Judging on talent alone, the British-German composer Max Richter deserves as much ink as Nico Muhly. Both these young musicians have made a successful transition from the study of serious modern classical music to bring in a wider, indie-music-listening audience. Muhly through arrangements for a variety of well-known indie rock groups and incessant Tweeting; Richter, in a more modest way, by releasing conceptual albums that are accessible to anyone with the inclination to seek them out. Richter’s latest release, 24 Postcards in Full Colour, was an album of short pieces intended as mobile phone ringtones, although they work as gorgeous miniatures, too. He first came to be noticed in 2004, when The Blue Notebooks married Tilda Swinton’s narration of clips from Kafka with his own timeless electroacoustics. The conceit of these albums caught the attention of journalists, but it was the music itself, which is architecturally constructed and executed with grace, that won most over.
Now British label Fat Cat is re-issuing Richter’s debut, Memoryhouse, and it sounds as dazzling and fresh now as it must have in 2002 when it was first released. This wonderful album has the expansive palette of a fully-realised composer, filtering a wide variety of influences through a simple lens: strings and piano; arpeggi and sustained layers of swaying chords; static, minimal repetition and occasional bursts of uber-romanticism. From the beginning, Richter has written conservative classical music. Commenters on blogs, listening to his soundtrack for Waltz with Bashir, wondered if his compositions were in fact by Bach or Schubert.
But Richter does sound like Bach, and Beethoven, and Mahler at different times. And you know what? It’s completely deliberate. Memoryhouse, turns out, is all about a glimpsed past, refracted through inaccurate recollection. So when on “Fragment” he has a solo violin play out a recognisable Bach-inspired arpeggio, it’s more than a quote – in the context of the whole record, it’s re-interpretation. It helps that Richter, even on his early work, has such an ear for gorgeous melody. “The Twins (Prague)”, a too-brief piano ballad reminiscent of a Chopin prelude; the piercing, haunted violin of “Sarajevo”, recorded in an echoing hall (as if exposing, in a post-modern way, the process itself); the glitchy loneliness of “Untitled Figures”; the overpowering orchestral agitation of “Last Days”.
How do we judge this as contemporary classical music? It’s patently not progressive. It has no claim of a special originality of form or content, and seems to revel in the soaring romanticism of a violin ringing arpeggiated figures over a traditionally arranged orchestral backdrop. Despite the sly, unheralded recognition of modernity – the influence of minimalist repetition on “Laika’s Journey”, or “November’s” purposefully scrappy violin playing – Memoryhouse reminds us that classical music, its well-worn tools and its centuries-old repetitions, is far from redundant. These familiar components, and the masters who made them so, remain indispensible to our experience of the world. Old is new.