A Supermodel Frankenstein: Max Richter’s Recomposition of Vivaldi

The flighty repetition of a flurry of violins and winds, blurring all together like the flutter of a sea of birds taking flight, simplifying and calming into one, then two, then three distinguished staccato violins chirping along—this is how it starts, the beginning of Spring, whose warm harmonic line swells and ebbs beneath the frolicking violins.  I speak of Max Richter’s recomposition of Vivaldi’s great Four Seasons, the original of course possessing some of the most famous opening bars of baroque music ever composed. 

It is not an insignificant work in for the modern ear; Richter demonstrates his interest in tone and sympathetic harmonics while managing to craft a work that sticks out from the contemporary music scene for its willingness to reference the past.  Although Richter’s music comes across a bit less elitist as the likes of Philip Glass, he remains less-known that Brian Eno, Sigur Ros, or any other ambient, post-rock, or whatever-you-want-to-call-it genre that seems to cater specifically to urbane hipsters and pretentious pseuds.  For one thing, the sort of gimmicks Richter is willing to employ to entertain his audiences are a bit more complex than simplistic drones, cacophonous a-tonal reimaginings of how guitars are supposed to be played, or overdriven amp feedback.  Or at least, none of that sort of thing rears its retarded head in this piece.

And the piece is quite pretty.  While the music isn’t specifically simple in its theory, the image it constructs is: the melodic interplays with its harmonies—nearly all in the bass clefs—lead the viewer down a corridor framed by the sort of scores one expects to hear in a cinema.  It is a composition that seems at once to overcomplicate Vivaldi’s music while distilling and oversimplifying his grandeur, repackaging Vivaldi in a modern aesthetic that renders the complicated emotional undercurrents of baroque music obvious and profane.  In crafting this work, Richter as has used Vivaldi’s Four Seasons to create an accessible, relatable, emotionally-heartfelt work that communicates nauseating melodrama with all the tonal cues reminiscent of a Hollywood film flirting for the Oscar for best score.

This isn’t to say that it’s unpleasant.  As I noted before, it’s very pretty and extremely pleasing to listen to.  It wafts you away in a soothing cascade of complementing tones and while its various melodies lilt about, sometimes chipper, sometimes melancholic.  In every segment, Richter manages to blend the motifs of Vivaldi’s masterpiece with onomatopoeic imitations of birdsong or natural elements, embellishing Vivaldi’s own use of instrumental imitation.  It’s a comfortable sort of background music that, periodically, might make you stop what you’re doing for a minute or two and pay attention to it.  But probably not for long.

It seems as though this is the closest a modern composer can get to making a masterpiece: reference the past, toy with it, but make something that’s capable only of passing the time.  We saw it with Philip Glass decades ago and, now, Max Richter follows in the same sort of crypto-minimalist method.  Despite using Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and going so far as to name his piece a re-composition, Richter admitted that he tossed out about 75% of Vivaldi’s material; he relied on looping and phasing to integrate his own personality into the mix.  Composers steal motifs and sometimes whole bars of music from each other all the time, but this is an altogether different sort of charade; this sent a piece of music through a grinder and sewed it back together wrong, and then it slapped the original’s moniker on top in a tasteless gesture of tribute.  Impressed can critics drool all they like while the hamster wheels in their heads spin into overdrive, interpreting segments upon segments of repetitious, bland, maudlin harmonies as a clever postmodern twist on an eighteenth century classic.  If anything, the attributions to Vivaldi and the twisted permutations of Vivaldi’s echoes in Richter’s piece come across as little more than pretentious attempts to glue his postmodern aberration onto the classical canon—as if saying “this work of mine has merit!  See, I know what I’m doing!”  It’s almost as if it is in spite of itself that it manages to be listenable.

With all this in mind, Richter’s “recomposition” is, in theory, an emperor without clothing; in practice, however, the emperor has turned out to be a supermodel quite easy on the eyes.  Keep the coat off, ma’am, your shameless display has certainly dragged down the dignity of the public space, but it’s hard not to appreciate the attention of your vulgar charms.  The contemporary classical music scene is so polluted with unlistenable garbage that something like this, as dishonest as it is, manages to be among the least-offensive compositions of the twenty-first century.

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