Opening to the muted clatter of a typewriter and hushed, delicate reading from Kafka’s The Blue Octavo Notebooks, the source of its title, this work by modernist composer and pianist Max Richter evokes that great author’s writing through its simple, understated style and lyrical melancholy. Also present are Kafka’s hallmark sense of surrender and acceptance, if not the darkly comic undertones of ridiculous tragedy. The atmosphere is one of space and calm, of a spiritual ascendance that conjures up Max Richter as a monk abiding in a massive cathedral, in stark contrast to Kafka’s cramped quarters and isolated life witnessing the mechanical agony of others. These recordings are possessed of a tranquillity that is occasionally tinged with unease, but lacks any undercurrents of rage or violence. All is peace.
Which, given Max Richter’s many and varied accomplishments, must be derived from fulfilment rather than any spans of reflective inactivity. Born in 1966, he studied composition in Edinburgh, at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and under the renowned avant-garde composer Luciano Berio in Florence. Co-founder of the Piano Circus ensemble and active member for a decade, he commissioned and performed works from a selection of stellar talents (including Philip Glass, Brian Eno, and Steve Reich) with them. His forays into the realms of live sampling whilst with them are evident in the occasional field recordings here. His tinkering with analogue electronic instruments and immersion in the beginnings of that scene led him to collaborate with pioneers the Future Sound of London, who named a co-written track after him on their 1996 release Dead Cities and then enlisted him during the two-year crafting of their recent prog-classical-electonica epic The Isness. He’s even worked with the diminutive drum ‘n’ bass messiah/maniac Roni Size, and in 2002 his first album, the acclaimed Memoryhouse, was recorded with the aid of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra.
The Blue Notebooks
US: 18 May 2004
UK: 1 Mar 2004
Which brings us to his second “solo” offering, where Richter is assisted by a string quintet of regular collaborators, comprising two cellos, two violins and a viola. These soar as bare strands of light over his sparse piano and organ lines, swelling and twisting—as on Memoryhouse-referencing opener “On the Nature of Daylight”—to stir and caress the heart. Neither needless grandeur nor elaborate complexity are present here, as Max Richter places the emphasis soundly on the breathtaking clarity of his production and its seemingly immense span; as in the best deep house and melodic dub, the music is as much a demonstration of the beauty inherent in both sound and consciousness as it is an articulation of any musical notation. And dub is present here, in the slow, drifting sub-bass pulse of “Shadow Journals”, as is electronica, in the softly fluttering percussion, reminiscent of Autechre, on “Arboretum”. However there is no sense of amalgamation here, just as the patter of the typewriters behind Kafka’s and Czseslaw Milosz’s lines cushion and further Tilda Swinton’s diction rather than lending it a nervy air: rather, the listener bears witness to a minimalist form of contemporary music that feels natural and perfectly whole.
This album is a quietly stunning meditation on silence, beauty, memory, and existence that, like its use of sampled choir voices, is as distanced from religion as it is undeniably spiritual. Get a copy, let the daily bustle recede before Max Richter’s music of the spheres, and in the space between the traces of atoms and the paths of galaxies, find your place in its illumination.