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Max Richter: Infra

img  Tobias Fischer

At face value, „Modern Classical“ seems a contradiction in terms. And yet, at its heart lies the paradoxical philosophical realisation that one occasionally needs to move back in time to find progress. There are plenty of historical precedents to back up the validity of the idea. Anton Webern's ultra-minimal serialist pieces were inspired by the linear elegance of medieval polyphonics. Stravinsky's controversial „Octet“, derided by Aaron Copland at its premiere in 1932 as „a mess of eighteenth century manierisms“, would go on to influence composers all over the world (including himself, as Copland ruefully admitted a decade later). And artists of the most diverse eras, cultures and classes have used Johann-Sebastian Bach of all people as a blueprint for serenity, clarity and precision – a man, whom, as Glenn Gould once claimed, already his contemporaries considered hopelessly outdated. So there is nothing curious whatsoever about the fact that while some may consider Max Richter's fifth album a classic case of retro-aesthetics, it can just as easily be considered an album leading the genre into the future.

The reason for this confusing duality is directly connected to the striking eclecticism of Richter's work: Dance piece and composition, soundscape and ambient dreamworld, chambermusic, Electronica and ambitious sonic experiment - „infra“ is all of these things at once and, by combining them into new, meaningful permutations, a lot more to boot.  Aptly, the composer's inspirations stretch from Philip Glass, whose Sony-blockbuster „Glassworks“ the milkman in a seminally educational move one day added to the daily contingent of dairy products and whose influence echoes through myriads of pearly ostinatos here, to Brian Eno – whose genial idea of using Pachelbel's canon as a point of departure for his legendary „Discreet Music“ he would certainly have loved to come up with himself. Playing extracts from „infra“  to a historian as part of an invisible jukebox exercise could accordingly yield datings anywhere between the 1960s and 2010 depending on the section at hand - if one forgets about the deep, atmospheric production, whose crackling walky-talky messages and electro-acoustic symbiosis leaves no doubts about its birth details, that is, of course.

Just as importantly, „infra“ transports the age-old technique of transcription to the 21st century. Initially conceived as a ballet in collaboration with choreographer Wayne McGregor and computer-imagist Julian Opie, Richter later reworked and extended his score into a full-length studio effort, which still contains palpable traces of the original within its acoustic DNA, while simultaneously implanting them into a mutated, entirely self-sustaining organism. The idea of transport took on a more pronounced meaning, as did German Romantic Franz Schubert, tiny melodic splinters and harmonic fragments of whose body of work have apparently been woven into the text. Rather than simply adding the five new pieces, marked „journey“, at the end of the album, however, Richter intricately interlaced them into infra's texture at strategic points, creating a twisted helix of musical molecules relating to each other in a plethora of intricate ways.

Regardless of how immediately accessible these materials, often marked by short, repetitive motives and no more than one or two melodic inventions per piece, may therefore be, it is their inclusion into a larger-scale cross-referential entity, which nonetheless creates a sense of intriguing complexity. One constantly finds oneself puzzling about the roots of a particular passage and uncovering links between different sections of the album is part of the pleasure. Richter consciously plays into this by dividing the record into two main sections, with the Leitmotif of the second deceptively resembling the first, thereby creating a field of inspiring ambiguity in the listener's mind. Just as with Glass, whose music actually relies far less on mechanical repetition than some would still like to believe, it is essential to look closely for where the development is taking place. Even though the same melodic ideas are passed on from one track to the next, they are constantly embedded into shifting textures and variable chord progressions, as though traveling through a set of different spaces. And so, a motive will be performed by prismatically shimmering electronics in one moment and a string quartet in the next, only to resurface as a solitary piano etude in the end.

Of course, all of this could merely end up being a clever patchwork, another one of those post-post-ironic contemporary collages caught in a grey zone between retrograde appropriation and complete subjectivity. The reason it doesn't is that Richter literally seems unable to even see a divide between the „classical“ and „the modern“. Just as his musical diet has always consisted of Boards of Canada and Arvo Pärt, Robert Wyatt and Steve Reich, Purcell and Xenakis, Bach and Autechre, „infra“ aligns rather than refracts these tendencies into a seamlessly unified vocabulary. Some may see this affluence as a contradiction in terms. But as others have found out before him, working with paradoxes can have its benefits at times.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: Max Richter
Homepage: Fat Cat Records

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