Essential albums: Max Richter

Long before he was composing soundtracks for actual films, the neoclassical/modern classical composer Max Richter was making some of the greatest film music on Earth. "Cinematic" is a word that comes to mind easily on hearing his superb first three albums, even though none were made for actual movies.

Max Richter

country of origin:

Neo-classical, modern classical, cinematic, ambient, electronic

decades active:
00's - 10's

essential releases:

  • Memoryhouse (2002, Fatcat Records)
  • The Blue Notebooks (2004, Fatcat Records)
  • Songs From Before (2006, Fatcat Records)
  • Sleep/From Sleep (2015, Deutsche Grammophon)

Reviewed by Mike G

Long before he was composing soundtracks for actual films like Perfect Sense (2011) and Hostile (2018), the neoclassical/modern classical composer Max Richter was making some of the greatest film music on Earth. "Cinematic" is a word that comes to mind easily on hearing the superb early albums, even though none were made for actual movies.

Mind movies

If you've ever watched a film and found yourself spellbound by a seemingly-perfect passage of plaintive piano or sad chamber music and you wanted to hear more, you'll love Richter's work. He makes entire albums of such music, whereas many actual soundtrack albums have an excess of cues, dramatic flourishes or meandering drones that make little sense when divorced from the visuals. Even Richter's own film soundtrack albums - which started appearing in the late 2000's - usually lack coherence compared to his first three self-contained recordings.

Richter's mind movies evoke all kinds of images with music alone: from cold, grey wet days to pristine sunrises, from stark and empty subways to cosy drawing rooms. Emotionally, there's a rich melancholy that permeates much of his work, yet depressing or morbid are not words that do the music justice. Speaking about the strong narrative flow that runs through his albums, he told in a 2012 interview: "I think of music as a sub-set of the storytelling tradition. So I'm interested in music that has some sort of narrative quality - that is about something - the sounds in themselves can do this or in conjunction with other elements."

Three classics

His first three albums - Memoryhouse (2002), The Blue Notebooks (2004) and Songs From Before (2006) - are masterpieces of reflective mood, full of space and rich in images. Some pieces are bridged with spoken word passages, including readings of texts from writers like Kafka and Murakami. On the surface you might call it neo-classical; at times there's no denying echoes of Arvo Part, as well as Philip Glass and Thomas Newman's film scores. But the music is too intimate, too nakedly human and too - well - contemporary to sit comfortably under the traditional classical banner. It's more more a curious post-classical hybrid of traditional and modern.

His main instrument is the piano, sometimes accompanied by solo or ensemble strings and also with touches of organ, synthesisers and environmental sampling. His compositions can lull you into a quiet reverie, but can also be surprisingly intense and incredibly moving. On Memoryhouse, for example, he cleverly returns 5 times during the course of the album to the same haunting melodic phrase; each time in a different arrangement but with the same sad, swelling, heart-wrenching beauty.

Deep sleep

Subsequent Max Richter albums into his second decade of recording have been comparatively fragmented or just inconsistent quality-wise, whether regular releases such as 24 Postcards In Full Colour (2008), the ambitious classical reworking Vivaldi Recomposed (2012), or the increasing number of film soundtrack albums that have appeared since the mainstream film world discovered him.

But his fascinating sleep project - the 8-hour Sleep (2015) and the 70 minute From Sleep (2015) - is one of his greatest achievements. Richter’s “manifesto for a slower pace of existence” touched quite a nerve at the time of its release, gaining the album wide recognition and media attention. On the album notes and in interviews he made a compelling case for slow music and deep listening - echoes of Brian Eno there - which made the project's overall success a wonderful platform for awareness of ambient music in general. His gorgeous, haunting lullabies for muted piano, strings, wordless vocals and drones are best heard initially on the shorter version of the album. You'll then be ready for the longer version, which is mostly the same melodic themes in a myriad of different forms and lengths and is more obviously functional music designed for dozing and dreaming.

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