After recently hearing the Edinburgh-based composer Max Richter perform at La Poisson Rouge, a friend of mine asked me a question that seemed strange and yet entirely appropriate: What is this? And the answer — especially with 24 Postcards in Full Colour — is more difficult than it might initially seem. Let’s get the instant cavemanlike judgment out of the way quickly: “This good.” These things just feel right. But the central question still remains: How do we define these sounds streaming at us? And what does that have to do with how good they are?
A preliminary lame answer to the question might consist of combining two previous types into some new categorical monster. My foray: “emo-minimalism.” He does create violently emotional pieces using only a bare minimum of techniques: melodies, harmonies and noises that constantly repeat, intermingle and swell. But can the sheer eclecticism of techniques used really make for “minimalist” music? And is “emo” — which usually involves the ill-conceived emotive offerings of a good-looking lead singer — really a charitable description? My naming doesn’t describe what these works are because the name, however useful in shorthand, always fails to explain what actually happens when we listen.
Second rhetorical question first. Emo asks us to “feel” with the singer; his (it’s always a “he,” right?) emotions are “real” and presented for our identification and consumption. But Richter’s pieces create a constant sense of distance and absence. We come to them as though we were reading postcards not meant for us. We are given 24 fragmented, decontextualized messages in sound. The emotional depth comes from the way the pieces seem to emanate from the sonic ether, arising out of and dissipating into noise before any sense of conclusion or meaning occurs.
Each little piece is about a minute in length, and Richter plans to have each of them performed simultaneously as cellphone ringtones (which would be cool to hear). Each piece, then, is conceived as part of a constellation of fragments that can be combined and recombined at will. But no matter how we connect them together, the sounds — ranging from slow piano repetitions to elegant cascades of electronics to distant and distorted radio voices — remain difficult, abstruse and far away. A famous poet once said, “Only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.”
And — to return us to the first rhetorical question — Richter’s means of escape are not quite the same as those of the “minimalist” persuasion. The music happens in miniature. Rather than working through a single compositional problem on a monumental scale (as with, say, Steve Reich’s and Philip Glass’s phase pieces or Rhys Chatham’s and Glenn Branca’s guitar works), Richter’s music avoids repetitive development and culmination. Instead we hear short essays into the sound of sound. Richter uses tools from both classical music (string instruments, pianos, scores) and electronic music (laptops, tape loops, rearranged found sounds) to play with a variety of texture and possibility.
The “postcards” shift from wooden-instrument-made lushness to electronic-instrument-made distortion and sparseness (and vice versa). They are a series of variations without an original. Sometimes the variations connect in identifiable ways — as with “Berlin by Overnight” and “Circles from the Rue Simon — Crubellier,” which clearly use the same melodic base, the first with solo violin and the second with piano. At other times, the variations are quite abstract, as with the longest piece of the record, “A Sudden Manhattan of the Mind,” which combines some off-kilter super-fast sequences (which sound like drones), background noise, and a lonely violin. Another, “Cathodes,” creates a neon electronic landscape out of backward sounds and bright Autechre-like repetitions.
So, 24 Postcards in Full Colour, is and is not “emo-minimalism” or, I dare say, any other particular category of sound. It rests in a boundary position between classical and popular, music and noise, complex and simple. And our inability to accurately define it is what makes it, in the end, so damn good. We want to and should come back to these little fragments, not only because they represent an intense amount of listening and thinking but also because they create an unshakeable and deep sense of longing.