On Saturday, Max Richter will perform at Glastonbury for the very first time, alongside Tilda Swinton, who originally lent her spoken word to The Blue Notebooks two decades ago. Here, the pair discuss that album and their collaboration
Two years ago, the composer and pianist Max Richter and his wife, the BAFTA-winning visual artist Yulia Mahr, opened the doors to Studio Richter Mahr, a multi-disciplinary arts production space hidden deep in the Oxfordshire countryside. Converted from a former alpaca farm on the edge of a 31-acre woodland, the building was designed to be carbon neutral, powered by solar panels and heat pumps, and feeding its occupants (not just the studio’s founders, who utilise the space for their own respective creative practices, but also the number of emerging artists they invite to use the venue at no cost) with fresh produce grown in the site’s own gardens and prepared at its in-house café. It also boasts a spacious orchestral recording studio, where Max Richter is currently rehearsing for his first-ever performance at Glastonbury festival – a full playthrough of his second studio album, 2004’s The Blue Notebooks.
It’s rare for a music studio to feature windows, which create echoes and easily leak sound, but Richter’s grand piano sits in front of an enormous, inches-thick, soundproof panel of glass that looks out onto the natural world outside. Playing around him are the rest of his quintet, as well as a special guest who will be joining them for the performance on The Park Stage this Saturday – the actor Tilda Swinton, who originally lent her spoken word to The Blue Notebooks two decades ago.
The Blue Notebooks takes its name from Franz Kafka’s The Blue Octavo Notebooks, a collection of the author’s diaries first published in 1953. Across the album, Swinton reads from these books – loose, fragmentary writings, rather than conventional diaristic entries – along with extracts of poetry by Czesław Miłosz. Richter envisioned Swinton’s voice on the album from the beginning, having been familiar with her work with Derek Jarman (Richter is an avowed fan of the late artist and filmmaker – his 2009 project From “The Art of Mirrors” was a live score to a sequence of Jarman’s Super 8mm videos from the 1970s). Her voice recordings complement Richter’s music, where spellbinding classical composition met atmospheric studio production akin to electronic musicians like GAS and Basic Channel.
In the years since The Blue Notebooks’ release, Richter has become one of the 21st century’s most celebrated classical artists, amassing over three billion streams across his catalogue and seeing his work appear across cinema and television. The most popular piece from The Blue Notebooks, the Beethoven and Purcell-influenced “On the Nature of Daylight”, has soundtracked pivotal scenes in The Last of Us, The Handmaid’s Tale, Arrival, and Shutter Island, yet this continued popularity perhaps overlooks the more personal and political ideas that went into its making. Personal, as The Blue Notebooks reflects on Richter’s own dreams and memories from childhood, of pursuing an interior life of literature and the arts that was richer than the real world. Political, as the album was conceived in the build-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, with Richter recording “Shadow Journal” (where Swinton describes the destruction of “cities on a distant plain”) after attending the million-strong demonstration against the war in London that year.
For his Glastonbury performance, Richter is making a few adjustments to his material. He’ll be incorporating additional Kafka texts from some newly released notebooks, as well as music recorded during the original The Blue Notebooks sessions but excluded from its initial release. It will also mark the first time that Richter and Swinton have performed the album live together. “We had this opportunity to play, and I thought, since we’re doing it at Glastonbury, we should get the band back together,” Richter says, sitting alongside Swinton on a deep sofa in his writing room after their rehearsal.
Ensuring their schedules lined up wasn’t too difficult – Swinton attends Glastonbury every year. Even so, this is new territory for her. “I’ve certainly never been on The Park Stage at Glastonbury, and I never thought I would be,” Swinton says. “It’s hallowed ground for me. The thing that I really love about Glastonbury is that it’s so full of people who are so hungry for music of every kind. It’s not even hungry – it’s thirst in the air, thirsty ears. And that must be, I imagine, a wonderful audience to present work to.” She turns to Richter, who has not only never played the festival before, but never even attended. “And the trees. The trees, alongside the audience, are the best thing about Glastonbury,” she says. “Worthy Farm’s got some good trees.”
I wanted to talk about the beginnings of The Blue Notebooks. How did the two of you end up working together initially?
Tilda Swinton: I think it was 21 years ago…
Max Richter: Something like that. I’d made Memoryhouse, my first record, and it had disappeared without a trace almost immediately – except with a few people who were very enthused by it, so it had kind of an underground whisper. I then had this idea for a new project based around the Kafka texts and I wanted someone to read them. I knew Tilda’s work through her work with Derek Jarman, whose films I adore, so I thought I should phone her up. Her agent very kindly made a connection. I jumped on a plane to Scotland and we recorded this thing in an afternoon.
Tilda Swinton: I was one of the few fortunate people that Memoryhouse had tracked down, so I knew that I wanted to meet Max. It was a very happy moment. We’ve stayed in touch after all these years.
Max, why did you feel that Tilda would be the right voice for the album?
Max Richter: It was the voice that I imagined when I was writing it. Even though there isn’t a lot of voice on the record, I wanted a particular kind of energy. The texts were all quite heavy, so I wanted something that had a directness and a brightness that could, in a way, hold your hand through the material without feeling syrupy and heavy.
Do you recall your first meeting?
Tilda Swinton: We came together in my very ramshackle house, surrounded by these little children who are not so little anymore. We holed up in one room…
Max Richter: I remember we had tea with the kids, didn’t we? They were very keen on those jam tarts.
“Obviously, the spoken voice is not notated, so when you’re playing, you get a unique set of dynamics every time. That’s what I love about live music. You have this real-time experiment going on within a performing and listening community” – Max Richter
Tilda, that wasn’t the first time you’d been involved in a musical project, was it?
Tilda Swinton: Well, it’s so serendipitous and correct, in a way, that Max came to know my work through my work with Derek. You may or may not know that Blue was originally a concert – an improvised concert, then we made the film almost as an afterthought. I know that Simon Turner has been reviving those concerts, and we have some plans to do some more together. It’s the same sort of game. It’s a really interesting dance with words, with the voice, and with the instruments. It’s like a bagatelle.
Max Richter: What’s nice about this sort of thing is that there’s a certain freedom. Obviously, the spoken voice is not notated, so when you’re playing, you get a unique set of dynamics every time. That’s what I love about live music. You have this real-time experiment going on within a performing and listening community – and it really only happens once, and it’s different each time.
Tilda, did you need any convincing with regards to the texts you read on The Blue Notebooks?
Tilda Swinton: No. One of the things I love about the texts is that they’re not attached to this logical sense thing that we poor humans attach so much value to. They have a relationship to music, in that way. They’re not logical; they’re not in many ways narrative, even. They’re about experience and they’re inarticulate, which is my absolute favourite thing. When performing them you don’t have to draw a string through it. It’s just thoughts, impressions, attempts, little gestures at language. They don’t hold much store by making sense, which I love.
Max Richter: It’s that sensory thing. They’re all about glimpses, moments, epiphanies, that intense moment-to-moment experience. It’s quite inward, almost like we’re eavesdropping on what’s going on in someone’s head.
Tilda Swinton: When you wrote the music to accompany these texts, did you think of the texts as bone and the music as muscle, or vice versa?
Max Richter: I think of them as conversational. It’s almost like if you have two people, and one person is speaking words and one person is speaking music. Point, counterpoint. It’s a relational thing. You can plan them out and have all these ideas – “This thing will go with that thing” – but it’s really not like that. It’s more like a chemistry experiment. You pour things in and you wait for that moment where they speak to one another.
Tilda Swinton: I speak as someone who’s not written anything, not even a note of music, so we’re in kindergarten territory for me here, but does that mean if you try something and it doesn’t spark, you find yourself scrapping it, or using it and moving on?
Max Richter: I try to wait until I’ve got something that feels inevitable, that ‘it could only be this way’ sort of feeling, and until I’ve got there I just keep shuffling things around. It can be tiny changes, but it’s finding things that feel like they want to be together.
Tilda, as one of those 15 or so people who originally heard Memoryhouse, what drew you to Max’s music?
Tilda Swinton: I think this sense of experience. Maybe it could be said that all music is experiential, but there’s something particularly unvarnished about the journey that you go on with Max. Maybe he’s just explained why, actually – this shuffling around of feeling, this looking for things that feel inevitable.
It’s been 19 years since The Blue Notebooks was first released. That’s obviously not the round number to make this a 20th-anniversary show, so why did you want to perform this particular album at Glastonbury?
Max Richter: The record is an entry point for a lot of people. There are things in it which seem to have connected with an audience who maybe wouldn’t necessarily listen to what you’d call ‘classical music’. I thought for my first performance at Glastonbury, rather than the ballets or other things, we’d start there. It’s got a chronological aspect as well. This is where it started, more or less.
What are your respective relationships with Glastonbury Festival?
Tilda Swinton: I was originally invited by the Pilton Palais tent to work with them on curating the cinema programme, which I want to say was seven years ago. It took me by surprise when I went. I couldn’t believe how much I loved it. I’ve been every time since. (Turning to Richter) You’ve never been, have you?
Max Richter: I’ve never been.
“Maybe it could be said that all music is experiential, but there’s something particularly unvarnished about the journey that you go on with Max” – Tilda Swinton
Tilda Swinton: It’s good for the soul. It’s good for people to be in that multitude, with that good spirit. And it’s such a broad church, that’s what I was surprised by. People are so dedicated to making a world there for those five days. It’s like a country. It’s a fiefdom. It’s quite shocking how vast it is, and how much goodwill is spread over that expanse. It’s like the Field of the Cloth of Gold. I remember being there the year that the Brexit vote came in, and we all woke up in the morning and couldn’t quite believe it. And by midday, the glorious Glastonbury Free Press [the festival’s on-site newspaper] had put up posters all over the site saying ‘It will be alright.’ It was such a good place to be that year.
Do you have any first-time tips for Max?
Tilda Swinton: Know how much walking you’re going to do. Know that you’ll be on your feet for 20 hours a day. And know that it will be gone in a flash, and then you’ll be hooked. It’s the drug of choice.
Do you have a favourite story from the festival?
Tilda Swinton: I’d have to think about that, and then run it past several lawyers. Just off the top of my head – and this will tell you everything about the scope of the festival – I remember arriving late on the Wednesday one year and going around and about the houses, as you do, and seeing this extraordinary band called Haunt the Woods in a tiny little tent right up the back. They are fantastic. That’s the kind of thing that goes on – self-confessed Cornish hippies giving it laldy, as they say in Glasgow.
Are you changing the album in any way for this performance?
Max Richter: Two things have happened. First of all, some more Kafka diaries, written around the same time as the original The Blue Octavo Notebooks, were published. I thought it was interesting (to incorporate some of these new texts into the performance). It’s like shining more lights through this slightly murky psyche that he had. Kafka kept diaries his whole life, and he wrote copiously – pages and pages, some days. As Tilda said, they are impressions, internal sensory fragments that never made it into his novels or published writings. I went through looking for material that would connect with The Blue Notebooks world from roughly the same time period. It’s a process of instinct, connecting objects together that seem to make sense.
The second thing is that there’s more material from The Blue Notebooks that was in the deluxe version. It was written at the same time, but didn’t make the original version of the album because I couldn’t find a satisfying architecture to fit it with the texts. But with these new texts, it’s an opportunity to include some of the new music – or rather, old music. It’s almost like the structure has grown but the architecture is the same.
How has your relationship to the original record changed over the past two decades?
Tilda Swinton: For me, what we’ve just been talking about – this fragmentary heart of it – I think I’ve got a much greater appreciation for now. 21 years ago, I think I was a little more invested in things adding up. Now, it’s all gone in the wind. I’m very invested in things not adding up at all. Maybe everyone does this, or maybe it’s just me. If you could go in a time machine and talk to the me that was recording these texts, I might have been trying, in my own mind, to join them all up together and make them make sense. I was more interested in articulacy. That feels very much gone by the wayside.
Max Richter: For me, it’s a really interesting experience to make a journey through the material. I don’t listen to my records, so I don’t really know what the record sounds like. I know how we play it, because we do play it from time to time, but what I’m encountering at that point is a different version of my brain. It’s a set of decisions that made sense to me in that moment, which is pretty interesting. It’s like encountering a previous iteration of yourself.
It’s funny because the recording was the week after that massive anti-Iraq invasion march in London, the whole Tony Blair adventure. That was the moment that kind of gave birth to the record and its concerns really, the fact of politics and fiction starting to be the same thing. I suppose things have only continued down that road, so those questions are still live. Very live.
Tilda Swinton: It is very poignant to be looking at this again. ‘Poignant’ is too slight a word, really. But it’s not just to do with tapping into 21 years ago, it’s looking again at Kafka these days. We actually have more reason to think about Kafka than we did 21 years ago. It feels so present and so relevant and so current. That’s sobering, isn’t it?
Max Richter opens Glastonbury’s The Park Stage at 11am on Saturday June 24