Drifting Through Dystopia and the Classics with Max Richter
This past evening at the Town Hall, pianist/composer Max Richter joined forces with a string quintet subset of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble for a night of elegiacally enveloping, meticulously unfolding themes contemplating the apocalypse and the aftershock of a deadly terrorist attack. To careful listeners, the often hypnotically circling performance was also a guided tour of Richter’s big influences.
The paradigm for composing film music these days is akin to a mathematical proof in reverse, to start from simplest terms and build steadily from there toward whatever drama the script calls for. The sighing two-note riff that Angelo Badalamenti employed to open the Twin Peaks title theme is probably the most effective example. Richter is one of the great masters of that craft, a minimalist who can get maximal if the director needs it.
This was a night of generally very dark music, enhanced by the two cellos – ensemble leader Clarice Jensen and Paul Wianco – alongside violinists Laura Lutzke and Yuki Numata Resnick, and violist Caleb Burhans. The program paired a sonata of sorts, Richter’s 2008 work Infra – arguably the least kinetic ballet score ever written – with theme music from the dystopic sci-fi tv series The Leftovers
The former, a dynamic and often very still piece written to commemorate the July 7, 2005 London tube bombings mashed up Philip Glass and Brian Eno (with a few nods to a Schubert piano trio). The Leftovers score reinvented Bach and also referenced night-sky Beethoven – although the most egregiously clever quote was lifted verbatim from Cesar Franck.
Other than a dissociatively hammering, very effective interlude in the early part of Infra, any third-year piano student could have played Richter’s slow, steady, methodical variations on simple major and minor arpeggios. The brilliance was how judiciously he pieced accidentals into the fabric, from ultraviolet gleam to pitchblende finality. He occasionally switched to electric piano in the music’s starriest moments, particularly during the second half when he used a setting very close to the phantasmic tinkle of a toy piano.
The strings wove Richter’s rises and falls through increasingly complex, Renaissance-inflected counterpoint with similar dexterity. The high point of the night may have been in the early part of Infra, distant comet trails of harmonics sparkling from the strings and anchored by Richter’s simple, emphatic accents and block chords. Jensen’s vigorous propulsion beneath Resnick’s keening flickers brought to life similarly tasty contrasts. When the Leftovers score finally decayed from a dirge to defeated, lingering low-register horizontality, the devastation was visceral.
As vivid as the affinity was between the piano and string section, this was an electroacoustic performance. The lighter, glitchier electronic touches were a minor distraction; the louder ones subsumed the band. Obviously, the economics of touring make it impractical for a group that isn’t funded by all kinds of corporate or nonprofit money to bring along a full choir and low brass section. Considering how much reverb the sound engineer had put on the strings during the second half of the show, witnessing this music stripped to just Richter and the quintet would have been a lot more interesting simply because everybody could have been heard. And these are great musicians. Having to dig in and fight with a recording may have robbed them of the opportunity to play with the extraordinary nuance they’re known for. In those moments, it was impossible to tell.