Black Mirror’s Secret Weapon Is Not Who You Think

We sit down with composer Max Richter to talk about his work on Black Mirror, The Leftovers and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons…because why not.

“There’s a tyranny of happiness,” composer Max Richter says describing his score for this season’s Black Mirror episode “Nosedive.

Richter is a seemingly ever-present modern cultural force with his music appearing in the theater, film and television. Very little of his output, however, could be described as “happy.” He created the score for HBO’s The Leftovers, one of TV’s most brilliant but also most relentlessly bleak shows. Richter’s score fits it perfectly – a haunting piano dirge that flirts with becoming inspirational without ever quite getting there.

It’s telling that when he finally gets his shot at a more uplifting score, it’s a tyranny of happiness. Black Mirror season one’s first episode “Nosedive” depicts a pastel-y world of tyrannical happiness in which all social interactions are rated via social media. It’s a bleak, dystopian vision that requires a composer able to walk the tightrope of being complicit in the show’s environment while still subtly hinting that something is very wrong here.

Max Richter is that guy. Having scored The Leftovers, Black Mirror and AMC’s upcoming Taboo, Richter is becoming the go-to guy for TV’s most creative and unusual experiments. Though he might not see it that way. No medium can lay claim to Richter – he works in crafting ballets, operas, film scores and his own solo classical music albums.

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I spoke with Richter via phone about his work in each of these mediums…and as a TV partisan silently hoped he’d admit that he liked us the most.

Den of Geek: How did you get involved with Black Mirror? Had you seen the show?

Max Richter: Well Black Mirror has been part of my universe for quite awhile. I love Charlie (Brooker)’s writing. It’s so clever and insightful and prescient. I knew (Director) Joe (Wright)’s work from his feature films. It’s very diverse and interesting. This is a “must-do” kind of a project. Joe and I talked about it a lot over at his place.

What about Black Mirror appealed to you?

I think these themes are very important. From my side it’s really kind of a…these are like urgent social and political questions. That’s what drew me into it.

My work is often very broad. My work is usually composing or writing ballets. But when I saw “Nosedive” it had such wonderful cinematic language. It didn’t feel like a small story. It felt like an important story. I really wanted to try and support that kind of visual language which is this kind of pastel-y, fake-happy space. That kind of musical language is soft and warm and very comforting most of the time. That gave me a color register. There’s a tyranny of happiness. The music is very warm and reassuring. Everyone has to behave as though everything is great all the time. That atmosphere was a way in for me for the music.

You come from a classical music background, what was it like for you to start scoring a historically more commercial medium like television?

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TV is going through a revolution right now. It used to be that the really interesting stuff was in cinema. Over the last few years that really changed. There is so much very creative, courageous, boundary breaking experimental stuff coming out of TV right now. (Editor’s Note: “Woo!”) People take risks. It’s quite exciting to be involved in something like that. I love Mr. Robot and Transparent. They’re very creative.

And of all the creative, boundary-breaking shows, Black Mirror and The Leftovers have to be near the top.

I feel so lucky. They’re brilliant shows.

Speaking of The Leftovers, have you begun work on scoring the third and final season?

We’re about halfway through. I wrote a lot of the season one material almost at the very beginning of filming. As it progresses along through the seasons it becomes more of where the story is going. It’s a discovery process and then matching and fitting it in to the story dynamics. It’s refining the process.

Even beyond the score, which is excellent, The Leftovers has some fascinating musical choices. There’s the change to a folk theme song for the second season, the use of several versions of The Pixies “Where is My Mind?” for the second season and perhaps the most bizarre and cool the use of Verdi’s “Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves” for the “International Assassin” episode. I know you’re not the music coordinator for the show but I have to imagine the Verdi thing came from you, right?

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(Verdi) didn’t come from me actually. All the choices from Damon (Lindelof) and the team are relentlessly creative and smart. The Verdi sequence…I thought it was so kind of Leftovers-y. We kind of thought about me replacing it and me scoring the whole thing. But then we realized this is great. Let’s just go with that. They’re constantly coming up with crazy ideas that are brilliant. I’m very happy to be part of that. A lot of those decisions are coming from them.

When you watch a movie or TV show, are you able to just sit back and enjoy it or are you processing and analyzing the musical choices and score?

As a composer my life is music. If there’s music playing, I’m maybe working a little bit. How the notes are working and what the harmony is doing. I can’t not do that. It’s just the way my brain is wired. If I’m watching a movie in the cinema, I’m hearing music differently from other people. It doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy movies. I just enjoy them a little differently from other people.

Do you have a favorite score from a movie or TV show?

There’s so many. In a way…Twin Peaks is a landmark. One of the starting points of the TV revolution. Great score…a very memorable score. There are many composers doing interesting work in the cinema. Revolutionary Road from Thomas Newman score. That was very minimal but very beautiful.

When did you first realize that you loved music?

I’ve always had music playing in my head – even as a child. I didn’t realize this was unusual. We’re talking three-four-five years old. I just thought this is what everyone did. For me the surprise was that this was unusual. Then I had a very straight-forward classical music education. I just started making records. Lots of concert music and other records. My life’s been very diverse. It kind of still is. I’ve got a couple of other films coming out. Right now I’m working on another ballet. The journey has always been about me following the material. Classical music. That’s my toolkit and my basic language. And electronic music and falling in love with the synthesizer.

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What kind of non-classical or pop music do you listen to?

Punk was a big explosion when I was a kid. First time around was electronic music like German kraftwerk – Tangerine Dream, etc. Then punk came along. Everything was just blown away by their energy. Everything that came after – new wave, Manchester music. Now I listen to mostly classical music: (Fernando) Ortega, Radiohead, that sort of experimental things  I’m interested in music as an experiments. I saw The Clash live when I was like 14. It was a terrifying experience. I felt like I was lucky to get out of there alive. I was living north of London at the time and a lot of them played around where I lived.

You mentioned you had some other movies coming out? What are those?

I scored Miss Sloane. That was a powerful experience. Arrival has a piece of mine to open and close the film (“On the Nature of Daylight”). That’s quite exciting for me. It’s a piece of mine I haven’t allowed to be used very much. It’s from my album The Blue Notebooks. Martin Scorsese used it in Shutter Island. I have a ballet I’m just finishing with a Dutch dance company (Netherland Dance Theater). I’m doing another project called Hostiles – a Scott Cooper film, which is just fantastic.

I’m not really a classical music guy but I understand you did your own version of Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons. Since I’m a musical neophyte, can you tell me why The Four Seasons is so vital and why you reimagined it?

The Four Seasons is probably the most famous bit of classical music. Vivaldi was a rock star. He was like a Hendrix of his time. Long, red hair, an orchestra of young women and him shredding away at the front – it’s like Eddie Van Halen style violin playing. The music is still so popular. You hear it on TV, you hear it in elevators, in jingles. So I remixed it. The orchestral music is very different. It’s like taking Vivaldi’s Four Season landscape and driving off road with it.