Max King Of Scores: Richter Discusses New Soundtrack

With the imminent release of Mary Queen of Scots, Charlie Brigden talks to the film's composer Max Richter about politics, emotion, and the mainstream

Max Richter is one of the most important voices of modern music, both in his work in the classical idiom as well as film scoring. His music has been heard in everything from Waltz With Bashir to Arrival, and he’s been busy as anything this year, with his latest film – historical drama Mary Queen of Scots – just hitting cinemas in America.

We spoke to Richter about the research involved in scoring period films, his thoughts on the gender imbalance in film music, and the importance of creativity in times of political unrest.

In terms of your career, was film music kind of a natural progression from your classical work?

MR: Yeah, I mean composing really is, it’s not something which we put in separate categories. I mean, I feel like there’s different ways to sort of fit music into culture and society more broadly and whether that’s you know, making a record or writing a ballet or school or an opera or playing a gig. I mean, these are all musical activities. I enjoy the collaborative aspect of film scoring. I like the sort of puzzle solving aspect of it and I see that, I see it sort of moving kind of in parallel really with all the other things I’m doing.

Did you ever encounter any kind of resistance from anyone in terms of where film music benefits in the hierarchy compared to classical?

MR: I think that has been historically, there’s been a lot of prejudice. Not only between you know, between film music and classical music, but just within kind of art and music generally. There is a sort of weird instinct for people to be put in boxes and work to be put in boxes. But I think that sort of comes, that’s like a historical hangover really, and it maybe is driven by the marketing departments their needs rather than the needs of listeners because I don’t really think that when someone encounters a new collection of sounds, they don’t go, they don’t think to themselves, you know, "is this x?" They just encounter those sounds and the only thing that matters is that if they do something to you, if you’re moved or if you’re intrigued, that’s all. And I think everything else is just the kind of baggage which we just don’t need.

What were the initial conversations with Josie Roarke about Mary Queen of Scots?

MR: The starting point really was the script. When I read I thought it was just fantastic, and the starting point I guess from a musical standpoint was, how do we really characterize the two queens in this story in a way which does them justice? Because the way the story is told, of course it’s a story we all know, you know Mary, they have a fight and she gets her head cut off, that’s kind of it.

But Josie’s approach to the whole drama is more to do with the fact that, these two women, because of their historical position, they were adversaries. Accidents of birth sort of made them adversaries really even though they were cousins. The biggest predominant thing in their lives was the fact that they had a tremendous shared experience, a unique shared experience, which really they were the only people who could understand one another, because they were both women surrounded or kind of marooned in this kind of sea of men. Male political agendas and they were sort of almost passengers in that, and their various attempts to try and kind of navigate that situation.

So I wanted to put the women’s voices right in the centre of the thing, so I mean the first and last things you hear in the film are these sort of wordless female voices, and I made a kind of ambient sort of cloud after those and that that populates a lot of the material is a kind of a background colour. And then we thought about, what’s the story about? The story is about tragedy in the true sense that Mary’s fate is carried inside her all the time. So I got thinking about how drums can be used in that way. There’s the idea of the funeral drum, and war drums, because there’s the marching idea, then there’s a wedding so the drum’s used for dancing. But it’s also a kind of war-like, it’s like a very- you know, it’s not a happy occasion [laughs] and the drums mark the inexorable passing of time, so you get all of that.

And then there is the orchestral music, which is actually one theme which the two queens kind of share, they don’t get a theme each. Mary has her own voice in that but you get the sort of overall theme of the two queens set against this world of men and the men have much heavier orchestral music, which is kind of like a droney sort of orchestral death metal [laughs]. So those are the kind of polarities we talked about and just – a lot of the musical questions were like how to connect the great renaissance and Elizabethan practice and make it also join up with a kind of modern grammar. So I did a lot of thinking about how to incorporate that sort of musical thinking into something which had a kind of modernity in it.

Did you try and inject traditional Scottish and English elements into the score as well?

MR: Yes, well we didn’t put any bagpipes in! I just didn’t want to do that. What I do have in the music is that I have two harps, so I have the kind of modern orchestral harp we now know, which is that amazing big golden thing, and that’s Elizabeth’s harp. And then you have this other harp which is the Clàrsach, the Celtic harp. It’s the smaller, more folksy harp that we use now, which is Mary’s harp. So there’s the kind of duelling harps going on throughout it as well. And they talk to each other in a couple of scenes, those harps. There’s lots of that sort of thing where you get a kind of – like the English Crown was incredibly grand, and in the film is portrayed that way, and the Scottish Crown is rougher, darker, smaller. So there’s quite a lot of that sort of grammar going on in the meter.

I didn’t know if it was me taking on stereotypes but the percussion throughout the score felt quite Scottish.

MR: Those are kind of old drums, it’s not that they’re Scottish particularly but they are renaissance-type drums. So they’re animal skin, and they don’t sound modern and they’re the kind of drums like little field drums that they would have used to propel armies and keep people marching in time. And the image of the funeral drum I think is very strong in our culture, the executioner’s drum. The whole score is full of drums basically.

Did you handle the diegetic music as well?

MR: I collaborated with a guy called William Lyons who is a renaissance music performer and curator, and we talked about which sorts of period music we would want to include. And I was very keen to include a Thomas Tallis tune, ‘If Ye Love Me’, which we hear sung as Elizabeth is arriving into her court, and then we used various bits of music from the continent, which Mary’s court musician [David] Rizzio – who is a historical figure, it’s absolutely true what happened to him – this is the music he would have brought with him. So there are various bits of violin music and traditional songs from the continent, which would have been played in Mary’s court. And Mary herself was a really good musician and that was very much part of her world, so music is really important in her domestic life. So, Rizzio brings with him all of this Continental music.

Was there any temp music on the film?

MR: There was temp music but it was sort of temp music that they had taken from other things of mine, so it was sort of good and bad. Good because they like what you’re doing but bad because I’ve already written that music.

Do you generally write and record to picture?

MR: It’s a mix. You have to write to picture, but in terms of the compositional part a lot of it’s done on bits of paper, just making sketches just to see if the musical grammar can sort of stand up and work as music. And then it’s about how to shape and sculpt that material onto the images and see how those two things can kind of speak to one another. It’s a mix between loads of planning and blind luck really. You just sort of feel your way into it.

Is it important for you that your music hits the listener emotionally?

MR: Yeah, I mean that’s what music is really. Fundamentally an emotional medium, I mean it’s a paradoxical language really cause obviously it’s very technical and all the emotional effects and all the things that take people somewhere, that’s because somebody has worked really hard to figure out how to do that with a piece of music. It’s a super-technical discipline, but ultimately the impact and the effect of it – you know, I don’t want somebody to be thinking when they’re listening to a piece of mine, "Oh yeah that’s a neat bit of counterpoint," that’s like for me to stress over, I don’t want the listener to experience that. I want them to be transported, so it’s a paradoxical thing going on. And at the same time you want that to be invisible.

Are you careful what to choose in terms of distancing yourself from the mainstream?

MR: It’s not really conscious, I mean I just do things that I fall in love with. I turn down a huge overwhelming majority of things I’m offered and I just do the things that get me really excited and I just thought it was a wonderful piece of storytelling and it’s a very important film in a way to do with their female agency and that sort of autonomous, sort of self-authorship. You know, it’s a really current question I think, how do we define ourselves, especially for women to find a meaningful way to exist in the world, you know, in the male world, which it kind of still, after all. So I just thought it was a fantastic story.

Going on from that what are your thoughts on the film scoring world and the small amount of women actually scoring pictures?

MR: I think this is something that everyone has to strive to support, getting a decent gender balance generally. There are so many gatekeepers and so many glass ceilings, this can only be something which will change and evolve over time with a lot of goodwill and effort from a lot of different people. I mean, from my side I’ve worked with a lot of women directors on projects. And a lot of my sort of reason for doing a film is to do with its kind of social and political dimensions, going all the way back to Waltz With Bashir and Cate Shortland’s Lore, all of these different projects. That’s very much part of what creativity’s about, it’s about how it impacts society and moving society forward, and to me "forward" is summed up by a liberal and social outlook. So that’s what I’m into. I mean music, whether it’s film music or whatever type of music, it’s overwhelmingly dominated by male figures. I feel like there is a renewed will to try and challenge this and try to figure out how to level the playing field and make things bit more open and equal.

Talking about political work, are there any projects you’ve thought about that might take on what’s happening right now, especially in the UK?

MR: Yeah, I mean I’m working on a new record for next year which is very much about where we’re at now. I don’t want to get into the details of that too much I mean, but I can’t see the justification for making things which aren’t really dealing with the questions of today, I mean it’s just so urgent that all the sort of debates are pursued with a kind of maximum energy right now, because we’re in a rather perilous and difficult moment as a species, and I think we need to get some things sorted out. I just think creativity can be a really valuable and really helpful part of that process.

Mary Queen of Scots will be released in UK cinemas in January

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