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Max Richter: “I don’t like music as manifesto or a lecture”

The German-born contemporary British composer talks Bach, The Beatles and the transformative power of music

Just a couple of years ago, in terms of music celebrities, Max Richter was not on the A-list. Lauded by specialist music fans and movie soundtrack aficionados, the cruel truth is that the German-born composer wasn’t even top of the rather short list of popular post-minimalists (that honour went to the regularly name-dropped Arvo Pärt).

Ahead-of-the-loop types like Mogwai and Tilda Swindon collaborated with him, and cool, informed folk like Jarvis Cocker and fellow BBC 6 Music presenter Mary Anne Hobbs sang his praises, but it’s fair to say he wasn’t the most fought-over guest on Classic FM.

It is as perfect a union of music and cinema as Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings in Platoon

Then came Arrival. It’s hard to think of a single piece of soundtrack in the last decade which, post-viewing, provides such a powerful Proustian rush of feeling as Richter’s sublime On the Nature of Daylight, weaved so effectively into the Oscar-nominated film. The composition had previously been used in Martin Scorsese’s 2010 Shutter Island, but simply didn’t pack the same punch in that less emotionally profound thriller.

In Arrival it is as perfect a union of music and cinema as Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings in Platoon, or John Williams’ theme for Star Wars. It so impassioned Arrival’s millions-strong audience that Richter suddenly became big news, leaping out of Radio 3 and the specialist music press into the arms of a Twitterstormed army of new fans. Yet he very nearly nixed the project when approached by the film’s director, Denis Villeneuve.

“That piece was written in 2003 during the build up to the Iraq war,” he tells me, on the phone from his home in London. “It’s a kind of protest song. So for me to get the call saying, here’s my sci-fi movie, we want this piece… I did think at first, I’m not sure about this. But given the story structure and the politics of Arrival, I could see there was a kind of sympathy there. So it actually made sense, it added up to something.”

To hear him tell it, Richter was born with melodies fighting for attention, Amadeus-style, in his head. His earliest memories, from the age of three or four, are of “having tunes going round my brain, moving them around and then the next day picking them back up and adding to them”.

Amy Adams in Arrival.

“Even in childhood, music was a place of solace and calm,” he says. “I was probably quite a sensitive child. I’m quite an introverted person, much given to introspection. So getting through the day wasn’t always easy. I strongly associated music with that ability to provide a space, an opportunity for respite from every day reality.”

It was a close encounter with one of the giants of classical music which gave the young Richter his first musical epiphany.

“My parents weren’t musicians but they liked playing records. I remember when I was four or five I heard a bit of Bach, probably a violin concerto, and I had a very strange sensation, a new one for me at that age. It was an awareness that as well as being very nice to listen to, this music had a kind of grammar, an order, behind the notes, which made sense. That was absolutely shocking for me, this idea that there could be a logic to these sounds, which Bach of course uses very strongly.

I was probably quite a sensitive child. I’m quite an introverted person, much given to introspection

“I was blown away by the notion that music was a language with which you could convey meaning. I think for little children that thought can be overwhelming. I remember a bit later being taken to see Disney’s Fantasia and almost not being able to speak after it. All this incredible music. I pestered my mum to take me back in to see it again, so we went to see it twice in one afternoon.”

After a similarly Damascene moment with The Beatles when he was eight or nine – “That was transformative for me, that rich library of amazingly well-made songs” – the classically piano-trained young Richter was firmly set on his future path, his adult career as inevitable as that of the baby Cristiano Ronaldo.

He studied music at school, then completed a music degree at Edinburgh University [and also graduated from the Royal Academy of Music]. “By the time I started properly composing I’d learned music theory and I was able to write it down on paper. My life is full of bits of paper with music written down on them.”

He has made eight solo albums since 2002, including a re-composition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and what he describes as his “eight hour lullaby”, Sleep, which Jarvis Cocker chose as his 2015 album of the year. He might be best known now, though, for his film and TV soundtracks – his work has been embraced by the likes of Scorsese, Clint Eastwood and Terrence Malick, and has graced numerous HBO and BBC dramas and documentaries (including Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror and BBC 1’s recent telly blockbuster Taboo). He’s cautious about his music accompanying drama however, wary of its potentially reductive effect.

“What I put on the page is only half the story. I don’t like the idea of a piece of music being a manifesto or a lecture. That shuts down a range of human possibilities. I prefer to think of music as a creative conversation, between what I’m saying and the biography and thoughts the listener is bringing. Even giving it a title is a concern – you don’t want it be too prescriptive.” And he tells me, with barely concealed disapproval, about the re-titling (by a third party) of Polish composer Penderecki’s famous piece of noise chaos from 8’37” to Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima.

I’m not sure how much fun it would be to talk to Max Richter about Jose Mourinho’s handling of Wayne Rooney, or whether Steve will survive in Line of Duty. He’s a very focused, composed sort of chap, not given to excited leaps or peels of laughter. On the subject of music however, his passion, though expressed temperately, is palpable. And he is a well of fascinating facts.

I’m not religious in a formal sense. I’m… speculative, you might say

“I love Renaissance music,” he politely enthuses. “The fusion of vigorous technique and the emotional impact of something like Allegri’s Miserere – you feel that you’ve been changed after you hear that music. I’m not religious in a formal sense. I’m… speculative, you might say. But that piece, the Allegri, that incredible special effect, the treble line that goes up to a top C. It’s just like, oh my God, the heaven is open.” And he almost gasps.

“Imagine hearing something like that in a cathedral centuries ago, when people were living in tiny spaces with no acoustics at all. How did it feel to go into this amazing space with these resonant acoustics and hear those huge sounds? It must have been absolutely bewitching. The architecture of those medieval cathedrals created some very low frequency resonances so you’d get these subsonic standing waves, beneath the threshold of hearing. But you can feel it. You can literally feel the vibes. What an incredible bit of medieval technology”.

With Richter, it’s easy to imagine.

Max Richter Ensemble play Blenheim Palace, June 16. Sleep is being performed at the Barbican on May 6


Max Richter has also picked a series of lesser-known pieces of classical music for readers to discover. Here, he navigates you through an exclusive soundtrack…

The Byrd Mass for Five Voices

MR: “This is beautiful and very peaceful.”

Couperin – Les Barricades Mysterieuses

MR: “A little keyboard piece with a circular harmonic structure, it’s very pretty and charming. Easy on the mind, very nice.”

The slow (second) movement of Beethoven’s 7th Symphony

“It’s just fantastic [laughs happily]. I don’t know what to say about it, it’s just amazing.”

Bach – Chaconne, for Solo Violin

MR: “An incredible piece, just for the fiddle, it has all these variations. And just an amazing energy.”

Abdullah Abraham, anything off Cape Town Flowers

MR: “This is all very mellow, the whole album is great. He’s just a genius, a South African musician. He’s very old now but this is only about 10 years old.”