Max Richter: “I was furious with the world… it was the apex of Thatcherism”

The German-English composer recalls his punk influence and how he moved past making "squeaky music nobody really wanted to listen to" in his revealing Letter To My Younger Self

At the age of 16 I stopped going to school because I hated it. I learned piano when I was a tiny child at the beginning of primary school, but I had a piano teacher who was very old school and she would whack my hand with a ruler when I played a wrong note. And after a while I just thought, hang on, I hate this. This is a horrible experience. So I stopped going to lessons. And all through school I was cripplingly shy. It was slightly unfortunate;  I have ginger hair and I was German, a double target [Richter grew up in England]. So I really retreated into a world of fantasy through music and books. And as soon as I could I left school altogether. 

Music has been crucial to me as long as I can remember. When I was about four years old I had this experience of hearing Bach, probably the double violin concerto, and being really struck by the beautiful sounds and melodies, but also realising that there was a sort of governing logic going on behind those sounds. That the sounds meant something, and that they spoke to one another in their own language. And that really floored me, that was one of the things that really lit the fuse for me to be deeply involved with music. 

By the time I was 16 I was furious with the world. My teen years coincided with the apex of Thatcherism, which was a kind of anticivilisation project anti-culture, anti-society, just a horrible neoliberal individualistic concept. And there I was as a kid, in some ways a pawn in that game. So I became obsessed with music and books. I was playing the piano, and trying to compose in a very simple way. I was very into classical music, but punk was huge in my life at that time as well. As was reading the 20th century modernists, TS Eliot and Joyce and Beckett and Virginia Woolf. So I spent most of my time reading, playing music and hanging out in cafes and just basically trying to find my own way, trying to educate myself, trying to understand and connect to the things that mattered to me.  

My parents divorced, and I was very close to my mother. My father was a kind of distant figure. My mother is a very thoughtful, warm, very idealistic person. Quite impractical, not very worldly. She raised a family of boys who are all a bit like that as well. Both my parents were German and we were living in the UK so there was a slight feeling of being an outsider in the culture, not born and bred. My brothers and I did share a feeling of being in it together, but it was a challenging and stressful situation. None of us were particularly happy in school. It was difficult. 

I didn’t know what kind of career I could have. I just knew I loved music with a kind of obsessive passion and I didn’t think I’d be able to hold down any other kind of job. But if I went back and told my teenage self about having some success as a composer he’d be amazed because I never expected anything in terms of a career or even anyone even noticing what I was doing, It took me years and years to get used to the idea that people would actually listen to my music. I released Memoryhouse in 2002 but one cared. It wasn’t advertised, it wasn’t reviewed. They shut the record company down and deleted the record a year later. So that was my life’s work up to that moment. I guess the first inkling I got that something might work out was when I released The Blue Notebooks in 2004. I just felt good, comfortable with that project in a way I hadn’t with anything else. I don’t ever listen to The Blue Notebooks now, I haven’t listened to it properly since I made it. But I’m very grateful to it. 

Like all artists, I started by being influenced partly by things that came before, and partly by the things I was hearing around me. It took me a long time to find something which felt like my voice. I trained at the Conservatoire as a kind of modernist composer who would write squeaky music no one really wanted to listen to. There was an idea that complexity meant a piece was really good. Which is just not true. So I just stripped all of that away and focused on the essentials of how to tell a story musically. I made a much simpler, plain-spoken, direct language and I think that kind of emotional directness is what people have connected to.  

Collaborations, whether they’re film, ballet, or TV, are not the same as writing a symphony. You’re part of something bigger; the music is just one element. At the beginning I struggled a lot with those kind of limitations. But then I began to enjoy them, the challenge of having a 49second cue which has to take you from being inside this character’s head to being inside a different character’s head. Of course there are also times when filmmakers just want to use stuff you’ve already released, so there’s no active collaboration. I was doubtful about lots of those. But some really worked. Arrival is the obvious example [the 2016 film used On the Nature of Daylight from The Blue Notebooks]. I looked at the film and tried to understand the script and what I liked about it is the fact that really is an anti-violence film. It’s about communication. So it was a perfect fit for the piece. 

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I would probably tell my teenage self, take your time and don’t worry so much. I was super anxious and angry with the world. And I was very down, kind of depressed a lot of the time. Then in the early years of work I was married with young kids and not having much success and we struggled trying to keep a roof over our heads. I did a few film projects I wouldn’t have done had we not been broke. I’d like to go back to that younger me and tell him to relax and just concentrate on the music, do the work and it will come good. My overall sense now is just one of gratitude and a kind of surprise really, about what’s happened. But with every new project I always feel that I’m teetering on the brink of no one paying attention at all. And it’s always been that way. 

If I could go back and relive one moment…  Edinburgh was my home town when our two eldest were very young and we used to head off to the west coast whenever we could, mostly to the islands of Mull and Skye. We used to do these camping trips, make a fire on the beach and just cook out. It doesn’t get better than that. But probably nothing beats those very pure first few days that you have with your children after they’re born, where you are in a kind of a trance. In a way it has weird similarities to our current lockedin state. Everything is very focused on just the people closest to you, and the magic of that strange experience. That is a very special time. 

Max Richter’s Mindful Mix radio is available on BBC Sounds now 

This article previously appeared in Big Issue #1407. You can buy one-off issues or subscriptions from The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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