Max Richter doesn’t fit neatly into genre categories. He doesn’t follow the line of Sigur Rós and Godspeed! You Black Emperor into the postmodern icicle of long tracks and self-seriousness. He doesn’t write scores exclusively, although his non-score records sound like they are score records and vice-versa, and he isn’t a conservative classicist. He is something different altogether. In his most iconic moments, Richter is an instantly satisfying composer, soundtracking to our dreams and memories. His textures are thick and evoke the moments we forgot or are too afraid to remember and the memories we treasure.
But his discography isn’t that simple. Yes, he has Memoryhouse, and yes, it is perfect. Then there’s The Blue Notebooks and 24 Postcards in Full Colour, which comprise the populist segment of his discography, but he also has a rich discography of scoring. They are straightforward and less well regarded, but a part of the story, nonetheless. Then he has his weird records like Infra. Then he has records like Sleep that challenge the very fabric of what music is for and in what it is. Do you think I am using hyperbole? Listen to Sleep7 Skies H3 aka 24-hour song seem like the thin stunt that it was. This is music; this is life.
Max Richter’s new work, Three Worlds, doesn’t neatly fit into any of those categories. It has moments of Memoryhouse radiance, and is orchestral enough to recall The Four Seasons but doesn’t necessarily remind me of either of those. Three Worlds is based on the legendary works of Virginia Woolf. However, I doubt that anyone listening to this record without knowing the title would say, “Yes this reminds me of 20th-century modernist writer Virginia Woolf,” but it is an interesting hook to the record nevertheless. Woolf’s work informs the album to a certain extent, this record being written to soundtrack the Wayne McGregor ballet based on Woolf’s work.
Three Worlds is morose and cryptic, like the best Richter. It begins with “Words” containing a beautiful church bell and a sample of Woolf reading. It is tragic, mostly because it’s difficult to hear outside of her painful suicide letter. The calm piano on “In the Garden” which follows contrasts completely, as if to comfort those who know the end of Woolf’s story. The violin accompaniment is simple, but flowering, the passages build and blend and crescendo with ardent movement.
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“War Anthem” will be a highlight to those drawn to the more orchestral side of Richter’s discography. It’s full sounding and lasts over six minutes, it’s a strong enough piece to anchor a late scene in a Christopher Nolan film, but doesn’t need pictures to accomplish what it sets out to do emotionally. The music pounds until it drops out completely, echoing with the same church bell from square one. The spoken word track “Memory Is the Seamstress” is the interlude that adds rather than distracts on repeated listens, and it acts as a perfect prelude to “Modular Astronomy”, which is the bridge of the record from purely classical to a mix of electronic amongst other styles.
Semi-dissonance and echoes recall Boards of Canada’s excellent career. From there the album travels back and forth across the familiar ground with mostly glowing results. “Transformation” is short and powerful and “Morphology” is its follower and polar opposite, pulling plays from Brian Eno’s decades-long exploration of the ambient worlds.
Three Worlds is rewarding as a background record as well as cognitive listening. Richter’s sound is best served without real pictures but paired with your dreams