The early 21st Century has been packed with post-classical adventures, as a new wave of composers, players and labels have combined some of the vibe of modern popular music with classical instrumentation, often in search of post-rave-era chillout sounds. Almost all of them are heavily indebted to the Deutsche Grammophon-signed, British-German composer Max Richter, whose landmark extended post-minimalist work Sleep (recorded with American Contemporary Music Ensemble) wowed the world in 2015 and remains the cornerstone of the genre. The eight-hour concept piece, coupled with its staged events, is, however, only one part of a mighty body of work. Richter’s early experiences with electronic artists such as Future Sound Of London and Roni Size set the scene for years of influential solo albums, a burgeoning career in soundtrack work (generated by his fine capabilities in musical storytelling) and many millions of streams. The best Max Richter songs barely scratch the surface of his full range of music, but they offer a fascinating place to start.
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20: ‘Lullaby From The Westcoast Sleepers’
Max Richter is known for both his very long and his very short pieces, and this is one of the latter. It’s Richter at his most enchanting: gentle piano raindrops caressing a stream. ‘… Westcoast Sleepers’ comes from 2008’s ringtones concept album, 24 Postcards In Full Colour, which was originally issued by the Brighton-based FatCat offshoot label, 130701. The label was to become pivotal in the post-classical movement, not least because of its extensive work with Richter early in his solo career, but also for issuing works by the late Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson and rising star Ian William Craig.
19: ‘Broken Symmetries For Y’
‘Broken Symmetries For Y’ also features on Richter’s 24 Postcards In Full Colour. It is odd, scratchy-sounding, and has a clattering, dance music-influenced rhythm (seemingly via Aphex Twin and Autechre), yet is also affecting in its use of piano and strings. Richter is well-known for his love of post-rock and electronica, blending influences from them into his own music and into his occasional DJ mixes. This is his most open nod to that in his mature solo work.
18: ‘II. Mrs Dalloway: In The Garden’
‘In The Garden’ was written as part of 2017’s Three Worlds: Music From Woolf Works. The album is Richter’s musical accompaniment to a dance suite written around the work of modernist writer Virginia Woolf, and also features a reading from The Waves, read by Gillian Anderson. This slowly unfurling piece of pin-sharp strings and piano references Woolf’s famous inter-war novel Mrs Dalloway, and its extended melody will appeal readily to fans of Sleep.
17: ‘III. Mrs Dalloway: War Anthem’
This sombrely building, grief-sodden piece from Three Worlds again references Mrs Dalloway. Its theme of post-traumatic stress, as caused by the First World War, is one of many still-contemporary themes running through Richter’s work; ‘War Anthem’ is resultantly one of his most moving pieces, suggesting a tapestry of unresolved emotions, the strings tugging at old wounds.
16: ‘The Leftovers (Main Title Theme)’
Quite a contrast to ‘War Anthem’, and uncommonly bombastic for Richter, this dramatic, violin-led choral piece fit the job of opening the first season of HBO’s supernatural drama series The Leftovers, and was also later stripped back for a re-recording on the second series’ soundtrack release. The original version is probably the closest Richter has come to a traditional soundtrack theme.
15: ‘VI: Orlando: Modular Astronomy’
Virginia Woolf’s Orlando: A Biography remains a highly relevant novel today, as acceptance of transgender issues spreads throughout the world in the early 21st Century. From Three Worlds, the intriguing and emotively gated rolling cloud of sound that is ‘Modular Astronomy’ shows off a debt to Richter’s kosmische musik roots, appearing to channel Tangerine Dream in miniature. It also suggests both beautiful transformation and predetermination, and our place within the massive scale of the natural world, with an appropriately cloud-filled video to match.
14: ‘A Blessing’
If the Leftovers theme is loud and outspoken, other parts of Richter’s soundtrack for the series are most certainly not. ‘A Blessing’ is a brief, swaying, haunting, intimate and affective string cue, one of several from the series which are regularly tipped online as heartbreaking tear-jerkers for grown men.
13: ‘Lamentation For A Lost Life’
Goosebumps at the ready for this short, richly-recorded, Erik Satie-esque piano piece. It’s from the soundtrack to the BBC’s 2017 period drama Taboo, which is set in the 19th Century and stars Tom Hardy. ‘Lamentation…’ has since become one of Richter’s many huge sleeper hits in its own right, particularly on Spotify.
12: ‘Shadow Journal’
Iraq War protest album The Blue Notebooks was Richter’s sophomore effort, from 2004, and was reissued in 2018 in an expanded edition with seven bonus tracks. It features actress Tilda Swinton reading from Kafka and, in this case, Polish poet Czesław Miłosz’s Unattainable Earth. ‘Shadow Journal’ is a heart-rending, sub-bass-heavy, post-classical, Brian Eno-influenced ambient piece, placed on a bed of treated viola and laced with prescient field recordings. It was also later used in another war-themed work, the Israeli animation Waltz With Bashir, which was Richter’s first major cinematic collaboration. “I cast a spell on the city,” Swinton reads, “asking it to last.”
11: ‘Autumn Music 2’
Songs From Before was another Richter set originally issued by 130701, in 2006. Featuring British national treasure Robert Wyatt reading from the work of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, the album also contains ‘Autumn Music 2’, a crisp (yet welling with emotion), cello- and piano-led piece of sumptuous magic realism, which will have your head swimming with joy as you stoke the fire while the nights draw in.
10: ‘The Young Mariner’
Initially funereal-sounding, then merely evoking pure sadness, the organ-led ‘The Young Mariner’ is another piece whose form creeps up upon the listener. It’s taken from the period New York drama Henry May Long (2008), again set in the 19th Century, with Richter enjoying taking a story from the past and reconfiguring it with today’s means. His electronic space dust is never far from the traditional instrumentation at the heart of his work.
Something of a precursor to the emotional map of Sleep, the much shorter, organ-accompanied choral piece ‘Iconography’ is from The Blue Notebooks and, at this early point in Richter’s career, was built around samples, yet also saw Richter showing great attention to detail in all aspects of the project, right down to the mastering (executed brilliantly by Mandy Parnell). A spine-tingling piece, it reveals Richter’s acknowledged debt to German baroque master Johann Sebastian Bach, and, again, was later used in Waltz With Bashir.
As Richter’s flame burns brighter and brighter, new interpretations of his work proliferate. Norwegian violinist Mari Samuelsen (who worked on Three Worlds with Richter) took on several of his pieces for her 2019 album, Mari (with Konzerthausorchester Berlin, conducted by Jonathan Stockhammer), alongside obvious bedfellows such as Eno’s ‘By This River’. The Richter pieces include ‘November’, a piercingly atmospheric, highly muscular (fiddle-snapping, even), Kosovo War-related track. It was originally recorded by Richter as part of his first solo album, 2002’s BBC-released Memoryhouse.
7: ‘Vladimir’s Blues’
Richter’s memorably halting, stirring piano piece ‘Vladimir’s Blues’ started out on The Blue Notebooks, was featured heavily on The Leftovers, and is a Spotify smash. Richter re-recorded the piece as a bonus track on The Blue Notebooks’ 2018 reissue. Also check out the space-age Chicago footwork remix by Aphex Twin favourite Jlin, as well as the abundance of online fan covers and playing tutorials.
6: ‘Spring 0’
Before Sleep, Richter was well known for Recomposed By Max Richter: Vivaldi – The Four Seasons, his bold 2012 move in recomposing baroque master Antonio Vivaldi’s popular classic The Four Seasons for Deutsche Grammophon (Richter has also tangled with works by Satie and Bach). This glistening, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it take on ‘Spring’ certainly reconfigures our impressions both of the season and of Vivaldi, its very modern looping techniques mimicking the blossoming of nature.
5: ‘Spring 1’
This insistent, tense yet ebullient section of Vivaldi’s ‘Spring’, which follows directly on from ‘Spring 0’, definitely has the Richter touch writ large. Proud, bright, birdsong-like violin lines (provided by Konzerthaus Kammerorchester Berlin) interact excitedly. It’s hard not to be roused by it – and millions have been.
4: ‘Path 5 (Delta)’
Soprano singer Grace Davidson dominates this massively popular, deeply resonant and spiritually calming organ piece from Richter’s Sleep sampler album, from Sleep. There are several equally beautiful ‘Path’ variations by Richter himself over the course of the Gustav Mahler-influenced Sleep, and this Balearic hit was also remixed by popular post-rockers Mogwai and by Warp-signed electronica maverick Clark, both for 2016’s Sleep Remixes.
3: ‘The Departure’
As often with Richter pieces, ‘The Departure’ is tantalisingly short, yet bewitching, and is the sort of track which Richter fans loop at length for maximum effect. The circling piano piece originates from the Leftovers soundtrack, and pops up there, chameleon-like, in a variety of guises, referencing the key plot device from the series. It has also been touched by the hands of cult Chinese pianist Lang Lang, for his Piano Book album.
2: ‘On The Nature Of Daylight’
Originally part of The Blue Notebooks, and then revived for a vast array of TV programmes and films, including 2016’s Arrival soundtrack (where it sat alongside the work of Jóhann Jóhannsson), the graceful, relatable, Beethoven-influenced, cello-led lament ‘On The Nature Of Daylight’ initially had its string parts rush-recorded, to no ill effect. It was re-arranged by Richter for orchestra in 2010 (and was later paired with the original for a 12” vinyl release), and was also creatively combined with Dinah Washington’s ‘This Bitter Earth’ vocal for a stately contribution to the soundtrack of Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island. More recently, in line with The Blue Notebooks’ reissue, it has finally been afforded a video, shot in Toronto, featuring a moving single performance of urban loss, despair and, ultimately, determination, from actress and Richter fan Elisabeth Moss.
1: ‘Dream 3 (In The Midst Of My Life)’
Now comfortably familiar, and a true modern classic, Richter’s stark, piano-led ‘Dream 3’ opened the cleansing, durational neoclassical lullaby from Sleep – and revealed a new world of delights to many music fans in the process. As with ‘Path’, ‘Dream’ appears in many variations on both Sleep and from Sleep, a couple of which reach half an hour in length. ‘Dream 3’, however, is the definitive version, finding Richter’s heart worn very clearly on his post-minimalist sleeve. For true hipster credentials, also seek out the extremely rare 7” single, plus the remix by avant-popster Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, which appears on Sleep Remixes.
Covering original compositions and soundtrack work, the Max Richter best of collection, Voyager: Essential Max Richter, will be released on 4 October. Pre-order it here.