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Max Richter
Songs From Before Euan Andrews , June 6th, 2016 08:53

Although its original place in Max Richter's discography came in 2006, early into his post-Piano Circus career as astutely positioned modern classical composer, this new reissue of Songs From Before works nicely as a follow-up and coda to last year's monumental Sleep. Whereas the latter soundtracked, across eight and a half strangely fleeting hours, the healing properties held within the perfect night of slumber, Songs From Before feels like waking into a slightly bruised and hungover dawn. Twelve brief musical vignettes (plus one extra piece for this reissue, ‘Leo’, which works more as delicately phrased epilogue than essential addition to the record) which feel akin to those moments of rousing oneself from many hours adrift and elsewhere. Those unsettling seconds where you're not quite sure where or who you are, before the dreams you seemed to be in just minutes earlier have worn off and you're wondering which life you're going to emerge into.

As well as Sleep, the past few years have seen Richter consolidating his reputation by revisiting his back catalogue through performances of his Vivaldi: Recomposed project and his first solo album, 2002's Memoryhouse. That was a record which viewed then recent events which had convulsed Europe through a personal prism, alongside shards of splintered narratives and identities. It was Tarkovsky for the ears, an evocation of shared memories and worried recollections weaved together into a seamless aural tapestry. Songs From Before shares this impression of pensive nostalgia washing over the listener but on a far more intimate level.

Shortly before this record's original release, Richter produced Vashti Bunyan's “comeback” album, 2005's Lookaftering, successfully bringing her perfectly formed but gossamer thin and fragile song fragments into living, breathing form for the first time in 35 years. One wonders if this work with Bunyan had some effect on the finished version of Songs From Before, as twelve pieces, songs in all but their lack of singing voice, flit by in 37 minutes — one drifting into the next to create an ambient song cycle. Although no-one sings, there is the singular voice of Robert Wyatt, drifting in and out of shortwave static, reading texts by Haruki Murakami. Wyatt sounds lost and far-away, yet matter-of-fact and resigned to his solitude. He could be muttering to himself or in the vaguest hope that someone out there might be listening, talking into dead air of rain falling upon a sea with nobody there to see it.

The overwhelming sense of Songs From Before is of living in some kind of regretful aftermath following a deep trauma, of wandering grey city streets at dawn and watching as they slowly fill with people. Of seeing the blue slowly creep across the sky, hoping that it might eventually fill it. It would be too easy to label Richter's music here as “ambient” yet it does share that sense of creating a realistic environment in which to dwell for the duration. But it's the emotion seeping through Richter's melancholic keyboard work twining with string-trio arrangements, electronics flickering as background texture, which makes this such an essential early work of his. Perhaps it can be heard in 2016 as Music For Waking Up, the long sleep is over and there are these brief moments of could-have-beens and why-didn't-theys in which we might wish to remain before everything solidifies and turns to grey mundanity.