The last time Max Richter was featured at A Closer Listen, he was awarded the Album of the Year. This produced enormous expectations for the follow-up, yet to no one’s surprise he’s come through again. Of course, once one has recorded an 8 1/2 hour album (Sleep), a single disc must seem a much easier challenge.
As far back as The Blue Notebooks (2004), Richter has been known to place snippets of dialogue in his music. This may be part of what drew him to film work, or vice versa. Three Worlds: Music from Woolf Works is yet another extension of his career, the highlights of a score to a Royal Ballet production that one can still catch at London’s Royal Opera House through Valentine’s Day. One hopes the full score will become available soon as well, because even Richter’s incidental music is worth hearing. Like the ballet, the album has a three-point structure, based on Virginia Woolf’s novels Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves; but it works better without apparent division, as a reflection of Woolf’s life from metaphorical birth (the chimes of Big Ben) to her wrenching suicide note. Ironically, the texture of the album echoes that of Matana Roberts’ COIN COIN Chapter Three: river run thee, the album that Richter narrowly beat in 2015 to take the top prize. The tracks blend together in suites, and touch upon sonic collage. Field recordings are integrated, along with Woolf’s own voice, telling her story through juxtaposition and sonic suggestion.
The mood ranges from gorgeously lush (“In the Garden”) to somber (“War anthem”) to devastatingly aching (“Tuesday”). Once the album has been played, that final extended track looms over the entire enterprise like a cloud whose rain has already begun to fall, but has not yet hit the earth. For those unfamiliar with her story, Woolf penned a final, crushing note to her beloved husband, then drowned herself by walking into a river, weighed down by a large stone in her coat. As Gillian Anderson reads the note, one can’t help but protest, “No!”, to somehow stop, or even pause, what has already occurred. And yet, and yet, and yet …
Richter’s victory is to provide a soundtrack to Woolf’s life, and even deeper, her heart. Her moments of joy are fleeting, but identifiable. Her moments of depression contain their own apologetic beauty. Even her suicide note was examined as a work of art, by Woolf’s own words a paltry piece of writing. The music struggles with thoughts of grace given to sorrow, as the act so painful to others has been remembered with forgiveness. “Memory is the seamstress, and a capricious one at that.”
If the Mrs. Dalloway suite is the overture and The Waves the culmination, the playful Orlando makes the weight of emotion bearable. Straddling the center of the album, these shorter pieces speak to possibilities and imaginations. Electronics come into play in note and shadowed drone. One is grateful for the respite, even during the suite’s stormier passages. “Transformation” is as regal as Michael Nyman’s score for Prospero’s Books, while a church organ lends “Morphology” a spiritual aspect and sudden strings make “The tyranny of symmetry” seem like an attack. Moods tumble quickly in these pieces, which are often less than two minutes apiece. While intended to reflect the tumultuous novel, they also recall Woolf’s manic depressive life, so many moods battling for prominence until the end, when there only one remained.
It takes a strong disposition to make it through the album, especially given the length of the final piece. After Woolf repeats an earlier thought, she discards her words, as if disgusted with the failings of her prose. In her wake, a long, slow, intricate build, the author weighed down as the orchestra continues to rise. But no protest ~ no string, no bell ~ is strong enough to stave her fate. In the end, there is only the lapping of waves, the sodden words bleeding their ink on the shore. (Richard Allen)