Guest Column – Radiohead? Sigur Ros? Why it's Spring-time for ballet music by Max Richter

Guest Column – Radiohead? Sigur Ros? Why it's Spring-time for ballet music by Max Richter

maxRICHTERContemporary composer and film scorer Max Richter has written the music for new ballet, Wayne McGregor's Woolf Works which opens at the Royal Opera House in London on Monday (11 May). In a guest column for Q he explains the attraction of writing music for dance for composers and bands a like.

I wasn’t born into a musical family. My father was an engineer, my mother, when I was young, ran an alternative health food store and worked with children with special needs. But she did play piano, and she has a beautiful musical sensibility – so she would often take me to musical and cultural events. Home life was difficult and it was my refuge. It was on one of these trips that I first consciously encountered Classical music – a ballet score – Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring, in Walt Disney’s Fantasia.

When we are kids sometimes we get lucky and the right thing happens at the right time. I can’t really explain what happened to me that day, but I can still remember it vividly decades later – the sonic onslaught of that music seemed to rearrange the molecules in my brain somehow – I remember leaving the cinema with my mother and being surprised that the ordinary world still existed… and then spent the next hour or two waiting for the next show, so I could see it again straight away.

Looking at Fantasia now, it is, you know, dinosaurs… but this version is still part of my musical hinterland. I think that’s actually one of the tests of really great music, that it allows lots of different interpretations without being destroyed - for The Rite Of Spring, Diaghilev, Pina Bausch or a brontosaurus all works fine.

I’ve been drawn to ballet music ever since. The thing about it is – ever since Tchaikovsky first elevated the ballet music beyond simply being musical noodlings to provide an agreeable accompaniment for dancers – the relationship between choreographers and composers has become such a dynamic and fertile meeting place, that it’s given rise to some of most challenging musical works of the modern era.

There’s the original version of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring of 1913, written for Diaghilev and the Ballet Russes, which caused a riot at its premiere, provoked as much by the brutality of the music as by the unprecedented movement vocabulary of the dance. From here ballet music splintered into many directions from Prokofiev to Ravel and Copland – but at its core it has remained a space for innovative thinking - take for instance John Cage’s collaborative experiments with Merce Cunningham and Philip Glass’ works with Lucinda Childs. Some of my favourites:

George Antheil and Fernand Leger’s 1923 Ballet Mechanique. This is one spectacular and fun piece - a kind of sonic futurist manifesto, scored for multiple pianos, percussion, sirens, and airplane propellors, all of it in love with that 20s vision of the glowing future where machines will fix everything. Well, while we wait for that to happen, we can just enjoy Antheil’s proto-techno…

Aaron Copland’s 1944 Appalachian Spring is another ballet that I just love. Looking at the original Martha Graham ballet it’s amazing how the music and movement fit together to tell the story. This is a deceptively simple piece - Copland was an incredibly smart composer and makes everything seem simple here, while actually there is some very sophisticated stuff going on under the hood. Not to mention that fact that he basically invented this whole American Pastoral language out of thin air. As you do.

I’m going to include Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s 1976 Einstein On The Beach in this list. Even though it’s not a ballet, it does have a lot of amazing movement material in it, made by Lucinda Childs. The milkman at our place when I was 12 dropped the vinyl of this off one morning with the milk (really!) since he knew I was into the piano, had heard me practicing incessantly, and thought I ought to hear something written after 1790. MIND BLOWN!

Ba Ba Ti Ki Di Do made for Merce Cunningham’s Split Sides by Sigur Ros and Radiohead (one side each) is a beautiful and, as always with Cunningham, thought provoking work. Wonderful tiny icelandic hobbit music vibes from Sigur Ros. The Radiohead side remains mysteriously unreleased…

When Wayne McGregor first asked me to write the music for INFRA (our first ballet together) I was really excited. I am always musically restless and searching for new challenges, and I love that experimental space that dance affords. And I love contemporary dance in particular - Rosas, Pina Bausch, Akram Khan, Wim Wandekeybus, Shobana Jeyasingh… there is some really visionary work being done by these folks, and the prospect of working with someone like Wayne really intrigued me. Wayne’s work is so thoughtful and intelligent that ever since then I’ve become addicted.

For someone like me, whose world is largely about text and storytelling, working in dance is like going on holiday – there are stories being told, but its in a language that I’m not familiar with, so I experience this situation a bit like when I'm in Tokyo - I’m bombarded by the cacophony of texts all over the environment, but since I can’t read it, it seems like beautiful patterns making up a mysterious text landscape.

And Wayne’s a great collaborator – he likes to experiment as much as I do, so that’s ideal and we both have free reign in our field. Even better. Our current project is another ballet, Woolf Works, based on the life and works of Virginia Woolf for The Royal Ballet. It’s an evening-length piece, and getting it finished has been like climbing a huge mountain – we have been working on it for months and months – Virginia Woolf’s writing has always been a cornerstone for me. Musically I’ve gone for a giant multi-sensory collage of disparate elements – fusing languages, media, technologies, movement, and symphonic music. Can’t wait now for the thing to go on. Max Richter @maxrichtermusic

For more head to Maxrichtermusic.com.