Max Richter faces the depressing double-bind that all modern composers do if they manage to appeal to wider audiences and gain some attention. Too austere or clever, too off-putting or complicated and he’ll be branded another avant garde intellectual “normal” listeners couldn’t (and shouldn’t, the subtext runs) get into; too obviously melodic or moving, too consonant or broadly appealing and suddenly he’s a New Age-y schmaltz factory “discerning” listeners know better than to pay attention to. Richter’s a talented composer, and one that’s shown an admirable desire to keep things interesting; he’s worked with everyone from Future Sound of London to Vashti Bunyan, and the ravishing melancholy of “On the Nature of Daylight” from 2004’s already-kind-of-seminal The Blue Notebooks has started popping up in soundtracks. So, while the mass of modern music fans might be ready to consign his work to one of the two aforementioned bins, Richter shows every sign of not caring and not slowing down or settling into a routine either; in this case, Infra started life as a collaboration with choreographer Wayne McGregor and artist Julian Opie, and some of the material here was originally the score for a ballet inspired by Eliot’s “The Wasteland.”
The result made for some stirring dance, I’m sure, but expanded and revised into a full 40-minute program for piano, string quartet and (mostly) subtle electronics Infra stands wonderfully on its own. One of the things Richter excels at is the kind of heartbroken melodicism that made Górecki’s Symphony No. 3 such an unexpected populist success; if that was all Richter (or Górecki, for that matter) had going for him, then maybe his music would just be treacly nonsense suited for bad romantic comedies. As the broken-radio bleeps that introduce “Infra 1” indicate, though, Infra is a slightly weirder beast than that.
Richter gets compared to Michael Nyman a fair bit, and there are moments here that bring his work to mind; but not so much the Nyman of the famous soundtrack to The Piano as the densely, almost aggressively sawing strings of his work for Peter Greenaway circa The Draughtsman’s Contract or A Zed and Two Noughts. Both men share an almost-obsessive interest in melodic form and repetition that means their work is easier for newcomers to digest them without feeling like they’re being pandered to, but Richter goes further afield than Nyman (perhaps naturally, given the chronology of the two men). For every gorgeous string quartet piece like “Infra 4” or Eluvium-esque solo piano study like “Journey 1,” there’s a piece like the droning, “Journey 3” (which could almost be a field recording) to keep the listener on their toes. In isolation something like “Journey 3” might be meandering or grating, but as a link between more conventionally satisfying tracks it’s perfect.
But it’s with the five-minute “Infra 5” that Infra really comes into its own. The climax of the album, although there are three more brief tracks to come after it, here Richter pits his most moving string quartet arrangement against howling electronic dissonance, building to an almost-painful crescendo that’s cathartic and harrowing in equal measure. Here and elsewhere on Infra Richter’s work resembles (in tone if not in sound) the robust intensity and emotional force of Clint Mansell’s work with the Kronos Quartet and Mogwai on the soundtrack to The Fountain. By the time the lovely “Infra 8” draws things to a close it’s hard not to appreciate the pacing and controlled impact of the impeccably crafted Infra. By adding just the right amount of static to the sugar of his sweeping arrangements, Richter’s created an album that’s precisely balanced between accessibility and depth, desolation and joy, melody and noise.