Max Richter Crafts a Cell Phone Symphony

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Talking with avant-garde post-classical composer Max Richter about his influences is truly inspiring. In a single breath, he’s able to make connections between Romantic music of the 1800s and the work of Steve Reich and John Cage, all the way through Boards of Canada, Aphex Twin, and Kraftwerk to Johan Johansson and Colleen, who he sees as contemporaries. “What’s interesting is that a lot of these things sound very different,” he explains via phone from his Berlin home. “In a way, it’s like we’re all attempting to build a bridge, but it comes out different every time depending on who’s doing it.”

That bridge between classical theories and electronic experimentation is a central theme in Richter’s life. At the age of 13, he was introduced to modern classical music from quite an unexpected source. “Our milkman was one of those guys who was secretly a musician,” Richter remembers. “He used to get all of the early Philip Glass stuff as soon as it came out on vinyl, and he would deliver it with the milk.”

That thirst for experimentation has echoed throughout Richter’s career. Classically trained in composition at the University of Edinburgh and London’s esteemed Royal Academy of Music, Richter has scored independent films in Europe (as well as Will Ferrell’s Stranger Than Fiction) and collaborated with ambient pioneers Future Sounds of London and English freak-folk queen Vashti Bunyan. His solo compositions have been similarly progressive–albums The Blue Notebooks and Songs From Before combine readings from Franz Kafka and Haruki Murakami with heart-wrenching piano compositions and dense blankets of synthesized static.

For Richter’s fourth solo album, he turned his focus on an unlikely creative outlet: the oft-despised cell-phone ringtone. “As a musician, it seems like a waste. There’s all these millions of loudspeakers walking around the world, and nothing to put in them,” Richter says. As a result, he created 24 Postcards in Full Colour, a collection of ringtone compositions that packs layers of emotional depth into one- and two-minute pieces. “I decided to treat them with as much seriousness as I would a record,” he explains. “I’ve put my heart and soul into them.”

The live portion of Postcards involves Richter uploading MP3s of individual songs to different people’s cell phones and meeting up with them all in a gallery, where he texts different individuals to set off their phones. “I don’t have any control over the order in which the pieces could be played,” he says. “It’s almost like a cloud or constellation of little pieces which all join up because they share a lot of material. I thought, why not just abandon idea of an object with order?” he continues. “I would just make these pieces that hang together because they’re kind of related. In a way, it’s an iPod Shuffle to the Nth degree.”

So what sets off Richter’s cell phone? “I’ve got a lot of classical ringtones, but a lot of the time the phone is on silent,” he admits with a laugh. “That’s sort of like the John Cage version.”