There’s music that feels like it calls for a narrative. Certain melodies or movements evoke various emotions, memories, or images. If enough of these movements are put together and enough associations are conjured, a story forms. (Or at least something like a story.) It’s a bit of participation that a listener can indulge in–you get to play co-creator with someone else’s work and you get to invest it with a personal meaning. This doesn’t take away from the work itself, and it may not necessarily add to the work, but it presents a possibility for the work, the creator, and the listener to share something intimate and unexpected.
That’s how I felt approaching Max Richter’s Infra. The piece began as 25 minutes of music for a ballet inspired by T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” In album form, Infra has been extended to 40 minutes, and all of it is beautiful and haunting. It’s the sound of desolation, or maybe it’s the sound of human emotion set against a post-apocalyptic world; those lilacs against a dead land, the voice of a nightingale in the desert. Whatever it’s meant to conjure or evoke, the result is something that lingers after it’s done.
Five of the songs are named “Journey” and numbered one through five, the other songs are titled “Infra” and numbered one through eight. Much of the work relies on simple, soft compositions for piano and violin with some synthesizer work as well, which is particularly effective and ghostly on “Infra 2.” Richter is subtle throughout, layering melodies to evoke the deeper emotion of each song. This quiet and patient approach is more effective than if he built his compositions into something massive.
Richter thought about road movies while he composed Infra, and took snippets from Schubert’s “Winterreise” as inspiration as well. (More than Schubert, Richter’s style owes more to Philip Glass–though, what do I know from Schubert?) The song titles and the backdrop of road movies and “The Waste Land” suggest a search for something. Given the sadness that pervades even the most beautiful moments, this is likely a search from something impossible.
The album opens with a radio transmission and a voice calling out, muffled in static. The same white noise and voice pops up throughout the album and it’s the only human heard throughout. Sometimes this static opens, closes, or bookends the songs. “Infra 5”–one of the most haunting composition on the album, along with “Infra 4”–closes with a build of violin, cello, and white noise, and there’s something so hopeful about this. It’s as if that moment in the journey is one of those decisive moments before the inevitable failure. Right before the final composition on the album, the static returns, but it’s more muted and there is no voice. It’s so simple, maybe it should be obvious, but it’s a surprise to be without it.
Since I haven’t seen the ballet, I wonder how the performers moved to the music. Maybe they danced in a tank of water–that would capture the slow grace of Richter’s work. Their hair would swoosh like calligraphy brushes to the downtrodden pianos and crying violins, and they could spin and fall in slow and devastating arcs. Or maybe they danced in zero gravity, and Infra was a story about lonely travelers in space getting further and further away from the people they loved.
Whatever it may have been, there’s beauty in the search for something greater, and there is no failure in something beautiful.
Philip Glass – Philip Glass: Solo Piano
Godspeed You Black Emperor – F♯A♯∞
Clint Mansell – The Fountain (Original Soundtrack)