The Anniversary

The Blue Notebooks Turns 20


“Every respectable artist in this country was against the war. It was like a laser beam. We were all aimed in the same direction. The power of this weapon turns out to be that of a custard pie dropped from a stepladder six feet high.”

And it happened again, as comedy. Kurt Vonnegut’s generation felt an impudent rage against the Vietnam War, and the “Rock Against Bush” decades later netted us American Idiot. The war machine never changes. But the reaction to the start of indefinite Middle Eastern Wars courtesy of the world’s punch-drunk neighbor created something different abroad. People around the world saw themselves, their neighbors, their friends dragged into a conflict that had nothing to do with them by allegedly liberal governments too eager to gladhand the United States’ lust for war. Max Richter protested but did not riot. Instead, he sunk into the sorrow of the inevitable.

Richter, the German born, UK-raised polymath, was classically trained but smitten with electronic music. Before the turn of the century, he was embedded in a fluid and evolving chamber-classical scene. His early work with the six-piece ensemble Piano Circus was deeply influenced by minimalist composers like Philip Glass, but his love of pop and electronic was just as strong. He adored Aphex Twin and worked closely with IDM duo the Future Sound Of London, producing two of their albums. Richter was one of the first of a burgeoning wave of composers who saw Brian Eno as equal to Debussy or Satie. That fusion, which would eventually produce Nils Frahm, Ólafur Arnalds, and Elori Saxl, started, in some ways, in the shadow of 9/11 and the resulting wars. If William Basinski’s Disintegration Loops marked the beginning of an era, musically and geopolitically, Richter’s The Blue Notebooks prophesized its uncertain future.

Released 20 years ago today, The Blue Notebooks’ most overtly political moments also eschew genre. “Shadow Journal,” featuring Tilda Swinton reading from Polish writer and diplomat Czesław Miłosz, is underpinned by fragments of violin, brief flashes of light over an eerie and undulating piano that eventually is paired with a subwoofer threatening tom. It sounds right out of Aphex Twin’s Drukqs playbook, pairing sterling beauty from analog instruments with digital sickness. “The bygone lives are like my own past life. Uncertain I cast a spell on the city, asking it to last,” whispers Swinton, Miłosz and Richter’s disquiet clear. “Shadow Journal” was recorded after the February 15, 2003, anti-war protests, Miłosz’s desperation mirroring Richter’s own. Despite protestors taking to the streets across the world, nothing changed. Condoleezza Rice scoffed at the activists, saying they would “not affect determination to confront Saddam Hussein and help the Iraqi people,” an Orwellian statement if there ever was one. In the streets Richter saw thousands praying for peace, only for peace itself to be mocked, their cries to fall like that custard pie.

In addition to Miłosz’s work, Richter drew heavily, and partially copied the title, from Kafka’s The Blue Octavo Notebooks. Kafka’s The Trial likely weighed heavily on Richter’s mind: the story of a man thrown into court for reasons he is never told as the logic of his world seems to warp into a cruel façade of what he once knew. That certainly ran parallel to Richter’s reflections on the Iraq War. But The Blue Octavo Notebooks were more meditative pieces, private entries dug up long after Kafka was gone. The autumnal open of “Arboretum” with Kafka musing about a never-ending flow of dead leaves covering his street, unfolds into an icy, surreal electronic piece, clacking percussion suggesting a theme for a Bond film, a violin floating through the murk, never landing in a tonal center and creating a feeling of weightless unease. On “Old Song” Swinton simply reads “February the 10th, Noise. Peace,” perhaps noting Richter’s hope before the protests and the curdling of potential afterwards as the song meanders about into a sour piano riff.

The aching churn of “The Trees” works on metaphor and physical reality. Kafka was told his childhood neighborhood had been demolished. He visited it in his dreams that night and witness the trees climbing higher than ever as they escaped their fate—only while he slumbered. In his text, there is an undercurrent of anchoring sorrow, the fact that a once beautify place full of potential is only accessible in the imagination and would be lost completely once Kafka and others who grew up there passed. Later in his career, Richter recomposed Vivaldi’s The Seasons, and the tumbling outro of “The Trees” recalls the rushing desolation of “Winter.” Both “The Trees” and “Winter” watch the natural world to better understand the inevitability of pain and death, searching for meaning in the growing frost and the stumps of dead trees.

On a surface level, it’s easy enough to see The Blue Notebooks as an exploration of the tenuousness of life. But what Richter dives into even more is the loss of potential: of potential love, peace, nature and calm. “The Trees” is the most direct statement of this intent, but “Organum,” without a single word, sounds like Richter walking into a church during a wake. The sterling beauty of “A Catalogue of Afternoons” floats like a less reverb drenched version of Basinski’s excellent Cascades, both concerning themselves with the persistence of memory and how memories become blotted by present anxieties and uneasy futures.

The centerpiece, and the song that best expands on Richter’s thesis, is “On The Nature Of Daylight,” which might be the most famous piece of classical music this century. Strip away the associations with Richter’s later scoring work on The Leftovers or its place in the soundtrack of Arrival and you find a symmetrical, near palindromic work, rising to a heart-shattering climax of strings that ebbs to a low, mewling resolution. The title reveals the trick: The nature of daylight is that it is a beautiful, radiant thing that is destined to fade. “A Catalogue Of Afternoons” returns to that same idea, and “Written On The Sky” reuses the “On The Nature Of Daylight” motif, but it sounds ragged, played faster and with even more sorrow tempering the edges.

Of course, the sun will rise again after a desolate night, and Richter briefly visits the dawn on “Horizon Variations,” the title suggesting a thousand different sunrises, all of them basking in warmth and tranquility. But first, we must withstand a long, cold darkness. The Blue Notebooks is uncertain, melancholy, aching for peace. And its genius was in avoiding a rallying cry all together. Instead, it was a balm in recognizing the futility around us.

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