The Blue Notebooks
‘When I think of beautiful music, I think of vinyl music’, Max Richter told journalist Paul Morley in an interview leading up to last year’s live premiere and anniversary vinyl reissue of Richter’s 2002 debut LP Memoryhouse. Now it’s the turn of its successor, 2004’s The Blue Notebooks to get the re-release treatment (on vinyl and CD) – courtesy of proper posh classical label, too. Loosely structured around extracts from Kafka’s The Blue Octavo Notebooks, the album, originally released by FatCat in 2004, is widely considered to be the one that propelled Richter to the high table of ‘post-classical’ composition.
As its title might suggest, the album plays more like a selection of shorter compositions than an extended suite, moving through a variety of brief and often unresolved melodic ideas. Tilda Swinton’s reading of extracts from Franz Kafka and Czesław Miłosz guides the listener through the work, which commences with mournful, sample-accompanied piano that feels more like an epilogue to its predecessor album. Things then move into the heavyweight string and synthesiser arrangement of ‘On The Nature Of Daylight’, revisited in an additional version for the reissue and which, as Richter pointed out in a recent interview, “quotes the whole of the main melody from Memoryhouse“. Indeed, the two records work in series, with a handful of melodic themes that permeate Memoryhouse rippling outward through The Blue Notebooks. The sombre, flowing piano chord progressions pairing the former’s ‘The Twins (Prague)’, for instance, with the latter’s ‘Vladimir’s Blues’, as do the Aphex Twin-reminiscent electronic percussion patterns linking ‘Untitled (Figures)’ and ‘Arboretum’. Such symmetry is implicit in the kind of dynamic that characterises Richter’s oeuvre and sets him apart as a modern innovator.
What sets The Blue Notebooks apart, though, is its unequivocal sense of space and self-assured pace. With the relative commercial failings of Memoryhouse looming over its recording process, there was no room for tentativeness as resources were slim and time was tight. These strictures clearly proved conducive, however. “I thought,’ nobody is listening anyway”, Richter has said, “So I might as well just keep going; I’m going to make this record as personal as possible…I had to blag the tube fare home off a journalist who attended the sessions.”
Many have toted Richter as a ‘genre-bending’ or ‘cross-genre’ composer, and understandably so – from his use of Steve Reich and Philip Glass-informed minimalist motifs to string arrangements akin to those of Henryk Górecki, to widescreen soundscapes inspired by post-rock and electronic sounds that would be well at home on a Warp compilation– but Richter’s catalogue is one primarily cohered not by the novelty of various genre tropes but by its handling of ideas. For Richter, who at one point considered becoming a poet, notions of memory and loss, invention, sensation, language and emotion are embedded in the music, with generic variation appropriated only insofar as it serves to propagate and strengthen these threads. The Blue Notebooks remains eminent among the first fruits of twenty-first century composition, wherein such rich ideas are presented in abundance and driven home with real emotional power.