Except in film scores, classical music has taken a back seat to other types of popular music. Electronic has replaced classical at the avant-garde crowd’s altar, but the sheer emotional impact of full orchestras coupled with the conservatism of studio executives ensures that the orchestra will never be supplanted as the scoring device of choice. So it’s no surprise that both an electronic and cinematic sensibility would seep into the most forward-thinking classical music of the moment.
Max Richter is said forward-thinker, and his second full-length, The Blue Notebooks, displays his talent. After a typical European musical education, Richter co-founded Piano Circus, which commissioned acts by such acts as Brian Eno and Philip Glass. He used the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra for his first original solo composition, which was documented on his first release, 2002’s Memoryhouse. Using typewriter keys, text readings by actress Tilda Swinton, and field recordings from around London, it’s clear on The Blue Notebooks that both nature and technology informed Richter’s choices.
But Richter’s stand-out talent is his ability to use familiar composition styles and still come out looking contemporary by trusting unique production and arrangements. The strongest pieces here are “On the Nature of Daylight” and “Shadow Journals.” The first uses swelling strings and minor chords to evoke the best of melancholic scores, but the essentially contemplative tone beautifully dances the line between entirely safe classical and challenging emotional notes. The success of such a tightrope walk relies upon its surroundings, and it is rewarded two minutes later with the best track on the album, the above-mentioned “Shadow Journals.” Using a mourning harpsichord, a piercing viola and a pulsing electronic beat reminiscent of the stellar production found on contemporary Massive Attack work, Richter transcends his filmic influences and creates a fleshed-out work that can stand on its own.
The rest of the album is equally beautiful, if not equally inspired. Many of the piano tracks here, particularly “Horizon Variations” and “Written on the Sky,” which feature Richter on piano, recall Yann Tierson’s Amelie score, one of the best conventional scores in recent memory. The text readings (they come from Kafka and Polish author Czseslaw Milosz) lend themselves to the work, but it would be a mistake to read anything into the choices. Like its intended result, much of what was chosen here seems to have been done through feeling and instinct rather than thought. The Blue Notebooks is a step in the right direction for a genre that has recently lost its way, and it is well worth tracking down.