Scratched Into Our Souls

Max Richter – ‘Infra’ | July 21, 2010

Late night drives require a very, very specific type of music. You’ll be intently focused on the sounds that you’ll surround yourself in, and while you don’t want to be bored, you don’t want to be overly stimulated either, because that can be exhausting. The hardest part of choosing music for late night drives is finding music that evokes that singular feeling of sublimity, the feeling you get while standing atop a cliff edge overlooking the sea, the waves crashing with explosive force below you. You want your existence to kick you in the gut and hit you in the face, but you want it to feel more like a personal revelation that came from within rather than an unprovoked attack from some outside force.

That feeling perfectly describes Infra, the newest album of compositions by Max Richter. Richter’s music most comfortably can be called neo-classical in nature, but it’s equal parts ambient, electro-acoustic, and contains shades of post-rock stylings. It’s very particular and needs intent listening to be appreciated in full, as the music is subtle and seems to invite deeper thinking about the nature of art in this, the second decade of the 21st century.

This is especially interesting considering that this wholly post-modern composition is influenced by one of the most important modernist works of art from the 20th century: T.S. Eliot’s 434-line poem The Wasteland. Richter’s interpretation of the poem in musical form is full of broad strokes that reveal striking details underneath. In the way that much of Eliot’s poem focuses on choosing words for how they sound rather than simply for what they mean, Infra focuses on the timbre of sounds and what they can evoke rather than harmonic variation or melodically memorable material. One of the central features of The Wasteland is the interpretation that the poem is delivered in different voices, but there remains one central consciousness underlying everything. Like The Wasteland, Infra‘s important musical features seem to happen in different “voices,” like the piano or violin or in the sound of radio static; as a collective whole, all of these features create one musical feeling, one emotional state, one thought.

 Infra is a piece that swells, ebbing and flowing throughout, taking its time to get anywhere and yet never giving that feeling of strained movement. The melodies, chord progressions, and instrumentation feel natural. That the sounds of radio-static and other droning, slow-as-molasses noises feel natural is notable. Our post-modernist subjectivity would have us remember just where these sombre sounds are all coming from and to never forget their existence. Just listen to your computer right now – hear that slow buzzing beneath everything else? Ever notice the whirr of the engine as your driving and listening to music? All ambient noise is notable if you tune in. Those sounds are a part of Infra, and even when listening to Infra the mind’s natural response is to cancel it out and ignore them, instead focusing on the sounds that are more familiar as being “musical” in a more traditional sense.

Maybe that’s the entire point of Infra. Richter is mixing ambient noise with all the rich detail of orchestral composition. But when the sounds of the orchestra start to sound like ambient music, what’s the fundamental difference between that and white noise? Think about the title of the piece for a moment: Infra. Infra-what? It implies that the music held within is below something else, in the same vein that infra-red light is below our visible spectrum. Maybe Richter wanted to get us to think about the sounds below the music, the infra-musical noise that is powerfully evocative of day-to-day life in the 21st century. Perhaps it has something to do with the relationship to the original inspiration, The Wasteland, and finding some sort of meaning behind that text. Perhaps Richter intended for this music to be the background noise to a reading (aloud or silently) of The Wasteland

Whatever the meaning of the music of Infra, one thing is certain: this is special music that works on multiple levels, not only evoking powerful emotions through subtlety and crescendo but also asking powerful questions about the very nature of the relationship between music and sound, the very nature of art itself.

Listen: Max Richter – “Infra 2”

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    About Me: Chris Robinson

    A budding writer and avid music fan from Los Angeles, California, I am a recent graduate of Music History from UCLA's Herb Alpert School of Music. I've written for the UCLA Daily Bruin, graduated valedictorian from high school, and enjoy many different types of music, from The Beatles to Beethoven, and everything in between. I wrote my senior thesis on lyrical misinterpretations in popular music, focusing on Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA."

    Add me on last.fm: http://www.last.fm/user/crob3888

    All music posted on this blog is for sampling purposes only. If you like what you hear, support the artists. Go out and buy their music, attend their shows, and buy merchandise.

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