Classical music is full of works that had a utilitarian purpose. Telemann’s Tafelmusik was literally the soundtrack to nobles and rich people eating dinner. Mozart’s Serenades, Handel’s Water Music — these pieces all had a role to play, not unlike that of a film score. And like a film score, the best of them transcend their event or utility and survive on their musical merits.
Max Richter’s 24 Postcards in Full Colour is a series of brief, perhaps even epigrammatic compositions, meant to be used as ringtones. Most of them are somewhere around one minute long; a few are shorter, and one stretches to an epic 2:52 (that’s “A Sudden Manhattan Of The Mind,” which frankly sounds closer to the expansive, cinematic ensemble pieces on his albums Memoryhouse and The Blue Notebooks and which is hard to imagine as a ringtone). Many of these pieces are built around acoustic strings, piano and a fair amount of electronics — all hallmarks of this German keyboardist/composer’s style. And most of them stand up quite nicely as musical moments — apart from any other potential uses. In fact, most of them would make for strange ringtones indeed: The jangly guitar and found sounds of “In Louisville at 7″ give that piece the feel of a particularly twilit scene from TV’s Friday Night Lights, and the unsettled but ambient nature of “Return To Prague” also evokes a strong sense of place and of drama.
These small packages can deliver surprisingly big images, especially when the album is heard as a whole. Not for nothing does Richter call these pieces “postcards.” A journey is implied, both in the titles and in the sure-handed way in which Richter sketches, quickly, a mood — solitude in “Overnight in Berlin,” nostalgia in “From 553 W Elm Street, Logan, Illinois (Snow),” restless energy in “Tokyo Riddle Song,” etc. But with its spare, almost Satie-like piano, a piece like “Circles From The Rue Simon-Crubellier” could actually be a very effective ringtone, and a nice break from that ubiquitous marimba tone all the iPhones seem to use.