Max Richter on How Music Helps Him Understand the World

by Jose Solis

18 April 2017

"I love the ballet because it's a language which I'm not a native speaker of. I admire and love watching ballet, but I'm not a dancer, so for me it has a magical quality."
Photo: Jermaine Francis 
cover art

Max Richter

Three Worlds: Music From Woolf Works

(Deutsche Grammophon)
US: 27 Jan 2017

The power of Max Richter’s music lies not in its undeniable technical achievement but in the effortlessness it exudes.

The post-minimalist composer is no stranger to taking pieces of classical music, tearing them apart, putting them back together and coming up with something radically different, which is also a tribute to the original. His ability to evoke emotion has made him a favorite of filmmakers whose dramatic needs are often fulfilled by the complexity of his music, works like “On the Nature of Daylight” have been used to great effect by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Denis Villeneuve among others. One of Richter’s frequent collaborators is choreographer Wayne McGrego,r who in 2015 premiered Woolf Works, a ballet in three acts based on three novels by Virginia Woolf. Accompanied by a brand new score by Richter, the ballet was polarizing on several accounts, but most critics agreed Richter’s score was infallible.

And with reason. From the opening track set in a bustling London filled with urban sounds and energy, we are taken to Woolf’s world (the only known recording of her voice is used seamlessly and to haunting effect) one populated with sweeping, yet delicate sounds in Mrs. Dalloway and much more playful and vibrant in the pieces inspired by Orlando. Richter’s score for the ballet is now available in an abridged version titled Three Worlds: Music from Woolf Works. We spoke to the composer about how he discovered the sounds of each book, the process of matching music to dance, and how music has helped him understand the world.

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Is it strange to sit down with a journalist and try to put into words what you’re trying to do with your wordless music?

In a way it is. When you’re very close to it, you’re the least suitable person to talk about it because the music is the story. When you make a piece one of the interesting things is hearing what other people think about it.

When I watched Arrival, and heard “On the Nature of Daylight”, it made me wonder how it was for you to see one of your pieces find new life outside the album you made it for.

That was interesting, the piece started in 2004 in The Blue Notebooks which is a protest record, it’s also a very personal piece of music for me because it had to do with my thoughts on society and politics at that time. It’s a piece that seems to have cast a spell on filmmakers though, you get it on Shutter Island, Stranger Than Fiction, it speaks to people in a different way. That’s interesting, because it tells you something you’ve made has all these facets maybe you weren’t aware of.

When I got the call about Arrival I was doubtful because the piece had had a life on cinema already and we were getting to the point where the original context was sort of lost, and I didn’t want that to happen. On the other hand Arrival itself is a political film because it’s about unification and getting beyond boundaries. It also fuses the political with the personal, so I wasn’t into the idea but the film seemed really good, also I’ve known Johan [Johansson] for a very long time and he was writing the original score, and I felt that would be problematic for him so that was part of the conversation I had with Johan and Denis [Villeneuve]. Also this idea of the palindromic and time structures are actually in “On the Nature of Daylight” already, so it was a great match.

I thought you were a good fit for Arrival because you seem to understand the world through music, in the same way the aliens in the film try to make sense of humans through our language, you’ve used music to dissect Vivaldi, poetry, politics ... 

Yes, you’re right.

This is something that happens also in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Was that film influential in any way?

As a kid certainly. I saw that movie and it blew me away completely, my experience of that film is joined up with my discovery of the National Electronic Museum. Hearing those big tones coming out of that synthesizer was amazing to me, and also having sound convey a meaning like words.

Is there anything so far that you haven’t been able to understand through music?

I don’t know actually, that’s very interesting. I think as human beings we all have a fundamental mode, a basic way of relating to the rest of reality and for me it’s always instinctively been about sound making and trying to extract information, grammar, meaning from sound making. That’s been my way of navigating reality, that’s very personal, a painter might say they make marks or look.


Would you relate this to having compared music-making to OCD?

OCD is an incredibly debilitating condition, so I don’t say that in a throwaway way. I say it coming from the idea that from an early age I remember having sounds in my head and they never stopped, ever. [laughs] It’s been an ongoing musical structuring process. It has a sort of quasi non-personal quality to me, with each project I try to follow where the material is going. It feels like when novelists say they find their characters are doing things they never thought they’d do, the material comes alive and that’s how I feel making music.

What do you do when you need to stop thinking about sounds?

It hasn’t happened so far. [laughs] That’s why I say it’s a bit like OCD, but it’s also an affliction I’m happy to have.

Have there been instances when you’ve discovered something about one of your own pieces when you see it in a movie?

Having a piece in a movie or a TV show illuminates an aspect of the material which has to do with that person meeting the material in their own way. You get a connection between the biography of that filmmaker, the story, the characters, the setting and that throws a new light on the music itself. That’s one of the exciting things about doing creative work, it affords you the possibility of experiencing your work through someone else’s eyes.

In Three Worlds: Music from Woolf Works we have several disciplines coming together, you composed the music for a ballet by Wayne McGregor, which itself was based on three books by Virginia Woolf. Why is this multidisciplinary approach such an important part of your work?

I love the experimental aspect of creativity, for me making a project is literally starting from an empty space and then populating it. There’s a questioning aspect to how I work, I come from a lot of “what ifs”. Now what? It’s sort of like a chemist putting things in a test tube waiting for it to blow up, pink goo oozing out of it. We’re looking for those kinds of explosions, those creative moments where the material catches fire just by being put into the same space.

I love the ballet because it’s a language which I’m not a native speaker of. I admire and love watching ballet, but I’m not a dancer, so for me it has a magical quality. So I found this idea of witnessing a language being made to be quite inspiring, since I don’t speak the language I can appreciate the beauty from the outside. Ballet and music are storytelling mediums, so with Woolf Works we had the starting point with the three novels, The Waves,Orlando,Mrs. Dalloway, and the biography of Virginia Woolf, which were our building blocks. We then took them and reconfigured them to make a trajectory for the music and the dance.

The first thing we listen to in the album is Virginia Woolf’s voice which is absolutely haunting. In the future, people will be able to recreate your music, for instance, based on sheets and other recordings, but a voice preserved feels almost otherworldly. How was it to use her voice along with your composition?

When I started working on the ballet I was gathering material, reading the books again and I didn’t know this recording existed. And lo and behold the one recording we have of her has her talking about words, language, and she’s talking about them as if they’re living creatures with intentions. It’s the most amazing piece of text! It’s a moment of her culture, this breathing, living person talking about language, for me immediately this was the start of the score. In a way the whole first act is an aftershock of discovering that amazing text. I like to work with found objects, I like this idea of very specific objects because it’s like a documentary process in a way. I think all my records have that in them.

Have you ever been interested in making films?

I think it’s storytelling really, that’s my big interest. We’re storytelling creatures, it’s one of our defining human characteristics, we like being transported and that shared experience is what culture is all about. Music can transport you from here to another time or place. I’ve never been tempted to tell stories with images because I feel the pictures are better in my head. Hopefully I’m also able to evoke pictures in other people’s heads.

After re-reading the books how did you know the sound you wanted for each?

With each book I had an immediate global idea of the language that would make sense in it, for Dalloway—the first act—the novel to me is a kind of idealized biography, she’s talking about her life, roads not taken, so there are a lot of what ifs, it’s a biography she’s inventing like we all do. There’s a lot of memory structures in the book, music recalling itself and something else very important in the book is London itself, it’s a novel about tempo, information, all the people walking in London being busy. We recorded bits and pieces of the city that Virginia Woolf would’ve heard.

Orlando is a sort of proto sci-fi, it’s a novel of transformation and fantasy: it’s just amazing. The central character lives 400 years, goes through all these transitions including gender, so I wanted to have material that could do that. I decided to use a piece of historical material as the basis for this, which is the Spanish 16th century tune “La Folia” which I subjected to the same kinds of transformations Orlando undergoes in the novel. I fed the score into an analog sequencer and then extracted data from there, which I notated and recorded with an orchestra, then I processed that recording digitally to make different patterns, and then re-processed that. The DNA of “La Folia” travels across time in the Orlando music, everything you hear in it comes from that tune, even when it sounds very out there.

Were you the kid who would break a clock just to put it back together?

Yes, I sort of still am.


With the Orlando section I couldn’t help but think of Tilda Swinton, whom you’ve worked with, and who starred in the film version of the novel. Is the creative world so small that you inevitably bump into each other, or are you in search of minds in your frequency?

I feel like the people I work with, I work with because I want to be friends with them. They’re great people and I love them. They’re exciting minds. Wayne has such a creative curiosity, so it’s interesting to be around people like that. Having that sort of relationship with other minds gets me excited. I feel everything I do is completely different and I like that idea of moving out into unknown spaces. Again, it’s that “what if?” question.

How was the process of making music for the ballet? Did the dance spring from your work or did you and Wayne work together in sync?

In the case of the ballet the movement came from the music, it kinda has to a little bit. But that’s not to say was always writing in relation to the dances, it was more of a collage or a sculptural process, we moved bits here and there.

The only thing that arrived fully formed was the “Tuesday” music. I’d read the incredible suicide note where Woolf says something about a “watery end” and the images of waves and water are in all her work, so it’s almost as if she was always going to do that. What happens there is we have the note and then 25 minutes of music which are the aftershock radiating from the note. I wrote that without reference to anything and then gave it to Wayne. [laughs]

Listening to that track I couldn’t help but think of Nicole Kidman since she also read that note in The Hours and Philip Glass wrote the score for that. I believe Sally Potter also wrote music for Orlando. Did you stay away from those recordings while you were writing your score?

Yes, I didn’t listen to them, not because I intended not to because that’s not how I think. I wanted something personal to me, and what drove that music for me were two things, the music for “Tuesday” is built on a sort of circular repeating harmonic field, and there’s also the idea of the wave itself, you get interference patterns in the music made by all the different waves of the instrumental lines. It’s a very technical process I wanted to make feel invisible, I wanted to get emotion from something so technical, that was my challenge with that material.

Is it frustrating when someone interprets your work in a completely different way than you envisioned?

[laughs] That happens, sure. But I would say all data is good data, you want people to respond in an authentic way. Why should they be able to read your mind? The work is a bridge between both viewpoints, a lot of the response we get from creative work comes from our biography. That’s the interesting stuff, when we see a movie the movie makes us things about ourselves, there’s no objectivity at all. We’re talking about ourselves most of the time and that’s great! Art is the catalyst for that, it gives us permission.

I loved your score for Miss Sloane it’s the most “genre” sounding of all your scores. Did you approach the composition thinking you wanted to write a James Bond style score?

Miss Sloane was really interesting because what drew me to it was the political dimension, which posed an urgent question that needs to be dealt with. It was a beautifully put together script. Film scoring is a very technical discipline, you need nine seconds of this, the character does that, then you need 14 seconds ... for a composer that’s like going to the gym, you really need to have your chops in good shape to do that stuff. There’s something very satisfying about making all those twists and turns work. I loved the idea of writing material which was kind of about adrenaline, but in a way that it retained musical virtues rather than it just being propulsion. Jessica [Chastain] is great in the movie.

A lot of the music you make is very political, but there is the misconception that protest music needs to have lyrics and calls to action. Coming from a wordless approach how do listeners discover the politics in the music?

I do that to some extent with titles and with the writing around the music. I think music can offer a place to think. A piece of music transports you to another place, and with really small provocations it can open up a space and maybe that’s enough. I don’t want my work to feel like I’m lecturing people, because then that’s a totalitarian situation all over again, it should be about people talking to each other. I try not to be prescriptive, but if we’re putting out cultural projects in the world it’s important that we engage with the important stuff going on around us.

So, Brexit happens and perhaps you didn’t find you were in the right place to make musics of your own, but were there records where you found solace?

[laughs] That was depressing wasn’t it? It still is. Music can offer solace, some records make us feel better. I’ve been listening to a lot of the first generation punk bands, that’s what Brexit made me think about, The Clash, and all these iconoclastic bands that were speaking against Margaret Thatcher and the right wing.

Were you in a band in those days?

I played in a few bands in school, but they’re best forgotten… that’s actually not a bad name for a band!

Many composers claim their inspiration comes from their dreams, was this ever the case for you when you worked on Sleep?

I often have the experience of dreaming musical things but I’ve never been able to take those and record them in a meaningful way. Sleep is a kind of daydreaming around music, but the first sketches from that album are from 1995, so it’s been a piece that’s obsessed me really. That kind of engagement with consciousness in an altered state is what music is about, we feel changed by a piece of music if we love it or hate it. It affects how we are in the world.

I really like what you did with the Vivaldi pieces, are there any famous movie scores you’d love to dissect in the same way?

That’s a really interesting idea. The impulse for Vivaldi is what drove me to do it, this idea of simultaneously loving and hating the music. I was trying to fall back in love with it by exploring that territory. If you have the same commute every day eventually you’re going to hate it, even if you’re driving by the coast. That’s what happened to me with Vivaldi, I heard it in elevators, stores ... so that impulse to go off road and rediscover it. I’m not sure if I have that issue with film music. Things I love in film music, like Nino Rota, I love them too much to want to open them up. They’re kind of perfect. But if I heard La Dolce Vita 700 times in a row, then maybe I’d be like, “let’s do something about this”.

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See also: On the Nature of Daylight’: Arrival’s Gentle, Beating Heart

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