October 4, 2022

Max Richter – The Blue Notebooks (Fat Cat – 130701)

‘The inner world can only be experienced, not described’
(Franz Kafka – The Blue Octavo Notebooks)

Weltschmerz: (German: “world grief”) – the prevailing mood of melancholy and pessimism associated with the poets of the Romantic era that arose from their refusal or inability to adjust to those realities of the world that they saw as destructive of their right to subjectivity and personal freedom—a phenomenon thought to typify Romanticism.
(Encyclopaedia Britannica)

Most music seems to affect us via one of two gates: in chakra terms, that’s either the muladhara, or root chakra, located between the anus and the genitals (that would be rock ‘n’ roll and PJ Harvey, then), or the manipura chakra, the solar plexus chakra, the realm associated with emotions and gut feelings (need I say? The Reykjavik Connection?). It happens, though, from time to time, that you find yourself listening to something that has totally galvanised you – but neither in the goolies, nor in the gut – and you find yourself stroking your chin and thinking, ‘Hmm, if my memory (of the Seven Primary Chakras) serves me right, this seems to be tickling my sixth, or ajna chakra .’ Then, ‘My God!’ (appropriately enough) ‘So I do still have a soul!’

There was soul music before the blesséd Aretha Franklin, of course. A good 90% of everything written in Western Europe between around 1350 and 1920 was connected, one way or another, to Christian worship: music as a tool of intercession. And it doesn’t just evaporate, that mass of provenance. So it’s hardly surprising, but none the less disturbing for a dedicated secularist-cum-lazy-atheist to discover that strange vestigial organ – the soul – a-fluttering in response to such music as this – Max Richter’s second full-length CD on the 130701 sub-label of Fat Cat.

His first album – the vastly ambitious Memoryhouse (on the Late Junction label) – involving the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra and a substantial chunk of the twentieth century history of Europe, was marred by a few overblown orchestral tracks that kind of aspired to Berlioz but bailed out somewhere over the English Channel. In The Blue Notebooks, however, Richter has limited his scoring dramatically. Five of the album’s eleven tracks are for solo instrument – either piano or organ (a little gem of a tracker-organ recorded in a small chapel in south-west France); and of the rest, there is nothing wider than six lines (piano, organ or harp and string quintet) plus or minus the odd field recording – with the paradoxical effect of enlarging the acoustic space without compromising any of the ideas or the rigour that inhabit it. Indeed, many of the musical motifs in The Blue Notebooks are clearly reprised from Memoryhouse – given fresh shape in a different context, as it were. Actually, as far as melody goes, at least, Richter is almost obsessively monodic, employing the same – or marginally adjusted – progression over and over again – a modal chromatic descent, embellished by nothing but minor triads, if you must know. But what’s so wonderful about the way he uses this is that it seems to be quite inexhaustible – in the end, it just reads as a sort of arcade – an architectural detail that gets quite subsumed in the overall effect of the edifice, which is at the same time both appallingly miserable and exquisitely holy, like spending your birthday alone with a single candle in an unheated cathedral.

Max Richter is a generation or two on from the first wave of composers to cross over from the refined world of mainstream ‘classical’ composition to one of less formally located instrumental experiments. That first wave had its own bolsheviks and mensheviks – the minimalists and the reformists. In the former camp, people like Steve Reich, Philip Glass, La Monte Young, Terry Riley and Michael Nyman became familiar as exponents of extremely long, sustained sounds, and/or a distinctive usage of repetitive, often almost mathematically precise formal structures; whereas the latter, less well known group, including composers such as John Tavener, Louis Andriessen, and John Adams, was looking more to the recovery of the sentimental – the melodic and harmonic devices – from a field in which, in the ascetic, post-serialist wake of Schoenberg and Berio, these had become seriously neglected, if not totally disparaged. It’s almost as if this was a kind of musical analogue to the art world’s final rejection of, and stepping forward from that horrendous mire of Abstract Expressionism. It resulted in some memorable collaborations: Steve Reich and the Kronos Quartet, for instance; Philip Glass and the theatre and opera director Robert Wilson; and Michael Nyman and Louis Andriessen (at different times) with the filmmaker Peter Greenaway. Collaboration, indeed, became as much a characteristic as a survival tactic. Max Richter describes his own work as ‘post-classical’, and his own biographical list of collaborators is as definitive as it is eclectic: The Piano Circus, Roni Size (yes,really – Richter, to his eternal credit did the orchestrations on that fabulous drum ‘n’ bass classic, In The Mode), Future Sound of London, Ridley Scott. Here, on The Blue Notebooks, apart from the members of the string quintet whom he regularly works with (Louisa Fuller (violin), Natalia Bonner (violin), John Metcalfe (viola), Philip Sheppard (cello), and Chris Worsey (cello)), he has that singular actress, Tilda Swinton (whose own distinctive pedigree of collaboration includes the filmmaker Derek Jarman and the artist Cornelia Parker) reciting extracts from Kafka and the Polish poet, Czeslaw Milosz. These passages, for all that they are relatively short, act much like a film voiceover, encased, as they are, in their own miniature, but uncannily present acoustic world of tapping typewriter, ticking clock, very distant trains, planes, radio music and the like ambience. They lend a curiously haunting and almost haunted distance to the listening experience, an effect that’s embedded in the style of the reading itself – in an archaic, plummy Joanna Lumley-esque accent that contrives, for example, to invest the ‘a’ in ‘last’, ‘past’, ‘fastened’, and ‘cast’ with the distinction of being the longest vowel in any language, ever.

A formidable complication in the rise of post-classicism has been the gradual emergence onto the global musical scene of a generation of artists in the former Soviet bloc whose work was uniquely characterised by its having been relatively isolated from Western influence for most of their working lives. It’s on the shoulders of one pair of Baltic giants in particular that Max Richter seems to be standing – the Pole, Henryk Gorecki, and the Estonian, Arvo Pärt. (Interestingly, Richter studied both with Berio and Pärt.) And, common to both these composers is that their sometimes over-sugared confections come reeking of incense – their music (apart from being profoundly Romantic) being intimately enmeshed in the music of Orthodox ritual. Hence the soul. There’s a part of me that finds this repulsive – a form of cheating – a shortcut to meaning where meaning is contingent on belief. Leave me to my unconsolable Weltschmerz, damn you! But there’s another part that’s obliged to acknowledge that, as a European, I’m no more able to escape that cultural inertia, that historical mass (oops – Freudian slip!) than I am to escape the influence of my own family. And if such music still has the power to ring such long-neglected bells, then that’s because the bells were never truly disconnected – like those quaint boxed-in rows labelled ‘drawing-room’, ‘study’, ‘parlour’, and ‘conservatory’ in the kitchens of some old Edwardian houses.

In the sense that his music invokes tragedy, suffering, and a deep drawing at the spiritual well for consolation, the German-born and UK-raised Max Richter is actually an honorary Pole – or Czech – or Estonian. In cinematic terms, think a drawn grey face peering out through a slow train’s grimy rain-streaked windows as a bleak winter landscape slides past – think no further than Kieslowski’s Three Colours Trilogy, in effect. And Kafka, of course, who is the perfect literary complement – his enigmatic, aphoristic self-harrowing the proper articulation of all that yearning, that loss, that nostalgia – all the ponderous, familiar-bordering-on-cliché baggage of mittlerer Europäer romantic pessimism. Musically, Richter is working quite precisely within that discrete genre of middle-European self-reflective soul-searching to expose repressed layers of cultural denial. Music as archaeology.

If ever we New Europeans needed a little help in redefining ourselves, now’s the time. The Blue Notebooks provides it with a sort of merciless sublimity, and, thanks to those fiercely independent genius-hunters at Fat Cat, those of us who grew up thinking Weltschmerz was just a Yiddish delicacy now, at least, know better.