Listening to the heartbreakingly beautiful music of German-born composer and instrumentalist Max Richter is a bit like gliding through a somnambulist's dream world, hazy and spattered with half-light. A conjurer of magic, he weaves intricate aural tapestries of ambient textures delicately threaded through with subtle electronics, haunting piano, and doleful strings. The end result is like a warm blanket of tranquil noise that envelops and entrances as it soothes the harsh effects of the outside world. It's decadent, mind-bending, and transcendent; unlike anything you've ever experienced.
Previously monopolizing both his time and his performance roster in Europe, Richter will soon be delighting American audiences this November at the Wordless Festival in Manhattan. A long time coming, it is sure to be a splendid event.
Himself a successful solo artist, boundary-breaking film composer, and overall experimenter of sound, Richter was kind enough to tackle the time difference and chat with me over the phone from his home in England about his work and his plans for the latter chunk of 2008.
Aubrey: This November marks your inaugural US performance. How did you decide to tackle New York, and why did you decide that now was the time to come?
MR: Well, we'd been thinking about coming over for awhile and trying to find the right setting. I knew about Wordless having read about the last series, and it seemed like it was the right set of connections, really. [It] seemed like a really nice way to present what I get up to.
A: How do you recreate your sound live?
MR: Well, a live performance is... it's a live performance. We have to look at what's available and what's possible. So I tour in lots of different ways with different formations. I have a kind of standard band; we can play most of the stuff on the records with that band, albeit by making some changes. And then there's a cutdown group as well which is a trio: me, and a wonderful violinist and cellist, and the computer, and the piano. And we play a kind of a different trip through the material. You know, the instrumental material is always live. We try to just play music.
A: You've played often in cathedrals. Do you prefer that sort of setting for the acoustics or is that something you don't always have control over?
MR: It's interesting actually... I mean, I don't really have that much control over the settings. A festival will come and they'll say, "we want you to come and play," and we'll have a talk about it and very often - well about half the time probably - they're thinking of a very resonant reverberant acoustic. And that's probably to do with the sound of the records a little bit. I guess it does speak to that acoustic a bit. You know, the organ music, some of the big string pieces... that kind of spacious, luminous sort of a setting.
A: Sort of a magical atmosphere...
MR: Yeah! We had kind of an interesting time in Spain actually because it was a very, very beautiful place. It was an old monastery. After us were Mogwai, and before us were Echo and the Bunnymen. So the audience was really pumped up, which is really interesting because they did come from this really loud show and then they were, like, supposed to be sitting on this stone cold floor in this cathedral and listening to this kind of slow music, and it was quite interesting.
A: I'd like to talk for a minute about some of the work you've done for film. How do you get involved, and what is the creative process like?
MR: Pretty much exclusively I'll get an email from the director. He likes the records and is interested in what I do. So, that's the first thing that's great. And I'm very grateful for that really. Working with a director is a kind of alchemy because you're looking for that thing that catches fire and it's kind of an interesting puzzle to solve. You get to have all those conversations. It's a good, fun process.
A: You've used excerpts from the texts of Kafka, Milosz, and most recently Murakami, in your albums...
MR: With the texts, they're really just things I fall in love with. I'll be reading and something will just suddenly catch fire and jump out at me. You get very excited about a piece of text or an idea or something and you want to tell people about it (laughs). There are these fragments.. I love Murakami anyway. His handling of the nature of reality and dreams and how these things connect is so interesting and so kind of.. it's brilliant work. It's really just about me saying, "look at this, it's incredible."
A: How do you choose the individuals (Tilda Swinton, Robert Wyatt) who recite the texts?
MR: I was really lucky with Tilda, and with Robert really. In a slightly kind of foolhardy kind of crazed way I just thought, "who would be my number one choice of all the people alive to read this Kafka?" And I went, "Tilda Swinton!" (laughs) Then I just kind of wrote her an email. And my various agents and people like that got in touch, and she was so enthusiastic and generous.
A: That's great! She seems like she would be a delight....
MR: Yeah, she's a fantastic artist, really. So that was that. I really did the same with Robert. He was a sort of friend-of-a-friend really. I managed to be in touch with him and, again, he was fantastic. We had a lovely afternoon at his place with me and a laptop just kind of, you know, doing Murakami.
A: What else do you have in the works?
MR: Well, I'm working on a project at the moment which is a.. I wouldn't really call it an album. It's more like a collection of pieces which is called "24 Postcards in Full Colour." It's a collection of miniature pieces which are composed, and it's a set of variations of live instrumentation and electronics and piano.. all sorts. But we're not releasing it as a CD. We're releasing it as downloads and vinyl. I'm suggesting that people will use [the downloads] as mobile phone ringtones. It's like an exploration into that medium as a medium for composed music. 'Cause you know, we have all this noise around us all the time and I just thought it was kind of an interesting space to look at as a way of performing music. It seems like a missed opportunity not to look at that.
A: Do you prefer to do your solo work, or your film work, or are there benefits to each that you equally enjoy?
MR: Well, they're very different. The solo work is.. it's a kind of an obsessive compulsive thing which I just have to do it the way I want to do it (laughs). That's completely my sort of domain really. That's what kind of starts me up and gets me going. That's "it" for me. And the film work is a different thing because film and music have to coexist because there's that conversation between the sound and the image, and also of course between me and the director, and the other people involved. I love stories and it's just nice to be involved with stories on whatever level.
A: I think it's amazing that you've worked with the writer of The Decalogue...
MR: Yeah! That was so funny. Those are amazing films, incredible films. How funny that they got in touch. I was really pleasantly surprised, like, "oh? ok!" It's nice that they thought of me.
A: It seems like more of a luxury to be able to do your own solo work and then collaborate with others as well.
MR: Well, it's a great pleasure. You know that's one of the really nice things about doing films. You get to have all those conversations. You know with the Kafka it's the same.. and the Milosz on the previous record. The whole mission of having these two worlds collide... you know, the written down classical music and the more just "played" music. I love that.