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“Classical music is really a museum culture”

INTERVIEW: Max Richter. The Berlin-based Brit composer remixed Vivaldi's The Four Seasons to create the newest edition of Deutsche Grammaphon's Recomposed series: Vivaldi: Recomposed. Berghain Sept 4

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Photo by Erik Weiss

Tackling one of the most recognizable works in the classical canon, Berlin-based British composer Max Richter remixed the score for Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons to create the newest edition of Deutsche Grammaphon’s Recomposed series: Vivaldi: Recomposed. The release party and live concert in Berghain also serves as the September edition of Yellow Lounge, a roughly monthly event in which classical music takes over Berlin’s temples to techno. Known for his award-winning soundtrack for the film Waltz with Bashir, Richter also collaborates with choreographers and has made inroads into the world of opera, making him one experimental composer to watch out for in the decades to come.

What was it like to take such a classic and start mixing it up?

Well, I took the track and started mashing it up, and thought, this is stupid. I felt like I was in a sweetie shop, but not allowed to reach out and grasp anything. I had to actually re-write it, and re-record that, sort of Vivaldi 2.0. I take my favorite bits and turn them up and recontextualise them a bit. That was the process, grabbing those things that I like in the material and making a new thing out of them.

How much is left of the original?

I probably threw away three quarters of the original. It’s recognisably Vivaldi, but it keeps going other places. It’s almost like collaboration, where he agreed with everything I did (laughs). I was trying to navigate where I was between me and him at any given point. Some movements have almost no Vivaldi left, only a little shape, and some of them are mostly him, but mashed up a little bit or interfered with, sort of like it has trap doors in it.

When did you know you wanted to be a musician?

I always had music going in my head, only later I realised this wasn’t normal. That was the first step, then there was sort of two heaven’s opening moments. First: we had a milkman, who was an experimental music freak, and he heard me practising Mozart or something, and in the morning he would drop off the milk and the latest La Monte Young album. He got all these import albums from the states, like Philip Glass and all this really kind of freaky stuff; you couldn’t get it easily because there was no internet. Then I started making electronic music when I was 13 and I heard the famous filter bassline of Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn”. It just blew my mind on such a deep level, I thought, I GOT to have this, and I couldn’t sleep. But then I found out that systhesizers cost as much as a house, so the only way at the time to sort of do it, was to get a bag of the components and just build one. So that’s what I did, I got busy.

What have you noticed about Berlin in the four years since you’ve been based here?

There seems to be a lot of different Berlins, people live in their little bubbles, which is kinda nice: you get to invent your own universe. But it is a bit surprising sometimes, when you bounce into someone else’s universe, which you had forgotten existed. I like it a lot, like all cities it’s got its problems and challenges, but there’s a big upside for people who do creative stuff here at the moment, it’s kind of unique.

Has any particular Berlin performance stuck in your mind?

Well, this afternoon at my kids’ little kindergarten event when they performed a dance, I thought it would be “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” and then they put on the stereo and this really hard housebeat came out of the speakers and I thought “Oh yes, I’d forgotten where we were.”

Tell us about the process behind the ringtone composition 24 Postcards in Full Color.

I wanted to reclaim that medium, I just think it’s such a waste to have a terrible ringtone to go off on your phone. I thought that was an opportunity for storytelling or content, this place where music could live, so I thought why don’t I just compose some material for this new space, and I thought it should be as musically good as I can make it and take it as seriously as any other project. That was the sound idea really.  And the other idea is sort of imaginary locations idea, like they’re from places, most of them are non-existing places, but some are, they are all sort of mythological. I like the idea that it’s sort of a message from somewhere. It opens up a story in my head somehow.

Do you think classical music will ever fade away?

Classical music is really a museum culture. Going to the philharmonic is like going to a classy museum where they preserve certain things, and I have no problem with that: as much as I like Warhol, I also like Turner. There is another way of thinking about music, that’s outside of history and lineage, and that’s through sound, which is obviously where dance and electronic music is coming from – it’s not built on tradition. This project and recomposing probably sits a little bit in the middle of those things, it’s like a conversation with a tradition. This record is a conversation with Vivaldi. All musicians are music fans, and it’s like talking with this amazing guy, having a little chat across time.

What do you think Vivaldi would do if he was to recompose your work?

My stuff only has like one percent of the notes, so he would probably add a lot of stuff, and turn it all up, because he’s about maximum intensity. I’m sort of about maximum intensity as well, but through a different route.

Max Richter at Yellow Lounge, Sep 4, 21:00 | Berghain, Wriezener Karree, Friedrichshain, S-Bhf Ostbahnhof