Sometimes there are advantages to not knowing where you’re going. One night in the naughts, I told the website last.fm that I enjoyed the music of John Adams and waited. The site is one of those that takes something you favor and tries to find something else like it; it’s what Amazon does with books, and what Netflix does with movies (leading to imitative ridicule in certain quarters). Although in 5 or 10 years this challenge might become yet another new AI test to supplant Alan Turing’s, none of these systems can yet match a reasonably experienced employee at a bookshop, music store, or video-rental outlet, or for that matter a knowledgeable friend, who can discuss what you liked and why you liked it before proposing something. Netflix, for instance, knows that I liked The X-Files as well as The House of Mirth but has yet to figure out that I admire Gillian Anderson as an actress; though I can easily search the site for her work, it never mentioned Season One of The Fall to me, and it’s probably pushing me to watch the second season only because I liked the first.
Somehow, software has done a little better when it comes to music, at least among the pop varieties, and this was already true 10 years ago. So I wondered what last.fm would understand of John Adams’s work. Would it seize on his music-theater piece I Was Looking at the Ceiling and Then I Saw the Sky, connect that with Philip Glass’s music-theater works, and start playing, say, The Photographer? Would it try to exploit the Schoenberg connection in Harmonielehre? Neither of those tactics would’ve been what I wanted, though they would’ve shown glimmers of knowledge, but last.fm seemed a little more lost than that. It started playing tracks that didn’t make much sense but didn’t seem genuinely random—like the way your thoughts wander as you drift off at night, lacking purpose while still following some kind of logic. I left it running but stopped paying close attention for a while.
Suddenly, my ears perked up. I heard a woman’s voice, not singing but reciting, with increasing fervency, and not in English. It was soon joined by a simple, enveloping string pattern, slowly growing in volume, which eventually submerged the voice altogether. There was something a little uncanny about it, as if I were being overtaken by someone else’s memory. The piece was identified as “Maria, the Poet (1913),” by Max Richter.
If this was Max Richter, I wanted more. I’ve since gotten the album containing that track (which a BBC review described as “a 65-minute journey through the beauty and tragedy of 20th century Europe”), as well as some of his other work. My first encounter left me with questions I haven’t yet fully worked out, though. Internet sources declare that the text is a 1913 poem by Marina Tsvetaeva (it’s here, along with an English translation) and even, on occasion, that the voice is hers. If so, when did she record it? When did her life, beset with privation and disruption, ever intersect with a recording studio? Why did Richter use in his title the name Maria, who was Marina Tsvetaeva’s mother?
And does this slender, atmospheric piece have anything to do with John Adams’s music? Maybe so, maybe not. Apart from the taped voices in On the Transmigration of Souls, I don’t recall that Adams has simply juxtaposed spoken text with music. But he did suggest, in an interview reproduced here, that his Transmigration piece could be called a “memory space.” Coincidentally, it premiered in 2002, the same year in which Max Richter released Memoryhouse, the album containing the Tsvetaeva piece. It’s far more likely that my mind—in its typically human pattern-finding way—found these connections than that last.fm detected them, but it doesn’t matter. By letting the website’s algorithms wander, I had discovered something.
Memoryhouse was Richter’s first solo album. Since 2002, he has produced a handful of other albums—one of them employs fragments from Kafka, another reconstructs Vivaldi’s Four Seasons—and crafted music for film, TV, and dance. On March 25 at (le) poisson rouge, he’ll be leading the American Contemporary Music Ensemble in a live performance of two of his albums, The Leftovers (drawn from music for the HBO series) and Infra (based on a score for a Wayne McGregor ballet). For more information, see the lpr web page for the event.