In praise of Max Richter

In praise of composer Max Richter – A review in late 2015 by Dan Byrnes of music by minimalist composer, Max Richter.

And first, gentlereader-persons, a confession. For years my views about minimalist music have been prejudiced by my dislike, nay, disapproval, of Philip Glass (born 1937), who generates interesting musical ideas, and then fails to let them develop; Glass can generate interesting musical ideas, but the results I mostly find frustrating and I hate the sense of musical inhibition Glass cultivates.

Although,some music by Glass does seem more interesting, such as his “opera”, Ahknaten. Glass’s music for the film Powaqqatsi is at times interesting/unexpected. Other noted minimalists are La Monte Young,Terry Riley and Steve Reich. Young and Riley I haven’t tried yet. Reich I have tried and I sometimes find Reich boring. In my usual player for music files, I find Reich’s tracks “Dolly, and a few tracks titled drumming have already been labelled boring. Some of Reich’s work is quite listenable, but too often he is too much the experimentalist to be enjoyable. Often, Reich’s work feels like music for scenes yet unfilmed and possibly, unfilmable.

“Minimalism”seems a music label that minimalist composers seem to want to escape. Glass, influenced by modernistic European composers as a youth, and later by Indian music and culture, calls himself a writer of “music with repetitive structures” (and the repetitiveness is something else I also don’t like about Glass’s work). Max Richter I much more approve of, as he seems emotionally richer, more elaborate, a more musically-skilled composer in general than many minimalists. I discovered Richter by conventional means, although no one has ever specifically mentioned him to me. An Australian TV network began marketing Richter’s latest production, a multi-track CD offering entitled Sleep (nine CDs, 8-hours long). So I followed-up Richter.

Richter (born 1966 in Germany) with his German name grew up in the middle of England and undertook his young-adult formal music studies in Edinburgh, at Royal Academy of Music, then in Florence Italy. He became a “post-minimalist” and has produced, eg., seven music albums, plus music for movie soundtracks and well, just short compositions. Sometimes, Richter works on real or imaginary stories or histories (the chasm between lived experience and imaginative musings), and with the imaginary stories he perhaps reminds me of the writing of the Argentinian, Jorge Luis Borges -abstract, allusive, philosophical, and if you have a mind for Borges’ kind of fun, delightful but high-level. Richter also has musical plangency. Eg., Plangent, re a sound, loud and resonant, possibly mournful in tone, plaintive (eg., a bell or harpsichord), reverberating/expressive. (The sound of a string quartet at a funeral might be plangent. BBC TV once described the voice of US bluesman B.B. King as “plangent”.)

And FYI, a definition of Minimalist Music … a reductive school of music arising in the 20thCentury (1960s New York), utilizing simple sonorities, rhythms and patterns, minimal use of elaboration or complexity, maybe using protracted repetition, obsessive structural rigour, delivering a pulsing, hypnotic effect. It is non-narrative,non-representational.

Minimalism utilises consonant harmony, steady pulse (maybe uses drones), stasis or only gradual transformation, reiteration of musical phrases according to strict rules. According to Kyle Gann in 1994, a minimalist composer ,minimalist music features a lack of “goal-oriented European associations” and meant a return to simplicity after excess complexity in earlier musical forms. According to David Cope in 1997, it might feature silence, guiding concepts, brevity, slow modulation, phase, pattern and repetition.

Something is possibly owed to Moondog of the 1940s and 1950s (counterpoint stretched statically over steady sound pulses in unusual time signatures) or Denis Johnson’s composition, November (1959). No one quite knows who first coined the phrase, “minimal music”, but perhaps it was pianist Michael Nyman in a 1968 article. Nyman is an Englishman, born 1944,who wrote the marvellous music for the movie set in nineteenth century New Zealand, The Piano. One inspirer was perhaps John Cage. Suffice to say, minimalist music has found its way into more-modern types of rock-n-roll (eg, Krautrock). A deliberate striving for musical beauty is said to be a strong component of minimalist music, but I often find music, let alone beauty, lacking with minimalism.

To be repaid for my pains, finally, by Richter, whose music is often hauntingly beautiful and develops well. Some of Richter’s more beautiful tracks, short or longer than shorter, I find to be well-exemplified, interesting-to-beautiful, by his album, “La Prima Linea”.

Being a poet, I quite approve of some of Richter’s titles for his compositions, short as many of them are. Among them are: 24 postcards in full colour (an album title) and track titles such as: broken symmetries, I was just thinking … tokyo riddle song, return to Prague, cascade, Northern Lights, haunted ocean, I swam out to sea, written on sky, shadow journal, fragment, lines on a page, sofa chess, interior horses … all intriguing sets of words, or intriguing music.

At times, Richter is beautiful, as said, in a haunting way. He can also at times be consoling vs worrying, surprising, arresting, problematical, but almost always interesting, and often, surprisingly full-bodied for a so-called minimalist composer. In all, I’d call Richter a composer of extremely short and high-quality pieces of music, musical essays, except for one thing – he so often uses the standard ways of minimalist music, he has to be called, a minimalist or post-minimalist composer. He says himself, by the age of six he was often “reconfiguring” music. Two of his favourite influences are Bach and The Beatles. He’d perhaps be a classicist if he wasn’t so modernistically electronical.

He tries, he says himself, to find surprises in his works-in-progress to be developed/redeveloped. It might be better just to call him “Richter”and let time and tide sort out his reputation. Which ought to be – a reputation for quiet musical magnificence, I think. Real magnificence.
Dan Byrnes (Australia), December 2015.

Author: Dan Byrnes

Dan Byrnes is an Australian poet, writer, historian, a one-time journalist in Tamworth NSW Australia (or, Country Music Capital, Australia). Born in Sydney in 1948, meaning in late 2018 he is aged 70! He is deeply interested in modern Australian history (since 1788), literature, poetry and music. He had a normal high school education plus several stints at university, ending with a double major in History/Psychology, then with an Honours degree in History. Of late, and as he gets older - in 2019 he will be 71 - he spends time compiling and recompiling old work, adding to this blog, and wondering deeply with the history of Australia since 1788, a relatively new country, which received up to 162,000 convicts from Britain, why there is such apathy to maritime history in general and in particular, such apathy to the question: who owned/insured the convict ships?

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