“Everyone carries a room about inside them. This fact can be proved by means of the sense of hearing. If someone walks fast and one pricks up one's ears and listens, say at night, when everything round about is quiet, one hears, for instance, the rattling of a mirror not quite firmly fastened to the wall.”
Max Richter carries rooms about inside him; so many, in fact, that the main appeal of his minimalist, impressionistic pieces is that he’s able to construct memoryhouses out of shards of dreams, reflections and developments of people he knows, people he once knew, or people who may not even exist. Throughout The Blue Notebooks
, widely considered to be the best of his works, is the vague but unshakable presence of the human spirit, of lives that would have been forgotten had we not had people like Richter to record them in his blue notebooks; of lives beautiful and tragic by turns (sometimes at the same time); of ghostly company suddenly passing through the rooms Richter holds for them and into the rooms we, the listener, hold about inside us, where they will never leave us.
Though it may sound overwhelming at times, Richter’s compositions are always nebulously evocative instead of overly straightforward. Though they work in different genres, a comparable artist is dubstep genius Burial, who conjured images of the gritty British underbelly not by obvious tactics but by subtly weaving musical portraits together; his clattering beats like the industrial sounds of the city, his soft cooing synth pads the strangely beautiful sight of vapor tendrils rising off the dirty street, his deep bass rumbles the ominous feeling of a bus passing by. Richter carefully fuses elements together in a very similar way but instead uses elements of classical piano and string arrangements as well as tinkering with electronic pads and percussion. He also manages to capture a wide palette of emotions with astonishingly simple writing; much of the music featured on this album consists only of variations on a few chords. Even though “Vladimir’s Blues” is barely over a minute long and could be learned on the piano in about that, it still manages to elicit beautiful images of soft rain pattering against a foggy window; a genuine moment of calm reflection before "Arboretum" opens another door and lets us enter a more dreamy, abstract landscape.
Even for those less attuned to Richter’s impressionistic approach, Tilda Swinton’s occasional monologues, pitch-perfectly delivered and gorgeously mysterious in content, explicity bring the sense of human spirit back even when more electronically-focused songs like “Iconography” and “Organum” threaten to go cold (though this is not to say the more “electronic” tracks are less human). These monologues breathe even more life into the tracks, providing fascinating snapshots of cryptic diary entries and fragments of distant lives and moments between moments as a focal point but not interfering with the music that usually follows it.
So much of The Blue Notebooks
, in fact, is so perfectly composed and so emotionally invested that the only real complaint I can think of isn’t much of a complaint at all: the album simply feels too short. You see, this is an album that feels endless in possibilities and potential, but also limited in how far it can take us. Richter gives us the key to this house full of memories and human life, but, as soon as “Written on the Sky” starts its meditative first notes, it feels as if some of the rooms are still left tantalizingly locked; the lights suddenly flicker on and we are forced to shut the blue notebooks closed. Still, to criticize an album for being too short is, really, to praise what it manages to do for the length of its duration, and The Blue Notebooks
deserves all the praise it can get. In pure evocation of images and emotions, in pure beauty and restraint, in that rare sense of transportation and discovery, it is second to just about none.