I am sure it was a pleasant surprise for all of us hearing post-classical statesman Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” played during Martin Scorcese’s latest film Shutter Island. The same goes for his haunting and elegiac contributions to the dream-like 2009 Israeli film Waltz With Bashir. Max Richter possesses a certain timbre, a certain approach to melody and repetition that is at once recognizable and accessible enough to lend itself easily to any sort of visual accompaniment. I don’t know what it is about them. His compositions evoke a difficult to describe emotion, somewhere between the poles of hopeful and soul-crushingly nostalgic. Like photos of ghosts. It is this chameleon-like cloaking device that lends itself so well to context. I am not saying that this a prerequisite to listening to Richter’s new album Infra or any of his magnificent body of work, but when trying to put the pieces of Richter’s enigmatic emotionalism together, it is a place to start.
Last time we weighed in with Mr. Richter was the release of his 2009 soundtrack to a film that no one saw. It appears that the only evidence that Henry May Long actually exists is a scarcely viewed IMDB entry. Infra, however, moves from the world of the screen and into the realm of ballet. Scored for The Royal Ballet at the Royal Opera House in London (London, England, mind you), Infra’s pieces move between eight “Infras” and five “Journeys” that are interspersed throughout the album. It would be easy to classify the “Journey” set pieces as having one distinct quality from its “Infra” counterparts, but Richter doesn’t make it that easy. Infra is split between short-wave radio interference, squabbling minimal electronic drones, and soaring, heaven-bowed pieces written for strings and piano. There is little distinction between the two sets of tracks. Richter lets his penchant for electronic clatter take control of a track for awhile before piercing the vale with a soaring, bowed cello or violin line that, while we have heard them on every album, is nonetheless as emotionally devastating as the first time we heard it. Richter’s classic repeated melodies (I have a hard time calling this minimalism) are on full display on “Infra 5”, the album’s most celebrated track. Contrasting violin and cello lines are incrementally layered as the track progresses, each one upping push-pull tension between elegiac and triumphant. A frantically bowed violin towards the three minute mark and the characteristic radio static full of un-locatable voices push the track to an inhuman climax full of pathos and regret without a relapse in dynamic tension. Is something this good humanly possible? Yes. 1,000 times, yes!