Somewhere in the mesmerizing string arrangements, the breathless ballads played without words being sung and Max Richter‘s tragic, history-based reasonings for each song, it’s easy for NPR Tiny Desk Concert viewers to get lost in the office space around them and be transported to an emotional space Richter delivers them to in a new performance released Wednesday (Jan. 22).
The composer was joined by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble to perform three of his masterpieces — “On the Nature of Daylight” and “Vladmir’s Blues” from The Blue Notebooks and “Infra 5” from Infra — stretched across a 17-minute symphony.
“Halfway through this performance of Max Richter’s achingly beautiful On the Nature of Daylight, I looked around the NPR Music office and saw trembling chins and tearful eyes,” NPR writer Tom Huizenga noted. “Rarely have I seen so many Tiny Desk audience members moved in this way. There’s something about Max Richter’s music that triggers deep emotions.”
Nothing about his music is lighthearted. Buried deep within the sweeping, soaring strokes of the violin in “On the Nature of Daylight” or the mourning movement of the cello during “Infra 5” are universal stories of grief.
“The Blue Notebooks is kind of an old-fashioned protest record in a way,” Richter explained of the album containing the first two songs in his performance. “I wrote it in 2003 in the lead-up to the Iraq War, where I had a sense that politics was sort of fusing with fiction. And I wanted to make a piece of music which allowed me to kind of think about that situation and kind of explore it from a musical standpoint. I’m very interested in the idea of a piece of music being a place to think.”
“Infra 5” originated from Infra, a ballet for The Royal Ballet in London that’s about the 7/7 bombings in 2005. “So again, it’s a piece of music is a place to think, thinking about the events of that time,” Richter told the audience. “Infra is a piece of traveling music because the attacks happened underground while people were commuting to work. So I wanted to make a piece of music with a sort of traveling DNA.”
But the soft-pedaled playing of the piano for the second song “Vladmir’s Blues” (that’s so tiny its length fits perfectly with the name of the desk) seems to bring a glimmer of hope into his miniature symphony. The titular character, Vladmir, is based on the Russian-born American novelist Vladmir Nabokov who had a growing obsession with a family of gossamer-winged butterflies called the blues.
Watch Richter’s tear-jerking Tiny Desk Concert below.