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Max Richter pervades modern culture / The Atlantic Q&A

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Music, Alfred Hitchcock once said, "makes it possible to express the unspoken" in film-to hint at underlying turmoil or approaching darkness. No contemporary composer expresses the same complexity of emotion onscreen as Max Richter, whose work pervades modern culture, from film to television to dance to theater. On The Leftovers, the HBO show about the sudden and incomprehensible disappearance of 2 percent of the world's population, it's Richter's theme that expresses the world's subsequent state of nihilism and despair. "On the Nature of Daylight," a composition from his 2004 album The Blue Notebooks, pops up in countless scenes and soundtracks, notably in a pivotal moment in Denis Villeneuve's upcoming sci-fi film Arrival. Richter also wrote the score for the 2016 film Morgan, a sci-fi horror film about a human hybrid gone wrong.

His newest work accompanies the first episode of the new season of Black Mirror, Charlie Brooker's speculative series about a world transformed by technology. In "Nosedive," directed by Joe Wright (Atonement) and starring Bryce Dallas Howard (Jurassic World), a woman lives in a reality where every interaction, no matter how tiny, is rated, and people gain status in society based on their scores as human beings. Throughout the episode, the score creates a sense of gorgeous disconnect: a signal for viewers that beneath the sunny perfection of the world of "Nosedive" is something deeply troubling.

Although Richter's work rewards focused attention, his most recent album was intended for subconscious rather than conscious listening. 2015's Sleep is an eight-hour record created with the help of a neuroscientist to accompany a full night of rest-a comment both on the scattered nature of modern attention spans and the power of slow art. Some of his upcoming projects include the Jessica Chastain movie Miss Sloane, season three of The Leftovers, a show called Taboo for the BBC starring Tom Hardy, and a new ballet for the Netherlands Dance Theater. He spoke with me by phone; the interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

READ The Atlantic Q&A