THE radio and TV presenter Clemency Burton-Hill recently described her panic attacks and how classical music turned out to be her salvation. It began, she said, when she listened to Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier, and gradually widened out through cello suites and cantatas into what she termed a “minor sonic miracle … a positive daily ritual” that included “soulful instrumental pieces” by the contemporary composer, Max Richter.

Burton-Hill is far from being the first person to lose herself in the emotional impact of Richter’s music. His Blue Notebooks album was deservedly described as a “modern compositional tour de force of almost overwhelming emotional power”, as “deceptively tranquil, borderline supernatural music”, and as “languorously transcendent”. Cerys Matthews, the BBC 6 Music presenter, has chosen his most recent CD, Three Worlds: Music From Woolf Works, as her album of 2017, singling it out for its freshness, distinctiveness, and emotional power. And when American actress Amy Brenneman tweeted a scene from her TV show, The Leftovers, the music for which had been written by Richter, she told him simply: “You slay me.”

The public and critical acclaim accorded Richter suggests that he has successfully negotiated the struggle to, as he has put it, "find the balance between my needing to say things, and giving space for the listener to bring their own world to the piece". He has also written that his entire composing life "has been about reducing outward complexity to get to the heart of what I am trying to say".

Later this month Richter brings his Three Worlds project to Celtic Connections, in the company of his own Ensemble and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra. Gavin Reid, SCO chief executive, says the collaboration with Richter stemmed from discussions with Donald Shaw, artistic director at Celtic Connections. “We are both keen to develop a partnership between the SCO and Celtic Connections and for 2018, the opportunity arose to work with Max ... He’s a fascinating and incredibly creative musician and we’re delighted to be collaborating on Woolf Works. It is a perfect project for us to present in the extraordinarily diverse context of Celtic Connections.”

Three Worlds began life as the original score for a ballet devised by Wayne McGregor for London’s Royal Ballet, based on three of the novels by Virginia Woolf – Mrs Dalloway, Orlando and The Waves. The ballet won the Critics’ Circle Award for Best Classical Choreography and the Olivier Award for Best New Dance Production.

The Mrs Dalloway section on the CD begins with Woolf herself, reading part of an essay, Craftsmanship, in a BBC radio broadcast made on April 29, 1937. It’s the only surviving recording of the author. “That’s like Christmas, isn’t it, when you find something like that?” Richter acknowledges. “One of the things I did at the beginning of the project was to cast around for any documentary sources. I wasn’t expecting to discover this recording of Virginia Woolf herself. I just didn’t think there would be anything. So when you hear her voice, which is obviously a voice which embodies her life but also the society and culture at the time, it was very, very powerful.”

Richter himself was in his early 20s when Woolf’s insistent question, "How can we live?" drew him obsessively to her published works. “She has been part of my reading life for a long time. I think it’s really the discovery of modernism, that early modernist explosion – Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, TS Eliot – all of that work from the 1920s. That’s like the lights going on, isn’t it, when you discover that stuff.

“I read a lot, and I love stories. Stories are, I think, one of the fundamental human attributes, this idea of storytelling. I think of music as a sort of way to do that, and to connect to stories. I’m always casting around for new material. And obviously, in my earlier records, I engaged with people like [Franz] Kafka and [Haruki] Murakami and various other writers.”

One of the pieces on the CD that struck a strong emotional chord with listeners was the closing track, Tuesday, which is based on Woolf's "dream-like narrative", The Waves. Over the sound of breaking waves Gillian Anderson reads the suicide note that Woolf left for her husband, Leonard, in March 1941 – “I feel certain that I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t recover this time” – before she walked into the river Ouse in Sussex, her overcoat laden with stones.

Anderson’s voice gives way to Richter’s music – unhurried, unbearably poignant. As the composer himself observes in his liner notes: “The wave-like melodic contour in the material builds over 20 minutes and incorporates a solo soprano, as if she were submerged in the oceanic orchestral texture.”

Woolf’s suicide note ends with her telling Leonard, “I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been”, and it has lost none of its affecting intimacy over more than seven decades. “It’s incredible,” observes Richter, “and it’s a very powerful piece of writing. What’s interesting I think in that note is that for her it’s about her life, her emotional life, her physical existence, but it’s also about her saying goodbye to language. She’s talking about how she can’t write; words fail her. It’s a heartbreaking piece of work, it’s astounding.”

The music for Three Worlds took Richter two years “of planning, research, experiment, and theorising”. Was it difficult to scale the music back within the confines of a standalone CD that runs for just over an hour? “The thing about the ballet obviously is that it’s a kind of multi-sensory experience. It’s not just music, it’s lighting and movement, and you’re in that kind of physical space. Making a record out of that is a different discipline, actually, because you’re still trying to tell a story but via kind of reduced means. The music is substantially different from the original ballet, and it’s sort of reconfigured for a live performance.”

Richter was born in Hamelin, in Lower Saxony, Germany, in March 1966. His family moved to Bedford, in England, when he was young. Music shaped his life from an early age; not only did he play piano, but he was also making synthesisers from old components. At the age of 12 or 13, he was playing the piano when he was overheard by the man who delivered the family’s milk. He was also an artist, and he began giving the young Richter experimental LPs by the then-unknown Philip Glass, amongst others. “I was very lucky, really”, says Richter. “Many people who do creative things have got that one moment of luck, haven’t they, when something happens and a light goes on somewhere. This guy was an artist and he was very engaged with contemporary music in a way which was very difficult to do at that time. I mean, there wasn’t any internet, and it was hard to get hold of this stuff. It was amazing to be exposed to this completely different sort of musical languages. I was very fortunate.”

Richter studied piano and composition at Edinburgh University in the 1980s, before going on to London’s Royal College of Music and to study under the renowned composer, Luciano Berio. He spent around a decade, on and off, in Edinburgh. As he told The Herald, last year: “You can't really choose your home town, it's like falling in love. And I just love being in Edinburgh. I feel welcome … I raised my kids there, they went to school there. I do think of it as my home town, honestly. I've always travelled a lot and I've never really lived anywhere but I lived longer in Edinburgh than I have anywhere else.”

His earliest forays into music included the contemporary music ensemble, Piano Circus and collaborations with The Future Sound Of London, the electronic music group. When his first solo album, Memoryhouse, came out in 2002, it was greeted not with acclaim but with pure silence. “It was like a tree falling in the wood with no-one there to witness it,” he told Cerys Matthews last February. “The record was deleted, the label was closed … [But] I just thought, no-one’s listening, so I might as well keep doing what I feel like doing.” (The album received much applause on its eventual reissue.)

He had better fortune with his next record, The Blue Notebooks, with texts by Kafka and Czeslaw Milosz, and made at a time when the US and UK were preparing to go to war in Iraq. “Now we live in a time of the politics of unreality and the politics of fiction,” he told Matthews. “In a way, that was the beginning of that.” The album was designed as a “protest album about Iraq, a mediation on violence”, he told the Guardian in 2016.

The Blue Notebooks included On The Nature Of Daylight, a quite beautiful piece of work, which has been heard on such films as Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island and Denis Villeneuve’s alien-contact hit, Arrival.

Richter has composed scores or soundtracks for film, theatre, TV, opera and conceptual art works. His theatre works include Alan Cumming’s solo Broadway version of Macbeth. His CDs ranged from Songs From Before, with the songwriter Robert Wyatt reading texts by Haruki Murakami, to Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi, The Four Seasons; and Sleep, “an eight-hour lullaby”, which has been performed overnight in Paris, Madrid, London and Sydney, with beds provided for the audience.

Richter has observed that music in film "is a kind of amniotic fluid and the film lives in it. Sometimes music can be at the forefront, playing a supportive role without even realising it, but if you take it away you would miss out on the basics". His film scores include the extraordinary animated Israeli documentary, Waltz With Bashir, the Glasgow-set Perfect Sense, and the US political thriller Miss Sloane (“I felt slightly sorry for Miss Sloane,” he says, “because they released it on the day of the American [presidential] elections [in 2016], which in retrospect was probably not such a great move. But I loved the politics of Miss Sloane.”) He has written the score for the newly-released western, Hostiles (starring Christian Bale and Rosamund Pike), and discloses that “I’m actually doing a really interesting new film, of Mary Queen of Scots". The film is directed by Josie Rourke and has Saoirse Ronan in the title role. "They’ve spent a lot of time up in Glencoe, getting very wet. It’s fantastic, it’s looking very good.”

Richter recently provided an insight into his musical influences and tastes with a double-CD compilation, Behind The Counter With Max Richter. Among his lifelong favourites – such as the maverick American composer Charles Ives, and Schubert – are two Scottish acts, Mogwai and Boards Of Canada. “There must be something going on [in Scotland],” he says with a laugh. “The thing about both of them is that they’ve been consistently great for a really long time. Boards Of Canada’s Music Has The Right To Children was just a transformative record, I think. At the time it came out [1998] I was working with Future Sound of London. It came out and everyone was just like, ‘Damn’. They’ve basically written the perfect document of that language, and it kind of left everyone else a bit depressed. And Mogwai are fascinating because they keep re-inventing what instrumental music is. They’re just really creative.”

Richter, who says that almost everything he composes has a socio-political anchor, recently spoke about artists who agitate in the cause of peace. Are there signs that more artists are responding to this?

"The thing is, we live in what feels an increasingly sort of fragile, volatile, historical moment," he says. "I really think that one of the things that creativity can do is to try and talk about that. It seems to me that music and art are social projects; and if we’re not engaging with these things at all, then what are we doing? And so I think it’s a missed opportunity to just kind of pretend everything’s fine, because everything is not fine. It’s one of the things that music has to do, to look at what’s going on, and talk about that.”

• Max Richter/Scottish Chamber Orchestra, Three Worlds: Music From Woolf Works is at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on January 23 as part of Celtic Connections. The Sunday Herald is the festival's media partner. For full programme and ticket details visit