Interview: Composer Max Richter Discusses Experimental Music and Scoring ‘Ad Astra’ Twice

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It’s been eleven years since Max Richter burst onto the scene with the score for Oscar-nominated, “Waltz With Bashir,” an animated feature that would receive multiple nominations among various groups, including a few notices for Richter himself. From there, he went on to work with great filmmakers around the world, including Martin Scorsese, Haifaa Al-Mansour, and Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck.

His work on HBO’s “The Leftovers” earned him a Primetime Emmy nomination, and he flirted with Oscar campaigns for “Hostiles” and “Mary Queen of Scots.” In just over a decade, Richter has become one of the most sought after talents, known for his sweeping orchestral scores, but also for his enthusiasm for experimental music, too.

Richter also composed the score for James Gray‘s epic, emotional journey, “Ad Astra.” The film stars Brad Pitt as an astronaut who embarks on a dangerous mission across the solar system in search of the father that disappeared decades before.

“Ad Astra” had a long road to the screen, finally premiering at the Venice Film Festival this past August before hitting theaters in September.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with the composer, who shared some fascinating insights into creating the right sound for this very personal film.

Karen Peterson/Awards Circuit: How’s the tour going?

Max Richter: Great. We’re done now, actually. We did eight days up the west coast, Seattle, then Chicago, and New York at the end and it’s been great. I’m doing some recording now so just finishing off and then heading back to the UK.

KP: I know it’s been a long road, but when did you first get involved with “Ad Astra?” 

MR: This would have been early 2018. They screened an early cut for me and I thought it was wonderful. It’s the kind of sci fi I’ve always enjoyed. It’s very much in the tradition of Kubrick and Tarkovsky. That sort of speculative, philosophical approach to the storytelling is something that really appealed to me.

KP: When you first sat down to write the score, or while you were watching the footage, what were some of your early thoughts about how to approach this musically?

MR: My first instinct about it was that there were really two separate storytelling languages in the film, one of which is to do with the personal and emotional dynamics between Roy and Clifford, the father and son. And then there was the other dimension, which was to do with the physical journey in space. These two things interact in a metaphorical way. I wanted to try to find a musical texture which could express that and speak to that, but also embody it in a very direct way. So then there was obviously going to be a narrative music, a music which speaks to the story elements and the psychology of the film, but also I wanted to use a kind of documentary approach to the sound itself. To the music itself.

I did that by thinking about the fact that the Voyager probes have actually made the trip that Brad’s character makes in the movie, and they gathered plasma wave data all the way. So we have 1’s and 0’s from every place depicted in the film. We got in touch with the University of Iowa who have this data and actually used the data to manufacture musical instruments, computer model musical instruments so that I could have kind of an illustrative, almost location sound aspect to the score. When Brad is going past Saturn, the musical objects you’re hearing are actually made from data gathered at the sites. I really enjoyed that idea.

So you have these two things kind of interacting throughout the score. You have a kind of orchestral, instrumental music which is to do with the kind of feeling dimension of the story, and then you have this sort of more abstract sound which is harvested from the site of the journey itself. And these two things interplay in the score.

KP: That’s really amazing. Has anything like this been done before?

MR: No, no. It’s completely new.

KP: It’s amazing.

MR: The thing is it wouldn’t make any sense to do it unless it were on this film. I feel like that data exists to work in this film, it’s so perfect for it. I just thought it was a golden opportunity to have something which expressed the narrative in its real DNA level in such a direct way.

Max Richter records the original score for the film Ad Astra at Air Studios in London, United Kingdom.
Photo by Mike Terry

 

KP: When you started talking with James [Gray] about your ideas for this, what were his impressions or how did he respond?

MR: James is a very thoughtful and passionate guy. He’s super clever, and he’s also very into music and he’s very into the experimental aspects of music. So he was all for that. He was on board for any and all ideas, which was brilliant. He’s a wonderful collaborator.

KP: People are becoming very familiar with your work now. You had that amazing score last year with “Mary Queen of Scots,” and with “Never Look Away.” You have a distinct sound, but now “Ad Astra” is so unlike anything you’ve ever done before. It makes sense why. But going back to earlier in your career, how did you find your voice musically?

MR: My background is in classical music. It’s straightforward conservatoire and university education. I studied with Berio, so I’ve had a very traditional academic composer training. But at the same time, growing up as a kid, I was very interested in electronic music and experimental music of all sorts. And a lot of my influences came from that as well as my formal music training. I was always listening very widely beyond all of that. When I came out of university, I was all set to write very, very complicated music. That was the orthodoxy at the time, you know? You had to write ultra complex music because that’s what good music was.

Over the years, I began to doubt that orthodoxy and I felt that, actually, music is about communication. And if you’re trying to communicate with someone then you want to try and be intelligible, and to speak in a direct and plain way. So what I did is I simplified my language. And a lot of my energy is spent trying to make works which feel simple. That’s not to say they are simple. To make something feel simple and feel inevitable is actually very hard. Whether it’s a ballet or a concert work or an opera, I work across a really broad range of projects. But that’s really my guiding principle, to try to make things which feel as though they have a kind of simplicity in it and inevitability. I work very hard to make that happen. But as the kind of principle in mind, economy, I really like that idea as sort of the maximum from the minimum. And I think the score for “Ad Astra” has that. It’s very reduced, in a way. It has a kind of minimal register in terms of the amount of data coming at you. It feels quite reduced. It’s trying to invoke the maximum from the minimum.

KP: There’s something really special about the “Ad Astra” score. I listen to a lot of film scores and so much of it sounds nice, but this is one that really gets inside you.

MR: Thank you! Of course, I’m hoping that’s the case, so I’m very glad you say that. This is sort of the trick in a way, to try and make objects without overwhelming and overpowering the pictures, and without pulling you out of the story, nevertheless have got a kind of gravitational force of their own. Because I think often with film music, there’s a kind of either/or decision being made where you feel like the composers are having to choose to make work which, in order to serve the pictures doesn’t stand up as music on its own. And I’m hopeful that I can find a balance between those polarities so that you can have a musical object which has a kind of rigor and internal coherence and yet can serve the images. So that’s the sort of magic space I’m looking for.

KP: I think you’ve certainly accomplished that here.

MR: It’s such a beautiful film.

KP: It really is. And it’s had an interesting journey to get to theaters with a couple of different release dates, some additional cuts and edits. Did you go back in and write additional score after it was edited again?

MR: Yes. I basically scored the film twice. (laughs) Pretty much. There was an original score — the first score — which was a long time ago now. And so that was one iteration. And then I went back and the cut evolved, there were reshoots, there was a really lengthy post-production process, and I think there was also a lot of conversation amongst the community of filmmakers about direction and all sorts of things — quite fundamental stuff.

And then at a certain point it was decided that I should do another pass on it. So that second score is another more than an hour of music. I think overall I probably wrote about three hours of music for “Ad Astra.” (laughs) More than that, maybe! So, yeah, it’s been a labor of love for everyone. They’re very passionate people, and it’s also true that good things take time and it took them some time to find the film, so the score accompanied them on that journey.

KP: How has working on this film changed you? Or helped you grow as an artist?

MR: Every project asks you different questions. And that’s one of the nice things about working on collaborative projects. You have to enlarge and develop your vocabulary, your working methods, and enlarge your mind, really. “Ad Astra,” obviously the orchestral music and all of that was something I do every day. Nevertheless, this was a piece of storytelling the likes of which I hadn’t really worked on before. So it was about adapting my tool kit to that thing and that world. And then of course the electronic music is done in a completely new way. I don’t think it’s ever been done before. That was obviously really interesting, trying to work with that material.

In a way, really, the project for every film score is to try and find the kind of music that feels inevitable and inevitably part of that world. Every film is a unique world and we’re trying to find a musical language which feels like it comes from that world in a kind of “It could only be that way” sort of feeling. Yeah, that asks questions of you, and that’s the fun part about doing movies.

KP: I love this score so much and I’m really a big fan of your work. What do we get to hear from you next?

MR: Next! Well! What’s next? I’m working on a new album project, so that will be out next year. Other things going on. We have a new season of “My Brilliant Friend” on HBO, which is a lovely show. It’s much the same world as season one. More concert works, I’m working on a new ballet. Yeah, a lot happening.

Awards Circuit would like to thank Max Richter for speaking with us.

“Ad Astra” is distributed by 20th Century Fox.

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