Groundbreaking composer Max Richter releases Voices 2, the second album in his pioneering audio-visual Voices project, inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, writes Nick Benson.
“This project has this quality of unfortunately being relevant all the time,” saysGerman-born British composer and pianist Max Richter of Voices, the project he co-created with his artistic partner Yulia Mahr.
A major work inspired by and featuring text adapted from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Voices was broadcast with EBU and BBC3 to 40 radio stations worldwide on 10th December for Human Rights Day 2020 and was included in the official United Nations Human Rights (OHRC) official Human Rights Day broadcast.
Voices 2 follows directly from its first part, the unfolding groundbreaking project embodying the Universal Declaration’s aspiration to build a better and fairer world.
The profound sense of global community and responsibility at the heart of Voices originates from the Grammy-nominated composer’s commitment to music as activism.
“We’re bombarded on all sides by media and culture,” he explains of his continual quest to explore socio-political questions on his records. “So, if I’m going to add to that sum total, then I’d better have a good reason. For me those reasons are broader ideas that I would like to communicate, and questions I’d like to ask about the world we are living in.”
Described by Richter as “a place to think”, Voices was a response to our tempestuous political climate and the enduring need for compassion. Voices 2develops this principle, continuing and intensifying the “place to think” concept. While the first part of the project focuses on the text of The Universal Declaration Of Human Rights and its uplifting vision – opening with the 1949 recording of Eleanor Roosevelt reading the Declaration, and including excerpts read by a global community of 70 voices – Voices 2 opens up a meditative musical space to consider those ideas raised by the first record.
“One of the things that was really striking, when we premiered the music, was that even though everyone knows of the Declaration, not many people have actually read it or spent time with it,” says Richter. “The overwhelming comment we had from the audience was ‘it’s amazing to hear that text’. If people can have time to experience that text, and then in the second part of the record really spend time thinking about it, that for me is a perfect outcome.”
The message at the core of the latest musical installment in the Voices project is one of hope. Here, the music – and most notably the video for the debut single Mirrors – invites listeners to take a breather from the rolling news agenda and to instead reflect on the aspirations in the Universal Declaration. Despite its sombre mood, positivity runs throughout: a sense of potential in a future as yet unwritten, with a younger, activist generation emerging. A bright future is within our reach should we choose it. Mahr, Richter’s filmmaker and visual-artist partner, captures the image of rejuvenation in her beautiful video for Mirrors as flowers bloom.
Since Mahr made the evocative films for the first half’s All Human Beings and Mercy, the world has been upended by pandemic-fuelled anxiety and lockdowns.
“For all its challenges, this moment also offers us an opportunity to build anew; rather than just restarting the old world, we can invent a new one,” explains Mahr. “Therefore, I have made my first film for the second part of Voices a hopeful one. The flowers are all negative versions of themselves – out of the negative, out of the dark and disconcerting – can be born a future that is full of beauty and the positive. It’s hard to see it still, but it’s potentially there. History is not inevitable. If we come together, we can create a kinder world.”
Richter adds: “There are always opportunities for new beginnings. And that’s one of the things that’s so hopeful about that text. It lays out a very fundamental and simple set of principles, which are completely available to us at all times, but we do have to choose them. That’s the challenge, isn’t it?”
The record now has the poignant Mercy as its very heart, where before it completed the first part. The single marks the record’s crucial turning point from a focus on the text to the music as purely instrumental, building on the musical themes of the first part and extending them into a more abstract direction to allow space for reflection. It’s why we hear no spoken words in Voices 2, only singing voices among the textured, sometimes ambient instrumentation; the music is less about the world we know already, and more about hope for the future we have yet to write.
“The second part really takes this principle of music as a place to think,” explains Richter. “When you arrive at Mercy, there is no more text after that. You just have these musical spaces to reflect. If you think about the origin of the pieces in the Declaration, 70 years ago now, then Mercy feels like it takes that text into the present. And then the second part of the music is about potential, it’s about the future, it’s about the world we want to make.”
The first piece to be written for the album, back in 2010, the contemplative violin and piano-led Mercy took its inspiration from the Torture Memos, which revealed how prisoners were treated at Guantánamo Bay.
“It felt like the world had gone wrong in a completely new way, and I wrote Mercyas a way to figure that out,” Richter said. With its theme of caring for others, Mercywas always intended as the centerpiece. It’s now the key theme radiating throughout the project, and we return to its motif in the record’s emotive finale Mercy Duet. At a time when the pandemic has forced the world to consider the importance of compassion on a wide-ranging scale from neighbourly to global, it is ever more pertinent.
“It’s key,” says Richter. “This idea of caring for other people as a basic orientation – that’s why I wrote the whole piece. It’s in the centre of the work, and I also give it the last word. That’s fundamental. At the beginning of the writing of Voices, there was only Mercy.”
Because the Voices project is all about human rights, it will always be relevant. “Issues of rights pop up around the world all the time,” says Richter. “All around the world, if we think of what’s going on in China, and in all sorts of parts of Asia and in the Middle East, these are hot topics. So keeping the principles of the Declaration really front and centre is important work.”
Voices was premiered at the Barbican last February – the cusp of the pandemic sweeping the globe – with a radically reimagined “negative orchestra” heavy on basses and cellos, a musical metaphor of the world turning upside down. Little did Richter know at that time how much more dramatically the world would soon upturn, when the coronavirus spread from Wuhan to wreak global havoc.
Since then, the writing and recording of Voices 2 was completed post-lockdown. While for the most part, the music of Voices 2 was recorded during the original sessions and features the same dedicated band of musicians, additional sessions took place during lockdown, Richter recording the solo piano music in the vast and eerily deserted Studio 1 at Abbey Road.
Richter’s music has the extraordinary ability to communicate and inspire deep emotion and contemplation, whether it’s through the celestial choral vocals soaring above the cello on Psychogeography and the bassy strings and keys of the expansive Follower, the circling organs of Solitaries or the elegiac viola of Prelude 2. Melancholy infuses the enveloping and introspective soundscapes of Voices 2.
“A document like the Declaration is very challenging because, while it is full of potential, and an extraordinarily wise and impressive piece of writing and thinking, it’s also largely unrealised,” explains Richter. “So we mostly think about the ways in which we’ve failed to achieve what it sets out to do. There is a melancholia about it in some ways.”
Returning to familiar refrains in its second half, Voices 2 prompts a feeling of comfort in the listener; a lot of the music that we hear in this second part is recontextualised.
“It’s like going into a familiar building,” explains Richter. “There’s something relaxing about it. In a sense, the music revisits the same space, it’s continuous. Much like walking around a sculpture, you discover new facets in the same object by spending time looking at it. That’s the process I’m trying to elicit in the music, by revisiting those structures and forms continuously in different ways to have a deeper relationship with that material and I guess, by analogy, with the text.”
• Voices 2 by Max Richter is out now on Decca Records.
Picture: Max Richter. (Mike Terry).