Ten years after the release of his record-breaking Recomposed, composer Max Richter has released his reworking of Vivaldi's most famous work in a new recording with period instruments, using gut strings and vintage synthesizers. He talks to IDAGIO about the new version and how the musical world has changed since the release of the original.
When the original Recomposed came out 10 years ago, did you imagine it would become such a cultural milestone?
Well, no, I didn't. Recomposed itself was really a very personal project to me, an attempt to salvage the original Vivaldi and rediscover it for myself. As a child I'd fallen in love with the original but in adulthood we normally just hear it on TV, don’t we, On adverts to sell you insurance or whatever? I had this kind of schism in my head, where I loved this music, I knew it to be great, but I just couldn't bear to hear it anymore. So the original Recomposed was really just a personal attempt to rediscover the beauty of the Vivaldi original by taking a circuitous route through Vivaldi's original material, trying to discover its properties and hear it again for the first time.
How do you think the musical world has changed in the decade since the first version was released?
Obviously time has passed and it's true to say that there is a greater tolerance of plural approaches to existing repertoire, also in terms of sources for new work. I think composers generally have a broader, more omnivorous musical culture, which is maybe an outcome of streaming and online media: everyone can listen to everything now, whereas it wasn't that long ago that it was hard to find a piece of music, unless you knew where to get your hands on it. It seems to be as though there are a lot of different ways of being a composer and composing now, which is great.
Would you say that streaming has broken down traditional generic boundaries?
Yes, I think nowadays people listen beyond categories. It's partly to do with the fact that, to some extent, a lot of people's listening is curated by an algorithm to some extent, which means that they’re probably discovering things that they wouldn't otherwise discover. As with everything, there's an upside and a downside. It maybe means that there's less conscious listening, less analytical listening, but there’s definitely more listening!
In 2015 you released Sleep, designed to accompany sleep. What was your aim there?
I’m very interested in music potentially having a utility dimension – we've always had dance music, we’ve always had funeral music, music for going to war, music for getting married, all these different things. And I thought: why not have a piece of music for sleeping, that is something that isn't to be listened to but to be experienced in the way that we experience a landscape?
Do you see yourself as provocative?
Well, it’s not that I set out to be provocative, but for me part of creativity is to experiment, to try things. Every new project is really a "what if?"– what if I made a piece that tried to do this or explore that question? That for me is very natural, so I do tend to go places that I haven’t been before. But environmental music is an old idea, too. Satie and various other people have explored it, so it’s not the first time anyone's thought of this.
Can you tell us a little bit more about The New Four Seasons and what inspired you to return to Vivaldi ten years later.
The idea for the new recording came from having performed it with period instrument ensembles, and this is something that goes almost right back to the very beginning of the first recording. When I'd made that recording I immediately thought, "Now we have to do a period instrument one". But at the time, interestingly, none of the period bands were interested at all. So we had to wait a little while. But having been able to play it with the colours that Vivaldi might have heard, it suddenly brought a new dimension to it.
But there are also synthesizers…
There are! And there was a synthesizer in the original Recomposed, too: there’s electronic music at the start and at a couple of other spots. I wanted to preserve that but thought I would use the synthesizer equivalent of the ancient violins, so I went back to old Moog synthesizers from around 1970 – so the equivalent of an Amati or something – and it was great!
Are there any other pieces you considered “recomposing”?
Well there aren't, that's the thing! When I did the original Recomposed I did get a lot of emails saying: please recompose the Matthew Passion or something. But I don’t feel the same way about any other piece. Even very popular pieces – Eine kleine Nachtmusik or Beethoven's Fifth or something – I just don't have that same feeling about them. There are lots of things that are played to death, but nothing is played to death as much as the Four Seasons.
Would you also say there’s something in Vivaldi's harmonic language that makes it especially suited to the “recomposed” treatment?
Absolutely right. Vivaldi's music is made of blocks of patterns in the way that Bach's music isn't; I don't know how you’d even begin with it. It's so much about voice leading, and if you change the voice leading in Bach, you've broken it. It's less good. Whereas in Vivaldi, because you're dealing with an architecture made of juxtaposed patterns, you can actually do quite a lot to it without breaking it.
Some people in the Classical music world are probably resistant to the whole idea of you "recomposing" a classic. What would you say to them?
The first thing I'd say is that I don't see Recomposed in any way erasing the original – we still have the Vivaldi! The second thing is that this idea of taking an existing text and doing something new with it is really as old as musical composition itself. There are thousands of examples of this, not least from Vivaldi himself. I guess the other thing is that not everything is for everyone, and I think it's also perfectly fine if people find they don't get on with it. I’m interested in how people respond to things, and how they connect to things in a personal way, and that’s something for every individual to discover for themselves.
The New Four Seasons is out on IDAGIO now.