On the Nature of Daylight

Tim Farrand

Sitting at my desk, looking out over a dark and stormy sky, I am reminded of Max Richter's On the Nature of Daylight.

Ironic, that a piece seemingly about daylight should appear on a day so devoid of its presence. Weirder still that the mood conjured up by the day matches so well with Richter's work. This is because "On" is the keyword in the title, not "Daylight."

Richter's music is that of experience, similar to that of Frederick Delius, where investigation of the fleeting moment takes precedent over harmonic or motivic invention. Most classical works that we are familiar with contain a central idea that is varied, transformed, and developed to convey a sense of narrative development. Like a story, these works often play with our expectations and revolve around moments of tension and release.

On the Nature of Daylight goes a different route. Instead of motivic and harmonic variation, Richter creates a work that revolves around a single series of chords—called a harmonic progression—which repeats unchanged without deviation throughout the work. Instead of playing with our expectations, he capitalizes on them to create a sense of timelessness through the unchanging nature of the harmonic underpinning. The piece begins quietly with this series of chords played out slowly and evenly. There is no deviation in rhythm and the progression remains fairly placid, embodying a sense of stillness rather than forward movement:

Richter often creates works that are more poetic than traditionally narrative. When writing in a poetic style, he often takes a single moment and expands it for us to explore. In On the Nature of Daylight, he creates a palindrome by gradually adding layer upon layer over that foundational harmonic progression, moving toward a single climax before gradually dissolving away each of those layers until we arrive where we started.

This type of monotony of phrase, of music that circles around the same set of harmonies, exists within time instead of moving through it. He opens up this singular expression to the listener rather than guiding them through a narrative story. The music is that of adjectives rather than verbs.

The effect is one of total immersion within sound and within oneself. The predictability of the harmonic structure allows one to settle into the music instead of moving with it. It opens up space for reflection upon a single moment.

On the Nature of Daylight first appeared in Richter's album The Blue Notebooks (Idagio, Spotify), an album produced in response to the outbreak of war in Iraq in 2003. It appears again in Richter's later album Exiles (Idagio, Spotify) which contains other works of activism with the central piece, Exiles, being a response to the Syrian refugee crisis, a work that I highlighted earlier this year as a way of reflecting upon the current crisis of Ukrainian refugees being forced out of their homes.

With Exiles, [Richter] once again reminds us that music can be a place to reflect on the great questions of our time.

Wyndham Wallace

All of these pieces deal with putting the listener in a place of inner reflection. The repetition allows our minds to delve within ourselves through the space created by the emotional landscape of the work. The music becomes whatever it is we need at that moment.

On the Nature of Daylight produces within me the same powerful effect I feel when standing among nature, observing something as simple as a blade of grass or as magnificent as an incredible tree, all of which are moments that allow me to transcend my current set of worries and obligations to enter into a higher realm where the truly important things lie.

In Walden, Henry David Thoreau writes that we all need the "tonic of Wildness" and for him going into nature was a "solemn sacrament and withdrawal from the world" around him [1]. Maria Popova writes that we go into the wilderness, like churches or concert halls, to be "transfigured, recomposed, exalted and humbled. . .enlarged into something larger. We visit because there we undergo some essential self-composition in the poetry of existence. . ." [2].

May Richter's work provide you a short withdrawal from the world and give you the space for reflection upon whatever it is you need at this moment.

Cover photo by Dave Hoefler on Unsplash.

July 27, 2022

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1. Henry David Thoreau, A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, in A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers; Walden or Life in the Woods; The Maine Woods; Cape Cod, edited by Robert F. Sayre (New York: Literary Classics of the United States, 1985), 21-22. Library of America, series 28.

2. Maria Popova, "Thoreau on Nature and Human Nature, the Tonic of Wildness, and the Value of the Unexplored," The Marginalian, March 25, 2021, https://www.themarginalian.org/2021/05/25/thoreau-walden-nature/.