Max Richter
Songs from Before
2006
B



there’s something suspicious about a composer with as consistent a direction as Max Richter. His first two albums saw him experiment with translating cinematic techniques into sound through the form of musical narrative. On both, his subject matter was historical. His production techniques have stayed the same—the quintet he uses, the studio he records in, the 16-track 2-inch tape he records onto, his employment of spoken word, the inclusion of electronic samples and field recordings. Richter’s third album, Songs from Before, sees no fundamental change in any aspect of his approach. If you’re worried, you shouldn’t be.

Like many of his contemporaries working in the post-classical world, he draws heavily from traditional techniques in terms of melody and tonality, especially in his scoring. The string writing from his first album, Memory House, at times evokes Glass at his most virile, whereas lately he seems to have delved even further back for inspiration, to late Beethoven in Notebooks and the spectre of Bach in Songs. Melody in Songs of course takes priority, as it does throughout Richter’s work. There are the lush arrangements around simple chord progressions—a trait of his minimalist heritage—but the tone is calmer and wiser, and the staging of his work seems intentionally distant as if to reinforce the wistful text of the album, the faint outline of a memory.

Songs from Before, as the title suggests, is full of the reflective melancholy that characterizes Richter’s aesthetic. It manages to be varied sonically without losing the thread of narrative. Yet for all the explicit historicity of the album, Richter never strays to the overtly nostalgic or sentimental. It’s more discreet than Notebooks; it allows for as much or as little emotional dialogue as the listener is willing to invest. There is a story, but one that you decide.

The often-overlooked electronic element in his music is also still present, though in his typically understated way. The grainy framing that was a feature of Notebooks is still there, as is the warm analogue-esque sounds that buzz and voom in the background, creating depth and texture. Phantoms whisper and crackle at the peripheries allowing each track to fold languidly into the next, emphasizing the strong cinematic parallel that Richter strives to recreate.

On Notebooks, snippets of Kafka and the poetry of Czseslaw Milosz punctuated the music giving both a thematic thread and narrative arc to the album; here, Robert Wyatt reads excerpts from Murakami. Justifying his use and choice of extracts, Richter, again borrowing from film, describes them as “‘second-unit’ pieces”—descriptions of landscapes, the rain, the city. The kind of shots employed in film to add place and tone. Murakami’s work seems well suited to this as both he and Richter share a fascination with the overlooked—simple gestures, fleeting moments. Like Murakami, Richter finds the poignant in the ordinary; the sacred in the everyday.



Reviewed by: Paul Teasdale
Reviewed on: 2006-11-30
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