A few years ago, Max Richter occupied an enviable crossroads. His background as a collaborator with the Future Sound of London brought pop cachet and a sense of accessibility to his compositional work. The label he calls home maintains footholds in both the pop and experimental worlds. And The Blue Notebooks and Songs From Before, Richter’s second and third solo albums, were explorations of the album as form, mingling music with texts spoken by the likes of Robert Wyatt and Tilda Swinton.
24 Postcards in Full Color (2008) made for a jarring change of pace — two dozen pieces, none longer than two and a half minutes, inspired by ringtones. While the change in direction was understandable, it felt a bit like Jonathan Lethem’s brief move towards lighter work post-The Fortress of Solitude: rewarding to see an artist experimenting, yet craving the weightier work from them of which they’re clearly capable.
Infra, an expansion of a score originally written for the Royal Ballet, is a return to Richter working in the long form. It’s also a warmly resonant piece — perhaps Richter’s fullest exploration of textures to date. Here, Richter alternates melodic sections with bursts of static; the track listing is divided between eight numbered “Infra” tracks and five numbered “Journey” ones. In Richter’s counterbalancing of florid emotion with winnowing sections of white noise, he at times recalls fellow indie-classical Jóhann Jóhannson — specifically, Jóhannsson’s IBM 1401: A User’s Manual — though Richter’s aims are less about technological progression and more related to an evocation of conflict, setting up themes and creating friction in how they are deployed.
While “Infra 1” features the alternating melodic and atonal sections, “Journey 1” is more stark, with piano predominating. These two modes characterize the album, as motifs are traded off throughout. This can be exceptionally rewarding, as on the blissed-out white noise explosions that open “Journey 3.” The album’s structure initially balances “Journey” and “Infra” pieces, before segueing into a trio of “Journies” and ending with a quartet of “Infras.” The “Journey” trio allows for a greater coexistence between Infra‘s pastoral elements and their noisier counterparts, whereas the final “Infra” quartet initially seems straightforward, a minimally complex coda to a more conflicted work.
By the time “Infra 5” comes up, however, the push-pull between elements has returned, with an embedded grain of sorrow. A sweeping melody played by strings is suddenly interrupted by bursts of static and voices, their words rendered inaudible. It’s the sound of a struggle, and the tension that emerges heightens even as the strings’ melody becomes more and more beguiling; then everything ceases, paving the way for a shift in instrumentation as the next section begins.
By the end, it’s clear that the static won’t return — and even as the final sections display a haunting beauty, a sense of loss emerges from the peace. It’s a haunting peace that ends a beautifully disquieting sequence. And, for Richter, it’s both a return to form and an impressive expansion of what has come before.