Conceptually, Max Richter's The Blue Notebooks-- German-born composer mixes contemporary classical compositions with electronic elements in a dreamscapy journalogue featuring excerpts from Kafka's The Blue Octavo Notebooks as narrated by Tilda Swinton-- reads like a relentlessly precious endeavor, as new age music for grad students, the sort of record that sagely pats you on the back for being smart enough to seek it out. And yet in practice, despite the fact that it is exactly as outlined above, Kafka quotes and all, there is absolutely nothing exclusive or contrived-feeling about it. In fact, not only is Richter's second album one of the finest of the last six months, it is also one of the most affecting and universal contemporary classical records in recent memory.
But how to describe music that relies so completely on seeming familiar? Richter may fancy himself in a class with Philip Glass, Brian Eno and Steve Reich (indeed, his hyperattenuated sense of minimalism owes to all three), but unlike his influences, he's not remotely interested in subverting the traditional rules of composition. Short of one very beautiful moment that plunges an electronic sublow bassline into a deep sea of harpsichords and violas (see: the literally perfect "Shadow Journal"), there is nothing here to suggest that Richter is concerned with anything other than melody and economy. It's a formula he singlemindedly exploits with staggering effectiveness for the balance of the album's 40+ minutes.
Constituted mainly of sparse pieces that lean on string quartets and pianos in equal measure, The Blue Notebooks is a case study in direct, minor-key melody. Each of the piano pieces "Horizon Variations", "Vladimir's Blues" and "Written in the Sky" establish strong melodic motifs in under two minutes, all the while resisting additional orchestration. Elsewhere, Richter's string suites are similarly striking; "On the Nature of Daylight" coaxes a stunning rise out of gently provincial arrangements while the comparatively epic penultimate track "The Trees" boasts an extended introductory sequence for what is probably the album's closest brush with grandiosity. Richter's slightly less traditional pieces also resound; both the underwater choral hymnal "Iconography" and the stately organ piece "Organum" echo the spiritual ambience that characterized his work for Future Sound of London.
If, however, there is one piece that fires The Blue Notebooks off into the stratosphere, it's the aforementioned "Shadow Journal". Featuring a lone viola, some burbling electronics, a harpsichord and a subterranean bassline, it establishes a simple, keening melody and then gently pulls it wide, like warm string taffy, across its eight minutes. The fourth track on the record, it is nonetheless its centerpiece, and on a larger scale, possibly a gigantic beacon for composers searching for useful ways to introduce dance music's visceral, body-jarring qualities into the classical sphere.
But make no mistake, this is not Richter's electronic/classical crossover, nor it is really his concept record. In fact, with songs that similarly forgo the temptations of complexity and choice so as to preserve their core ideas, it's perhaps better thought of as his four-track demo, his lo-fi recording jaunt. It's Max Richter testing himself to see what he can produce under restraint. Turns out it's more than he might have otherwise. (Mark Pytlik)