“Do you want to go to an invitation only film premiere at the Berlinale?” my friend says.
“Sounds good. Will George Clooney be there?”
“Not, but it’s ‘Four Seasons by Vivaldi, recomposed by Max Richter’, a film produced by Deutsche Grammophon. Many important people will be there”.
“What is recomposing?”
“I don’t know, I guess we will find out”.
The presentation is held in one of the chamber music halls of the Berliner Philharmonie. A German man who looks really important addresses the audience in English and welcomes them to the film premiere, ending his speech with “now I will switch to English, if you don’t mind”, continuing his speech – like before – in….English. I guess if one works long enough in the music business one forgets that there are other languages than English. For example your native language. Everybody laughs nervously. Another guy comes up who looks even more important and explains the film to us. “We are really proud to present you…an altogether new and powerful work. It is not a remix, but a recomposition. Composer Max Richter has completely reimagined Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and we are happy to tell you that the audience has already appreciated his vision and the piece has been performed around the world in full concert halls. Now I proudly present to you: Max Richter! And the director of the film!”
Max Richter and the director of the film come up and are greeted with the indifferent applause that is typical for events liks this. Max Richter explains his vision: “’The Four Seasons’ is a piece that I really liked as a kid, but then I began to hate it, because one hears it everywhere: in elevators, in shopping malls, etc.. I wanted to rediscover the innocence of it.”
The film director is enthusiastic as well. “When I first heard the music by Max I was surprised how ….emotional it was. Really, really powerful emotions. So I felt obliged to transport this to the viewer”.
The important guy from the Deutsche Grammophon turns to the audience and says: “And now, without further ado, we proudly present “The Four Seasons by Vivaldi, recomposed by Max Richter“. Roll the film!”.
“Or rather: click play” says my neighbor. The film “rolls”. We see a cityscape (Berlin) with digital writing all over the place. Lines are moving with the flow of the traffic, excerpts from – presumably – the sketchbook of Max Richter, notes of Vivaldi, and – inexplicably – the written word “Strawinsky”, which appears again and again, sometimes on a wall, sometimes on a trash can. Perhaps this is meant symbolically. All of this is rather well done, much like the opening of an episode of “Fringe”:
Then we switch to some kind of abandoned factory hall, filled with a baroque ensemble, exquisitely lighted. Digital images are screened in the background. The musicians begin to play Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” in a very recognizable fashion. But instead of modulating the musicians begin to repeat little loops of Vivaldi. And yes, that’s Daniel Hope at the violin. In the middle of the ensemble – looking somewhat out-of-place and lost – stands re-composer Max Richter at a retro futuristic-looking Moog keyboard and smiles. Daniel Hope smiles back.
Just when I begin to wonder what the term “recomposing” means when they just play Vivaldi looped in the original the basses enter and play a pedal note in the key of the piece. Three minutes later the pedal note moves up, a couple of minutes later back again. Into the fifth, into the fourth. Then back to the tonic. Somehow this process is linked to the left hand of Max Richter, who plays his Moog Synthesizer together with the basses. He smiles. The bass players smile back. They don’t look to stressed with their part of long held-out droning notes, so I guess they have time to smile. Sometimes the camera zooms on the left hand of Max Richter when it is about to play a new bass note. Fascinated we see how he lifts one finger – and presses down another one. This seems to be a tiring process because afterwards the fingers don’t move anymore for a while.
Instead we zoom on Daniel Hope, who is tearing into his violin. He looks like he is giving it all. Max Richter smiles at him, but Daniel Hope is sometimes too busy to smile back. It is clear that Hope puts a lot of work into his playing, and it is also clear that his hairdresser puts a lot of work into his haircut.
The next number begins. I think it is spring, but it also could be autumn. Perhaps winter? One could say that it doesn’t matter, because all recomposed seasons sound the same. Perhaps this will be the weather of the future, when it is controlled by Sony or google or both of them. So it is autum (or summer) and we see Daniel Hope alone, playing against a white back light. Then he is back with the others again. Max Richter smiles at him, it could be that he’s happy that he’s back. But then he looks stressed again, because now he lifts his finger to play a new pedal note. I ask myself if left hands can feel shame. Probably not.
The bass notes never have breaks – they are always held to the next bass note. I guess this is what is supposed to make the music especially emotional, like in a womb. Everything is really lushly produced, the sound is exquisite. Basically it sounds like Max Richter has taken a bass pattern from one of his film musics and has just put it under Vivaldi.
In the background a moon appears for no discernible reason and slowly wanders from left to right. Is it a summer moon or a winter moon? I have no idea. In-between the different numbers – which seem to use the same “re-composing” principle again and again- – we sometimes see the cityscape again, with moving noteheads, lines and sketches. Again the word “Strawinsky” appears, this time on a bridge.
Was Strawinsky also a “re-composer”? I guess in a way he was. It is perfectly alright to like Strawinsky, I think.
And so it goes on, number after number. They are called “Autum II”, “Winter III”. Or something similar. After a while I close my eyes, dizzy from all the moving images, and I imagine walking through endless futuristic shopping malls. All the people I meet smile the same smile. They look like happy robots. The recomposed music I hear fits perfectly to these images and gives a nice background sound to all these elevators and lifts and rows after rows of shelves filled with shiny white things that are meant to make us happy.
„I wanted to give Vivaldi’s music back its innocence“, said Max Richter at the beginning. And I can’t help wondering if he has perhaps not done the exact opposite, by surgically extracting from „The Four Seasons“ the one thing it still had going for it:
(this is not the film described above – which is not yet online – but a documentation about the production of the piece)
excerpt from the press text: „So instead of writing off the piece forever, Richter rewrote it. He discarded about three quarters of Vivaldi’s original, substituted his own music and tucked in some light electronics for a total Four Seasons makeover. It sounds a little hipper — lighter on its feet in places, darker and more cinematic in others. Still, Richter’s remodeled version retains the basic shape, and much of the spirit, of the master’s original four violin concertos — each about ten minutes and in three movements, sequenced fast-slow-fast.“