This much is true: Max Richter is a composer.
Things then get a little hazy. Does he write classical music? Sometimes. There's an opera and a couple of ballets in there, among other things. He writes soundtracks, too. He did an episode of Black Mirror and composed the music for the outstanding animated film Waltz With Bashir. He helped resurrect the career of folk singer Vashti Bunyan and has worked with cutting-edge dance acts.
Richter's sparse, ambient music has been called post-minimalist but he's not interested in such labels: "I've always thought those sorts of boundaries were a conspiracy of marketeers," he says. "People don't listen in terms of categories, they pursue the things they love and things that intrigue them."
However you describe it, people certainly love Richter's music; he's among the most in-demand and popular composers of our age. Now, in something of a coup, he brings three works to Auckland Arts Festival which has offered the composer a residency that comprises a lecture and two concerts.
The first performance features his music-as-art-installation epic Sleep; the second pairs one of Richter's best works, Three Worlds: Music from Woolf Works, with his best-known, Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi - The Four Seasons.
Whatever Richter is now, he started in the classical world. After graduating from the Royal College of Music, he studied with Luciano Berio, a composer whose work ran the gamut from violent brutality to serene beauty, often in the same piece or even the same bar. Berio's influence is subtle but it's there in Richter's compositions.
"A piece like Recomposed is absolutely a Berio-esque proposition; it's a trip through an existing work trying to discover new things in it, illuminating aspects of it. My language and Vivaldi's coexist in a very Berio-ish sort of way."
Richter, though, has largely shed the dissonance that punctuates some of his teacher's most celebrated works.
"Dissonance has been interesting for me," says Richter. "When I came out of the conservatory I was writing [famously difficult composer Brian] Ferneyhough-style, incredibly complicated music. It was all very satisfying and everything but I really feel that music is a way for us to communicate, it's a social project and ultimately, I wanted to be understood as much as I could. That meant radically simplifying my language."
Richter has been criticised for that simplicity.
Gramophone magazine, for one, described Recomposed as "pleasant-sounding but essentially faceless". Richter's many fans care not a jot and, reflecting the composer's desire to be understood, they aren't just classical aficionados.
"We find he appeals to a broad audience," says Roger Marbeck, owner of legendary Auckland music shop Marbeck's. "He's given the music scene a huge boost and brought something fresh to the classical world."
Gramophone has a point, though. At first listen, Richter's music is aggressively inoffensive, smooth as glass, without handholds to gain a grip on its surface, and resisting attempts to burrow deeper.
Violinist Amalia Hall, who has played Recomposed with Blackbird Ensemble, says the key is to forget any preconceptions about what you think the music should be.
"Everyone knows The Four Seasons," Hall says, "but you have to listen to Richter with fresh ears, then you can hear things you wouldn't necessarily notice in Vivaldi. Richter takes elements and makes them come out more prominently."
In some places, these slivers of Vivaldi act almost like the samples in dance music, rearing their heads and reminding the listener of connections to the original work, before dropping away. It's similar to how rappers might use a James Brown squeal as an acknowledgement to a master of an earlier generation.
Unsurprisingly, Richter has been actively involved in electronic music collaborating with the likes of Future Sound of London and Roni Size. However, the raison d'etre of these artists is to get people dancing, so it's a little odd that the other work Richter presents at AAF is Sleep, an eight-hour overnight concert where the audience is encouraged to close eyes, count sheep and drift away.
Why on earth would Richter want to send people to sleep? It's the ultimate insult for a composer, surely?
"People have written about Sleep as though it were a sleeping pill, which it isn't," he says. "It's more a set of questions about how it would be if we wrote a piece of music to sleep through. How would that feel?
"And I think of it as a political object, an act of resistance. One of my preoccupations is to do with our information universe, this saturation of data we have. Let's all stop scrolling for a minute, let's shut down the blizzard of data and listen for a while."
If there's irony in someone involved in electronic music being discomfited by the effects of technology, perhaps Sleep is Richter's attempt to resolve that contradiction. The work gives people the precious commodity of time: time to pause, unplug from the pressures and anxieties of everyday life. Mobile devices are not banned but they are heartily discouraged.
"A lot of that sort of thing is displacement activity," says the composer. "We busy ourselves with this stuff to not think about the big things. Communal listening, overnight, in this vulnerable state and in an intimate space, seems to lead to people reflecting on the bigger themes and the bigger stories in their lives."