My old cell phone, the free one that came with my plan, had limited gadgets and embellishments. It wasn’t a flip phone, nor could it connect to the internet. But it did have something I quite enjoyed: A ringtone of the first movement of Erik Satie’s “Trois Gymnopedies”.
Several years later, long after that phone bit the dust, 21st century classical composer Max Richter, whose elegiac style of minimalism carries on the tradition of Satie, as well as Eno, Glass, Part, and Gorecki, has released 24 Postcards in Full Colour, a series of brief vignettes he does not hesitate to refer to as ringtones. The implication is that the ringtone in all its brevity is like music’s postcard, a punctual statement of connection. The picture on the front, like the music accompanying an incoming call, speaks a thousand words, even if the social ledger on the back of the postcard lacks the space to contain them all.
“Who says ringtones are bad?” Richter says in the press materials for 24 Postcards in Full Colour. “It’s just a medium.” He has a point. With a $2 billion annual revenue stream, a figure comparable to CD and digital music sales, the ringtone is certainly worth some consideration as a facet of everyday living. They’re omnipresent in our daily routines. We’re greeted by them when they are least suspected (like at a movie theater), and when they are least welcome (like at a job interview). They can be sinuous and pleasant, nerve-wracking and irritating, or even familiar, like when Nelly seems to be speaking to you from someone else’s pocket. It seems quite natural, then, that somebody would come along and study the limits and margins of the ringtone phenomenon.
The problem is that “Trois Gymnopedies” made a shitty ringtone. It was too quiet and too subtle to execute its fundamental utilitarian functions. Much of the work on 24 Postcards in Full Colour suffers from the same innate defect. There’s not a whole lot that’s catching enough to suggest it would ever herald the attention of the guy on the crowded bus. Richter seems to forget through most of the album that ringtones are not just short phrases of music. They have social uses too. Hence, were someone to actually choose one of the tracks from this album that has a gushing string section and a plangent piano melody straight out of an Italian Neorealist film as his or her ringtone, he or she’d likely be dubbed a pretentious prick by all of those within ear reach, even though the same piece might be suitable, even stirring, for home listening. Ringtones are personality indicators, like what we wear, the bumper stickers on our car, or the design of our Myspace/Facebook pages. They’re cultural indexes that allow us to engage and socialize with the unknown passerby. Indicators like ringtones have the potential to cut through (and simultaneously perpetuate) the alienation that we feel from our peers through shared meaning. By making ringtones that sound like Max Richter music, Richter misses the bigger picture with his theme.
With all this in mind, it’s amazing that the album works as well as it does. Perhaps it’s because at the core of this experiment is Richter himself, the prodigy behind three highly-praised albums of alternately harrowing and elegant ambience. Richter, like the ringtone, can be as grating as he is enjoyable. His use of electronics and his contract with Fatcat Records finds him closer in proximity and perspective to the indie scene, but he also doesn’t hesitate to pull out desperate art music clichés if need be (like his dainty readings of Kafka and Murakami on The Blue Notebook and Songs from Before, respectively). His music is undeniably rich and moving, yet it is imbibed with the staunchest simplicity of approach. So much so that it almost feels cheap and generic. As effortless as his music may be, though, it’s still affecting, arresting even. He could continue to write the same album over and over again and still win the hearts and minds of his most weary followers.
Therefore it’s unsurprising that, after a couple years of miming himself, many of 24 Postcards in Full Colour‘s best tracks are the ones that are the most out-of-character. The rest, while still possessing that stately Richter charm, seem too much like they were laid down as an excuse to release some unfinished works Richter couldn’t figure out what to do with. The fragmentary nature of the album certainly can’t forgive such stationary filler as “Return to Prague” and the aptly named “Found Song for P”, which sounds like it was recovered by Richter from a session he’d never bothered to remember. The songs that have the same traditional orchestrations and the same plaintive melodies as Richter’s past works leave less breathing room to survey their themes in depth, and make for an album that seems like a collection of incidental pieces culled from transitory cinematic moments.
“Tokyo Riddle Song”, “Cascade NW by W”, and “Cathodes”, on the other hand, all sound like they actually could be ringtones, and fascinating ones to boot. The concurrent bleeping and chirping of these tracks brings to mind miniatures of Golan Levin’s wildly successful cell phone opus Dialtones: A Telesymphony, which used sounds within mobile devices to make abstractly mellifluous and menacing noises. With electronic pulses at their base, all three of the aforementioned tracks add a sorely missing element to the ringtone that we haven’t seen from their corporate sponsors: texture.
The interfering radio static voices that try to break through the folk strumming of “In Louiseville by 7” might be potentially distracting in a hallucinatory way for the cell phone toter (as would the tinny headphone-muffled drums on “Song for H/Far Away”), but as a musical pieces, the grain and glow of the tracks recalls the in vogue mastery of artists like Bibio and Grouper, whose weathered production aesthetics are essential parts of their sound.
There’s much else to love here too, from the ambient lullaby of “When the Northern Lights/Jasper & Louise” to the nebulous chiming of “Broken Symmetries for Y”. But the album as a whole plays like a sampler, like a full album preview run-down at Allmusic.com or Amazon. The ringtone is not supposed to be about unsatiated desire. It’s supposed to be about rapid consummation. A normal person wants to end the sound of a ringing phone, not let it ring through to see where the song is going. 24 Postcards in Full Colour might almost be condemnable as a rotten tease were it not so powerful in its absences. It lets you see where one might go and all the things one might say, but the call never comes.