NASA launched its Voyager program over 40 years ago, and since then, sci-fi films like James Gray’s Ad Astra have been drawing inspiration from the journey that the program’s twin robotic probes have made through our outer solar system. And for the film’s post-minimalist soundtrack, influential composer Max Richter actually pulled plasma wave data from the Voyager probes and used it to make music that would embody the story of the long and precarious journey that an existentially fraught astronaut, Roy McBride (Brad Pitt), makes through space to find his famed father, Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones).
Though Ad Astra’s music is written with an interstellar scope in mind, Richter is modest when speaking about his diminutive “notes on the page.” “If you don’t get the notes right on the piano, they won’t sound right when they are being played by an orchestra,” he says in a straightforward way. Ad Astra is also a bit of a return to a childhood dream for the musician, as one of his first memories was being woken up in the middle of the night by his parents to watch the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing on a black-and-white TV set in their living room.
Speaking with German-born British composer while he takes a break from recording his next album, we discussed how he connects his classical schooling—he studied composition and piano at the University of Edinburgh, the Royal Academy of Music, and with experimental Italian composer Luciano Berio in Florence—to one of his other early passions: outer space. In doing so, we also discover that the distance between two broken human psyches sometimes feels as though it’s on an interstellar scale.
How are you doing today after the recent U.S. tour?
I’m recording today, so I’m good. I’m recording a new project for next year.
Is there anything that you can share about it yet?
Well, it’s very much the vein of my other kind of storytelling projects around society and culture, like Memoryhouse and Blue Notebooks. So, it has a kind of a sociopolitical, activist dimension. It’s very much in the vein of Memoryhouse and Blue Notebooks.
Both of those albums posit the idea of the democratization of music and getting it out there, and you’ve continued that commentary on sociopolitical things. What are your thoughts on the choice to perform the eight-hour composition Sleep at the Great Wall of China? Obviously sleep, shelter, and food and water are common denominators across all cultures and governments.
Sleep is a piece which is about finding a place to rest and repose. It’s a moment to pause and reflect, and I think music can provide that. Artworks can provide that. They can provide a place to think—to think about what we’re doing. That’s one of the most important things I think that music can do. I felt that bringing Sleep to that setting was, in a way, my way of contributing to that debate to what was going on over there, what is going on over there, and to try and make a kind of a plea for kind of a humane behavior. I think that’s really one of the things that Sleep is about. So, yeah, it was very, very interesting.
I saw that when you were approached to work on Ad Astra, you saw a rough cut. What were you originally struck by as a composer even in that early stage of the edit?
There are really two films in Ad Astra. There’s the father-son psychodrama and then there’s the voyage in space. I like the way that these two films are superimposed on top of one another. I then started thinking about the two kinds of musical language. The first being that kind of personal instrumental language, which speaks to the dynamic between Roy and Clifford, and the second being the kind of big-picture music.
I had kind of traditional instrumentation for them and their story and then I thought, “What about the big-picture music, what about the physics, and, you know, all of that science?” So I thought about the Voyager I and II probes, which have actually made the journey that’s depicted in the film. I contacted Iowa University’s Department of physics & Astronomy, which got data that the Voyager probes recorded on their journey.
They actually measured the plasma wave data all the way out and sent it back. We got a hold of the data and transformed it into musical sounds. That allowed me to use almost like a location-recording approach to the electronic music so that when Brad’s character goes past a planet, you’re actually hearing data collected there, transformed into music. As well as being illustrative and embodying the journey, you’ve actually got real objects from that place. That was the sort of jumping-off point for the electronic music parts.
Is the data that you manipulated throughout the soundtrack or does it only pop up on select tracks?
Oh yeah! We’ve actually built computer-modeled instruments out of that data. So, there’s that kind of raw and cooked versions of that data [on the soundtrack].
I enjoyed the classical parts of the score meeting those electronic ones. It got me thinking about your background in Renaissance music. I immediately think of angelic things when I hear the harp on the soundtrack. First Man employed it in a different way. I was curious about that instrument choice.
I mean, there are a lot of sounds which kind of evoke traditional religious music or choral writing. There are these kinds of glassy, high-frequency tones and they sort of transcend them in some way. They evoke those colors. The reverberation I’ve used in the score throughout is a digital model of the Notre Dame in France. It’s a kind of a virtual cathedral [laughs] that all the music is being played through. I think that kind of affects us. It makes us think about big stuff and the sort of big questions. The film is about big questions. So, we’re trying to sort of populate the sonic universe of it with these sorts of emblems, which remind us of those things.
I watched an Estonian TV show in which you likened the Brexit situation to someone willfully stepping off a fast-moving train, and though the story for Ad Astra is highly personal, there are some moments, almost like Easter eggs, that are commentaries on what life might be like in that situation. Did you find any contemporary, socioeconomic elements coming out in the writing against those images?
Well, yeah. I mean, I think James Gray is a realist. You know, he’s a very, very smart writer, and he’s very sanguine about the present and the future. Certainly, the way the moon is depicted in Ad Astra is the big thing, as it’s got subways and stuff all over it and there’s a war going on. It’s like we’ve just exported all the problems of Earth and put them on the moon. That’s basically what he’s saying [laughs]. You know, it’s actually very sad. I think Brad’s character actually says this [about the moon]. He says something like, “You know, if my dad was here, he would certainly be so depressed.” So, James is very sanguine about the potential for humanity, but he does show humanity’s habit of falling back on these sorts of conflicts.
I read that you’re closer with your mother and I was curious if there was anything that you found with your personal journey with your father that came up as you were working through the soundtrack?
Yes, in a way. I mean, I think all father-son relationships have an element of confrontation [laughs] that Roy and Clifford have. It seems to be something about the male psyche isn’t it, somehow? There’s always something of that and hopefully [laughs] not as much as they have. Yeah, I think it speaks to people because of that. Roy is somebody who can’t connect to other people. That’s his kind of challenge and that’s his journey and connecting sometimes is hard. It’s also like the most important thing we do actually. Yeah, there’s a paradox in that. I think the film does speak to people in a personal way. And, certainly, to me.
You’ve done versions of classical pieces throughout your career, most notably on the album Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi – The Four Seasons, but I really liked the rendition of Bach’s “Erbarme Dich” from the St. Matthew Passion. What did you want to convey with that on the soundtrack at that point in the film’s narrative?
Bach’s music is kind of like the most perfect music in my brain. It’s like divine music, you know? “Erbarme Dich” from the St. Matthew Passion translates as “have mercy.” You know, obviously it’s in a religious context in that film. What I was thinking is, “Well, this is really what Roy is asking for from his father.” He’s saying, “Have mercy,” and the father is saying, “No, not in this way.” It just seemed to sum up their dynamic and, obviously, it’s fantastic music. It was a nice opportunity to kind of revisit that and then I think there’s something about Bach’s music which just sort of connects to some of those sorts of very archetypal, cosmic images. It’s because of the incredible perfection of the geometry of Bach’s music.
I really enjoyed the orchestra’s energy and thrum on “Encounter” and “Forced Entry.” They show more of the menacing side that you have as a composer and it’s definitely reflected in the film. It seems like there’s some kind of electronic-like processing on the instruments for those tracks.
Yeah, there is. I basically just put guitar pedals on the orchestra for just sort of gritty energy in various places. There’s quite a bit of that kind of stuff, and aside from the so-called planetary instruments made from the Voyager data, there’s also the synthesizer that I use most is a Moog System 55. Apart from being like an archetypal synth and my absolute favorite, it also comes from, you know, 1969, which is the Apollo 11 landing year. It all just sort of made sense. All of that quite gritty, analog-sounding electronics stuff is from the Moog 55 and it’s there because of its association with, you know, that moment in history. It has kind of a cosmic vibe.
What did you see as the main thread that went throughout the score as you were working on it?
Well, I guess it’s mostly about the sort of image of music, which can evoke something beyond ourselves. So that’s why it sort of connects a little bit to traditional religious music or historical religious music. It’s got this kind of slow-moving ritual quality and, you know, very extreme registers, kind of low-density, low-information density, so that the listener sort of completes the piece. [That is the impact] of those kinds of things on the soundtrack; I almost feel like they’re drones, but they’re not, they’re just very slow-moving music. There’s just something about very slow-moving material which makes it feel big. I don’t know why that is. I guess we’re used to seeing, you know, large, slow-moving objects in real life, and there’s something about that that we imprint on the music somehow. All of those sorts of ideas. Honestly, for any film, you’re really just looking for material which feels like it belongs to that world. When you find it, that’s it. I mean, of course, it’s a very technical and cerebral process on one hand, and on the other hand it’s completely intuitive.