If there is one defining characteristic about composer Max Richter, is that he refuses to stay within any preconceived boundaries. Classically trained at Edinburgh University and finishing his studies under the tutelage of avant-garde composer Luciano Berio in Florence, from there Richter’s career went in a variety of directions. He did traditional compositional work, collaborated with acts as varied as The Future Sound Of London, Roni Size and Vashti Bunyan, and issued his own complex and acclaimed solo work.
So it was only a matter of time until the movies came calling for Richter’s unique, soulful and avant work, and the last decade has seen him contribute to films such as the animated “Waltz With Bashir,” the WWI drama “Lore,” the sci-fi “Last Days On Mars,” the intimate “Wadjda” and many more. But always looking for a further challenge, Richter has now tackled his first TV gig with HBO’s highly anticipated “The Leftovers,” which premiered over the weekend.
Once again, Richter has delivered some haunting, evocative music which promises a full season of his immediately identifiable sound helping to shape the strange, surreal and emotional world of Damon Lindelof’s show. Last week, we chatted with Richter over the phone from New York City about working on “The Leftovers,” and his approach to the layered series about loss and what we do to move on.
How did “The Leftovers” first come to you?
Well I got a call from Damon, the producer of the show, and he knew my records from years ago. And he had talked to Peter Berg, the director of the first show, and the executive producer on the project, about me. Pete had by chance gone to see “Macbeth,” which was on Broadway and had music by me in it, so they kind of went, “Oh, we’re talking about the same guy.” So it was kind of a happy accident really. Then they called me up and I had a good chat with Damon and read the script and I thought the script was really, really strong and really interesting. Then when I saw the pilot, it was so powerful and affecting. But I thought, this will be a fun, interesting project to be involved with. I’ve never done any TV before, so it was a whole new landscape for me to get involved with. And I’m pretty excited about it actually.
When Damon Lindelof came to you with the project, did he know what kind of music he was looking for at the time?
Yes. The thing about about this—and this is why I got into it in the first place—is that he really just wants me to write what I normally write. He’s not looking for [traditional] TV music, which for me is brilliant because I don’t think I could do TV music, even if I tried to. So they just wanted me to kind of do my thing which is a perfect scenario.
You mentioned that you were able to read the script, is that usual for you when you work on a film or TV project?
Yes and no. It just depends on what stage they come to the composer, because oftentimes they come to me and are quite late on. In this case there was nothing else at the time when they were talking to me, there was only the script, they hadn’t yet made the pilot. I read it and it read fantastically. It was just brilliant writing, a real page turner.
Getting the script, do you find it any more or less beneficial than seeing dailies or footage or anything like that?
Everything is useful, just to get a sense of the world and the story and how things are handled and the storytelling language, but the script is great obviously and anything you can see at other times, is really, really useful. Seeing the pilot, the rough cut of the pilot, and the way that they’re using music in the pilot, it was quite smart, it was a fascinating story.
There’s quite a few pop songs in the pilot as well. Were you told what songs would be used?
No, but those decisions tend to be quite fluid. They try different things out, but yeah there were a few of them that kept coming around, but I wasn’t really quite certain what was going to land, but I sort of had a sense, more or less, of what they were looking at.
Does that affect how you write at all?
Not really because those things tend to be kind of montage-y moments, and they have their own texture and I think the audience kind of … I think we kind of switch brains when the [pop] track starts. You sort of look at it and listen to it in a different way. And you don’t listen to it as score, you listen to it as a moment. Or like the whole big montage with the GR, when they’re all suiting up. I don’t think we feel [pop songs] like we feel score [pieces], I think we see that in a different way. So, it’s not something I think about too much because actually, it’s completely beyond my control anyway. They make decisions to use tracks for all kinds of reasons.
What were some of the things you drew on in writing the music for the world of the show and characters?
Well, I there were two basic things really. The first is that these are very emotional and intimate stories, to do with the personal impact of the departure on those characters and on those people, the Garvey family for example, but on everyone really. That’s the motor that drives the story. So for that, I’ve done quite intimate, small scale music that sort of feels like it’s really about their feelings. And then there is another kind of music which is more like the kind of psychological landscape which is a bigger scale thing, that has kind of a ritual quality maybe. And that has a little bit of those musical gestures that comes from religious music. The other thing I thought about was—because the show is really about the departure and the fact of the departure—I thought about what sort of instrumentation I’d be using. I went for instrumentation which is all about decay. So you have relatively few sustained tones and you have things which lead to decay, [with instruments like] pianos, harps, celesta—all those things which kind of turn to nothing in front of your eyes as you listen to them. That was sort of the image for me musically. So there’s a few things going on all at the same time.
What is the process of writing for TV? You have to create pieces for each episode. Is it something you’re still working on right now?
I am. I was just working on it in the hotel room just now. We’re not done yet, I’m not finished until mid-August, only about two weeks ahead of the last show airing, so we’ve got a tight schedule. And the process is interesting because there is a basic language for the show and as we go on, we’re making a bigger and bigger reservoir of material. But each show is composed. I’m taking elements from previous moments and developing those and making the strands kind of grow into the new bits of the drama, but it’s an interesting process for me. I haven’t done anything episodic before and it’s nice … it’s quite fascinating actually.
Do you usually like living with the pieces of music you’re writing for this length of time?
Yes, in a way it’s nice to live with the material for a long time. You know, when you’re working in cinema you often have a very, very compressed schedule. Very few weeks to just kind of go through that whole process of reflection and refining, and it has to be done. In this case it’s brilliant to have the opportunity to review the way music and character and story are relating to one another. I think it’s a bit like seeing a sculpture as opposed to seeing a painting. A sculpture you can kind of walk around it and look at it from different angles. I feel like the composition for this show, and I guess the writing too, it’s about revisiting the materials from a different perspective the whole time. That’s really satisfying actually because it’s nice, it’s like you get kind of new surprises and new things, just from reflecting on it.
“The Leftovers” airs on Sunday night on HBO.