Combining the discipline of his classical background with the inventive spirit of electronic music, Max Richter’s work as a producer and composer speaks to — and frequently critiques — 21st century life in eloquent and evocative ways. On early masterworks such as 2002′s Memoryhouse and 2003′s The Blue Notebooks, he united his childhood memories and commentary on war’s devastating aftermath into gorgeous, aching music; with 2015′s eight-hour Sleep, he challenged the increasing disposability of art and music as well as audiences’ ever-decreasing attention spans. Richter’s fascination with the growing role of technology in everyday life was a major theme of releases spanning 2008′s collection of bespoke ringtones to the music for a particularly paranoid 2016 episode of the TV series Black Mirror. Despite the high-concept nature of much of his work, Richter always maintains a powerful emotional connection with his listeners. 2012′s Recomposed: The Four Seasons, an experimental reimagining of Vivaldi’s violin concertos, topped classical charts in over 20 countries. The emotive quality of his music translated perfectly to scoring and soundtrack work, which ranged from documentaries such as Waltz with Bashir (2008); feature films including Mary Queen of Scots (2018); television series like Taboo (2017) and Invasion (2021); and stage productions including Infra (2008) and Woolf Works (2015), both projects with Richter’s longtime collaborator, choreographer Wayne McGregor. Richter’s mix of modern composition, electronic music, and field recordings was as influential as it was innovative, and paved the way for like-minded artists such as Nico Muhly and Jóhann Jóhannsson.
Born in West Germany in the mid-’60s, Richter and his family moved to the U.K. when he was still a little boy, settling in the country town of Bedford. By his early teens, he was listening to the canon of classical music as well as modern composers including Philip Glass, whose music was a major influence on Richter. The Clash, the Beatles, and Pink Floyd were also important, along with the early electronic music scene; inspired by artists such as Kraftwerk, Richter built his own analog instruments. He studied composition and piano at Edinburgh University, the Royal Academy of Music, and in Florence with Luciano Berio.
He then became a founding member of the Piano Circus, a contemporary classical group that played works by Glass, Brian Eno, Steve Reich, Arvo Pärt, and Julia Wolfe, and also incorporated found sounds and video into their performances. After ten years and five albums for Decca/Argo, Richter left the group and became more involved in the U.K.’s thriving electronic music scene, collaborating with the Future Sound of London on 1996′s Dead Cities (which features a track named after him) and The Isness; he also contributed orchestrations to Roni Size’s 2000 album In the Mode.
Richter’s own work evolved from the Xenakis-inspired music of his early days into something that included his electronic and pop influences. His 2002 debut album, Memoryhouse, introduced his mix of modern composition, electronica, and field recordings. Recorded with the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, the album explored childhood memories as well as the aftermath of the Kosovo War in the 1990s and was hailed as a masterpiece. Two years later, Richter made his FatCat debut with The Blue Notebooks, which incorporated readings from Franz Kafka’s Blue Octavo Notebooks and Polish writer Czesław Miłosz by actress Tilda Swinton into dreamlike pieces for strings and piano that touched on the Iraq War and Richter’s early years. Released in 2006, Songs from Before paired his plaintive sound with texts written by Haruki Murakami and delivered by Robert Wyatt.
In 2008, he issued 24 Postcards in Full Colour, a collection of intricate ringtones envisioned by Richter as a way to connect people around the world. That year also saw the release of his music for Ari Folman’s Golden Globe-winning film Waltz with Bashir. Focusing on electronics instead of a typical orchestral score, it was Richter’s highest-profile soundtrack project to date. He then worked on several other film scores, including music for Benedek Fliegauf’s Womb, Alex Gibney’s My Trip to Al-Qaeda, and David MacKenzie’s Perfect Sense. Another scoring project, Infra, marked the beginning of Richter’s enduring collaboration with choreographer Wayne McGregor. Commissioned by the Royal Ballet in 2008, Infra was a ballet inspired by T.S. Eliot’s classic poem “The Wasteland,” and the 2005 London terrorist bombings. Richter re-recorded and expanded his music for the 2010 album Infra, his fourth release for FatCat Records.
Richter began the 2010s with soundtrack work that included the award-winning scores to Die Fremde (2010) and Lore (2012). The composer reunited with McGregor for 2012′s Sum, a chamber opera based on Sum: Forty Tales of the Afterlives, a collection of short stories by neuroscientist David Eagleman about the possibility of life after death. That year also saw the release of one of Richter’s most popular albums, Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi - The Four Seasons. An avant-garde, loop-based reworking of the composer’s timeless set of violin concertos, it topped the classical charts in 22 countries, including the U.K., the U.S., and Germany. In turn, McGregor choreographed a ballet, Kairos, to Richter’s recomposition. Disconnect, the score to Henry-Alex Rubin’s film about the impact of technology on relationships, arrived in 2013. His other releases that year included the score to Wadjda, which was the first feature-length film made by a Saudi Arabian woman (director Haifaa Al-Mansour); the music to Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox; and Ruairí Robinson’s sci-fi excursion The Last Days on Mars. Richter also worked with Folman again on the music to The Congress, an adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s novel The Futurological Congress.
In 2014, Richter launched a mentorship program for aspiring young composers and wrote music for HBO’s The Leftovers, which also featured pieces from Memoryhouse and The Blue Notebooks. The following year saw the arrival of Sleep, an eight-hour ambient piece scored for piano, strings, electronics, and vocals that Richter described as a “lullaby for a frenetic world and a manifesto for a slower pace of existence.” The piece premiered at a Berlin performance where the audience was given beds instead of seats. Sleep and From Sleep, a one-hour adaptation, were released in September 2015. The following year, Richter provided the score to the sci-fi/horror film Morgan and the disturbingly cheery music for “Nosedive,” an episode of Black Mirror that took the all-consuming nature of social media to extremes. Released in January 2017, Three Worlds: Music from Woolf Works drew from his score for McGregor’s 2015 Royal Ballet production inspired by three of Virginia Woolf’s most acclaimed novels. It was followed that May by the soundtrack compilation Out of the Dark Room. That September, Richter’s Emmy-nominated music for the BBC One drama Taboo was released.
Richter remained busy on soundtrack work in 2018, with projects including the music for the HBO TV series My Brilliant Friend as well as the scores to films like Hostiles, White Boy Rick, and Mary Queen of Scots, which won a Best Original Score — Feature Film Award at the Hollywood Music in Media Awards. For his score to the August 2019 film Ad Astra, he used plasma wave data from NASA’s Voyager Interstellar Mission played by a custom virtual instrument as an element of his compositions. That October, Deutsche Grammophon issued Voyager: Essential Max Richter, an expansive retrospective that included two previously unreleased pieces written for Sleep.
Richter continued to expand on Sleep in 2020, first with the documentary Max Richter’s Sleep, which premiered in North America at that year’s Sundance Film Festival, and later with an app designed to help listeners use the work for focus, meditation, and rest. His other projects that year included contributions to Rudolf Buchbinder’s Diabelli Variations project, music for the second season of My Brilliant Friend, and Journey CP1919, a work commissioned for the Aurora Orchestra and inspired by the discovery of the first pulsar star. July 2020 saw the release of Voices, a work combining crowd-sourced readings of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and a “negative orchestra” comprising eight violins, six violas, 24 cellos, 12 double basses, and a harp. A decade in the making, Voices included performances by violinist Mari Samuelsen, the choir Tenebrae, and solo soprano Grace Davidson. A second volume, Voices 2, followed in 2021. Richter additionally collaborated with Kristjan Järvi and the Baltic Sea Philharmonic on an album titled Exiles, which included orchestral versions of some of his earlier works. He also released his score for the first season of the television series Invasion. ~ Heather Phares