Your latest album is music you composed for Wayne McGregor’s new ballet Woolf Works. Were you a Virginia Woolf fan before the project?

Yeah. I read Woolf when I was in my late teens. I associate her very much with starting to explore reading for myself, beyond things I just had to read, and diving into that whole modernist explosion like Joyce and all those other writers.

Do you have particular favourites among her novels?

Well, they’re all so different. I think that’s the thing about her. It’s not like someone like Dickens where you know what you’re going to get, broadly. You don’t know with Woolf, and I think that’s what so interesting about her. They’re very, very distinctive universes. But I have a big soft spot for Mrs Dalloway, because I love the emotional texture of it.

Composer Max RichterComposer Max Richter

How did the Royal Ballet’s Woolf Works come about?

The idea came from Wayne directly. We enjoy working together and we’ve always got something cooking away in the background. He had the opportunity to make his first full length ballet at Covent Garden – so kind of a big deal – and he was thinking a lot about different kinds of storytelling and what he wanted to do with it. Eventually he settled on this idea of the Woolf novels, and of course her biography, and he came to me and I thought it was just right up my street. I live in a world of books really, so it was absolutely perfect.

With such a huge body of work and also an extraordinary life, which parts seemed immediately attractive for dance or music?

By the time I came along, the decision had been made about which novels to choose. So on my side, the process really started with gathering as many different kinds of material together. One of the things I turned up almost immediately was this amazing 1937 recording of her reading the essay on craftsmanship, which is the only recording of her voice. That for me was a light bulb moment, because actually hearing her, not just talking but reading this essay on the subject of words and language, it couldn’t be more perfect. So that was the little bit of grit in the oyster that started my whole process.

I think of our three Woolf works as a journey from that text, which talks about words having an inner life of their own, and intentionality, and all sorts of agendas and appropriations. And it’s a through line from that text to her last piece of writing, which is her suicide letter (which is also about language actually), and about being lost for words. She can’t read, she can’t write, all of that. It’s about her parting company from language in an extraordinary way, I think.

Max Richter Woolf WorksThe Royal Ballet’s Woolf Works. Photos © Tristram Kenton

Woolf talks specifically there about losing words and her inability to form sentences. Obviously, music can be seen as a metaphor for what you can express without words. Was that an important element for you?

Yes. In some ways, that’s what music is, isn’t it? Music is a language, but it’s a language that is both very vague, and very precise. But precise in a way that words are not. It operates in a different way. It operates on our senses and our mind, and I think we feel spoken to when we are listening to music that we’re engaging with. And I think Woolf herself was very much impressed with that quality of music, of a communicative art that is somehow beyond written language.

How did you go about corralling ideas like using electronic music and found sound?

Each novel has its own psychological and practical texture. One of the big things in Mrs Dalloway is the presence of the city of London. In one way, it’s a novel of people just walking about doing things in this busy place. The voice of London is the sound of its bells, and the sound of its traffic, so I wanted to incorporate those things. I started off by documenting these sounds, which of course Woolf would have heard living in Bloomsbury. She would have heard Big Ben, and the book is full of sensory type writing like sounds, smells, textures and tactile stuff. So I wanted to incorporate all of that in the Dalloway section.

Orlando, on the other hand, is a sort of baroque fantasy, isn’t it? It’s got elements of sci-fi and it’s all about transformation. It’s incredibly playful as well. For me, Orlando’s extended biography and his very fluid situation suggested a theme and variations, so I thought I would use a well-known tune from the Renaissance. La Folia is a Spanish dance associated with madness, which seemed to chime with some elements of the story. I set about using this image of transformation on a number of levels, so Orlando has instrumental and orchestral music and chamber music, and it uses all sorts of electronics. I wanted to try and inscribe this idea of transformation on the musical material itself, even beyond Orlando. Maybe the musical atoms in that piece have gone on that journey, because I then rearranged La Folia and fed it into an analogue sequencer, and then extracted the patterns and wrote them down for orchestra. The orchestra recorded those, and then I transformed them in a digital domain, so it was a sort of sculptural process mirroring that transformational journey that’s at the heart of Orlando itself.

Max Richter Woolf WorksAlessandra Ferri in the Royal Ballet’s Woolf Works

With the Mrs Dalloway section, does the music represent her as a character, or is it more of a mood or a flavour of the novel?

There are specific things in Dalloway, which I wouldn’t say I matched one to one, but we wanted to deal with the way the relationships operate structurally in the book. The In the Garden sequence, which is the beginning of the CD, is where Clarissa and Sally meet in the garden, and there is another meeting in the garden with Peter. So that whole little complex relationship is played out in that music. Then there is the War Anthem moment, which is a big moment in the ballet itself, what we call the post-traumatic, shell shock scene. That’s also the first marker for the idea of suicide in the ballet, which obviously comes back at the end in The Waves.

The Waves is probably Woolf’s most complex novel, telling the story of six people plus one, Percival, who dies part of the way through. Are those character stories particularly relevant to your work, or is it more to do with Woolf’s drowning and the novel’s sense of loss?

It’s really the latter. The juxtaposition of The Waves with the suicide letter and also Woolf’s preoccupation with the image of the wave – the sea crops up all over her writing. So it’s a more reflective space really. The music is affording an opportunity to think about Woolf’s own biography and the end of her journey.

Max Richter Woolf WorksFederico Bonelli and Alessandra Ferri in Woolf Works

The final sequence, called Tuesday after the day of the week she died, is one continuous piece of music. How does it work in the ballet and what do we see while that music is playing?

You see a sequence of choreography very much centred on the singular figure of Woolf. From one point of view, you could say it’s like a life in review. There are all sorts of figures of different ages, which play, not exactly themes, but present kind of landscapes from different eras of her life. And you also see these wave characters. It’s the most stunning bit of choreography, actually. It’s really, really creatively strong.

Given the quantity she wrote and the amount that has been written about her, how do you feel now about the piece?

I feel you could keep going forever with Woolf, because her work is so rich. You open a single page and ideas burst out at you. The density of imagination in a square inch is really striking. It’s an inexhaustible fount. I feel very grateful to have had the opportunity to engage with the novels again, and to revisit them. I think there’s something very inspiring about this amazing body of work she managed to create in spite of everything she was going through psychologically. And I feel that this is a tribute to what creativity can do, both in the individual life and socially. It’s a testament to the redeeming power of creative work. That for me is the overarching impression I have of the project now, and I’m really very happy about that.

Max Richter’s Three Worlds: Music from Woolf Works is out now on Deutsche Grammophon. The Royal Ballet present Woolf Works at QPAC 29 June – 2 July.