The difficulty in listening to post-classical, whatever you may take such a loose term to mean, is listening actively. The German-born, UK-based composer Max Richter describes his work using the term and his debut, Memoryhouse, was born in 2002 under the signs of Eno, Pärt, Glass/Reich, and drum ‘n’ bass. These are compositions as much as they are vignettes, indebted to but unmoored from the fractured 20th century classical music tradition, uniformly beautiful and melancholic. This reissue from FatCat – the BBC’s Late Junction imprint originally released it, and the broadcaster also provided a philarmonic – demands calm attention, not by virtue of any perceived Serious Music heritage but rather the gravity/scope of the story each piece tells. The challenge of listening to the album is that it requires an effort to not hear it as soundtrack music, to dismiss it as programmatic.
In a way, Memoryhouse situates itself between two albums that have come after: Jóhann Jóhannsson’s Fordlandia and Hauschka’s Ferndorf. Where Fordlandia is a majestic record that also flounders under its own diegetic function, Ferndorf suggests narrative-less childhood scenes. The latter is no less cinematic, but its light touch – it helps that it doesn’t carry the cargo of telling an arch-capitalist-felled-by-own-hubris story – does much to insinuate itself by degrees. It’s less of an undertaking, and the lack of narrative arc does less to draw us out of the music than plunge us in. If films are at fault for having trained us to listen to music with massed strings and a certain sense of pacing as if they were abstract, emotive supertitles for an unseen movie, playfulness allows us to listen less to emotional cues and more to those that seem more independently musical. Within the archipelago of post-classical music, Fordlandia‘s There Will Be Blood vibe and Ferndorf‘s Playtime whimsy bookend Memoryhouse, which touches fleetingly on cinematic ambience and brio, but lends equal care to the stuff of orchestral music itself.
Listening to Memoryhouse is meditative in this sense – that it rewards the making and re-making of the effort to void your mind of certain seemingly inescapable associations. Listening to the album in one shot, however, doesn’t necessarily make any more sense than listening to tracks individually. The longest song here is just over seven minutes; separate tracks are united by repeated motifs and snatches of rain, but, in general, the feel of the album as a whole is discontinuous. This is why, when the album maxes out on emotion, like on "Sarajevo," it’s hard not to hear something shrill and unexpected in the notes it’s striking. Richter clearly favors the gradual procession of moods – "Arbenita (11 Years)" is eyes-well-up, slow-stride strings and a modulating, grieving voice stretched over seven minutes. The unhurried melodrama of the record can be harder to enjoy than the details that emerge on close listening. The record is packed with producerly and composerly flourishes that stay somewhat near the bottom of the proceedings, invisible until some turbulence knocks them into circulation.
With all this going for it, Memoryhouse can feel like a dry listen. While it’s clear that the album as a whole is musically satisfying independently of whatever other functions it might serve, it’s hard to get to and stay with that satisfaction. It could be that the seven years since its release have brought other ways of approaching this inter-genre differently, or that its richness is best taken in small doses.