Neo-classical composer and electronic musician Max Richter’s recording career got off to a rough start. His first album memoryhouse was met with weak sales and close to no press. After moving to the FatCat label, Richter recorded his 2004 sophomore masterpiece The Blue Notebooks. Allegedly, the album was leaked to the internet just two days after Richter delivered it to the label. This time, The Blue Notebooks was a critical success but there was still a lack of the cash flow (Richter said he and his family had to vacate their house). Through the years Richter has been able get steady work by scoring for both the stage and screen while collaborating with different artists of assorted media on the side from time to time. Ten years on, The Blue Notebooks managed to garner even more acclaim within “post-Classical” circles — enough to snag the attention of the deathly-serious label Deutsche Grammophon (“Deautsche Grammaphon is classical music”, boasts their website). The Blue Notebooks has now been rereleased by the esteemed label and London audiences were treated to a anniversary performance of the work at the Royal Albert Hall in late 2014. Richter summed it all up succinctly when he simply stated “Life is so weird.”
Life may be weird, but The Blue Notebooks is a plea to slow our lives down. Conventional in its harmony, straightforward with its repetition, and restrained with its use of technology, Richter’s second album beckons the world to stop and let the listener turn inward as the composer did when he was a child. The Blue Notebooks is all about withdrawing from the big, scary world and seeking refuge in something bigger, and kinder, than yourself. About the only thing that registers as odd is the fact that it’s loosely based on Franz Kafka’s Blue Octavo Notebooks. There are many of us, me included, who liken Kafka’s literary world to that of a fever dream. The Blue Notebooks, instead, is a panacea. It is a chance to come up for air in a world obsessed with all things post-modern and/or ugly. Even the sound of the typewriter accompanied by Tilda Swinton reading passages by Kafka and Czesław Miłosz fit into the puzzle like they were another string section.
Richter weaves chamber strings with piano and electronic samples, yet none of them are glaring. Probably the most flagrant that The Blue Notebooks gets is on “Arboretum” where a trip-hop sequence makes for minimalist piano bedrock, and even that stays grounded. The otherworldly sounds guiding “Organum” and “Iconography” are close enough to their organic counterparts that you might forget that you’re listening to synthesizers and sequences. And what figures Richter is able to spin from them, too! Sure, they repeat themselves many times. Sure, it’s close to copying Philip Glass. But The Blue Notebooks‘s ten-year reputation gives you all you need to know about people deriving their own beauty from the music.
The Deutsche Grammophon reissue comes with another version of “On the Nature of Daylight”, giving The Blue Notebooks an extra six minutes. While the original was recorded with a string quartet or quintet, this additional track is performed by an entire string orchestra. It carries all of the weight of the version recorded from 2004, perhaps even more, while never detracting from the album overall. The Blue Notebook has not just held up over the past ten-plus years, it has managed to excel — all the way to the stage of the Royal Albert Hall. Reissues inevitably invite reappraisal, but Max Richter’s understated stroke of beauty doesn’t really need it. It just needs to be heard — oh, and purchased. The guy has to sleep somewhere.