The term "imaginary soundtrack" has been the scene of many a musical crime over the years; acting as a portmanteau for saccharine strings, congested voice-overs and a wholesale lack of structure that has to steal from non-existent celluloid in order to remain upright. Yet from time to time a record will come along that demands the soundtrack tag for all the right reasons, combining scope and ambition in a manner that can't help elicit a bout of wide-screen wonder. In this field, Max Richter is the don...
With a formal qualification in composition under his belt from Edinburgh University and time spent at the Royal Academy of Music in Florence, Max Richter could so easily have slipped into the upper echelons of the classical world were it not for one over-arching factor. Hard-core Modernism... Enthralled to the likes of Xenakis and with his education behind him, Richter co-founded the Piano Circus - a contemporary classical ensemble who tackled work from the likes of Arvo Part, Brian Eno, Steve Reich and Philip Glass; a platform which allowed him to integrate his love of sampling and electronics into the group's performance. Chuck in some time spent collaborating with Future Sound Of London, and before you know it we're in 2002 and the debut Max Richter solo release of 'Memoryhouse' is hitting the cochlea, shortly followed by a move to FatCat and the release of 'The Blue Notebooks'.
Littered with references to Kafka and imbued with a truly enchanting atmosphere, 'The Blue Notebooks' finally drew Richter the attention he so deserved through a record that was at once cerebral, engaging and (you guessed it!) cinematic. With new album 'Songs From Before' available exclusively on Boomkat before it surfaces anywhere else on this temperate planet, we hooked up with the man Richter to talk Vashti, broken equiptment and make some serious lists. As well as the verbals, we've also got an exclusive track entitled 'The Diary Of A Falling Man' to get your ears around as well as a short film by Yulia Mahr recorded on some of the last Kodachrome 40 stock ever made. Richter to the max...
How are and where are you?
I'm sitting in Edinburgh in my studio - it's 9.30 am, dark and drizzly, and it feels like the middle of the night because I hardly slept. Waiting for the Illy to kick in...
For anyone unfamiliar with your work, how would you describe it? Pithy or rambling both welcome...
I guess I make the music I would make if I had the background that I have. So, someone who has studied piano and composition, has a couple of music degrees, was young when electronica was starting to happen, witnessed the aftermath of punk and who listened to a lot of stuff and read a lot of novels...It all feeds in to what I do - a kind of hybrid- written down- classical - electronic- experimental music. A few people have called it post-classical, which is as good a name as any...
I always write the first thing that comes into my head, and decide later if it is any good or not (usually it isn't)
Your new album 'Songs From Before' has a more muted quality than 'The Blue Notebooks' - was this a conscious decision.
I always write the first thing that comes into my head, and decide later if it is any good or not (usually it isn't). The record really started to come together when I decided to use the thread of the Murakami texts as a spine through it. I guess I was looking for a way to present these which felt very natural and unproduced - sort of like they were overheard rather than performed - and I think maybe the whole record has a little of that quality. A record that is overheard...
How long were you recording the album for?
I put it together in a random sort of a fasion over the period of a few months, though some of the elements on it have been patiently waiting in my studio for years - that is pretty usual for me though, a mix of things that are made new and some that are found.
It is a mix of manic planning - with total chaos
Could you describe the recording process? Is it all laid in stone before you enter the studio, or do things tend to evolve as you go along?
It is a mix of manic planning - with total chaos. I have lots of ideas, which mostly turn out to be wrong when I start to work on them, but in working on them I uncover things by accident that I like. Then it all starts over - charitably you could call it an organic process, but actually its pretty random - I like it that way.
Listening to the album it appears there are influences ranging from Basic Channel and Kraftwerk, through to Steve Reich and Arvo Part. Do you feel these comparisons are fair and how conscious are you of other people's work when writing?
I listen to a wide range of music the whole time - but when I'm doing my own work I really don't think about other peoples things at all - it is more about following an idea to its logical conclusion than making any references to anyone else...that is not to say there isn't some overlap in what I do with other artists - obviously there is - but I think different people will hear it differently depending on their own reference points - electronica fans will hear Boards of Canada, classical aficionados will hear Arvo Part...etc
During the entire recording process do you try to avoid listening to other people's work, or is it something you welcome?
No, I don't mind hearing what else is going on at all - not that this is possible anyway - we are awash in an ocean of music these days, whether we like it or not...
I like Murakami's dream-like quality - very similar to Kafka
As with 'The Blue Notebooks', 'Songs From Before' employs a spoken word element (this time courtesy of Robert Wyatt) - what do you hope this brings to the work?
I think of music as a sub-set of the storytelling tradition. So I'm interested in music that has some sort of narrative quality - that is about something - the sounds in themselves can do this or in conjunction with other elements. Spoken words as found object have a quality that I like in this way.
How did Robert Wyatt become involved in the project? Did you approach him with something specific in mind, or did his contribution come about in a less formal manner?
I wanted Robert to read because he has an amazing distinctive voice - and he is also one of the nicest people, which I think really comes across in this - he reads so beautifully, like he were speaking just to you, or maybe to himself - it gives a wonderful 'discovered' quality to the texts.
I like Murakami's dream-like quality - very similar to Kafka in a way. I have chosen extracts which I call 'second unit' pieces - if they were in a film they would be shots of a landscape, traffic, people walking, rooftops, vapour trails, quiet interiors etc - these things are typically shot by another crew on a feature - not by the director. They are often my favourite bits in a film. I guess it is about trying to get to the idea of the extraordinariness of ordinary things - something Murakami is really in touch with.
There's a definite similarity between the writing styles of these individuals - what is it that draws you to this type of prose?
I love the dreamlike interior quality of them. Murakami writes extraordinary things in such a way that they seem ordinary, and vice versa - also, even in his most outlandish scenarios, you always feel like he is in some way simply documenting a reality...
I like music that can make sense of a purely musical kind on its own terms
Do you consider it important for music to have an overt thematic structure?
I like music that can make sense of a purely musical kind on its own terms, in how the sounds interact etc; so yes I'd say that having a coherent structure plays a part in making that happen. Of course, the structure might be deliberately incoherent...
'Songs From Before' was recorded on classic sixteen track, 2 inch analogue tape - do you enjoy using this kind of equipment and what do you feel it brings to the Richter sound?
For me there is no option about this - since I want to make a record I use the tools that sound like a record. If I wanted to make scientific measurements of sound in a laboratory I would use digital systems to do that. But that isn't what I want to do.
Your sound is undoubtedly cinematic, with 'Songs From Before' continuing in this tradition - so why has it taken so long for you to partake in a soundtrack project? Was it a case of not being offered them or merely waiting for the right thing to present itself?
I enjoy working in film - it is another discipline and an exciting opportunity to collaborate with a director to make a composite that is in a way more expressive than either the image or the sound could be on its own. I've been lucky enough to be offered films over the last couple of years that allow me to do the sort of work I love to do - long may it continue!
Since I want to make a record I use the tools that sound like a record. If I wanted to make scientific measurements of sound in a laboratory I would use digital systems
No. Music and film have to form a dialogue that fuses into something more than the individual parts - its really a sort of random alchemy - you never know what will work.
Will these be commercially available?
Yes, eventually I will release these scores. Maybe later on in 2007?
What is your favourite musical score (cinematic or otherwise)?
There are so many! Roughly in historical order...
Byrd - the vocal music, especially the masses
Gesualdo - the later madrigals
Purcell - all the instrumental music
Bach - everything, especially the art of fugue
Schubert -anything by him
Mahler - the symphonies (odd numbers)
Webern - all of it
Stravinsky - mid period
Xenakis - all of it (especially 'Jonchaies', 'Nomos Gamma', other mid period)
Most of Ennio Morricone's
Abstemiev's scores for Tarkovsky
Nino Rota's scores for Fellini
'Zidane' by Mogwai
Russian Ark' (Tchaikovsky remixed)
'Ivans XTC'(Wagner remixed)
Which are your favourite films?
Again there are so many! Off the top of my head...
Solaris (the original)
My Girlfriend's Wedding (Jim McBride's 16mm doc from 1972)
Mc Cabe and Mrs Miller
Fanny and Alexander <
The Royal Tenenbaums - contains maybe the greatest cue of recent times (The hawk taking off to 'Hey Jude')
Les 400 Coups
The Scent of Green Papaya
Whilst you were born in Germany, you've lived most of your life in the UK. Has this given you a different perspective with which to approach your work?
I guess I feel I have a more European perspective than just a UK one?
My own equipment is always to some extent broken, so you never get what you are expecting...
You previously released an album through Radio 3's Late Junction programme. How did this come about and what are your opinions on the show?
I like Late Junction - it's a nice way to hear lots of different things in a short space of time - always interesting. They invited me to make 'Memoryhouse' after hearing some roughs for it - a happy accident...
You've built and customised numerous analogue electronic instruments over the years - where did this interest come from and how does it differ using something you've personally constructed to standard kit?
With my own things they are always to some extent broken, so you never get what you are expecting - so its full of surprises - what's that title from God Speed You Black Emperor'Broken Chords Can Sing A Little'?
What led you to found the Piano Circus ensemble?
I wanted to play Steve Reich's 'Six Pianos', got a few friends together, and it went from there.
It's often said that you were the driving force behind the incorporation of sampling and electronics within the Piano Circus. Is this true, and if so, what were you hoping to achieve at the time?
I wanted to enlarge the palette beyond the piano sounds, and also to break out of the contemporary classical box.
Who would you consider the main influences on your work?
I don't think there are any main influences - just everything I've been involved with. I guess I share some ground with lots of people - in the classical world Glass, Part, in the electronica world BOC, Autechre, etc...
In terms of the music we stock on Boomkat, your work's influence is obvious. Is this something that pleases you and did you ever think you'd be getting name checked as a musical visionary?
I find it hard to believe. I just spend my time trying to make the best stuff I can - things that seem to me to make some sort of sense - and my own feeling about it is that it is always various degrees of failure...but I can't resist trying.
Vashti and I worked very closely over a period of about six months on preproduction - during which pretty much every note on the record was polished individually
Do you still revisit the music that originally inspired you to become a composer and performer (Xenakis etc.)? Have the intervening years changed your perspective on any it?
I guess we hear music differently every time we come to it - so yes it has changed for me - but I still have a huge regard for that music - it seems to get more interesting if anything...
How did your production role for Vashti Bunyan occur? Were you a fan of her work before hand and did you feel much pressure given the anticipation of her return?
I was contacted by Vashti when she was in discussions with FatCat about the possibility of recording with them - I knew her by reputation mainly, rather than by having heard lots of her stuff. As far as pressure goes, I didn't really think about that at all - I felt confident that we could work in such a way that her music would come through loud and clear, which was all it needed, because she is fantastic.
Were you together in the studio or was it a long-distance relationship?
Vashti and I worked very closely over a period of about six months on preproduction - a couple of days a week at my studio usually - during which pretty much every note on the record was polished individually... It was real pleasure to develop the ideas with her - I think one of the reasons the record turned out well is that it was the result of this extended conversation - plus she has a something unique to say, of course - without that you've got nothing...
You've also collaborated with the likes of FSOL and Roni Size - how did these hook-ups come about and what was the recording process like?
I knew FSOL from way back - initially I improvised some piano for them ('Max' on 'Dead Cities') but slowly got sucked into the electronic brain - I ended up spending two chaotic years on 'The Isness'...
Part of my listening world is no longer under my control because my 6 year old son now has a stereo in his room and randomly raids the studio for discs
Is there anyone you'd love to collaborate with?
Mostly people who are dead, unfortunately... I've been listening to some of the more out-there hip-hop lately, and I'm hearing a connection - might be an interesting conversation to be had ...
Do you enjoy being on FatCat? Are you given full artistic control?
Yeah. FatCat are very creative - and they let me do what I like.
What have you been listening to recently?
Looking through the pile of discs (without their covers on) that are stacked next to the stereo by the sink...
Purcell - 'Fantasias'
Horsefeathers - 'Words Are Dead'
33.3 - 'Play Music' (why is this not better known??)
Louis Jordan - Swings CDR from old vinyl
Schubert - string quartets
Paris Motel - demos CDR
Konono no.1 and Mbira music generally...
Eluvium - lambent material
A Silver Mount Zion
Bill Evans - 'Everybody Digs'
Dylan - 'Bringing It All Back Home' & the bootleg series
Hope Sandoval and the Warm Inventions - 'Bavarian Fruit Bread'
Mogwai - 'Mr Beast'
Mozart - piano concertos
Lullabies From The Axis of Evi'l - compilation
Schoenberg - 'Verklarte Nacht' <
Philip Jeck - various
Various bands on Burnt Toast
The other thing is that part of my listening world is no longer under my control, because my 6 year old son now has a stereo in his room and he randomly raids the studio for discs.
He has been caning...
... for the last couple of weeks...fine by me.
Are you still a keen consumer of new music? If so, any new artists that have caught your eye?
Bob Dylan - he shows promise, for sure!
If your house were ablaze, which records would you save?
Philips EP - 'Man on the Moon'
"Authentic recording of the historic Apollo XI Lunar Landing mission - July 1969"
Joni Mitchell - 'Blue'
Purcell - 'Sonnatas for strings'
Pink Floyd - Ummagumma
Hope Sandoval - 'Bavarian Fruit Bread'
Kraftwerk - 'Autobahn'
The writings of WG Sebald, Joyce, Peter Redgrove, Czelsaw Milosz...
Max on Boomkat Exclusive track 'The Diary Of A Falling Man'
"This is a new trip through some material I made for Ed Coulthard's film 'Soundproof'. Having made a version to fit the images, I also wanted also to write one just for listening - so I re-wrote and re-recorded it."
Visit Max Richter's Official Site; www.maxrichter.com
Visit FatCat Records; www.fat-cat.co.uk
Max Richter's Myspace page; www.myspace.com/maxrichtermusic
Many thanks to Dave and all at FatCat in the organisation of this piece.