Inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1948 United Nations document, Max Richter’s ‘Voices’ album reflects his alarm at the state of our world as the 21st century unfolds
Talk to Max Richter for a while and you begin to latch onto something in his voice. Beyond his still apparent German accent and the assured reserve that fits the profile of someone brought up in the British public school system, a feeling of not quite believing his luck seeps through. It’s a mixture of joyfulness and vague incredulity that may stem from the knowledge that he has pulled off, if not quite the impossible, then certainly the highly improbable.
Max Richter is, after all, one of the rarest of breeds. He has managed to become a household name while operating in the highly specialised, niche world of contemporary classical music. Thanks to the efforts of his major label backers Decca, his new album has received the kind of multi-platform promotional push more usually reserved for the Beyoncés and the Taylor Swifts. It’s hard to watch a YouTube clip, open a magazine, or make a trip on the underground without being reminded of its arrival.
So when I catch up with Richter at his home in Oxfordshire, it is part of a press day, during which he’ll be put under the spotlight by different media outlets pretty much from dawn ’til dusk.
“Oh yeah, there’s going to be a bit of chatting today,” he says with typical understatement.
Does he relish that?
“I enjoy interviews, but you forget who you’ve said what to when you get too many in a row. But don’t worry, it’s still early in the day.”
It helps too, that Richter is someone with something to say. He is no stranger to taking on big concepts in his work. His score for ‘Waltz With Bashir’, for example, was integral to the original way the 2008 film portrayed the horrors of the 1982 Lebanon War. It acted as the emotional barometer of the movie, weaving together a real-life narrative from the people involved and a hyper-real animated recreation of events. A short while later, he responded to the 2005 terrorist bombings on the London transport system by writing ‘Infra’ for a Royal Opera House ballet of the same name. He makes no bones about seeing his compositions as a form of activism, even if it’s not quite the placard-waving type.
“It’s not even a conscious thing – I don’t think so anyway – it’s just that these are subjects I want to write about,” he says. “But I don’t really go for finger pointing, it’s more about drawing attention to the problems.”
That notion is certainly writ large upon ‘Voices’, Max Richter’s latest and arguably most ambitious project to date. The work is based around the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It was launched at the Barbican in London a few weeks before the lockdown began.
“We were very lucky,” he notes. “A lot of people have had to cancel things, but once we’d premiered ‘Voices’, all I had to do was finish the recording and the mix. So lockdown hasn’t been too bad for me. It means me sitting in a room writing, which is mainly what I’m doing anyway.”
The story of ‘Voices’ goes back 10 years ago, to a piece called ‘Mercy’. Richter initially saw it as a sketch for an album, a starting point, but it has ended up being the closing track on the record.
“It was a reaction against what I saw was happening with Guantanamo Bay and black sites, with secret torture and extraordinary rendition. I was shocked and felt the whole world had gone in a new direction – and not a good one. So I wrote ‘Mercy’ for the violinist Hilary Hahn and, in the intervening years, I returned to it and wrote more and more. When I began, I wanted to create something brutal, something that was proper protest music.”
As ‘Voices’ developed into a full-on album, the original plan was to write a piece only for double basses, the thinking being that inverting the usual violin-led arrangement of an orchestra would reflect a world literally turned upside down. In time, he realised that was probably pushing things too far, but some aspects of this idea survived, with Richter using an unconventional set-up of 12 double basses and 24 cellos, going up against just six violas and eight violins. The brutality gave way to what Richter explains is more of a space to enable.
“You have this canvas, then the music and the text. The music gives you the opportunity to think about the text and the intentions behind it.”
The text is quite literally composed of readings from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It begins with Eleanor Roosevelt, who was tasked with creating the document by the United Nations, speaking in 1948. Second up is the American actor KiKi Layne, whose voice returns throughout.
“I really loved her in the film ‘If Beale Street Could Talk’ and I wanted to hear a young voice to emphasise the future potential of the Declaration.”
As the work continues, the vision of a post-war society promising freedom from oppression and discrimination for all gradually and movingly unfolds.
We hear readings from the Declaration in numerous languages, the contributors having been sourced by Richter on social media.
“It reflects the universality of the issue,” he says. “You get this kind of texture of voices, which is like music in itself. When I saw some of the places the readings were coming from, I came to realise that there are a lot of very brave people out there. This is not a popular document in certain places around the globe.”
What appealed to Richter about the Universal Declaration in the first place?
“It is only a foundational text, written in the aftermath of the Second World War to try to prevent a disaster like that being inflicted on people again. Philosophers, thinkers and artists all worked on a blueprint to help us do better, basically.”
Richter says he admires the optimism of the document, while admitting it has its faults.
“It’s not perfect,” he says. “It’s probably of its time. There are things you’d do differently if you wrote it today, but it forms the basis of a liberal consensus. It’s really hopeful and it’s something we can get behind. It’s an idealistic vision.”
He laughs as he feels the need to state, pretty firmly, that he’s asking questions rather than providing solutions.
“I don’t have the answers, but I’m trying to shine a light on the problem.”
Nevertheless, he’s more than aware that the themes contained within ‘Voices’ have come to the fore globally in the light of the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in the US.
“I think it’s a very polarised situation that’s developing in the world right now,” he continues. “There are horrible abuses going on. What happened to George Floyd is symptomatic of the situation all over the States with the behaviour of the police. Black Lives Matter looks like it’s a reimagining of the civil rights movement, which is brilliant. It feels like there’s a real grassroots activism that’s grown up. The future hasn’t been written yet, so I’m optimistic. People seem to have grasped what’s at stake and the fact that there are a lot of young people involved is great too. This is a very open and fast-moving generation.”
Things are moving quickly in the music arena too. Richter’s role, straddling experimental electronic and classical music, is not completely unprecedented. Being able to take this fusion into the mainstream and translate it into widespread success is undoubtedly highly unusual. He certainly seems at home using electronics and sampling techniques, and then meshing them with the traditions of the classical orchestra. He also seems happy to take his place at the keyboard in the middle of this gathered ensemble, as well as fulfilling the more reclusive role of the composer.
Perhaps most significant of all is the way that Richter has embraced the medium of the album – that once defiantly pop and rock vehicle – for his projects. In an interview with visual artist Tacita Dean for BBC Radio 4’s head-to-head series ‘Only Artists’, he talks about hitting a creative wall with classical music when he was learning piano as a teenager, sensing that it was rooted in the past. To his rescue came the local milkman, a fan of the new wave of left-field contemporary classical composers, who took it upon himself to educate young Richter with deliveries of cutting-edge albums. Can he recall what records were left on the doorstep with the family’s morning semi-skimmed?
“I remember him introducing me to early Philip Glass, like ‘Music With Changing Parts’, which wasn’t even out in the UK at the time. It was crazy. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! I mean, my idea of modern classical music was Stravinsky.”
It was the start of a journey that saw him eventually move into composing alongside playing, joining the dots between the experimental ends of electronic and contemporary classical music. Does he think the two are closer than ever now?
“There was always a crossover with electronics, which I think is based around the studio as the shared space,” he says. “You hear it with Stockhausen, early Terry Riley, early Pink Floyd, Can and Neu!, and then you got even more of it in the 80s and 90s. Experimentation was defined by technology.”
One of the aspects of the modern sonic landscape he particularly welcomes is the freedom from previous obsessions with fashion and genre divisions.
“It’s gone,” he declares. “When I was growing up, if you were into certain bands it made you a traitor. You know, if you were more of a punk, it would be hard for you to like some of the Manchester stuff, or whatever. Your tastes would be defined by six bands that were all from the same genre. It’s very cultural, that tribal thing. But music is about feeling, whether we intellectualise it or not.”
Richter remains an avid listener of electronic music, raving about the latest modular synth sounds he’s hearing from Berlin, while simultaneously mourning the passing of Ennio Morricone, whose death was announced on the morning that we spoke.
“Morricone’s work is not afraid to make direct emotional statements,” he says, by way of tribute. “But he also came up with great tunes, which is not something you can say about everyone. Lots of composers don’t really write great ones. His work has elevated the art form, it transcends it, it stands alone, rather than just being the score for a film.”
Film is a medium that’s obviously close to Richter’s heart, in more ways than one. He is married to Yulia Mahr, a renowned filmmaker, anthropologist and artist in her own right, as well as a close collaborator on many of his projects. Her video for the title track of the ‘Voices’ album is a lyrical and texturally rich companion to the piece. A second video, this time to accompany the track ‘Mercy’, combines images from the New York subway, a newborn being cradled, and doves and butterflies taking flight, bringing the aching melancholy of the music to life in front of our eyes. Richter says it was Mahr who gave him the confidence and resolve to stick to his art in the face of adversity and improbability.
“Nobody in my family was in music,” he notes. “And the idea of making a living from it was ridiculous. Yulia and I have been together for nearly 30 years and we collaborate on everything we do, even though she’s not a musician. Every time we sit down for a cup of tea, every time we have a conversation, we’re collaborating.”
With nine albums now under Richter’s belt and the couple’s Studio Richter Mahr enabling and promoting numerous creative concerns by a growing coterie of artists, they’re in an enviable position. But his attitude towards commercial success and critical acclaim seems to be one of dislocation.
“Making the notes on the page, that’s what we can control,” he says. “Whether people are going to like it is beyond our control. For us, success is to be able to buy nice food, because we were broke for a long time. That really is an artist’s life.”
As well as the release of ‘Voices’, the pair’s latest adventure is taking ‘Sleep’, the eight-hour magnum opus Richter released in 2015, and turning the album into an app designed to combat insomnia.
“Sleep is generally in retreat,” says Richter. “We are living these mechanical, industrial lives. We’re on our mobile devices all the time. We’re too wired. I’m trying to give a focus for sleep, and the app is a really nice way to do that. You can set it for five hours of sleep or six hours or whatever and it will re-structure the work to suit you. It has a very particular spectrum, which is based on what an unborn baby would hear, so it creates this fundamental space. Then the last section brightens up and gives you a really gentle, gradual way of waking up.”
And beyond that, you can rest assured that new ideas are bound to be percolating and developing in Max Richter’s brain.
“If you’re a composer, then on some level there’s always something going on in your head. You’re always composing. It’s work and play at the same time.”
‘Voices’ is released on Decca