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What's Composer Max Richter Listening To? Pretty Much Everything

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Max Richter brings a diverse playlist with him for an NPR Music Guest DJ session.
Yulia Mahr, Courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon
Max Richter brings a diverse playlist with him for an NPR Music Guest DJ session.

Max Richter is a restless musician, composer and something of an alchemist in sound who doesn't seem to fit into any tidy genres. He studied at the Royal Academy of Music in the U.K., but he's worked with electronic music bands like Future Sound of London. He writes exquisite electro-acoustic miniatures, but also full-length ballets and even an eight-hour piece called Sleep. He's scored movies (Waltz With Bashir, The Sense of an Ending) and even re-scored Vivaldi's classic Four Seasons.

We asked Richter to stop by our New York studio with a playlist of some of his favorite music. The result was a relaxed session of spinning tunes and talking music. Hear the complete conversation via the listening link above and read an edited version of it below.

Tom Huizenga: What should we start with?

Max Richter: Why don't we start with Kurtág?

So this is György — and his wife, Marta Kurtág — at the piano, right?

This is Kurtág's arrangement of the Actus tragicus of Bach, an early funeral cantata — rendering it for piano duet, which he plays with his wife. And for me the idea of them sitting down playing through this beautiful material is a kind of ideal domestic kind of music-making which obviously used to be very commonplace, when everyone played instruments. And there's something just incredibly emotionally engaging about this playing.

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I don't know if it was Slonimsky or Baker — one of the folks that wrote music encyclopedias — who said that Bach was the "supreme arbiter and law-giver of music."

I wouldn't argue with that. I always feel like Bach is in a special case, really. If somebody says, "Well, what are your favorite composers?" really what they are saying is, "What are your favorite composers apart from Bach?" Because obviously Bach is your favorite composer if you are involved in music at all. It's a little bit like Mount Everest. There's Mount Everest and then there are all the other mountains. And Bach is the universal gravitation of music.

What's next in your pile?

So next is a track called "What Part Of Me" from Low — the wonderful Low.

What part of this music is it that turns you on?

Well, I mean, what's not to love? Everything about it is perfect. It starts out with that little drum box, which has got a sort of a retro quality, amazing fuzzy guitar and bass. It's got a sort of perfection that's really simple. It's full of yearning. And it's just perfect music.

Do you listen to a lot of what we might call "indie rock?"

Yeah. I think that's a very creative space. It's a space where there's a very open-eared audience. It's full of curiosity and possibility. And I like the fact that there's not too much kind of theory and rules around in that space — some very creative music.

You were born in Germany but grew up in the U.K. I'm wondering what kind of music you heard in the house as a kid growing up?

Well, I heard basically the rock and pop music of the time and the core classics. So, Bach, Mozart and Beethoven — and The Beatles and The Beach Boys. That was it, really. Which is, I would say, kind of a solid music education.

And then I read that you built synthesizers in your bedroom.

Well yeah, I had a sort of lightbulb moment hearing Kraftwerk's record Autobahn when I was in my early teens. And I encountered this sound that I'd never heard before, and I couldn't imagine what instrument was making it. And this was the synthesizer at the beginning of "Autobahn." And it was like being struck by lightning. It was really — my life before hearing that and my life hearing after hearing it. It was that profound for me. So then I attempted to try and get my hands on this instrument, but unfortunately I discovered that at the time they cost as much as a house. So this wasn't a possibility. But you could buy kits from magazines and build these things with a soldering iron in your bedroom, which is what I did. So that was really the beginning of my engagement with electronic music.

And you're a pianist by trade, right? I take it by that time you'd already been taking piano lessons.

Yes. Exactly.

And you ended up studying at the Royal Academy. And did you study composition there?

Yes, I was half a composer, half a pianist at that time.

We're going to bring you down memory lane a little bit now. You co-founded a new music ensemble called Piano Circus and made a number of albums. Let's hear just a little bit from one of them. So tell us what this is and what you were up to when you were making this.

This is Steve Reich's wonderful Six Pianos. I mean there's something so democratic and inspiring about this as a sort of model for music-making. We were students, and I knew lots of friends of mine who played the piano. We were casting around for something to do one summer, and we put this band together really just to play the Steve Reich — and also Terry Riley's In C — in an art gallery at a festival. And we start playing and hundreds of people turn up. So we thought, well, this is a fun thing to do. So we took it from there and we played that piece a lot and we commissioned a bunch of other things. And it was great fun.

Now we're a good generation beyond those seminal American minimalists. How did being immersed in that music back at that time affect the music you were trying to put together yourself?

Even previous to that, I had a sort of rather odd encounter with classical American minimalism, which is when I was about 13 or 14. I was living in a suburban town north of London, dutifully practicing my Mozart sonatas. And the milkman who delivered the milk in the mornings was kind of milkman by day, composer-artist by night. He heard me practicing and basically sort of took me under his wing and said, "This is all very well, but you need to understand some new music." He was an avid collector of the music that was coming out of New York at the time. So he would drop off the milk in the morning and the latest Philip Glass on vinyl.

What a milkman!

Incredible, right? This music was not available, there was no internet. There was no way to find this stuff.

Back then Philip was releasing his own records that you had to send away for.

Exactly. So I got Music With Changing Parts and Music in Contrary Motion — all these incredible pieces. And I was listening to them as a kid. So that sort of planted a seed, I guess, really way back.

Next on your playlist is something really quite different. It's a very big orchestral piece by Iannis Xenakis. Tell us about it.

OK, Xenakis' Jonchaies, from 1977, is for 109 players. So it's a big band. I became obsessed with Xenakis really pretty much the moment I heard him. I think he's really what we'd call a visionary. I felt his compositional approach had this sort of quality of him making music as though there had never been music before. He was sort of an inventor. I think of him in a way a little bit like John Cage, somebody who's inventing something out of nothing. And there's something very appealing about that. This piece is pretty much golden-age Xenakis, I would say, where all his technical and compositional conceptual work to do with mathematics and various structuring principles he takes from that — where all this stuff starts to come together with a sort of really direct emotionality.

And it's loud!

It is loud, isn't it? It's one of those pieces where if you ever hear it in concert you slightly fear for the orchestra or the concert hall or something. You just sort of feel like everything is going to blow up. It's one of the very few pieces where you have that sort of feeling.

You ever think of trying to write something like this yourself?

Well I did write a lot of music sort of like this. I say that in inverted commas. But when I was a student I was writing incredibly complex music in the sort of Ferneyhough tradition.

Oh, really?

That was pretty much the kind of orthodoxy at the time. If you wanted to be a serious composer you had to write very complicated music. That was just what you had to do. And I would write a lot of work where it would have been easier to print it on black paper with white ink. Would have saved on the ink! And then I went to study with [Luciano] Berio in Florence, and he sort of pulled it all apart. A very brilliant musical thinker — he had this incredible instinct to sort of get at the heart of things, and he just sort of deflated all my complexity in this most charming, but very laser-like way. It was like permission to be simpler. So that was a big turning point for me.

So did he give you permission to find your own voice?

Yeah, I think so.

I think as much as the music of Brian Ferneyhough and James Dillon, — the New Complexity composers — is interesting, I wonder if we're a little beyond that now.

Well, time has passed, hasn't it? It's interesting. We maybe need to fast-forward another 100 years. But the story of the 20th century, in classical music terms, is a story of real extremes and polarities and sort of reaction and counter-reaction. When I was a student, if you accidentally wrote a triad in a piece of yours, it was just sort of like you were breaking the law! You just couldn't do it. And that just meant you were a bad composer. Complexity was pretty much a synonym for good or interesting. And, really, that tide does seem to have turned. We've got now a musical culture which is much more hybrid and much more inclusive and much more open to influence and possibility from other spaces. That's not to say what we might call "high church" modernism is all bad music. It isn't at all. Of course there are some wonderful works within that tradition. It's just that for a long time that was the only game in town, but now we seem to have discovered a sort of more generous sort of aesthetic space, which I think is great.

So you mentioned Luciano Berio was one of your teachers. And I see you brought along a piece of his music too.

Yes, I've chosen Wasserklavier, which I think sums up Berio's musicality very well. What I found so striking about his work, when I got to know it, was the way in which he incorporated a very rigorous kind of modernist perspective with an engagement with music history. There was something very inclusive about his writing. It didn't have that kind of scorched-earth quality that you get in, say, early Boulez, for example, where you feel like he's writing in a way to obliterate the music of the past. I don't think Berio ever felt that. I think there's a strong sense of musical continuity. And this little miniature piano piece — it sort of has bits of Brahms and Schubert sort of floating around in it.

There is that kind of late-Brahms, autumnal feel, in a way.

Yeah, absolutely right. You know, that's real harmony going on here — as though harmony were a good thing. It is an incredibly brave thing to do, if you think in 1965 what was going on. I mean, that was absolutely against the rules.

So do you have one good Luciano Berio story?

I do. [Laughs.] I showed him this piece of mine. Most student composers at that time — or maybe even still — they have their incredibly difficult piano piece, this sort of unplayable piece which is just really hard. It's a kind of a macho thing, I think. You know, how hard can I make my very hard piano piece? So I had written my version of that piece and I showed it to Berio. And he opened the score and he basically just sort of laughed. He was laughing out loud, which was incredibly upsetting at the time. But I get it. Because the thing is we'd all written that piece. I did sort of feel a weight lifting from me a little bit, which was great.

What did you do with the score?

Well, I've still got it. I mean, if anyone has got a spare three or four years to learn it, then yes.

Speaking of keyboards ... I just love your list because it's just all over the place. And this next place, specifically, is Ethiopia.

Yeah, this is a record by Hailu Mergia, and he comes from a sort of Ethiopian jazz tradition. I know very little about him aside from the fact that he makes this beautiful polyrhythmic music full of interesting colors, material which is very cleverly put together with a beautiful melodic sense. And it's just a wonderful listen.

I don't know that much about him either, except for he was a member of a pretty influential band back in the '70s called the Walias Band, that for a time had Mulatu Astatke in it as well — another real looming figure in the Ethiopian jazz scene still making records today. But I guess the band came to tour the U.S. in the '80s and they split up and Mergia stayed on and then made this record himself sometime in the mid-'80s, all by himself.

What struck me about this material was it seemed to connect to all sorts of the early minimal things. It put me in mind of some of the multi-keyboard pieces of Terry Riley, for example, things like Shri Camel and that sort of thing

I just love how these cool keyboard sounds, and that very soulful accordion, snake through and around each other.

There's one last track on your list.

That's Mogwai, from the Atomic soundtrack.

And how did you get turned on to this band?

I lived in Scotland a long time and I became aware of Mogwai really from the beginning. They seemed to be fusing hard music structure and sort of raw sonics. They're just very creative thinkers, musical thinkers. Their nickname is the "Scottish guitar army," which I think is also very good.

Is there something special about this particular track — which is "Ether"?

I think this project basically sums up a lot of what they're about. It's quite carefully wrought but it still has tremendous kind of sonic power.

On the State of Classical Music

So what's classical music offering us today? There's always this perennial handwringing about its relevancy. What excites you about it today?

Classical music is very multi-dimensional. I mean, that's one of the nice things about it. It's a field of possibilities. And it's a field of unique personal responses to the question of being alive.

Composers, musicians, artists are people who respond to that question by making things. It's a way to share our unique perspectives on what it means to exist now. And for me, that open, creative space is incredibly exciting. I want to hear what other people have got to say. So I guess that's what it offers.

I think music cultures are evolving. Possibly we do need to find new ways of talking about written-down music. I'm open to all suggestions. I think the term "classical music" is possibly a bit unhelpful because I think it keeps people out who are not within that tradition.

Well, in that open space you're talking about, are there fewer genre boundaries now? Is the music more opened up?

I think composers, obviously, we are products of our time. And people listen much more widely now, partly because of the evolution of streaming media. People just follow their enthusiasms through that sort of music universe and encounter a lot of other music, and composers are no exception to that, and then they bring that sort of hybridic, polymorphous listening into their own writing. So I think it feels like it's a more inclusive kind of a space now.

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