Live Review: Max Richter at Hodgson Hall

Minimalist electronic composer Max Richter enchanted a sizable and mainly younger audience Sunday at the UGA Performing Arts Center’s Hodgson Hall, where he performed alongside the five-piece American Contemporary Music Ensemble.

Richter has developed an avid following with his “post-classical” blend of baroque, electronic and even rock influences, stirring traditional tonal chord changes and modulations with ambient sounds such as ham radio beeps, static and voice to create a contemplative, repetitive soundscape. He seems to be equally inspired by baroque musical forms—he even “recomposed” and recorded Vivaldi’s nearly ubiquitous “Four Seasons”—and minimalists Philip Glass and Brian Eno’s swirling, subtly evolving ambient sounds.

Richter opened the concert with a reading of his 2010 piece Infra, which he said in a brief intro was inspired by the 2007 London terrorist attacks, as well as by “Schubert’s traveling music.” Infra, Latin for “underground,” opens with ominous sounds: staccato radio noises, static, rumblings and screechings of underground trains, which Richter produced with a Macbook Pro placed next to his Steinway piano. Against this backdrop, he introduced his supple, repeating string phrases, extended mournful repetitions segueing into piano tremolos that looped back and forth from chord to chord. 

It’s a surprisingly effective piece of music that sustains interesting ideas but then introduces new motifs just as your mind might find itself wandering. The strings were amplified, even though they would be easily heard “unplugged” in this intimate hall with its famously superb acoustics, giving them a kind of hollow sheen.

There was a short intermission followed by the concert’s highlight: Richter’s second recording from 2004, The Blue Notebooks. He said in a brief introduction that the piece was prompted by politics and the beginning of the war in Iraq, and that he “reached for the high priest of absurdity, Franz Kafka,” for inspiration.  

The long piece is organized into 11 separate movements with names like “On the Nature of Daylight” and “Shadow Journal,” and it opened with muffled recordings of old-school radio news announcers, segueing into a typewriter clacking as a performer, as actress Laura Hooper intoned from Kafka’s Blue Octavo Notebooks while remaining as still as a statue:

“Everyone carries a room about inside him. This fact can even be proved by means of the sense of hearing. If someone walks fast and one pricks up one’s ears and listens, say, in the night, when everything round about is quiet, one hears, for instance, the rattling of a mirror not quite firmly fastened to the wall.” 

The vaguely unsettling, private image was enhanced by the swells of repeating mournful string motifs, which traded off with Richter at the piano expanding on endless arpeggios. We continued on these waves of sound, varying from movement to movement but picking up similar threads along the way. Toward the end of the piece, the strings and the piano began driving more forcefully toward a powerful, rapturous crescendo.  

After a long ovation punctuated with enthusiastic hoots, the group made its way back to the stage, where it performed some of the music from the HBO drama series “The Leftovers.”  

One of Richter’s more recent compositions would have required both considerably more time and a very different venue to perform. His eight-hour composition Sleep, which has been called “the ultimate lullaby,” has been performed in New York, Austin and other cities in large venues furnished not with seats but hundreds of beds set up around a stage. While composing the long piece, Richter conferred with neuroscientist David Eagleman to learn about the brain’s functions while sleeping. “Sleep is an attempt to see how that space when your conscious mind is on holiday can be a place for music to live,” Richter commented about the piece.   

Unlike his minimalist brethren Glass and Eno, whose careers stretch back to the 1970s, Richter has been recording only since the early 2000s, but his fresh inventions and musical ideas promise a long career.  

The program was well received by the appreciative audience, but is a departure from the far more traditional outings for which the Performing Arts Center is known. Credit for the program belongs to Jeffrey Martin, the new Musical Director for the UGA Performing Arts Center, who said in a phone interview that “part of what I want to do is to broaden [the audience’s] exposure to new works” that “challenge people’s thoughts and challenge tradition, but also have something everyone will enjoy.”