Max Richter’s Soundtrack to Dystopia
The British composer describes how he creates scores for film and television projects like The Leftovers, Black Mirror, and Morgan.
Music, Alfred Hitchcock once said, “makes it possible to express the unspoken” in film—to hint at underlying turmoil or approaching darkness. No contemporary composer expresses the same complexity of emotion onscreen as Max Richter, whose work pervades modern culture, from film to television to dance to theater. On The Leftovers, the HBO show about the sudden and incomprehensible disappearance of 2 percent of the world’s population, it’s Richter’s theme that expresses the world’s subsequent state of nihilism and despair. “On the Nature of Daylight,” a composition from his 2004 album The Blue Notebooks, pops up in countless scenes and soundtracks, notably in a pivotal moment in Denis Villeneuve’s upcoming sci-fi film Arrival. Richter also wrote the score for the 2016 film Morgan, a sci-fi horror film about a human hybrid gone wrong.
His newest work accompanies the first episode of the new season of Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker’s speculative series about a world transformed by technology. In “Nosedive,” directed by Joe Wright (Atonement) and starring Bryce Dallas Howard (Jurassic World), a woman lives in a reality where every interaction, no matter how tiny, is rated, and people gain status in society based on their scores as human beings. Throughout the episode, the score creates a sense of gorgeous disconnect: a signal for viewers that beneath the sunny perfection of the world of “Nosedive” is something deeply troubling.
Although Richter’s work rewards focused attention, his most recent album was intended for subconscious rather than conscious listening. 2015’s Sleep is an eight-hour record created with the help of a neuroscientist to accompany a full night of rest—a comment both on the scattered nature of modern attention spans and the power of slow art. Some of his upcoming projects include the Jessica Chastain movie Miss Sloane, season three of The Leftovers, a show called Taboo for the BBC starring Tom Hardy, and a new ballet for the Netherlands Dance Theater. He spoke with me by phone; the interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Sophie Gilbert: What was the process of creating the score for “Nosedive,” and what appealed to you about the project?
Max Richter: First, Joe [Wright] and I talked about the general themes of the script. He and I had been wanting to work together for a time and this opportunity came along. Black Mirror obviously has its own universe, with a very strong fingerprint and strong themes, and I was intrigued on reading. It’s such a powerful piece of storytelling. And it’s very, well, we can say prescient, but prescient only in terms of five minutes from now. It’s almost like a documentary. But a very important piece of filmmaking in a way, because these things touch on all of our lives very directly.
SG: The score contributes so much to the mood of that specific episode. It could be so much darker, but there’s something almost hopeful about it because the music is so lovely. Was that intentional?
MR: Yes. When I saw the material, what struck me about it really was that this is a scenario of utter devastation, from a psychological point of view. And yet it has a sort of shiny, wonderful quality because of course the effect of this rating system in the episode basically causes everyone to behave in a wonderful, smiley, happy way the whole time. There’s a kind of tyranny of fake joy, and I thought it would be nice to try and score that dimension of it, so it has a warmth and a fairytale quality throughout. That’s what you’re seeing, and in a way, by turning that up, you get a sense of the darkness underneath it.
SG: What’s your thought process when you’re composing something like this? Are you thinking about setting the mood, or are you trying to accomplish something else?
MR: When I’m working with pictures, with images and storytelling, it’s really about the sentiment and the emotional trajectory of the characters. That’s really where the music lives, I think. That’s what I’m focused on, that’s what I respond to most strongly. And it is an instinctual process, writing a film score; it’s a sort of hybrid thing where you have a lot of planning, a lot of ideas, a lot of conceptualizing, and then also happy accidents, and you never quite know how these things are going to fit together. An example from “Nosedive” is that we had this idea to make the reward sounds from the phones [in the episode] part of the score, so I spent some time composing these little ringtone things that could become part of the actual score itself. That’s the kind of thing that can go terribly wrong sometimes, but actually in this case, because of the way that these sounds drive the narrative, it worked really well. These sorts of dynamics happen a lot in a storytelling structure like this. There are lots of different things that feed into the process.
SG: Between “Nosedive” and your work on The Leftovers, there seems to be a recent trend in your work of thinking about these grim alternate realities. Do you ever think explicitly about the sound of dystopia, or how you might conjure it?
MR: For me, the big thing really is the theme. And the psychological dynamics of the thing. This Black Mirror episode, like they all are, is a possible future. When I was a kid, there were really only two possible futures in the foreground, which were Orwell’s 1984 and Huxley’s Brave New World. Orwell obviously is about social control via brutality and physical oppression and deprivation and force in a very blunt way. That’s how power exerts itself and controls in Orwell's world. Huxley’s world is about seduction and pleasure; it’s about social control via reward and pleasure. When I was a kid, the consensus was that the future was going to be Orwell’s vision somehow: There’s a sort of Cold War quality about it. But now, in a world of unrestricted corporate power, it feels like Huxley was maybe the more clear-sighted of the two. You know [“Nosedive”] is very much Huxley’s world: It’s about this character getting tiny rewards continuously. She’s like a hamster in the wheel of this reward cycle. That for me was the overarching idea of the material.
SG: It’s interesting, because even Sleep in a way feels like a project for a dystopian reality. But it’s also the reality we live in, where people don’t get enough rest and are constantly distracted and fragmented.
MR: Sleep is a project I’ve been thinking about for many years. It just seems like society has been moving more and more in a direction where we needed it. Our psychological space is being increasingly populated by data. And we expend an enormous amount of energy curating data. That’s kind of a significant psychological load, and Sleep is an opportunity or a suggestion that we take a holiday from that and reflect on what’s actually going on. If you’re a busy person living in the West, it’s easy to end up in a data hamster wheel. The idea of Sleep is that it’s an antidote.
SG: What are the different challenges in creating something for a film or TV score versus creating something like Sleep?
MR: They’re completely different. I mean, concert music, ballet, and opera, and making records is most of my life. I do a lot of film and television work too but they really are very, very different things. With a record or a piece of concert music, that’s the whole game right there, that’s the entirety of the story being told, and you want to have that conversation with the audience and the listener directly and purely in sound terms. With a cinema project or other collaboration, the music is one strand in a hybrid world, and sometimes you want to hear it, but mostly you want to experience it in conjunction with the images and story. I was thinking about this the other day: It’s almost as if you need another word for it. People talk about “film music,” but it’s almost a different category, the music that sticks to images and makes those images catch fire and glow.
SG: Is there a particular kind of film and TV project you’re interested in? Many of them have emotional complexity in common, and a kind of darkness, too.
MR: I suppose I’m interested in things that have a strong social-political-psychological dimension. Going all the way back to Waltz With Bashir, or looking ahead to Miss Sloane, these are all political films, political storytelling, but with a strong personal and psychological dimension. And Black Mirror is one of them.
SG: Can you talk a little bit about how you conceive technology playing a role in your own work, and how you incorporate it into your work?
MR: For me it’s horses for courses, really. If I’m working on a piano piece or a string quartet for an orchestra or an electronic piece or a record, I’ll use the appropriate tools. My work starts in classical music, my background is as a conservatoire, university-trained classical composer. But over the years I’ve evolved a lot of different working methods. There’s no point, for example, trying to notate on a piece of paper what a modular synthesizer is going to do; there’s just no way to write it down. That’s something where you invent and try things out, and then re-listen and see if you like them. Synthesizers, computers, they all have their own natural language, their natural way to make sounds.
SG: I read an interview with you from a year or so ago where you said you don’t do “traditional” TV music. Can you explain a little bit what you meant by that?
MR: What I feel about this is also something I feel about music generally—you might call it the “Why Music?” question. There’s an awful lot of music spread very thinly throughout a lot of TV and you often feel that it isn’t really doing an awful lot, so why is it there? I feel really that if the music is there, it should be doing something. If the music is there then it should be bringing something to the situation, to the images, to the story—something that only music can do.