music, the fact that there is just one degree of separation between him and Berio (an experimental contemporary of Stockhausen, Boulez, Ligeti and Kagel) is an powerful element propelling you through the vastness and intimacy of the classical genre. For Richter himself, here was a direct route to understanding how past musicians found their way to originality, both to refer to a tradition and to make something new out of it.
PM: What was it like to be taught by Berio?
MR: It was incredible actually. I think about it a lot even now. Normally what happens when you go into composition classes is that you try to get the teacher to understand what you are doing. Getting them to understand is often a challenge, but with Berio that wasn't the case. He was some kind of genius. I would show him my score and it was as though he was reading my mind. He had this incredible intuition into what I was trying to do even if it wasn't on the page. It was like he was inside my head.
PM: What specific changes did he make to how you compose?
MR: When I went to him I was writing really complicated music that would be easier to write on black paper with white ink. In a really nice way he just took the piss out of it, and suggested that I calm down and do things that actually work and mean something to people. It was brilliant, and coming from him I took it seriously. I stripped away about 95% of what I was doing and got to the essence. I started to think about why I was doing what I was doing. At the time I was also in the Piano Circus playing a lot of American minimalism, and I suppose that was the other big influence. I got interested in the idea of a more direct, comprehensible language, rather than writing a big, alienating treatise.
Richter has come a long way from the obscurist, academic instincts of his youth, and developed into the kind of ambient, tonal artist too easily dismissed as 'New Age' or 'easy-listening'. It's a label that doesn't get a strong foothold in a composer as influenced by Reich, Glass and Pärt as popular music or electronica.
PM: Your music can become so vague and tender that, like a lot of post-ambient electronica, it threatens to become New-Agey. What stops it getting sentimental?
MR: I’ve got radar for that. I just try and reduce things to very simple elements and focus on the notes. On one level the music is quite nerdily constructed, but it’s not as simple as it sounds. I’m into craft in quite an old fashioned way; I like putting notes together with a strong internal logic. I am looking for a powerful sense of inevitability which takes away from the obviousness and the familiarity that I think would make it sentimental and wishy-washy.
PM: You are very nostalgic for the vinyl record and analogue sounds. Does that not become a way of taking comfort in the past - ironic in music that is so very forward looking?
MR: Our sense of what is beautiful in music is always shaped by what we listened to as a kid, and when I think of great music, I think of vinyl music. The Beatles, The Beach Boys – they are an anchor to how I think, and they were made on tape, for vinyl. It's that sort of stuff that influences what I think great music is, so inevitably I will want to reproduce that way of making music. For me those analogue sounds are an emotional reflection of a biographical part of my life. For someone who casts back to the 17th and 18th centuries, thinking back to vinyl and analogue is not so much nostalgic as simply a way of looking for solutions to problems and finding creative momentum.
In the end we can only compose things that please us
PM: There is a glut of music at the moment, a shapeless, shifting, post-album mass of everything happening all at the same time. Where do you fit in and what is happening to the history of music, to levels of discernment, to a traditional idea of progress?
MR: It’s a puzzle. The media landscape has opened up lots of possibilities and is fraught with contradictions. Perhaps people are more adventurous in their musical taste than they once were because of how easy it is to find and access all sorts of music. But, on the other hand, how deeply is everyone listening? Do they know what they are hearing, and where it fits into history? It has flattened things out - the most obscure things have a chance of becoming viral - and opened up musical ideas that were once lost. It seems both a more creative environment and also lacking direction and any purpose other than just one of compilation. Everything is everywhere and culture is no longer A then B then C; it is just a fuzzy cloud where everything points in different directions. It's very difficult to find solid ground to stand on. For me I feel like writing something when I have an idea that grabs me, and in the end we can only do the things that please us. It's an amazing piece of luck if other people connect with it as well. I wait until I have something I really want to put down and then I try and put it down in as intense and perfect way as I can. Then I hope for the best.
PM: The recomposing of The Four Seasons by Vivaldi as part of the Deutsche Grammophon series was the one thing you’ve done in the last twelve years that seemed driven by the idea of marketing classical music, exploring memory and re-animation in a more subtle, sensual way.
MR: It was really a side project. I fell in love with the Vivaldi as a kid: six or seven perfect, bite-size chunks of beautiful tunes. For a child it was a perfect introduction to a whole language. As I got older I started to hear it everywhere and I started to hate it. It stopped being a great piece of music and became an irritant. At the same time, intellectually, I knew it was a fantastic piece of music, and I thought about reclaiming it. If your daily commute went through the Alps eventually you'd come to hate it, however beautiful the landscape. I suppose I was interested in finding a new route through the music. The one I had taken had begun to bore me and I wanted to see the surroundings in a fresh way; I wanted to rediscover it. It does have a different texture than my other works. The colours are brighter, but that is because it's a collaboration with a brighter, sparkier composer.
PM: Do you consider it a success?
MR: It was a personal project. There were ghosts I wanted to lay to rest and I enjoyed doing that. It was driven by a personal musical necessity. I never really think about the marketing side of things, otherwise I'd never write anything. It’s not something I will be repeating with another composer – it was just this particular album, and a way of responding to music that had become the sort you now hear in massive shopping centres. Whether it worked or not beyond that isn't really for me to say.
To have an opinion about Bach is a bit like having an opinion about gravity or oxygen
PM: Turning to your influences now: as a composer do you criticise your antecedents or do you merely idolise, copy and flatter them?
MR: I studied the classical canon, and what you do when you train is learn from the past, it’s like getting your tool kit together. Bach’s toolkit is mind-blowing and still unequalled, and to have an opinion about Bach is a bit like having an opinion about gravity or oxygen: it’s not something you can really criticise, it’s just there. Reality would collapse without it. Some composers astonish you so much with what they achieved that it can last your whole life. Other composers are more human and fallible and you can see how they are always fighting to find a language. And then there’s everything inbetween, and that’s where - at best - I will always be. You have Brahms and Schubert, but then you have Schumann, whose musical ideas are brilliant but you can tell he’s struggling to make sense of what he has inside him.
PM: Is having the extensive technical knowledge a hindrance or an advantage? It means that you know about Bach and Autechre, but does the musical training cancel out the possibility of being free enough to innovate? Does the programming skill interfere with being free enough to follow Bach? Are you in a limbo?
MR: I hated learning. I felt oppressed at music college, but now I am so grateful I did it because it has given me so much freedom to take music in whatever direction I want it to go into. Equally I am very grateful to the sequencer. I am aware of centuries of tradition and progress, and can also make machines work which help me experiment. I don't see it as betraying tradition but moving it on to the next stage. If there is to be a next stage, it will surely be because the combination of pure, magical notes going back in time and miraculous technology together make up a future. Music will still be about our memories, about the past, but also about what happens next.
Memoryhouse is released on deluxe vinyl via FatCat records this 27 January, 2014
We've put together a playlist of music by Richter and the composers who influenced him.