Max Richter’s work as a composer blends elements of electronic and classical composition with a punk-rock ethos into some of the most groundbreaking and highly-regarded music of the 21st century.
His work spans the range from short, vignette-type compositions, to full works for ballet, orchestra, and original film scores. His compositional style is so elegantly effective that his original works have been placed in multiple movies and shows.
He is one of the most streamed classical composers of all time, with over one billion streams across his catalog.
Richter’s musical life began at an early age. Early exposure to classical music from Bach and Vivaldi, rock and roll in the form of the Beach Boys and the Beatles, and earnest studies at the piano combined with a keen interest in electronics and a burgeoning DIY sensibility forged the young Richter’s musical identity.
But it was Richter’s first exposure to the German proto-techno group Kraftwerk that broke open the door for him.
Studies in composition followed at the University of Edinburgh, the Royal Academy of Music, and with Italian experimentalist Luciano Berio.
Richter counts his studies with Berio as a true turning point in his musicality.
In an interview with NPR, he stated that Lucio was “a very brilliant musical thinker”.
“He had this incredible instinct to sort of get at the heart of things, and he just sort of deflated all my complexity in this most charming, but very laser-like way,” Richter explained.
“It was like permission to be simpler. So that was a big turning point for me.”
One of the most charming aspects of Richter’s music is just that: the elegant simplicity.
Richter’s music stands at a sort of turning point in the world of classical music, where influences from outside a purely academic setting infiltrate the sonic space to create something new and daring.
Another interesting aspect of Richter’s music is the myriad situations it seems to fit.
While Richter has composed a number of original works for film, one of the more interesting dimensions of his catalog (both the albums and music scores listed out below) is just how many settings his pieces have found a place in.
‘ON THE NATURE OF DAYLIGHT’
One of Richter’s most well-known pieces is “On the Nature of Daylight”. The piece is nearly excruciating to listen to.
The composition originally appeared on Richter’s 2004 album, The Blue Notebooks and has since been synced nearly 20 times in various films and television shows.
Examples include the opening and closing sequences of Dennis Villenevue’s film Arrival (for which we profiled the main composer Johann Johannsson), in Stranger Than Fiction, Shutter Island, and The Handmaid’s Tale.
At just over six minutes in length, the piece follows a relatively simple, yet extremely effective structure and development.
It opens with a slowly developing chord progression in the strings, setting a deep and serious mood. After a few repetitions of this first progression, the violin enters with a more swift, arpeggiating melody that carries the emotional weight of the composition.
After establishing the melody, an even higher register string pad emerges around 3:45, bringing the piece to an emotional climax. The piece is exquisitely mournful and is a perfect example of how Richter attempts to use music more as a space to think and reflect.
Richter’s debut album, Memoryhouse, did not seem to receive much notice upon its initial release in 2002.
Richter talked about it an interview with Composer Magazine.
He stated: “When Memoryhouse failed in commercial terms, I did feel a kind of release, in the sense that I knew no one was listening at all, so I could just keep doing what I wanted to do because there was no pressure. In a way, it was a bit of a blessing.”
However, Richter’s compositions on Memoryhouse laid the groundwork for much of his future compositional style and have since become important and influential works in their own right.
It is interesting to note that Memoryhouse did not even receive a full performance until 2014. Several pieces from Memoryhouse including “Sarajevo” and “November.”
“Sarajevo” was synced by Ridley Scott for the trailer of his 2012 Alien prequel film, Prometheus.
The piece follows many of the same structural steps as “On the Nature of Daylight”, including a slowly building chord progression with increasing density and a high-register melodic motif that continues through the piece, driving the emotional weight.
Another piece from Memoryhouse, “November” was likewise featured in the two trailers, Terrance Malick’s 2012 To The Wonder and Clint Eastwood’s 2011 J. Edgar.
“November” offers a different element of Richter’s writing, with the focus shifting instead to a steady arpeggio figure in the violins that defines the chord progression, as opposed to the lower register strings defining the harmony in other examples.
Around 2:40, the piece hits a brilliant climax, with the full density of the orchestra emerging in one bright flourish, diving down a cascading whirlwind of sound that is reminiscent of something you might hear a Romantic era composer do, which again, was highly unusual for a classical composer writing in 2002.
Ad Astra is among the standouts of Richter’s original work for film and television.
Richter composed the score for the film (of the same name) during the summer of 2018, citing “inspiration both the psychological dimension of its lead character, astronaut Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), as well as the physical journey he takes across space.”
Richter seemingly took influence from another cosmic pioneer of electronics in film music, Vangelis, and incorporated plasma wave data from NASA’s Voyager Interstellar Mission into his writing, channeled through a specifically commissioned virtual instrument.
The lead theme, “To The Stars”, is a deep, resonant composition that is squarely in Richter’s wheelhouse.
Like other pieces we have looked at, the composition moves slowly, built around long, drawn out sounds and a repeating chord progression.
The composition is mainly strings, with a light piano accompaniment emerging about halfway through, delivering a signature Richter melodic phrase.
Another of Richter’s outstanding original works for television is the score for HBO’s The Leftovers.
The show follows the story of several characters in the aftermath of a sudden, mysterious event in which two percent of the world’s population goes missing.
Richter composed the music for all three seasons of the show and the work is based around three recurring themes.
The first of those themes appears first in the piece “The Departure”.
It opens with a gently rolling piano arpeggio figure, a staple of Richter’s style as we have seen. After stating the chord progression, a slow moving melodic figure begins to float over the top, another common Richter move.
The theme appears many times throughout The Leftovers.
We first hear the theme in the opening scene of the pilot episode as a sped-up arrangement of the theme accompanies the literal departure.
The theme appears again in the final episode of the first season, this time in a slowed down version during a spot with no dialogue.
We hear the theme in yet another variation during the final episode of the second season, this time performed as a sort of lullaby for the Garvey family.
THE THEME AND VARIATION OF MAX RICHTER’S WORKS
All of these variations point to a crucial element of Richter’s work: the repurposing of fragments of ideas and motifs.
Richter works in small musical bits, taking elements here and there and recombining them at later dates into something new and fresh.
This is also reflected in how frequently his work has been repurposed in various contexts. He writes music that is seemingly so well attuned to the zeitgeist that it can be laid on top of myriad sequences and remain extremely impactful.
That is a truly monumental achievement and one of the reasons Richter has become such a successful composer across multiple musical landscapes.
Cover Credit: Stefan Hoederath/Contributor/Getty Images
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Writer | Edward Bond
Edward Bond is a multi-instrumentalist composer, performer, and writer currently bouncing between Trondheim and Berlin. He apparently has the eyes of the devil, enjoys leopard prints, and will read your tarot, but not your future.