Max Richter doesn’t do things by half – his epic Sleep is an eight-hour concept album based on human slumbering and his new album Voices was a decade in the making.
The long gestation of Voices may be partly explained by the German born British post-minimalist composer’s busy schedule, with eight solo albums under his belt, and a seemingly endless run of film scores.
“Voices is a piece of music as a space to reflect or think about the world we’ve made, and the world we want to make,” says Max Richter on a Zoom call.
“I use the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the text in the record and as a jumping off point for that thinking process.”
That declaration was agreed by United Nations General Assembly in 1948 as a response to the horrors of the recent world war establishing a set of principles for the rights of the individual. The 30 articles set out how humans should ideally behave towards to one another.
Those principles may have found their way into international law but they not legally binding on individual nations. But Richter offers a timely reminder of what our shared world might look if we can apply the articles before it is too late.
“That’s the wonderful thing about it as looking around at the world as it is now, even before the pandemic and even more so now, it’s easy to get a bit depressed and hopeless.
“It feel like a lot things are going wrong, but when I started working with the declaration it occurred to me really that, yes, we have all these problems, but pretty much of them all we’ve made, and here’s a set of solutions to these problems that we’ve also made. It struck me that’s actually a very hopeful situation.”
There’s not many albums that start with a crackly recording of a long dead First Lady reading out the preamble to the universal declaration before a modern day movie star take up reading bits of the text as the music and other voices from the global community weave round her.
“Eleanor Roosevelt was in large part responsible for the writing of the declaration, she assembled a group of people who came up with the text, and she was very much central to it. I came across this recording of the preamble and just thought it was perfect as a sort of introductory thing as it gives a sense of the history of it – it’s 70 years ago now.
“But then I wanted a young voice to do most of the reading and I’d seen the film If Beale Street Could Talk, which Kiki Layne is the lead actor in. She really carries that film with her narration, so I knew the sound of her voice, and thought this is the perfect voice to put these words across because it is a young voice.
“The narration is really about the future we haven’t made yet, it’s all about potential, so I really wanted that feeling of possibility.”
Layne anchors the narration, but Richter also opened up his project to the world issuing an open call out for people across the globe to send him recording of the parts of the declaration that meant something to them read in their own tongue.
“Hundreds of recordings came in just on their phones, so it was almost like curating something, and it took some time to work through it all to find the most effective ways to use all these different tonalities and voices to make a bigger object that made sense,” recalls Richter.
“I feel like the voices are kind of a landscape for the music to inhabit, and vice versa, as there is an alternating relationship between the music and the voices.
“That was really why I wanted to do the crowd sourcing to have a sense of the universality of it, and to really embed that democratic principle in the record itself to make it an open structure.”
If adding narration and a myriad of voices to a big score wasn’t complicated enough Richter decided to make life even tougher for himself by creating what he has dubbed an ‘upside down’ orchestra.
“It’s my name for an orchestra where the proportions of the instruments have been inverted so it is almost all bass instruments, basses and cellos, and hardly any upper strings,” Richter explains. “It’s really a metaphor for this idea of the world being turned upside down with all the political, social, environmental, technological challenges that have surfaced over the last 10 years or so.
“We thought we were living in a kind of a world but over the last 10 years the wheels have come off all our assumptions really. This feeling of the world being upside down I wanted to reflect that very directly in the orchestra, and then using that dark material to try and make hopeful music of it.”
Repeated listens to Voices reveals how the deeper tones of the ‘upside down’ ensemble adds depth to the mini movements that make up the album, which moves from sad to reflective with the odd dash of melancholy, and at other points feels full of hope for the future.
“It has a very particular colour and really recognisable fingerprint sonically. It’s something I’ve worked with a little bit in a way in previous projects, particularity in Ad Astra, but to really foreground that colour was wonderful. The emphasis on the low frequencies gives a specific emotional colour to the material, and send to underline the questions, and highlights what’s at stake in some way.”
On a project of this duration patience and intellectual stamina are required, so while Richter plays keyboards on his own composition, he wisely assembled a crack team of old friends to complete his epic musical journey, including a 12 strong wordless choir.
“I’ve worked with Grace Davidson for a long time, she is the solo soprano on Sleep, and her voice has got an incredibly pure sound with no vibrato, it’s very clean. She is just an unbelievable singer so that was kind of obvious.
“Mari Samuelsen plays the violin solos, again I’ve worked with her for years, and she and I have performed a lot together. The orchestra itself has my normal ensemble and then enlarged with old friends. The choir is Tenebrae, which is an early music group specialising in Renaissance music, so again they have that very pure colour.”
So after a decade creating this work at a time when our world seems to be going to hell in a handcart is Richter hopeful humankind can pull back from the abyss?
“I am quite optimistic weirdly. Obviously, we have got to change our ways in lot of different spheres, but I also see there is a whole activist generation coming up and that is very inspiring,
“The future is ours to make, and theirs to make, and the principles of the declaration are basic common sense so hopefully people will bend to that.”
Review by Paul Clarke, you can see his author profile here.