Interview with Max Richter

By • August 13, 2014

In the world of modern classical-cum-film composers, few musicians are doing more to stretch sonic boundaries than the German-born, London-located musician named Max Richter. Making his way from stage to ballet and concert hall ensembles, Richter’s early work impressed as it often combining beautifully solemn string melodies with an alt. electronic attitude. Concept albums like “Memoryhouse” and “The Blue Notebooks” sung with Richter’s unique admiration for such composers as Philip Glass and John Adams, not to recently mention his wittily hip deconstruction of Vivaldi for “The Four Seasons.”

It was this mesmerizing sound that mixed aching melodies with a hip beat that no doubt attracted Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman, who was looking for a similarly unique dance partner to accompany his groundbreaking animated 2008 film “Waltz with Bashir,” a war movie unlike any other that used animation to play the wracked conscience of an IDF soldier involved in his country’s invasion of Lebanon. Nominated for a Foreign Language Film Oscar, “Waltz” propelled Richter into a film scoring career that’s continued to impress as it hauntingly opened the door to The Holocaust in “Sarah’s Key,” detailed an apocalyptic loss of feeling in “Perfect Sense,” rhythmically tied together the screwed-up L.A. residents of “Disconnect,” and even got to play a red planet zombie plague ravaging “The Last Days on Mars.”

     

However, none of the often-metaphysical worlds that Max Richter’s music has trod upon breaks into a whole other plain of existential existence like “The Congress,” which also marks Ari Folman’s featuring return after too long an absence. For if movies like “Being John Malkovich” or the Paul Giamatti-starrer “Cold Souls” have taken real life actors into smartly-played “meta” situations, then Folman goes many steps further by having a purposefully blank Robin Wright sell her acting imagine in eternal perpetuity to pay for her son’s medical care. Folman’s questions of art versus commerce, and humanity itself are hotly debated at a “Congress” called Abrahama, a bizarre animated thinktank retreat that would give Roger Rabbit pause. Stuffing his movie with a veritable “Where’s Waldo” of pop star imagery, Folman’s very slow, yet transfixing pace is somewhere between Ralph Bakshi’s “Cool World,” Hayao Miyazak’s “My Friend Totoro” and Andre Tartovsy’s “Solaris,” whose author Stanislaw Lem also provides mind-bending story inspiration here.

Richter’s musical palette of ethereal percussion, majestic orchestral themes, electronically berserk alt. cartoon music and poignant piano and violin solos powerfully expresses Folman’s meditation on identity with equal hypnotic power, linking live action and animated worlds with a lush melodic tapestry and beatific attitude. It’s Richter’s most impressively intellectual, yet accessible score yet, a work of astonishingly controlled power that sooths as much as It entices the listener’s own thoughts of self. If any “Congress” should be celebrated, it’s this impressive re-connection between one of two of international cinema’s most thought-provoking artists, with Folman once again inspiring his experimental muse to break into a new, transfixing musical territory that truly finds Toontown Zen.


Your music has always struck me as being at once “intellectual” and accessible, a la such post-modernist composers as Philip Glass and John Adams. What struck you about their approach, and how do you think they contributed to your own style as a “new” classical composer?

I think of music as a continuum. As composers, we do what we do because we love music and want to be in some way part of it. The composers you mention are definitely part of my musical hinterland, as are many others – among those I would cite Purcell, Stravinsky, Xenakis, Bach, Schubert, Webern, Mahler, Byrd and Gesualdo…

Given your concert and progressive work, was making the jump into film music easy for you?

I think of music as essentially a story telling medium so it was a fairly natural process for me to be involved with another way of telling stories. Also, I love collaborating with other artists so I enjoy that aspect of it.

“Waltz with Bashir” was a breakthrough picture for both you and filmmaker Ari Folman. What do you think it was about your music that drew him to you?

I can’t answer that question for Ari, but he told me that he wrote the screenplay during four days in the desert, holed up in a little house, listening to my record “The Blue Notebooks” on a continuous loop.

No one had quite seen an “animated” film like “Waltz with Bashir,” or heard a score for one like it – let alone could expect Ari to make a movie like this. What was your impress of “cartoon” movies, and music before “Bashir,” and how did both you and Ari want to change it?

I can’t speak for Ari’s intentions regarding the medium as a whole. What I can say is that when I saw the material I was convinced that this was some sort of landmark project – a completely new way to tell stories and I was thrilled to be part of that. I immediately had a sense of how the music could play a part in this and decided to treat it from a score perspective as though it were not animated,. In other words “everything we are seeing is completely real” was the guiding principle for me.

When Ari first came to see me we spent our time together just talking about music in general – mainly Bob Dylan actually. Then he went back home and I delivered the full score about two weeks later. He gave me enormous freedom to pursue whatever direction I wanted to take with the project – and very little changed from that initial delivery. There wasn’t a temp score apart from a few pieces from my albums, and the music was finished way before the film, so Ari could mould the picture edit around it.

It’s taken Ari quite a while to return to directing with “The Congress.” Did you feel his absence, even as your career built with scores like “Penelope,” “Sarah’s Key” and “Disconnect?” And how do you think you’d grown as a musician by the time you re-teamed with him for “The Congress?”

That’s funny .. I thought he returned to directing very quickly actually. Animation just takes time which is maybe why, from the outside, it feels like a long gap. Ari and I started discussing the new project as he was promoting „Waltz“ and we kept in close contact throughout his development process. I am always inspired by Ari – his willingness to take risks, his boldness and intelligence.

Whether or not I’d grown as a musician in the meantime is for other people to judge! I just try to keep on keeping on…


Did you want the score to delineate the live action sequences from the ones at The Conference? Or is the point that reality and hallucination are one in the same?

Yes exactly! Our biography is a fiction we tell ourselves.


How did you see the “character” or Robin Wright? Did your impressions of her come from the starring her that you’d seen, or did you get to meet her in person?

I worked with Robin closely on the songs on the film. She is a pleasure to be around, and her performance is brilliant. The character in the film both is and is not her – and that is one of the fun things about the project, the way reality melts away before our eyes.

There really seems to be the opportunity for “The Congress” score to go crazy with all of the surreal possibilities. But for the most part, it keeps a cool, slow dramatic restraint that’s in line with Ari’s direction. Was matching his visual rhythms particularly important here, especially given the places that the visuals go to?

Ari was keen that the score be a (relatively) steadying presence in the whirlwind of images that make up this world, so, yes I did keep it on the down low for most of the film, rather looking to speak to Robin’s emotional trajectory than doing too much illustrative material…

Given that score’s restraint, was it fun to kick it up with jazz-funk thrash like “On the Road to Abrahama 2?”

I had a lot of fun on that one with the band. My natural tendency is to write emotional, somehow delicate music … and sometimes it’s just great to do the opposite. And I LOVE to play the Hammond B3!

We also had a lot of fun with the other “Road to Abrahama“ track – Robin’s on a long car trip at that point – so I wrote a jokey homage to my favourite childhood band Kraftwerk and their legendary “Autobahn”.

How did you want to play the hallucinatory aspects of the film?

I look at them in a variety of ways – often they are played completely straight, just as the characters perceive them, or I use an electronic palette to illustrate that heightened sensory situation at some points…

What kind of role did you want “futuristic,” electronic music to have in “The Congress?”

It is a kind of amniotic fluid for the “Brave New World” aspect of the story. Actually the “futuristic” aspect is intentionally retro-futuristic – a vision of the future from the perspective of the psychedelic era. Nice to give some of those old synths a workout!

Did you ever become puzzled by the movie’s heady themes while you were scoring it, and have to make your own conclusions about what it was trying to say?

Sometimes in this movie looking for answers is missing the point – its about the journey not the destination.

The score keeps a powerful balance between epic, sweeping orchestrations and more intimate moments. How important was that balance for you?

Absolutely important – the interior and exterior realities are strongly contrasted and the music reflects that – the smaller instrumentation and solo lines convey that emotional interiority very strongly – less is more. I use the larger forces – including some very large orchestral moments – more in the manner of the narrator’s voice or as a landscape for the story to inhabit.

Robin’s “character” is very much of a cipher, and doesn’t really express strong outward emotions. Given that, how important was it for your music to capture her feelings? One gets the feeling that she carries a great deal of sadness around with her, especially given the prominent role the violin has here.

Yes. Robin’s character is basically trying to salvage something for herself and her family from a wrecked life, but she doesn’t emote in an overt way – the music does her emoting for her.

One of the most effective moments in the score is when Robin is essentially tricked by her agent into exhibiting all of her inner moods for the mo-cap process. How did you want to approach this sequence?

I just wrote her feelings as I saw them. The music, which is her “biographical theme” is constructed on a passacaglia structure which circles around her as she gradually lets fall her various masks. Anyone who knows my work will recognise my fondness for variation forms from “Memoryhouse”, “The Blue Notebooks” etc – and of course this is another connection to Purcell and earlier music.

How did you arrive at the choice of Schubert as a major piece of source music, no more weirdly than when it gets an retro-electronic “In the Cosmic Lobby?”

Both Ari and I are obsessed with Schubert. He had The Piano Trio in the film already, as a sort of homage to Kubrick, and I wanted to use “Winterreise” as a source because that is where Robin’s journey home starts – in an icy landscape.

A more contemporary, and beautiful song used here is The Pretender’s “Forever Young,” which seems a pretty obvious choice given the movie’s themes of eternal, cartoon existence. But what stands out is the synth orchestration behind Robin’s voice. How did you hit on that sound here?

Actually it is a Bob Dylan song. I used those colours to speak to the imagery during that sequence – which is very trippy – and to contrast it with the punk aesthetic I established in the main part of the song.

There’s an alternately classical, and Glass-ian sound to “The Congress.” How do you think that post-modern, rhythmic approach is particularly fitting here?

I intentionally work with a diverse range of techniques in this score, to reflect the polychrome nature of the world the story inhabits. My own musical language was forged out of a range of influences including the minimalists, the post-minimalists, electronica, post-rock, as well as my studies with Luciano Berio… it’s all in there somewhere!

Where do you think movie technology is heading, and how do you think it will affect the sound of its scores?

Technology will continue to develop apace. It has a normalising effect of music generally, in that, as everyone uses the same tools things sound increasingly similar. I always intentionally work against this – to fight the good fight – using the machines as enablers rather than as content generators. And, in fact, much of the technology I use is analogue for this reason.

But I don’t think technology is the most important aspect of what I do. For me one of the acid tests of anything I write is “is this still interesting when played only on piano” i.e. do the notes themselves stand up, is it harmonically coherent? Is the voice leading perfect?

In the beginning, there’s a bit of dry humor pointed at the Oscar’s “Holocaust award.” Having scored movies like “Sarah’s Key” and “Lore” which dealt with that event, and as a German yourself, do you think there’s any truth to their points about trivializing the Holocaust via Hollywood. And on that note, have you ever felt the pressure to go for “prestige” movies from your own career advisors?

It’s true that cinema sometimes uses traumatic material as a kind of short-cut to evoking feelings in the audience – the problem is that it actually desensitises us to the reality of suffering. Both “Lore” and “Sarah’s Key” seemed to me to be serious works looking at aspects of wartime history that are not widely known, and were directed by people who had a real commitment to their stories. So I didn’t hesitate to accept those projects.

One of your more commercial, and visceral scores was for the astro-zombie film “Last Days On Mars.” Would you like to do more straight-up genre movies like it?

“Last Days On Mars” was great fun to do, and as an obsessive fan of vintage Sci-Fi it was a pleasure to explore that musical universe.

What’s the experience like being scoring a post-rapture America for HBO’s “The Leftovers?”

Its been great working on this project. It is one of the best things I’ve seen in a while and I look forward to each episode landing in my inbox. I have been given immense freedom to invent the musical landscape of the show and Damon (Lindelof) and the team are great to work with. I’m finishing the last show in this season next week, and it’s been interesting being able to spend so much time with those characters.

A particularly interesting score you have coming up is “Paradise Lost,” a stranger-than-fiction story that you could say is “Meet the Parents,” except dad is the drug lord Pablo Escobar.

Yes it is a very intense bit of storytelling – Doomed love is great for composers!

Do you think you’re drawn to scoring particularly flawed, haunted and wounded characters as an overall theme in the movies you score?

Directors normally approach me because of my solo albums, so perhaps this filters the sort of material I am offered?

One thinks about the wages of combat witness in “Waltz with Bashir” more than ever given the current situation in Gaza. What kind of understanding to that combat do you think “Waltz with Bashir” gives us now?

In war there are no winners.

Do you think that film music has essentially morphed into classical music? And would you say your sound comes closest to the original style, while evolving it into new soundtrack directions, especially with a movie like “The Congress?”

My film music is not the same as my concert music or my record projects. It cannot be so since these things have vastly differing functions – film music is part of a composite narrative structure, whereas when you listen to a record you have the whole story told musically, without images.

My records are essentially me saying the things I want to say about the world, and of course when I’m working on a record I have 1000% control over every aspect of the work, while film is a fundamentally collaborative medium, but I do think my film scoring work shares some musical DNA with my other projects.


Listen to Max Richter attend “The Congress” HERE

Animatedly enter the world of Abrahama HERE

And go waltzing with “Bashir” HERE

Visit Max Richter’s website HERE

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