A New Season

Composer Max Richter describes collaborating with Vivaldi, resurrecting deleted music and writing the world a lullaby

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Published 03 Aug 2015

You know The Four Seasons, whether you think so or not. Even if you confess to an ignorance of Vivaldi, a disinterest in the Baroque repertoire and the sneaking suspicion a concerto is a kind of ice cream, chances are Le Quattro Stagioni has etched a groove in your mind so deep you instinctively recognise it without conscious thought. It is an experience composer Max Richter understands well.

"We fall in love with The Four Seasons as one of the first pieces of orchestral music we hear," Richter explains. "Then later on, it turns into background noise, an advertising jingle, a ringtone. It became musical wallpaper, and I got sick of it. I couldn't hear it any more."

Both professionally as a composer and as someone with a passionate personal investment in music, Richter could not accept that Vivaldi's masterwork should suffer such familiarity-bred contempt, even if he had felt it himself.  "I set out to rediscover it as a piece of music, by stepping into this landscape that Vivaldi made and seeing if I could encounter it afresh."

Richter's career has been an ongoing endeavour to marry the classical with the modern, forging unlikely syntheses, using the new to reflect upon the old and vice versa. His 2004 album, The Blue Notebooks, gave Franz Kafka a fresh voice via Tilda Swinton and ambient electronica; in 2006, Songs From Before provided a soundtrack to Robert Wyatt reading Haruki Murakami – a combination of talents no one else could have conceived, but absolutely everyone should hear. Now, Richter has reimagined The Four Seasons as something not entirely original, not entirely the same, but still faithful, and still beautiful. Recomposed: Vivaldi – The Four Seasons is the result.

At the outset, The Four Seasons posed a particular challenge, even for a talent as wide-ranging and unconventional as Richter, if only because he is far from the first to consider its reinterpretation. The concertos have been covered in the style of hip hop, reggae, jazz and thrash metal, remixed for video games, melded with the score of Disney's Frozen, performed by Chinese pipa, Indian sarangi and Inuit throat-singing.

Richter, however, never found such a sprawling context intimidating. "I think the fact there are thousands of versions out there is evidence of how amazing the original piece is. It can embrace this enormous variety of interpretations without falling apart." 

Given that the recomposition was Richter's response to the way overplayed omnipresence can kill a piece of music, is there any way great art avoids becoming just another part of our cultural furniture? Richter admits he doesn't have all the answers: "I don't know, really. My inspiration was to reconnect to the original, rather than an annoying jingle. That's my personal answer. Pieces get overplayed because they're really popular, and generally, they're really popular because they're really good."

If Recomposed: Vivaldi is Richter setting forth into the terrain of another composer, audiences at this year's EIF will also have the chance to enter Richter's own musical landscape with a new performance of his solo debut Memoryhouse, a piece Richter once thought would never be heard. "It was initially available for a year or two, and no one knew," he recalls. "No sales, no reviews, nothing. Eventually, they quietly deleted it. Now we've resurrected it." 

What was it like to revisit a work composed so early in his career? "Like meeting a younger version of yourself. Writing music is very emotional; it's part of your history and trajectory though life. The things you write are a map of your enthusiasms and thinking at the time. It's been lying dormant for a long while—I assumed it would never be played—so it's exciting to finally get the chance to put it on its feet."

If further proof of Richter's innovative thinking were needed, listeners can look out for his upcoming project Sleep, set for digital release this September, which is "intended to be slept through."

"It lasts roughly eight hours, and it's an experiment in how music and consciousness can interact. It ties in with recent research into neuroscience and what's called 'slow-wave sleep', which is where memory and learning are consolidated; it's kind of an organisational brain-state. It's very healthy, and since we live in a sleep-deprived society, it's a gigantic lullaby, essentially."

Lesser composers may worry about their audiences falling asleep during the performance; Richter is imaginative enough to actually plan for such an eventuality. Such talent deserves attention, whether we are awake or not.