Max Richter (German-born in Hamelin – and we'll try to resist all easy references to the Pied Piper of Hamelin) is not yet as visible or employable as the elder (by five years) composer Alexandre Desplat, but lately he's been gaining fame for his post-Minimal, synthesized scoring style ever since he won the European Film award for his eclectic soundtrack to the 2008 Rotoscoped fable "Waltz with Bashir". On this site, Robert Purvis compared Richter's sound there to New Age figures like Brian Eno. Meanwhile, filmmakers started applying some of his concert-performance works to their own movies such as in Scorcese's "Shutter Island" and the BBC drama "Dive". Only sometimes can he be heard providing more traditional harmonic support that tries to narrate the action on screen. More often, so far, he is what we can call an ambient composer.
Richter's period score for "Mary Queen of Scots" drew on both ambient and narrative practices, wanting to tell a tale of warring queens in the Tudor era. There he quickly established an antique sound-world: flat drum and Celtic harp, a turning arpeggio in the strings and a primitive two-measure motif for cor anglais with a sustained drone-chord under it all like a Baroque continuo. This orchestration created an effective acoustic space among the instruments while harmonic material throughout the score was limited to three or four chords in mime of Early Music just before the Baroque period. Once introduced, though, this set-up received little development or even encouragement from Richter. He let the drones rule and a certain timelessness took over which, given the thin monochromatic sound of the largely electronic ensemble, had the effect of making the listener (and the film?) impatient for more forward motion, more color, more musicality. Was this stoicism always a Richter trait?
In that "Mary Queen of Scots" score, too, we took notice of another name, one Tim Bailey, who was listed as Session Producer – the guy who programmed and tweaked a Pro Tools computer bank (aka the Air Lyndhurst Orchestra) that apparently was producing most of the sounds we were hearing. This was a discovery: the realization that, minus the solo English horn, Celtic harp, and a symphonic harp, Richter's whole score was collaboration between himself and Bailey and that the thin, abstract, rather cold voice of the music we'd been hearing was due to that plugged-in quality. And that stoic tone was further exaggerated by the music's strict, narrow harmonic range. One result is that the scoring stands a bit distant from the characters on screen, although in the case of this kind of historical epic that can be an advantage.
Richter's work for André Téchiné's 2011 "Unforgivable", the 2014 TV series "Testament of Youth", or 2018's "White Boy Rick" seems to be all of a piece with what has been described above: the synth beds, the post-Minimalist drones, a narrow austere attitude towards harmony as though more than three chords in rotation would be an act of bourgeois extravagance. It is a practically medieval point of view but, as Richter's accumulating credits are starting to show, it can make for memorable scoring when properly applied. The trick is knowing how to read a film scene, how to read an audience: the very same minimal, meditative scoring can be mesmerizing at one moment, but seem interminable by the next. A sense of timelessness through ambient scoring works well in a film like Volker Schlondorff's "Return to Montauk" (2017) as it seems to be adding to the feeling of suspense-about-to-break -- but works less well as suspense lags in "White Boy Rick" where it draws attention to its own blank stare. The 20th century's Olivier Messiaen experimented with new compositional approaches to timelessness in his sacred organ and piano music (along with different ways to derive harmonic schemes) but his music always had a shape and flow: any drones he used were also part of the harmonic building blocks. Later, the 21st century's Arvo Pärt, like Richter, referenced Early Music methods and medieval grammar in his so-called "tintinnabuli" music, derived from a specific ancient formula of scale-and-triad; his music has momentum and closure such as Richter seems to eschew.
Listening-in on Richter's non-film music, then, hoping for more conscious composition going on, one still feels the absence of that kind of closure and flow. And yet, despite the dogged drone of it all, there does seem to be an air of individual investment, of personal determination that is starting to seep through some of his "pure" concert music, perhaps because that's a genre that allows more time and space and pace. His 2015 concert suite called "Sleep" (for six strings, organ, soprano, and synths) was offered originally as an eight-and-a-half-hour "listening experience" during which audience members were urged to take advantage of provided beds for the night! Even dozing, they could listen to what were essentially 31 musical "works" presented from the stage based on variations of four or five "themes". Not unlike Richter's ambient film scoring, but perhaps more shapely, these were sleepy, mellow, droning, monochromatic sounds offered in soothing tonal garb. "I hope that people will fall asleep listening to this", Richter was reported to have said, and he was not kidding. But then he added inexplicably, "I think of it as a piece of protest music. It's protest music against this sort of very super industrialized, intense, mechanical way of living right now. It's a political work in that sense. It's a call to arms." At this point, some would say a wake-up call would have been more welcome.
Richter would go on to claim that there are "Elizabethan polyrhythms" all through his Sleep music but with such a slow pace, it's hard to confirm them or even keep count. A ten-minute movement called "Dream: In the Midst of My Life" opens with a piano pulse four-to-the-bar in F# major as backdrop to a quasi-lullaby tune. After three full minutes of this, a cello enters with a repeating two-note motto and the combination drifts on indeterminately from there. "Path 5" is another movement, this one featuring solo soprano and high soprano voices (although one of them may be a Pro Tools voice sample) with a rather lovely meditative melody in D minor whose straight forward lyricism provides a great relief. Later in the evening, "Path 19" relieves us again with a more melancholy but even more attractive air, this one for synths and synth flute. Thereby, occasionally, "Sleep" is made of linear rather than wafting Minimalist materials – or is this all part of the dream? Subsequent movements return to the original unresolved realm of the sleep state. Quiet it is, but hardly restful, being so speculative. In 2018, Richter selected one hour's worth of this "Sleep" music for a Deutsche Grammophon disc – a release that "Pitchfork Magazine" called one of the fifty best ambient albums of all time.
So what are we to make of Max Richter by now? He has scored for ballet, stage, and screen and produced eight solo albums of this same sort of Minimalist fare. German-born, English-bred, and Scottish-trained (Edinburgh University), he is certainly not as easily categorized or understood as the aforementioned Desplat, and yet there is an air of determination evident in his best work that makes us eager to, if not follow him like the Pied Piper of Hamelin, at least watch where he is going.
The following Max Richter albums are referenced in this article: