How we made our epic filmed tribute to the overlooked composer
'Maximum Reger', produced in 2016 in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Max Reger’s death, contains 15 hours of material and is the biggest set of films I’ve ever created. It was daunting to know that no one else had attempted anything on this scale about Reger. I had to get it right first time. I decided to make a musicological film, in which biographical details would come from the discussion of the music. An artist subliminally injects their music with their biography, so I felt this approach would take us to Reger’s heart, even if in a sometimes oblique way. Furthermore, the way Reger used traditional musical techniques was so intense that it speaks volumes about his inner person.
I have loved Reger’s music ever since I was a teenager, drawn into his intense world of emotional instability, harmonic expressivity and intellectual precision, but I soon realised that, although I knew many of his works, his output was vast, and I knew only a tiny proportion of the whole. So, the first step for me was listening to as much of Reger’s work as possible and choosing which works to record. The problem is, it takes several hearings to take in each of his compositions, so this was a challenging undertaking.
Consider, for example, his First Piano Quintet, a masterwork that doesn’t even have an opus number. The first movement is a cascade in every sense of the word, a huge, positive eruption of energy. The scherzo is so weird and spooky as to be both post-modern and meaningful. The slow movement is a set of variations that would be an independent piece if it was by a more conventional composer. The finale starts as a cliff-edge race, moves through a mad but perfectly constructed fugue, and ends with what is basically a jazz cadenza. The whole piece lasts 40 minutes, but it takes hours to come to terms with this music. And how should you listen? If you diligently follow the score you can comprehend the music more, but if you put the score away those black dots fly away like bees from a hive and you get the music’s sensuality.
There are many documentaries about music which don’t get beneath the surface of the music. The question is: how do you really communicate something musical using film as a medium? In essence, what does film have to do with music that allows greater communication than, say, a book? I think the answer has to do with intensity and technique.
I worked – along with everyone involved – in a highly intensive manner to get this film made. Likewise, Reger worked like this his whole life, and in the end destroyed himself. This might seem like a wildcard, but my favourite film director is Sam Peckinpah, who I think, despite his many limitations as a person, was the best film editor (ie able to intensify the cinema experience through intercutting different shots) who ever lived. He was also a man who, like Reger, destroyed himself and, again like Reger, managed to project the intensities of that process into his art. I never made the connection between these things until late in the project, but now I see that the way I work, and my love of both Reger and Peckinpah, come from the same place. It has to do with wanting art to be a certain way, for it to have a crazed intensity that a more 'normal' artist can never deliver.
My way of editing films is basically derived from Peckinpah. I’m not interested in the camera moving around the mise-en-scène but always use a static camera and montage editing, with its rhythmic intercutting of disparate elements to express the subject of the film. I now realise that Reger was the perfect subject for this kind of film-making. The intercutting and montage editing of both musical performances and narrative content were perfectly in line with Reger’s own turbulent use of musical techniques.
If you take up the challenge of 'Maximum Reger' and immerse yourself in it I hope this alignment of subject matter and technique will bring you a feeling of artistic intensity, both from the music and the film-making (and the contributions of the crew and all those driven Teutonic performers), that you won’t find in too many other places. Films about classical music can often seem urbane, but in the case of Maximum Reger I think you will find a lot of passion, wildness and adventure in it.
'Maximum Reger' is reviewed in the June 2017 issue of Gramophone (out now!). For further information about the DVD, please visit: fuguestatefilms.co.uk/reger