Talking about the quiet protest
Gordon Munro on post minimalist composer Max Richter who turned to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for his latest opus, Voices
When Max Richter was composing The Blue Notebooks, his meditation on his personal experience of violence and that of the Iraq war, it was his wish to, ‘…invite the listener in, allowing them space to reflect rather than be beaten into submission. The world is tough enough, and I don’t want to add to the brutality. Over the years, I’ve realised that there’s a balance to strike, and that actually, as our world spins into something quite threatening, increasingly based on loud and vicious rhetoric, I want to talk about quiet protest.”
10 years in the making his latest album, Voices, is not just a labour of love but also an important proclamation, asking us to reflect on a point in time when collectively we had higher aspirations.
Eleanor Roosevelt affirmed that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was humanity’s Magna Carta, and it is she who recites the preamble to the Declaration at the opening of the work before giving way to the voice of KiKi Lane, narrating from Article One that: All Human Beings are born free and equal.
Whilst there are prominent voices, the work is after all entitled Voices; it is the background vocalists reading the Declaration in different languages throughout that mirror the title. The collective being given prominence over the singular reflects the ambition of the composer for the work and for the people.
Emotional resonance and the sheer power of the work are provided by what Richter calls an “upside down orchestra”(he has also talks of a “negative orchestra”). The emphasis is switched by using 13 double bassist and 23 cellists, who got to the soul of this listener, and are at the beating heart of everything.
Readings from the Declaration remind us how debased governance throughout the world has become. Cartography starts with the extract - Everyone has the right to fair wages, ensuring for themselves and their family an existence worthy of human dignity, and the solo piano piece that follows ends with bird song and a reading giving the listener a chance to reflect on the disparity of wealth that has grown since that joint declaration.
Little Requiems starts with: Motherhood and childhood are entitled to special care and assistance... as angelic soprano and understated orchestration stirs this listener’s emotions while bringing the extract home.
I was reminded of 3-year-old Syrian refugee Alan Kurdi, drowned trying to cross the Mediterranean with his family. Where was the special care and assistance then? Why is it still happening?
The heart of the work is Chorale, which use ago and featuring an enormously moving solo performance from Mari Samuelson this piece was the starting point for the Voices project. It is music thatestival - at it’s source is the same inspiration that reached out a hand to the vanquished of the Second World War and also led to the creation of the first festival 1947. It would be apt too given that Max Richter studied at Edinburgh University.
If Richter’s name is new to you, there is a good chance you will have heard On the Nature of Daylight, which is much used in film and television soundtracks and has been used as background music for both film and TV. Spliced together with Dinah Washington’s This Bitter Earth in Scorsese’s film Shutter Island for instance, as well as the soundtracks for two TV series, Tom Hardy’s crepuscular Taboo and Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend are also his work.
Max Richter does not fit easily into classical or ambient genres but he embodies both and Voices is bigger than both: It’s an invocation to act, to make our leaders accountable, to collectively make Human Rights mean something. It is, above all, a necessary intervention. Take a look around you.
Article One of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: ‘All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood’.
“It’s time to take humanity back into the centre of the ring and follow that for a time...Greed it ain’t going anywhere” Joe Strummer.
Info: Voices, by Max Richter is out now on Decca records