Interview with Max Richter

As Hollywood’s ranks of film composers become increasingly filled with talent drawn from realms of experimental and alternative music, few of these talents that claim their roots in the past have climbed to their craft’s throne like Max Richter. German born and English-educated in music, Richter has prolifically conquered concert halls and scoring stages, segueing between ballets, tone poems and a marathon work designed to lull listeners to sleep – all as he’s kept film and television audiences awake in an often melancholy spell.

Making a colorful splash with the fever dream score to 2008’s animated elegy “Waltz with Bashir,” Richter has provided aching lyricism to the departed, and the fatefully doomed in such scores as “Sarah’s Key,” “Perfect Sense,” “Testament of Youth,” “Disconnect” and “Hostiles.” But not to be pigeonholed into beautifully artistic ennui, Richter has shown himself just as capable with the rampaging zombies of “Last Days in Mars,” the sinister beat of “Morgan’s” replicant and the tough-as-nails percussion of the avenging lawyer angel “Miss Sloane.” On television, he’s dug into rhythmic mud of “Taboo’s” criminal England, become the unbearably lonely spirit of the “Leftovers” and reaffirmed the lyrical childhood bonds of “My Brilliant Friend.”

But no matter how diverse the project, Richter’s work is bonded by a sense of melodic classicism, whether unplugged or chopped into new electronic life. It’s a transformed old school spirit that now fully reveals its regal passion in the form of a royally iconic love-hate relationship. As blazingly embodied by Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie, the rivalry between “Mary, Queen of Scots” and England’s Queen Elizabeth takes on its most impressive telling under debuting feature director Josie Rourke. Given a film of uncommon vitality and gritty, surreal beauty, this court musician assumes the throne like a composer to the manor born as he strides between old school symphonic scoring and his own distinctive alt. wheelhouse.

Beginning its march to the block with powerful, rolling drums, Richter brings a haunting vocal presence to females whose rule of a man’s world becomes ever more ironic. Texturing his myriad themes with the care given to a Renaissance tapestry, Richter’s richly atmospheric score casts light amidst ever-darkening fate. Given a lush orchestral sensibility that would likely make past “Scotts” composer John Barry proud, Richter’s transfixing score has the sweep of history in its excitement and emotion that brings this new “Mary” an uncommon, modern vitality to show femininity beset by the throne.

“Costume drama” scores have an expectation that come with them. How did you want to fulfill that, while also putting your own distinctive touch to the musical genre?

Finding the right tone or language for a project is always a kind of puzzle solving exercise in a way. You start with a lot of stratagems and ideas about how it’s going to be, and then it’s a process of exploring those, and finding out which sorts of languages make sense, and which things were kind of things were good theories, but actually don’t work. In this case, the big question was to what extent the music should have a Renaissance character? How much Renaissance DNA, and in which way should it populate the storytelling. The other thing about it is that the story is quite complex, really. It’s about these two women and their adversarial relationship. But in a sense they’re united by their position. They’re both lonely at the top, and are united in their isolation in this world of men. So all of those sorts of dynamics had to be possible in the music.

Did you research Mary’s history?

Yes, in a way. I’m very lucky in to have studied at university and conservatoire that the music education was very historical. I did Renaissance counterpoint and Bach fugues every week. At the time I really resented that, but now of course I’m super-grateful for that because a piece like this comes along, and it’s an opportunity for me to reconnect with a musical world I now adore.

Whom did you like more as a person? Mary or Elizabeth?

Mary and Elizabeth are appealing, but are also both flawed. Their tragedy is that they couldn’t find a way to get along because of the political landscape around them and the forces of history, really. I feel for them both, because they are women who made enormous sacrifices because of the position they occupied in their world.

How is that reflected in your score?

Their music works in a lot of different ways that speak to their emotionality. The composing for this film is like painting from that time, where you paint the foreground and background layers into a composite whole. In my case, my “primer” was the female voice. For those, I used an early music choir in London to make these sorts of choral environments. I wanted to populate the interior spaces inside the palaces and the landscapes with this sort of amniotic fluid to fill this world with the female voice, because that’s what the story is about. They’re the only “period” things in the score apart from the field drums. As soon as those drums start to play you know where you’re going.

Straight to the execution block!

They’re funeral drums, and the drums of war. They do a lot of work for us in the way that our minds make all sorts of connections into the imagery associated with percussion. The foreground element that comes into play is the orchestral music, of which we have two kinds. There’s the orchestral music of the two queens, which is a sort of regal, evolving music using this sort of Elizabethan motif of repeated bass lines, but with a slightly more contemporary language surrounding it. Then there is the orchestra for the world of men. It’s “heavier” with a different ground bass. It’s a much darker and dissonant orchestral world, which is basically the idea of male power – because at one level this story is really about two women being pushed around by a bunch of men. They are the Queens. They are ostensibly in control of their destinies. But actually they’re passengers on a male historical narrative.

Josie gives the movie a subtle, surreal quality that’s certainly in tune with your more contemporary work. How did you want to play that element?

The film is beautifully directed in a way that shows how Josie comes from a theater background. It has this kind of “hyper real” quality. Those images are a gift for any composer. It was incredibly satisfying to engage with that, especially when it came to playing Mary’s voice in all of this. I chose for musical, and cultural reasons to write her theme for a “Cor anglais,” which is the French word for the English horn. That’s her story, because Mary’s a French queen coming to Britain. I kind of liked that musical Easter egg.

How long were you in Germany before you arriving in England?

I was born in Germany and lived there for just my first three years. Then I was in the U.K. for a long time. But I’ve also lived in Scotland, Italy, and then Berlin for ten years. Now I’m back in the UK.

photo by Yulia Mahr

So how does living in Scotland and England come into play for this score?

I love Scotland, first of all. But anyone who’s spent any time in Scotland will know that a lot of it’s got to do with the weather. Mud is a big theme, and rain. Then there’s the way that light hits that extraordinary Scottish landscape. So it was wonderful for me to reconnect with those colors and textures. I feel like a lot of the “coloristic” aspects of this score come from those landscapes, which are utterly beautiful.

“Mary, Queen of Scots” reveals a lot of things about her that we haven’t seen in past films. As a composer, did you enjoy that voyage of discovery?

I think that working on any project is a voyage of discovery, isn’t it? You’re encountering a new world, and are trying to figure out how to make sense of it from a musical standpoint. What is it that music can bring to that universe? That was certainly the case with this project. I guess my first way into it was my love of Elizabethan music, which made this film perfect for me. It’s also these two amazing actresses lighting up the screen in the way they do. That’s a gift for any composer.

Given how dark this score could have been, was it also important to give a sense of fun in the power that these women command?

Yes, that’s very important because we all obviously know where this story is going. But that doesn’t mean we want to be hearing a kind of a funeral dirge for 90 minutes. So it’s about trying to discover spaces within that story where you can bring some brightness. That’s very important with challenging subject matter like this. These characters are very young when the story starts so the score absolutely needed to have their energy.

You handled another young character thrust into a position of “royalty” as such with “White Boy Rick” this year – though his surroundings was the decidedly bleak, drug-infested ruin of Detroit.

Yes. Scoring that film was also a great pleasure. It’s a fascinating story that was beautifully directed by Yann Demange (“’71”), and also had the amazing first time actor with Richie Merritt in the lead. I was intrigued by the idea of working on a piece where there was such as distinct musical universe already in it, which as you know is Detroit in the eighties. All sorts of dance music developed there at that time. That was also really interesting for me, because I knew there would be tracks from that era in the soundtrack. I had to navigate around that a kind of a storytelling music universe was great fun and very satisfying. I relentlessly experimented to find the tone of my score so that it would connect with those songs and the imagery. It was surprising what worked, and what didn’t. Every time I thought, “this will be great,” it was like, “No, it’s really not!” But then there would be another idea you thought didn’t work, and that’s the one that catches fire. So I think you need to be continuously open to being surprised with any score in that way.

You also scored around that black vibe for John Ridley’s Showtime series “Guerilla.”

The music for “Guerilla” was played very much on the interior lives of the revolutionary protagonists. It’s very emotional. It’s almost like there’s close-ups all the time, because there are a lot of needle drops from the era. I just did the emotional arcs for the characters. It plays in a very subdued way for the show, which I thought was great.

You recently performed your eight-hour piece “Sleep” in Los Angeles. What’s so unusual is that while most composers want their audience to stay awake through their experimental music, the point of this was to get them to doze off.

photos by Christine Hals

Well, I guess kind of. I started working on “Sleep” in 2014 because I felt that we were all becoming data saturated and exhausted. We’re all on 24/7, and there’s no way to hide from emails and social media, I wanted to make a piece that felt like a mini-holiday – a rest, basically. That’s something creative works can do. We lose ourselves in a novel, or go to a gallery, look at paintings and feel refreshed. Music can do that. So why not a big piece of music to can do that? My creative partner, Julia had the experience of being at home when I’d be playing a show in another part of the world, which would be streaming at some crazy hour. She’d be listening to it, being half-awake, being half-asleep and going between the two. So we got talking about the idea of making a piece that would talk to that condition. It just started to gather momentum. Sometimes a project has this sort of gravitational pull and you just feel you have to do it. So I wrote the piece, and it’s been fun.

How do you keep eight hours of music interesting?

Max Richter conducts ‘Sleep’

From a musical standpoint, my first thing was to hear it from the perspective of an audience member. If I wake up in the middle of the night, I want to know where I am. I want existential security – “Where am I?” But how do you musically do that? Well, we know where we are by recognizing things. A good way to musically recognize things is by using repetition and variation form. It’s the same trip, but slightly different each time. So you know where you are, but still interested. So “Sleep” is a set of two, intercut variations. There’s a piano-ish, pulsed variation, and a vocal one. These things just “A-B” all the way through.

How do you keep yourself awake through a marathon performance like that?

Well, for me, I can’t sleep with music on. Because if there’s music on, then I’m in “analysis mode.” I’m thinking. So for me, staying awake during a concert is quite “easy,” though it’s certainly tough to be doing a live performance for that long. It’s a physical challenge, like extreme sports. But from a mental point of view, if there’s music on, then my mind is working.

What are the most interesting things you’ve seen from the audience during a “Sleep” marathon?

The “Sleep” performances are really interesting because they really turn the audience-performer relationship on its head. When we’re playing, it’s like we’re accompanying what’s happening in the room. So the theme of the piece is really that what audience is experiencing is “sleeping.” That makes it completely different from a normal performance. You see people who arrive, they sit on their bed and they’re listening all night long. Then there are other people who go straight to bed. Other people do yoga. Beds get pushed together. All kinds of stuff. It’s a very free form kind of concert experience, which is one of the things I wanted to do – to break down the rituals of classical music performance where we all have to sit there and be very polite.

With “Never Look Away,” you return to your own roots with a story about an artist whose experience encompasses the war, division and then reunification of Germany. What was your approach for the score?

This is a really wonderful and fascinating film. It’s about how an artist discovers his voice as a way for him to navigate the world. He figures out how to live by figuring out how to paint. It’s also a story that’s about Germany and European 20th century history, which had all of these cataclysms. These are all big stories and themes, which the director Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck (“The Lives of Others”) has handled in a very interesting and beautiful way. It’s also a big movie that runs over three hours. You know that when you have cues that take place in the eleventh reel! I used a couple of musical languages in it. One is quite traditional orchestral writing that has this kind of central European classicism. Then there’s some electronic music that is more abstract and ambient, as it had to do with the artist’s point of view and the very interior situations in the story.

As a composer who has to dwell on his own blank slate of creativity before scoring a scene, what’s it like to literally score the inspiration striking a man to create art from a blank canvas?

I tried a few different ways to deal with that, and ended up with something quite minimal because we also have a recurring theme that has to do with creativity and love. So I ended up really doing a kind of fairy reduced minimal version of that music for the scene, which almost feels like it’s just an atmosphere in the room. It tries to evoke the idea of this blank canvas, that’s almost calling to him – that there’s something in there that wants to come out. So anything grandiose and noisy would have obliterated that sort of atmosphere.

Besides being a “high art” composer, you’ve also shown that you can do more commercial genre pictures like “Last Days on Mars” and “Morgan.” Is that a musical world you’d like to get more into?

I just feel like there aren’t really any rules. I do things mostly that I just fall in love with for one reason or another. And like in real life, you don’t really know why that would happen. It’s a question of just following my enthusiasms. Someone will present an idea, and it’s like, “Yeah. Why not?”

Perhaps “Avengers 5?”

I think that kind of musical space is becoming more and more creative. If we roll back 10, 15 years, you know, it started out as a kind of a narrow bandwidth of storytelling and musical options. But they’ve really opening up and, you know, there’s some very creative and thoughtful things going on with those movies over the last year or two. So, yeah. Why not?

photo by Rahi Rezvani

How do you think that composers like yourself who are coming from the concert and alternative worlds are changing the sound of film music?

I feel like the language of film music is now much more diverse. There’s a greater openness to more experimental approaches and different kinds of languages. I think that’s great. I treat film and TV projects in the same way as I would treat a ballet or an opera or an orchestral work. It’s a space to experiment and to discover things. It’s the feeling of that voyage of discovery that’s exciting. I never want to go into it with any kind of self-imposed rules and ideas about how it should be. It’s more about finding the sound of that universe, which is fun. I feel like there is an enthusiasm for that sort of approach.

Have you been offered any big Hollywood blockbusters in that respect?

I don’t know if it’s multiplex or not, but I am I’m doing a film called “Ad Astra,” which is a really good. It’s a sci-fi for people who like “2001” and “Solaris,” which, which is me! It’s a movie that’s very beautiful and offers tremendous opportunities for music. It’s also very emotional film that’s full of big ideas and it’s fun.

Given what could happen to musicians during Mary’s reign, how do you think you might have survived as a court player back in the day?

Wow. Very difficult. You know, I think it was a numbers game in those days. Rizzio’s life was about trying to make alliances as he rose from relatively obscure beginnings to great heights – maybe too high. Maybe if he’d kept his head down a little and had remained just the musician. But he ended up as Mary’s right hand, and that was a problem for him. So I don’t know what lesson is to be drawn there. Maybe I would stick to just playing the fiddle!

“Mary, Queen of Scots” opens December 7th, with Max Richter’s score available on Deutsche Grammophon HERE

Listen to Max Richter’s’ “White Boy Rick” HERE, “Guerilla” HERE and stay awake through “Sleep” HERE

Listen to other Max Richter soundtracks HERE

Visit Max Richter’s website HERE

Special thanks to Christine Hals and Allegra de Souza