Max Richter on art, sleep and the future of classical music

Some music glides gently over the skin, Max Richter’s goes straight under it. The German-born British composer’s universe seems to function around slow creativity and contemplation: the gradual, ethereal burn of his music; the slow pace of life tuned into the rural artist residency and recording studio he recently co-founded in Oxfordshire. Slowness appears to be everything, apart from when it comes to the prolificacy of his creative output, and his rise to become one of the most sought-after contemporary classical composers of an era. 

Richter grew up in Hamelin, West Germany, and moved to Bedford, UK in early childhood. His creative inclinations weren’t actively encouraged, but music seeped in: from the Victorian-style piano lessons he took from a young age to his parents’ Bach and Vivaldi vinyls, and the surprisingly fertile punk scene in Bedford. His first taste of the avant-garde arrived from an unlikely source: the milkman, who upon hearing Richter practising the piano, began not only delivering milk bottles to the door but also experimental records. Richter was immersed in the early textures of Philip Glass and the collaged instrumental concoctions of John Cage. 

Portrait of musician and composer Max Richter

(Image credit: Jennifer McCord)

When the school environment became a challenge, music was an escape. He fell for Mahler, discovered Kraftwerk (on a BBC nature documentary), and began building his own synthesisers. ‘Having a troubled adolescence, teen years, [and] early life, I suppose it maybe makes you more aware that those things are out there for people,’ Richter says via Zoom from his Oxfordshire studio with a backdrop of elaborate recording equipment. He briefly disappears from the camera and returns with a sheet of perspex imprinted with a Virgil Abloh quote. ‘Can you read that?’ “Everything I do is for the 17-year-old version of myself.”’

Richter went on to study composition and piano at the University of Edinburgh and the Royal Academy of Music, and later in Florence with Italian experimentalist and electronic music pioneer Luciano Berio. As a student, Richter found a classical music in flux. ‘There was an orthodoxy about the kind of music you should write if you’re a composer, and that was really just post-Boulez. There’s only one way and that’s the way. At that time, if you were writing tonal music, it meant you were an idiot,’ he says, continuing to reflect on the residual loftiness of the industry. ‘This has been one of the really problematic things about classical music culture; the fact that there are these hierarchies, a sort of gatekeeper-y thing going on’, he says. ‘I just feel that music is a way of talking. It’s a way of sharing experiences, perspectives and insights about being alive.’

Studio Richter Mahr - Max Richter's studio

Inside Studio Richter Mahr

(Image credit: Lorenzo Zandri © 2021)

Richter has positioned his art to be not only heard and felt, but seen. ‘I think visual art culture is wide open in a way that classical music, unfortunately, sort of isn’t. The number of ways of being a visual artist has just exploded’, says Richter, who, alongside world-renowned concert performances, has worked across ballet, opera, fashion, theatre and visual art, including collaborations with designer Kim Jones (Dior), choreographer Wayne McGregor, and visual artists Julian Opie, Random International and Darren Almond. But many will have first come across Richter’s work through his extensive compositions for film and TV, including entire scores for Waltz with Bashir, Mary Queen of Scots, and Taboo (which won him an Emmy). Richter’s On The Nature of Daylight, from his 2004 album The Blue Notebooks (featuring Tilda Swinton reading Kafka and Czesław Miłosz and composed as a protest piece about the Iraq War) has made more than 20 different screen appearances, from Shutter Island to Eastenders

So with such demand, who and what makes the cut? ‘Filmmakers will reach out about using a piece and it’s about what the context is. I’m interested in their reasoning and why they have gone there. That tells me a lot about what I’ve made,’ he says. ‘Sometimes we say no, but not that often, because I’m interested in what happens when you put the music with something else.’

Studio Richter Mahr

Exterior view of Studio Richter Mahr, designed with Luxton and Renfrew architects

(Image credit: Lorenzo Zandri © 2021)

In October last year, Richter and his partner, the artist and BAFTA-winning filmmaker Yulia Mahr, opened a multi-arts production studio and residency in rural Oxfordshire. The concept was 20 years in the works and was brought to life on a former alpaca farm and tractor shed in collaboration with Luxton and Renfrew architects and recording studio designers Level Acoustics and Studio Creations. 

Studio Richter Mahr seems Bauhaus in its vision: experimentation over expectation. With its carbon-negative credentials, adherence to the rhythms of rural life, state-of-the-art recording facilities and mixing studios, 31-acre woodland surroundings and concrete and wood-clad minimalist spaces centred around a café fed by an organic kitchen garden – it all sounds rather utopian. But although it’s a far cry from the rat-race pressures of the conventional recording studio model, Studio Richter Mahr is still a place of serious production, for the founders’ own projects, those of other recording artists, and a rolling residency programme for emerging artists. So far, this has included musicians, but will eventually expand to the visual arts. ‘It’s really an evolving creative community,’ he says. 

Max Richter recording studio

The instrumental recording studio at Studio Richter Mahr

(Image credit: Lorenzo Zandri )

I ask Richter how he views his role in championing the next generation, particularly in the wake of more proposed funding cuts to classical music groups in the UK. ‘There was this idea that the state would, to some extent, put a framework in place [for] opportunities. Now, these things are really only available to people who can pay…so in the future, we’re only going to have [music] made by people who didn’t have to make a living, which is a terrible idea because it’s cutting off a whole range of human experiences,’ he says. ‘So anything we can do to support people who need those opportunities. We think of that as a duty, and also a privilege. That kind of validation at an early part of your working life is just so valuable – it’s everything.’