Saturday, August 18, 2012

Album Retrospective: Max Richter - The Blue Notebooks

Album rating: A
As a co-founder of the Piano Circus ensemble, Max Richter spent his early musical career commissioning and performing works by such minimalist greats as Arvo Part, Steve Roach and Brian Eno. His most outstanding contribution to any particular release in this pre-debut phase was his continued work with ambient/electronic legends Future Sound of London; or more specifically his key involvement in arguably their most game-changing release, Dead Cities. This commitment to ambient music is something we see him toy with in his 2002 debut Memoryhouse, which leant more towards ‘documentary music’ and as such was prone to experiments in tone and style, but it isn’t really something Richter truly embraced until The Blue Notebooks. His sophomore effort combines a very focussed, direct and (since his debut) refined approach with the ambition still fresh from his no-doubt inspiring early work with some of the late-20th century’s greatest composers. The Blue Notebooks takes the classic structure of ambient segments lying in the wake of contemplative soundbites, yet is somehow more than that. The music itself is comprised almost entirely of piano and strings, though again seems in some way to be just a little bit more than its component parts.

In this constant exchange between voice and music, actress Tilda Swinton takes the role of narrator as she relates passages of Kafka’s ‘Blue Octavo’ and texts by Czeslaw Milosz on the topic of internal states of mind and the separation of the mind from reality. A short passage will be read in Swinton’s soft yet powerfully emotional voice to the tones of typewriters and clockwork before it’s overcome with incredibly reflective, minimalist classical compositions. The music is quiet, slow and peaceful, yet in the shadow of this cracked-voice performance it’s sad as well. While usually content with dwelling contently in the realms of soft, reflective minimalism, the album lashes out more forcefully towards the end as it thunders towards a conclusion. Tracks such as ‘The Trees,’ with its piercingly high violins, offer more vibrancy and depth into what’s long since been a classic palette of piano backed by quiet, sweeping strings. Likewise the much more ambient-esc approach in ‘Shadow Journal’ adds more variety as piano notes fall into a rumbling floor of bass.

However, the main reason The Blue Notebooks’ popularity and acclaim has dwarfed that of similarly minimalist classical/ambient works is because it’s very obviously ‘about something.’ With only a handful of fractured sentences, Richter has produced an album about internal reflection, moving on and the powerlessness to change the past; and the greatest thing about it is that any meanings change depending on the listener. Other reviews describe an album about the beauty of nature or an aural snapshot of a winter’s night, and none of them are wrong. The Blue Notebooks strikes the perfect balance between ideological permutation and restraint: wherein the album doesn’t have any singular interpretation but a tight sense of direction leads us to similar conclusions. Not a blank slate, more a talking point, and in such a rare instance as an album that generates discussion we can’t help but spread the word.

With this album, Richter has developed a ‘post-classical’ (his words, not mine) album perfect for the kind of people who listen to ‘post-classical’ music. Obsessively introverted, it whisks the listener away to a place far beyond our busy lives. Your mind is free, and Richter forces you to take it somewhere nice. Thanks, Max.


1. The Blue Notebooks
2. On the Nature of Daylight
3. Horizon Variations
4. Shadow Journal
5. Vladimir's Blues
6. Arboretum
7. Old Song
8. Organum
9. The Trees
10. Written on the Sky

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