Wanderer between the worlds

Max Richter’s music electrifies classical-music lovers and pop fans alike. Together with his partner Yulia Mahr, he is putting on a long »Reflektor« weekend at the Elbphilharmonie.

Max Richter wanted to be an astronaut when he was young. »But then I found out that to be an astronaut you had to be American or Russian.« So the Briton, who was born in 1966 in Hameln, Lower Saxony, changed his mind, and found himself just a few years later setting out as a composer for worlds that couldn’t be more different: the Sydney Opera House and Berlin’s Berghain club, the cinema screen and even the Cologne Lanxess Arena for the finale of Heidi Klum’s casting show »Germany’s Next Top Model«.

Reflektor Max Richter & Yulia Mahr

6 to 10 October 2021 at Elbphilharmonie Hamburg

»A way of approaching people«

Richter doesn’t see any contradiction here: »For me, music is first and foremost a way of approaching people, of getting in touch with them. It’s about holding a conversation.« This openness – not only geographically, but first and foremost as regards different styles, genres and influences, has made him probably today’s most popular representative of a new form of classical-type music which hasn’t even been given a name to date. In the meantime, Richter has even made it into outer space: in 2019 his film soundtrack accompanied Brad Pitt on a flight to Neptune in the space blockbuster »Ad Astra«.

Max Richter
Max Richter © Philipp Seliger

Avantgarde from the milkman

As he says himself, Richter found his way to music automatically. »It was always there. Even as an infant I mostly had tunes in my head and had no idea that this applied to other people as well. I’ve always just composed music.« He once shared the fact that the milkman in his home town of Bedford north of London played a significant role in his development: »When I was 12 or 13, I spent a lot of time practising the piano, and one day the milkman heard me. It turned out that he was a great fan of contemporary music with an enormous record collection, and he took me under his wing as it were. Henceforth he brought experimental records with him when he delivered the milk.« This gave the young Max his first encounters with American minimalists like Terry Riley and Philip Glass, and he was immediately gripped by the hypnotic sound and rhythmic power of this music, whose main structural element is repetition.

Philip Glass plays »Mad Rush«

After studying at the Royal Academy of Music and with avant-garde master Luciano Berio in Florence, Richter set up the ensemble Piano Circus, consisting of six pianists, which devoted itself to exactly this kind of music, playing the works of composers like Steve Reich, Arvo Pärt and Brian Eno. Richter’s study of these composers had a direct influence on his own work: »They inspired me to simplify my own musical style.«

expressive and direct

But precisely this step meant that the classical-music business initially paid no attention to Max Richter. There was a widespread opinion that his art was too simple and too catchy to win any points with the New Music establishment. This in turn led Richter to release many of his early compositions directly on CD – the actual first performances in concert often happened many years later. »Back in those days, rather orthodox thinking frequently prevailed on the question of what was good music: the Second Viennese School, modernism, Boulez. The general view was that a composition was always a kind of manifesto. But I had a different goal: I wanted to tell stories and convey feelings. It was important to me to develop a style that was comprehensible, expressive and direct«. Nowadays, it is thanks to exactly these qualities that Richter’s music is sought after by concert venues all over the world, which probably makes up for the rejection he once experienced.

One of the scores that brought Richter substantial artistic recognition was his soundtrack for Ari Folman’s Oscar-nominated cartoon film »Waltz with Bashir« (2008). He then became a true star composer four years later with his first recording for the traditional label Deutsche Grammophon: on »Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi – The Four Seasons« he presented his reworking of Antonio Vivaldi’s famous »Four Seasons«, a piece which had »lost its magic« in Richter’s opinion.

Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi – The Four Seasons

Although the original remains clearly audible, Richter blows the dust off every note and, using only an orchestra, created a sound that is reminiscent of electronic music. This was certainly part of the reason why the recording, made with violinist Daniel Hope and the Konzerthausorchester Berlin, was such a hit, making Max Richter a household name among a young public with little affinity for classical music. The album has received some 40 million clicks on Spotify up to now.

Wrong labels

More than one music journalist has applied the label »neo-classical« to Richter’s music, but the composer himself rejects this. He describes himself instead, semi-ironically, as a »post-classicist«. The latter term is definitely much more fitting, for Richter has long since left classical composition behind him. »I had an entirely classical musical training,« he says, »but I was immensely interested in what was going on around me in Britain in the early eighties – and that was first and foremost electronica and punk. The first gigs I went to were The Clash and Kraftwerk. I liked the elemental energy of punk music, but at the same time I was studying classical music seriously, and I constructed analogue synthesizers in my room with the help of a soldering iron. For me, all these things belonged together.«

Max Richter at the Elbphilharmonie
Max Richter at the Elbphilharmonie © Daniel Dittus

It’s no surprise, then, that Richter sets no store by the traditional separation of acoustic and electronic instruments: »I see electronic music more as a continuation, an extension of the range of sound. So in my opinion it would be only logical to have more electronica in the orchestra.«

Spotify Playlist Reflektor Max Richter & Yulia Mahr


The use of music

But in addition to all considerations of sound, Richter insists that his art has a concrete meaning: »I find it interesting to reflect on what use music has. Contemporary music rejects this kind of approach, but in the Baroque or the Classical period, music always had a utility value. Mozart wrote music for every conceivable human activity, and I too rarely write music for its own sake.« Thus his 2015 project »Sleep« has a very specific use: it is intended to help the listener fall asleep. The eight-and-a-half hour listening experience consists of 31 compositions, all of them based on the same thematic material. – Similar to a modern version of Bach’s »Goldberg Variations«, whose slow and contemplative music explicitly invites the listener to dream. At performances in Berlin, Paris and Los Angeles, beds and pillows were provided en masse for the audience.

Max Richter: Sleep

Max Richter opened his Reflektor series with an eight-and-a-half-hour livestream of »Sleep« from the Elbphilharmonie.

»›Sleep‹ is an eight-hour lullaby. A place to rest.«

Max Richter »Sleep« Max Richter »Sleep« © Daniel Dittus
Max Richter »Sleep« Max Richter »Sleep« © Daniel Dittus
Max Richter »Sleep« Max Richter »Sleep« © Daniel Dittus
Livestream »Sleep« Livestream »Sleep« © Daniel Dittus
Max Richter Max Richter © Daniel Dittus

Morally ambitious

But Richter is interested in more than just the practical use of his music: »Music should be not so much a technical exercise as a means of conveying content. My work is always ›about‹ something: without a clear social purpose, creative work is not particularly attractive.«  This approach is especially obvious in his latest composition, »Voices«, which some critics already regard as his magnum opus. Richter has chosen nothing less than the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights as his theme, whose text is declaimed by a narrator, accompanied by an hour of stately music. »In this case I opted for an easily comprehensible formula where the text outshines everything else. The music is reduced to a minimum, enabling the listener to think about the words he has just heard.« The outcome is a piece of  programme music that is as accessible as it is morally ambitious.

Max Richter: Voices

»The music is reduced to a minimum, enabling the listener to think about the words he has just heard.«

A map of today’s musical spectrum :Max Richter & Yulia Mahr at the Elbphilharmonie

With »The Four Seasons«, »Sleep« (as a nocturnal live stream) and the German first performance of »Voices«, Max Richter’s three main works can now be heard at his »Reflektor« festival in October at the Elbphilharmonie. Richter has curated the festival programme jointly with his artistic and private partner, the film-maker and video artist Yulia Mahr. The couple gather numerous like-minded musicians around them for the occasion: »We see the Reflektor programme as a kind of musical map of what is interesting and alive in today’s overall musical spectrum. The artists we have invited to take part are very diverse, ranging from classical to jazz, live electronica and much more. But we also see a mutual principle in this diversity, namely freedom of artistic expression and an experimental aesthetic that is quite independent from the genre concerned.«

Max Richter in der Elbphilharmonie
Max Richter in der Elbphilharmonie © Daniel Dittus

As is customary at »Reflektor« festivals, Richter and Mahr will have the entire Elbphilharmonie at their disposal, and will use the building from the Kaistudios to the two concert halls. »This building is an exceptional achievement, and appearing here is an unforgettable experience. In a way, the Elbphilharmonie represents the climax of a series of performing and musical traditions, and we are looking forward to exploring the potential for various new works in these rooms.«

Text: Simon Chlosta, 16.9.2021

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