Max Richter: 24 Postcards in Full Colour

Max Richter's fourth album 24 Postcards in Full Colour perpetuates the elegant neo-classical chamber style of his previous work but brings to it an inspired conceptual twist. In brief, he exploits the ring-tone's potential as a conduit for musical performance through the creation of twenty-four classically-composed ring-tones designed for presentation a in gallery space; in that setting, attendees receive messages on their phones, enabling them to play back one or more of Richter's tracks (a website is also being crafted that will be display a photographic image as accompaniment to each track). It's a novel and clever concept that allows the composer to set aside concerns about disunity since the underlying theme provides the cohesive glue, and it's a wise conceptual move in another regard too as it enables Richter to move away from the format of the previous full-lengths, The Blue Notebooks and Songs From Before, which featured literary passages read by Tilda Swinton and Robert Wyatt; needless to say, spinning a third variation might have proved interesting yet also would have been undeniably formulaic.

The multitude of short pieces affords Richter a prime opportunity to expand his sonic palette and he does exactly that in “In Louisville at 7” and “A Song for H / Far Away,” where the grainy sound of Preston Reed's guitar brings a newfound rawness to Richter's material, and “Cathodes,” whose chiming figures recall Reich's Electric Counterpoint. He's also upped the noise ante on some pieces (blurry ambient soundscapes like “The Road is a Grey Tape”) through the incorporation of radio- and vinyl-generated textures. At times, a setting is reserved for a singular instrument, whether it be strings or piano; at others, Richter brings multiple strands together to form complex weaves of piano, electronics, and found sounds. By turns stately, pretty, elegant, pensive, and funereal, Richter's piano etudes (“H in New England ,” “Lullaby from the Westcoast Sleepers,” “Circles from the Rue Simon – Crubellier,” “The Tartu Piano,” “Found Song for P.”)—dazzle the listener with their incandescent shimmer, while the emotive string settings (“I Was Just Thinking,” “This Picture of Us. P.”) are characteristically mournful and elegiac. In the past, Richter's work has sounded overly indebted to composers such as Arvo Pärt and Michael Nyman and, though that seems to be less of an issue in the new release, in some cases, Richter's influences come to the fore (“Berlin by Overnight” could be easily pass for a solo violin extract from Einstein On The Beach); having said that, the plenitude of stylistic directions pursued here helps situate him in a increasingly realm that's all his own.

While classifying the release's content as “ring-tones” isn't misleading, given familiarity with the project's background, it's a rather imperfect label choice as it generally connotes reduction taken to the extreme, and therefore does a disservice to Richter's sonically rich vignettes. The titular use of “postcards” is far better, in that each piece is but a singular encapsulation yet one that squeezes into its frame an evocative amplitude that extends beyond that frame. With each piece a vignette, listening interest never wanes. Admittedly the downside of such concision is that it doesn't allow for a narrative trajectory that develops dramatically through stages and ends in some form of resolution rather than abruptly terminating as many of the pieces do here (at a svelte thirty-four minutes, the album could have accommodated the inclusion of some longer pieces even if doing so would've gone against the spirit of the concept). At day's end, 24 Postcards in Full Colour testifies that the fundamental style of Richter's music hasn't dramatically altered when compared to his previous work but its manner of presentation obviously has changed, and in dramatic and promising ways.

October 2008