Max Richter


(Fat Cat; 2010)

By Conrad Amenta | 8 August 2010

Neo-classical—and Max Richter as suitable representative thereof (though he prefers to call his music “post-classical,” a category that can be used to describe pretty much everything after the late Romantics, like Dvořák and Tchaikovsky)—is an understandably touchy subject. We are told that classical music, comfortably ensconced as canonical, sets up an essential inside-outside dynamic of exclusivity v. accessibility. The messy overlap between these two spheres is largely ignored. In other words, classical music helps to further define and strengthen the logical fallacy between critical/privileged and stone-deaf/poor music listeners, and of these two great halves of the coin that is the international music market a great deal has been written in order to reify and insist. Forget that the movement in classical from canonical to experimental to post-modern is almost exactly that taken by rock music (in, admittedly, a tenth of the time).

If we accept that a genre arises out of specific social conditions, is then undermined and questioned, and then eventually turned to pastiche, neo-classical as a naturally occurring product of this last stage is simply inconvenient to our convenient truth that there are certain types of music that are specifically “for” us. That it is anything but the product of a linear process that occurs regardless of culture or period or how much that Sebadoh record meant to us. Neo-classical does not help us to ignore that sometimes the only thing keeping music from being accessible is our own historical blinders; composers like Max Richter or Rachel’s are of course only classical in kind—because they involve piano and strings, I guess—incorporating electronics and ambient as readily as those bands on whom we heave praise for their experimentation. (Hola, Radiohead.) Neo-classical is helpful, then, in how it exposes deficiencies in the way we talk about music and music history, how we insist on the nourishing myth of the artistic haves and have-nots—how it illuminates our need to push against in order to self-define. And this is, ultimately, the sort of discussion that a piece like Infra encourages. If you’re not interested, stop here; the album isn’t very sustaining without it.

Like a number of neo-classical pieces, Infra was conceived as one component of a collaborative pastiche. It’s aesthetically a composition in the Romantic tradition (Shubert is cited in some reviews) run through with ambient, but it is primarily meant to score a dance and video installation which, of course, we do not have access to here. And so, if Infra is to be faulted, it is less for the way it supposedly attempts to erect around itself those protections enjoyed by the canon (this attempt is largely imagined anyway) than the fact that we can only experience it alongside the choreography of our daily life. Deficiencies of arrangement are gaps one can only assume signify spaces for those elements that are absent, so the tendency here is to excuse those deficiencies. I wonder, though, about the logic of introducing an incomplete experience to market.

As a point of entry to Richter’s work, Infra is not as concisely scoped as The Blue Notebooks (2004), but the record is still often beautiful, melancholy, haunting. It is that thoroughly modern emaciation of classical music’s usually robust narrativity with ambient noise, sparseness, a definitive lack. And where its drive-by concepts (it’s also based on T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, though how is anyone’s guess) are outpaced by those thoroughly personal works by Lokai or Jacaszek (not strictly neo-classical per se, but evocative in the same way, putting the same premium on minimalism, pace, electronics, the re-ordering of elements that makes something “neo.”) What Infra is, is perfectly pretty, atmospheric, rainy day music.

So you either put it on in the background and forget about it or perform all of the mental gymnastics required to think about how neo-classical fits into our concept of music and how, then, that concept is flawed. Either way it’s far from a perfect listen, neither challenging nor fully satisfying. It doesn’t heighten what is an otherwise healthy dialogue, nor does it seem interested in participating in that dialogue. Its mission is informed by source material we cannot see and know nothing about, so the record ends up vaguely conceptual in a way that we can’t easily understand, leaving us with little more than the realization that there are far more interesting and self-aware records happening in ambient and noise.

Richter remains a go-to for how effortlessly his music illustrates the neo-classical model, but he remains little more than an example. His work seems pleasant but bloodless—convenient during discussions by the mildly interested, inconvenient for those who might prefer to draw from a deep well of personal meaning and conclude that because this record is “sad” that it actually means anything. And of course it does mean something, it’s just that we aren’t provided the context or background to understand what. We are left with a return to the good old discussion of how neo-classical is contentious. It doesn’t bode well for a record that it will not outlast a discussion about how just such a record is as routine an occurrence as our whole bored, po-mo mess; you can return to classical no more than punk can be anything but an approximation of traditional punk. What Infra unintentionally does is warn us that you really can’t go home again.