BIG EARS 2015: Max Richter

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For some, it is comforting to believe that the music world is one of discrete genres where listeners inhabit clearly marked-off territories delineated by style, preference, and social group. While that concept makes the commerce side of performance a bit easier, the reality is that musical taste, more often than not, is more analog than digital, more amorphous than narrowly defined. The fact that a festival like Big Ears even exists at all seems to be proof of that. Additional proof lies in a curious corner of the music world, a territory warmly familiar yet refreshingly quirky at the same time, where style boundaries are blurred, old and new traditions are embraced then distorted, and where even naming it often provokes discussion.

This is the world of the “post-classical,” aka “neoclassical” or “indie classical”—in short, incisive musical subversion filtered through the a traditional tonal experience. Whatever label one chooses, it is a world that was incubated by the likes of Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass, Michael Nyman, and Steve Reich and currently headlined by composers such as Nico Muhly, Jonny Greenwood (of Radiohead), and Max Richter. Big Ears audiences get two chances to take in Richter and his genre-bending mix of electronics and traditional instruments—music that started with solo recordings and that now includes cinema scores, ballet, and opera.

The German-born Richter moved to Great Britain as a child, first studying piano and composition at Edinburgh University, then graduating from the Royal Academy of Music in London, and later studying under the 20th-century modernist composer Luciano Berio, in Florence. Richter’s early compositional work found him in the Berio camp of atonality, but Berio’s forays into experimental electronic music were clearly an influence as well.

The appeal of atonal modernism began to fade for Richter during his time with Piano Circus, a six-pianist ensemble he cofounded in 1989. He discovered that audiences gravitated to the music of Glass, Reich, Pärt, and Terry Riley and away from the hard edges of atonality. His 10 years with Piano Circus, from which five albums sprang, solidified his belief in the narrative potential of melody.

In 2002, Richter released Memoryhouse, his first recording under his own name. The 18-track album featured a mix of piano pieces, strings, natural sounds, samplings, voices, and orchestral work by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra. The album foundered commercially, but someone was listening—the album got a vinyl reissue and a live performance at the Barbican in London last year, and it’s being performed live this year on his U.S. tour with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble.

Similarly, Richter’s second album, The Blue Notebooks, from 2004, is getting a vinyl and CD re-release this month on the Deutsche Grammophon label and is on the Big Ears schedule for Saturday at the Bijou Theatre. Described by Richter as “a series of interconnected dreams,” the album mixes strings, piano, and electronics with tracks of actress Tilda Swinton reading texts by Franz Kafka and Czeslaw Milosz against environmental background sounds, including the sound of a typewriter.

With a collective memory of the tasteless 1970s craze for synthesizer re-imaginings of the classics, many listeners are naturally suspicious on hearing words like “recomposed.” On the other hand, thematic borrowing has gone on throughout music history, and Deutsche Grammophon executives are certainly in a position to understand the limits. The label’s Recomposed series, in which classical works are reinterpreted by contemporary artists, has managed to surprise many, including some usually harsh critics. A 2012 invitation from the label yielded Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi, The Four Seasons, a work in which the overall shape, texture, and dynamics of Vivaldi remain, but exist in an environment that’s pure Richter. That work will get its Big Ears performance on Sunday at the Tennessee Theatre, performed by the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra and violinist Yuki Numata.

Richter’s prolific surge into collaborative media includes music for theater (Alan Cumming’s Macbeth, on Broadway), modern ballet (Infra, for choreographer Wayne McGregor with the Royal Ballet), and numerous film and TV projects (Scorsese’s Shutter Island and Ari Folman’s documentary Waltz With Bashir). This last category of Richter’s work will be represented at Big Ears on Sunday with his music from HBO’s The Leftovers, enticingly paired with Recomposed.


Max Richter with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble: The Blue Notebooks and Infra • Bijou Theatre • Saturday, March 28 • 8:30 p.m. 

Max Richter with ACME, the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra, and Yuki Numata Resnick: Vivaldi: Recomposed and The Leftovers • Tennessee Theatre • Sunday, March 29 • 8 p.m.

Read all our Big Ears coverage here.

Alan Sherrod has been writing about Knoxville’s vibrant classical music scene since 2007. In 2010, he won a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts—the Arts Journalism Institute in Classical Music and Opera—under the auspices of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He also operates his own blogs, Classical Journal and Arts Knoxville.

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