Review Summary: One of the best neoclassical albums of the 21st century.“The inner world can only be experienced, not described.”
Franz Kafka – The Blue Octavo Notebooks
It is in the moments where Richter manages to plunge his searching knife into the soft underbelly of this 'inner world' that The Blue Notebooks
ceases to be simply an accumulation and meticulous organization of evocative sounds and blossoms into a bookmark, a staple, punctuating the precious, petrifying, and achingly swift realizations we all get from time to time; that the knowledge we have of ourselves is actually, chokingly, scant. On this, his second album, the London-based, German born composer opens up the folds of a world we find it all too comforting to ignore, and pulls us in with both hands, the violet light piercing our eyes before we have enough time to cover them with our hands.
British actress Tilda Swinton’s dry, sincere spoken word passages (extracts from Kafka’s “Blue Octavo Notebooks” and Milosz’s “Hymn of the Pearl” and “Unattainable Earth”) give The Blue Notebooks it’s most immediate sense of individualism. Accompanied by the rattling of a typewriter, Swinton delivers her borrowed monologues with atypically sterile, inhuman melancholy. This both juxtaposes and accentuates the simple but seam-splittingly emotive piano keys on the first track, the eerie, creeping fear of ‘Old Song’, the sparse, rippling bleed of the ambience on ‘Shadow Journal’. But even on the tracks without the actress, in some cases moreso, Richter manages to envelop the listener in an effervesce of not only self-awareness, but an awareness of their surroundings. By introducing the sounds of planes overhead, footsteps and city murmers, Richter shines a quick light on the exterior, in turn stressing the importance of the interior. Highlight ‘On The Nature of Daylight’ takes a string orchestra chamber and gives it a morose, poignant line to play, using it to tap lightly but persistently at a stiff, rusty thought in the listener’s mind, eventually breaking its shackles and setting it free.
The best way to connect with this album is to let it consume you, to mould you, to chisel away at your jutting edges, until what’s left is the basic, fragile ball of clay you were to begin with, before you learnt to build up social, emotional and musical barriers, formed influenced biases and manipulated anxieties. Each track on The Blue Notebooks aims to tap at a different emotion, their similarity highlighting the cardinal nuances between them. If you don’t allow them to work their magic, The Blue Notebooks will come across as a pretty but sad affair, with twinkling ambience and touching strings, and little more. If you allow Richter to do his job, he will use one hand to hold yours, the other to hold a flashlight, and tunnel deep into the dark, smoky corners of your inner world. A scary place to be, but the liberation from the chains is tear-jerkingly gratifying.
The primary problem with The Blue Notebooks is Richter occasionally leaves the knife in for too long. Most things lose their lustre when either brought too close to the senses or shone in the face for too long. ‘Shadow Journal’ with its shuddering bass, and, to an extent, the nostalgic ‘Trees’, begin in quietly incendiary fashion, forcing forgotten thoughts to project themselves against the shadows of the mind, but eventually this projection is given too much time to be brought into focus and the mystery is lost. Things always seem to be best when they’re agonizingly just out of reach, and for the most part, Richter perfects this act of dangling an unreachable epiphany in front of the listener, but, occasionally, the wound is left exposed for too long and just begins to look ugly. Furthermore, while always remaining listenable and emotive, Richter's knife occasionally flails and falls short of what he is trying to dissect, such as on ‘Organum’ where flute-like organs unravel themselves away from one another but never seem to reveal anything.
Nevertheless, The Blue Notebooks
is a stunning achievement from the self described ‘post-classicalist’. Challenging the listener to relinquish their comfort barriers and allow themselves to be broken down, it then rewards them with a thrilling sense of self-awareness, and awareness of the beauty around them. It became the soundtrack to my life for a month after I acquired it and, although it receives less regular rotation now, the number of pages that are dog-eared under The Blue Notebooks
never ceases to grow.
Kafka’s right, the inner world cannot be described. It has to be experienced. And, for Kafka, this was one of the most painful things about the human condition. Me, I think this ineffability is a blessing. In the seemingly infinite grand scheme of things, some things are just best left unsaid. You’ll just have to experience it for yourself.