Composer Max Richter On Musically Time-Traveling from 'Mary Queen of Scots' to Brad Pitt's Futuristic 'Ad Astra'

Max Richter
Yulia Mahr

Max Richter

Experimental composer Max Richter is having a moment. His modernist score for Mary Queen of Scots is a powerful counterpoint to Focus Features’ historical epic, while he is providing music for HBO’s recently renewed My Brilliant Friend

Meanwhile, he is already working on his next feature, the Brad Pitt sci-fi drama Ad Astra, and completing his ninth studio album, both for 2019 release.

The story of a supercharged power struggle between Scotland’s queen and Elizabeth I, ruler of England, Mary presents the royals against a backdrop of scheming ministers in a modern way that seems to be playing well in the #TimesUp era. The film opened Dec. 7 on four screens, earning the highest per-location average of any new release, at $50,000 per venue. “The male characters in the movie are resolutely useless. They are the problem,” Richter says with a chuckle over espresso at the London Hotel bar in West Hollywood. He was visiting from England to attend the film’s world premiere.

My Brilliant Friend is also about two women, following their friendship from childhood in 1950s Italy through the course of a lifetime. If he finds himself at the center of a culture conversation about female empowerment, it’s no accident, as socio-political ideas are often what draw him to a project in the first place. “The things that excite me are musical ideas,” but he's most engaged when blending music with ideas, he admits, explaining his gender-based approach to the musical themes of Mary. “The world of men is a supercharged, dark machine,” he says, describing it as “a kind of orchestral death-metal.” Brassy, bassy and harmonically relentless, the guy-music is driven by percussion and “hits the images quite hard.”

For the two queens, who share a theme, Richter took a more sophisticated approach. “It’s massively regal, but with a warmth to it. Compared to the boys, I didn’t want it to seem weak.” The score was recorded at London’s AIR Studios with a 110 piece orchestra and the London Voices choir. “Because the film is about Mary and Elizabeth trying to establish themselves as autonomous human beings in this male world, the female voice is perfect for that.”

Since Richter was composing at his studio in London while the crew was shooting on location in Scotland, he used the landscape as a creative device to connect their work. Having attended the University of Edinburgh, the rugged beauty of the highlands was familiar terrain. “I wanted to embody the landscape in a palette of female voices. For Mary, we used a melody with a cor anglais, a wonderfully expressive instrument, kind of like a bass oboe.” Conceptually, “it was too good not to use, since cor anglais is French for English horn and Mary is from France, coming to Britain.”

Born in Germany, Richter moved to Britain as a child. In London, around the age of 5, he met his destiny at a movie theater playing Walt Disney’s Fantasia. With its soundtrack by Beethoven, Stravinsky, Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Richter remembers “being floored by the music. I was on fire for it and forced my mom to take me back again.” He began studying piano, with some attention to The Beatles, but more for Bach. His next transformative moment was hearing the German electronic band Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn,” released in 1974 when Richter was 8. “The way that record starts, with a bass line and just it opens up with synth. It was like being struck by lightning,” he says. “I didn’t know what that sound was.” So began his lifelong fascination with electronica. 

To this day he treasures his collection of synthesizers. “I have a large collection, both old and new, and they each have their own unique personality.” The Moogs, built by a company that helped invent the instrument, are his favorites. “They stem from the early years of synth building, and in some ways are comparable to fine Italian violins from the 18th century,” he says, singling out his Moog System 55 as “my Stradivarius.” In addition to multiple Moogs, he is quite fond of a model called Deckard’s Dream, built by a Japanese firm that named it for Harrison Ford’s character in Blade Runner. “It’s made in very small runs. I also have an extraordinary Schmidt made by what we might again call a mad scientist type, in Germany. It’s usually an eccentric man somewhere that’s building these things,” he says with a laugh. Another favorite, “the awe-inspiring Polymath,” was hand-built in the UK.

He started building that collection when after post-graduate studies with experimental composer Luciano Berio in Florence he returned to England, “where the early electronic scene was starting to blow up.” Exposed to bands like the Chemical Brothers and Future Sound, he co-founded the group Piano Circus “and started to think of composing in a broader way.”

His first album, Memoryhouse, released by FatCat Records in 2002, is considered a landmark of the post-classical scene. Mixing orchestral technique with electronics, he made several more albums that earned him a reputation as a modernist influencer. Soon, without any particular effort, filmmakers came calling. “On the Nature of Daylight,” from his second album, 2004’s The Blue Notebooks, wound up in both Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island (2010) and Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival (2016). His most synced tune (which Richter called  “something luminous out of the darkest possible elements”) it was turned into a short film starring Elisabeth Moss this summer.

Richter’s repertoire has become a sort of catnip for directors, who use him to temp, and when they hire him to compose encourage him to add cues from his catalog. Such was the case with My Brilliant Friend, which in addition to Richter’s original music includes “Iconography” (from The Blue Notebooks), “Space 21” (from his epic, eight-and-a-half hour Sleep), and “Spring 1,” from Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi – The Four Seasons (2012), among others.

It was Richter’s Recomposed Vivaldi: Four Seasons that inspired Mary Queen of Scots director Josie Rourke to hire him on the confidence he could mesh modernity with history, helping her “tell a story that’s been told before in a fresh way.” In addition to using a modern orchestra, Richter does some electronic processing of the chorale voices. But the architectural underpinning for the sound is ancient: drums.

“We use a lot of field drums and Renaissance drums, and [spoiler alert!] also of course the executioner’s drums. You hear the execution coming all the time through that simple drumbeat. In a way it’s a foreshadowing, but it’s more to do with Mary carrying her own fate inside her, from the beginning.” A montage that cuts between a wedding, battle prep and other action, was facilitated using a “rhythm grid.” Rourke and Richter decided on the tempo before she shot the scenes, using it to inform the pulse of the action, and later the editing. “All the movement locked together on a timeline, then I built the score onto that,” Richter says. As with his studio albums, the composer produced the Mary Queen of Scots soundtrack, released through Deutsche Grammophon.

The viola ensemble that bridges the worlds of men and women is another modern touch, as is the way he uses the chorale voices “kind of like ambient clouds floating around in the landscape, with foreground music sitting in front of it. That’s very 21st century. You couldn’t do that any other way.” For his next film, Ad Astra, Richter will explore the future. Aside from confirming that director James Gray’s original script is “philosophical sci-fi”  in the mode of Solaris and 2001: A Space Odyssey, he won’t say much more. “I think I found a unique approach between visuals and image, which I probably shouldn’t talk about yet. But I’m very excited about it. Space is kind of the ultimate, because it’s a blank sheet.  You just fill it up.”