Max Richter
Photo by Yulia Mahr

Max Richter: “I like to get to the essentials”

Short Profile

Name: Max Richter
DOB: 22 March 1966
Place of birth: Hamelin, Lower Saxony, Germany
Occupation: Pianist, composer

Mr. Richter, what color is your music?

(Laughs) Well, that’s very interesting — every song is different but blue was kind of a religion for me for a long time, even as a kid I just had this affinity with it. In a way it’s probably personal, isn’t it? You connect to things uniquely. I don’t have synesthesia but I think when music is really intense, it’s almost like it’s more than just hearing. If you’re at a gig and there’s just something amazing going on, it’s not really just hearing, it’s more of a total body sense, isn’t it? You get transported and all your senses kind of join up. And that’s sort of the thing I’m looking for in music.

Do you think that’s also the thing that your audience looks for in your music?

The thing for me is that I do think of music as half of the conversation; what I’ve written is half of it, and somebody who’s listening to it, they bring their biography, they bring everything they’ve been through their whole life, the other music they like… And that sort of completes it. So then you get this amazing reaction — and that’s where the work is, the meeting point between the text that I’ve produced, this object, and the listener. And that for me is really exciting.

“Music is my first language and that’s what I reach for when I want to convey something.”

How does that conversation work when you’re performing something like Sleep and the listener is actually asleep?  

Well that’s an interesting one, isn’t it? One of the things that I discovered really with making Sleep, which is an eight-hour long classical album which is performed while the audience sleeps, is that our ideas about the importance of being awake and being asleep are a little weird. We tend to think that when we’re awake, we’re on, and when we’re sleeping our mind is off but actually we’re not off. There’s a lot going on!

I went to your performance of Sleep here in Berlin and a lot of people said to me, “Surely it was boring if you were able to fall asleep.” But I found that I actually dreamt about the music that you were playing.

(Laughs) Right, there is absolutely still an interaction even when we’re asleep. It’s just a different kind of thing going on. And that for me is actually really exciting!

So what would make music boring for you?

That’s a tough one! I mean, there are things I don’t really listen to. I don’t want to put anyone down but that would be manufactured mainstream chart music, music that feels more like an industrial product in some ways. And that also has a validity; it’s a different way of approaching making art.

Max Richter's On The Nature of Daylight from his 2004 album The Blue Notebooks, which is being reissued this year

Is it fair to say that your work, which is often very conceptual, is a reaction to that?

The thing that makes me want to write a piece of music is having something to talk about, you know? Something I want to get across. Because I’m a composer, music is my first language and that’s what I reach for when I want to convey something. I guess one of the things about The Blue Notebooks, which is being reissued this month, is that it’s me sort of deliberately simplifying my language.

What do you mean?

Well, I came from a Conservatoire background where the idea of complexity was very much bound up with good music — good music was seen as complex and difficult to understand. Those sorts of academic musical works often feel like you’re being lectured at because there’s so much information coming at you and you’re supposed to deconstruct it in a certain way and there’s loads of rules… So you just feel like there’s no room for you in that experience. I’m trying to leave a bit of space in the piece for the listener. I’ve become a bit dissatisfied with that idea and I’m looking to make a language that feels very direct and simple. That doesn’t mean it is simple, it just means I work very hard to make it appear simple, if that makes sense.

Do you think that’s something that has changed where classical music is concerned? The genre has really evolved and now there are so many different ways to listen to classical music outside of the traditional settings.

I’m kind of excited by all the ways that the classical music project is being kind of deflated by lots of different people in lots of different ways, you know? If you think about the kinds of composers who are now working with orchestras… Johnny Greenwood, Ty Braxton, the guys from The National

Jeff Mills

Yeah, exactly! There’s so much going on. It’s exciting, right? I mean hopefully we won’t really be able to talk about this thing called “classical music,” there won’t be the same moral and social barriers. With Sounds and Visions, the event we’ve programmed at the Barbican, for example, we’ve got a lot of stuff which is very diverse, things co-existing in the same evenings where you’ve got a lot of stylistic difference. We’ve got The Syrian Orchestra of London, and then a Moog synthesizer ensemble, then there’s Colin Stetson’s new band which is kind of a metal band… And a lot of electronic music, so there’s all these things colliding.

“Creative work is a way to try and figure out how to live and what you’re actually about.”

You once said that when you’re writing music, you’re trying to give the listener an absolute total picture, a complete world. Is diversity an essential part of that picture?

In a way. It’s also about trying to kind of do the maximum with the minimum — the ecology of notes, trying to make every note count rather than just kind of a blizzard of material. I think it’s tempting for composers to just hide behind a load of stuff, you know. I like to try to get to the essentials. The things that excite me about composing are where you really feel somebody’s unique fingerprint, their unique voice, and their heartbeat in that material.

Nils Frahm said the same thing; that nicest thing to hear is when someone can hear that it’s him playing even if they don’t know the song.

Yeah, that’s in a way one of the things that I’m striving for: an authenticity, to do things which feel natural and make choices which feel authentic and real. I think in a way you sort of can’t help sounding like yourself. (Laughs) It just sort of happens, right? A lot of artists whose work I admire, you listen and you just think, “That can only be them.” You can’t help but put yourself into your work. In a way, creative work is a way to try and figure out how to live and what you’re actually about.