Infra: Max Richter

Much as with the last time I reviewed a Max Richter album (2009’s re-issue of Memoryhouse), this is a record it’s taken me ages to get around to reviewing.  In truth, it’s the “absorption” part of the review process that has stumped me this time around.  Whilst ostensibly having thirteen tracks, Max Richter’s latest effort, Infra, is in essence one forty-five minute piece of music.  Now, finding time to listen to a record of this nature shouldn’t have been too much of a challenge; I almost exclusively listen to albums in their entirety, and I have a strong academic interest in what – for want of a better word – I shall call “classical” music, which commands much more interaction from the listener that the usual fare that graces these pages.  So why was absorbing Infra such a laborious process?

Much like Memoryhouse, Infra lies in a muddy hinterland.  Richter’s compositional style sits well with those who embrace a more overtly cinematic aesthetic, such as the excellent John Murphy (who earned his epithet as a result of his work for Danny Boyle on both 28 Days Later and Sunshine*), but his work with soundscapes and found sounds – which make up a substantial part of Infra – suggests that Richter is yearning to be thought of as more avant-garde than any mere “film composer”.  Thus the question of how to approach an album like this remains a tricky one; Infra was initially commissioned to accompany a Royal Ballet piece by Wayne McGregor and artist Julian Opie, but now surfaces, in slightly re-worked form, as a stand-alone album, so how does one actually listen to it? Much of the issues I’ve had with Richter’s earlier works were centred around the fact that they sound like soundtracks; hearing them is isolation left the listener wanting more.  The scope was there, but the music felt like it was only a part of a much bigger whole, and to hear just the one element was to miss the point.  And with Infra there is certainly the same feeling of this being merely music for the accompaniment of something else.

Many works that were conceived as soundtracks can stand on their own two feet and have artistic merit as pieces in isolation, but those are the ones that feel “complete”.  Although the themes are simplistic – after all, soundtrack music is designed to fulfil one purpose alone; to invoke a scene-specific emotion and no more – the work of people like John Murphy (an overtly commercial and “wham, bam” approach) and Michael Nyman (widely accepted as a “real” composer, despite working extensively in the soundtrack field) has a depth of timbre that allows it to have an independent life of it’s own.  Richter’s efforts, by comparison, feel more like sketches than finished works.  There’s a space and atmosphere on Infra that is clearly intended to invoke strong emotional currents, but which on balance feels far too superficial to actually achieve anything.  In fact, the more potentially outré and avant-garde elements do little more than break the “fourth wall” and make the listener acutely aware of the composer’s ambitions.

Sadly, beyond this superficial “ooh, isn’t this experimental” vibe, there’s nothing at all innovative here, either.  At his best, Richter’s chordal work can be majestic and evocative, but most of the time it feels formulaic and overly simple.  And not as the result of any kind of academic rigour, either – there’s no sign of serialism or extended technique at work here, the tonality is extremely conservative, and although there could be an argument that his approach is that of a minimalist, it’s too simple even for that.  That may sound facetious, but the melodic simplicity of the minimalists was tempered by a rhythmic and timbral complexity that is depressingly absent from this work.  In fact, closer examination reveals that the melodic lines that do rise above the rest of the morass are in fact nothing more that an “homage” to Schubert’s dark and moody Winterreise, with Richter directly quoting on several occasions.  Richter’s one saving grace is that he appears to have the occasional moment of melodic and harmonic inspiration, but now even those moments are cast into suspicion.

In the final summation, it seems the question of how to approach Infra was not the most relevant one.  The real question was “should I be listening to it at all?”  And, well, the only answer I can come up with for the moment is: maybe.  Despite my vitriolic rant against the processes at work here, when listened to purely as an autonomous piece of music Infra does deliver plenty of great moments.  The soundscape parts do still sound tacked-on, but when one strips those away what you’re left with is ten minutes or so of good ideas.  The trouble is that Richter’s finesse with a string quintet and synths is most definitely sullied by his own ambitions.  The more he attempts to push the envelope, the more his traditional elements look shaky and out of place.  I feel terrible for chastising a composer for their ambition, but in this instance there’s a clear case to be made for staying within your abilities.  Max Richter can produce a moving, compelling and emotionally uplifting tune when he puts his mind to it; if only he’d do it a little bit more.

Max Richter – Infra 4

Max Richter – Infra 5

*You may not be familiar with the name, but I’d bet my bottom dollar you know his piece In the House – In a Heartbeat.

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