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A Quietus Interview

Voice Activated: Max Richter Interviewed
Duncan Seaman , August 19th, 2020 05:21

Duncan Seaman talks to Max Richter about his new album Voices, which is inspired by the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights

Portraits by Mike Terry

It’s more than a decade since Max Richter first began contemplating an album based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Initially prompted by the controversy surrounding the US incarceration of alleged war criminals at Guantanamo Bay, Richter composed a short piece called Mercy but an expanded choral work, featuring dozens of voices, took years to realise. Finally, 72 years on from the adoption of the Declaration by the United Nations General Assembly, it has found its time and place.

In challenging times, he feels the Declaration, although not perfect, is a document that represents an “inspiring vision for the possibility of a better and kinder world”. He wanted his album, Voices, to be “a place to think and reflect”.

“I wanted to make a piece which wasn’t about the problems but was about the potential solutions, so something hopeful,” explains the 54-year-old German-born, Oxfordshire-based composer. “The more time I spent thinking about the Declaration, the more I felt while it isn’t a perfect document, it is a document 70 years old, but it feels nevertheless something very hopeful and about the future.”

Among the 70 or so voices on the record are Eleanor Roosevelt, the longest serving First Lady of the United States and prominent activist, and the American actor Kiki Layne. “What a force of nature that woman was,” Richter says of Roosevelt. “She achieved incredible things and basically got the Declaration written one way and another. Then you have Kiki Layne whose voice I heard in If Beale Street Could Talk, it’s a film that she narrates and she has a young voice, I wanted her voice to be about the future.”

The rest of the readings were crowd sourced. “We thought about that really as a way to embed the idea of universality and the democratic into the structure of the piece,” Richter says. “That was in a way relatively simple. We just put the call out on social media and hey presto, hundreds of recordings. That people responded so warmly and generously to that in a way attests to the fact that this text means a lot to people, that was wonderful.”

With basic human rights currently under threat in places like Hong Kong, Syria and Myanmar, the timing of this album seems apposite.

Yet Richter says he did not intend to make a political point. “I don’t think of it as a political statement because I think human rights are not political, in a sense. They are more fundamental than that. They are the bedrock really of civilisation, that’s what it is, the fundamental of how people should relate toward one another on a one-to-one basis and how we should view one another, and that’s what I like so much about the Universal Declaration.

“It isn’t political, it’s a humane document about how we should treat one another, and it’s also something which I think accords with our sense of natural justice. Even children would recognise the principles of the Declaration, ‘all people should be born and treated equal’, all of this stuff, it’s fundamental and it goes beyond politics.”

Richter utilised an ‘upside down’ orchestra on the recording, including 12 double basses, 24 cellos, six violas, eight violins and a harp. “The standard orchestra is in a way a microcosm of how people thought society should be built in the 18th and 19th centuries. There’s a man standing at the front telling everyone what to do. I felt that this was an opportunity to subvert that and again embed the democratic into the piece by just shuffling that.

“The other thing I wanted to do is reflect my sense that the world has been turned upside down in the last ten years or so actually in the sound itself, in the DNA of the material, so basically it’s almost all bass instruments, it’s basses and cellos rather than upper strings and high melody instruments. The other thing about that is it’s a metaphor, it’s about elevating something out of the dark material. That is the world we’re living in right now, we’re facing huge challenges, socially, politically, environmentally, in terms of technology, in terms of economics. It feels like the fire is burning everywhere at the moment; nevertheless these problems are human problems, we made them. This is the idea really that we can also solve them. After all, we always have choices, we just have to make the right decisions.”

There’s an optimism at the heart of Voices, he says. “I hope so because while it’s true that we’re in a terrible mess in all kinds of ways, there is also an increasing awareness that things can’t go on the way they are. I think there is an activist spirit especially among younger people which is very encouraging on the climate side, if we think about the BLM movement in the States, all kinds of fundamental, grassroots activist stances that are starting to happen, and that is hopeful.”

The work premiered at the Barbican in London, with visuals by Richter’s partner, filmmaker Yulia Mahr, shortly before the lockdown. “That was amazing,” Richter says. “Writing a piece of music is really proposing a theory until you put it in front of an audience, and it was extraordinary. Again, I think the texts have a real effect on people. I’ve never felt a vibe like that in a concert hall, it was an extraordinary thing and we were very lucky in that timing-wise we had the opportunity to play the two shows and then record the piece then pretty much it was lockdown straight away.”

Other concerts he had planned have fallen foul of the pandemic. “Music is a community activity, so it’s sad, it’s depressing that we haven’t been able to play it,” Richter says. “From my own personal standpoint, I’m very lucky in that the bulk of my life is not performing, it’s writing. Obviously for my colleagues and friends who are players, in bands or in orchestras, it’s devastating. I think we’re generally feeling the loss of live music quite profoundly.

“In a way it’s a chance to remember the stuff that is really important to us, and I think one of the things that’s come out of the pandemic is that people can go, ‘Hang on, I really like culture, I really like going to a museum or a gallery or a cinema or a concert’, these things matter to us because they are part of what makes us human. Culture is an important part of society and it’s an important part of us figuring out how we live in the world. It’s been horrible not being able to play, and obviously we will as soon as we can, but I don’t think it’s going to be soon.”

Richter has also launched a new app based on Sleep, which enables users to create personalised musical sessions for a chosen period, with planetary animations programmed to the monumental eight-hour work's musical themes. “It’s taken a long time for the technology to be ready for it,” he says. “I didn’t just want to do an app, it would make no sense to me until it could be artistically valid. The thing about Sleep is it’s a piece with a strong utility component, it’s music as a tool and I’m very interested in extending that utility into the personal, so rather than it being a hard-wired piece of architecture eight hours long, the algorithmic aspect of the app allows the piece to be architecturally right, as it were, at any length. I really like that, it feels like it’s an increasing democratisation of that material. Obviously, I wrote the piece to be listened to or to be experienced while sleeping but people use that music in all kinds of ways, so it extends the potential for that.”

Since premiering on BBC Radio 3 in 2015, Richter likes the fact that Sleep has taken on a life of its own. “When you write something you have an idea about what you’ve written, but you really don’t know much about it until people encounter the thing and then they start to respond to it and tell you a lot about what you’ve done,” he says. “Sleep is like that. I had a very specific idea to make a creative enquiry into the relationship between sound and mind or the difference between hearing and listening, but people use it go to their office and do coding and they have Sleep on and when it finishes they stop coding or they do yoga or people use it in palliative care situations, all kinds of things. It’s really interesting to understand how people relate to a piece and that’s totally beyond my control. I quite like that.”

When approaching Sleep, Richter discussed the work with his friend David Eagleman, a neuroscientist who has written extensively on memory. “Really I just wanted to check out that the material I was proposing to use would make sense from a purely scientific standpoint,” the composer says. “I think we all have an idea of what kind of music goes with sleep, the lullaby tradition is universal, and lullabies tend to have a particular musical character, they are not extreme metal. Really it was about me refining that knowledge via neuroscientific understanding. For David, sleep is an informational process, that’s how neuroscientists view it, it’s to do with memory consolidation, so it was really a conversational enquiry with him about what kinds of things would work.”

Although Richter may now have sold more than a million albums and his music is streamed more than three million times a month, he took time to find success as a composer. After studying at the Royal Academy of Music, he formed the contemporary classical ensemble Piano Circus, whose repertoire included works by Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Arvo Part and Brian Eno, and he also worked as a pianist with Future Sound of London and Roni Size’s Reprazent.

He says a creative drive – “one could almost say obsession” – sustained him throughout a period of some hardship.

“You do it whether anyone’s listening or not because it makes you feel good,” he says. “Also I think for artists, doing creative work is their way to navigate the world, it’s a way to try to understand the world for yourself, and that’s certainly the case for me. I was composing before I was doing anything else as a human being, pretty much. I had music going round in my head from childhood and it’s been the motive force, in a way, for my whole life. It’s not like I was ever trying to have a career, I was doing what felt natural, what felt inevitable and what I felt I had to do. I definitely get twitchy if I haven’t played the piano for a day, it’s just what I need to do to get through the day. There’s never been any strategy in terms of a career, it’s just what I wanted to do, and I feel incredibly privileged that I managed to keep doing it. It’s wonderful that people are listening.”

His fortunes were transformed by his second solo album, The Blue Notebooks, which set Tilda Swinton’s readings of works by Franz Kafka and Czeslaw Milosz to music. The album, which came out in 2004, was also a protest against the Iraq War. Richter recognised it as a personal turning point. “The previous record, Memoryhouse, I wouldn’t say it was universally ignored but we didn’t perform it, there were no reviews, no advertising and then they shut the record label down within months of releasing it and that was the end of that, they deleted it,” he says. “However it did reach about 35 other composers or musicians, so it had a tiny bit of influence, but we didn’t get to perform Memoryhouse until ten years after it was released.

“When that happened, I felt, ‘OK, so no-one’s listening to this, that means I can keep doing exactly what I want, no-one cares anyway’ and that’s sort of been my attitude ever since. When The Blue Notebooks came along again there was no budget but I had a label who were interested, Fat Cat, so I just carried on. Fat Cat had a creative, omnivorous open ear to an audience because of the other things they were doing and people did start to notice it, that was lovely and very surprising.”

Richter’s knack for well-chosen collaborations has seen him work with the likes of Vashti Bunyan and Robert Wyatt. “I like the conversational relationship, that puzzle-solving collaborative thing, figuring things out,” he says. “I also like the difference between me just sitting in my room scribbling on a piece of paper, which is what the solo albums are, and then something else which is more fun.”

Producing Bunyan’s 2005 comeback album Lookaftering was “pure joy”, he says. “She’s a wonderful and talented and thoughtful person, it was great.”

As well as scores for ballet, opera and stage plays, Richter’s music has increasingly featured in films such as Waltz With Bashir, Mary Queen Of Scots and Ad Astra, and in the TV series The Leftovers, Black Mirror and Taboo. Composing for screen is “completely different” to his solo albums, he feels. “In my solo work I’m only interested in what the demands of the material are. In the case of a film or a TV thing, it’s fundamentally a team effort, it’s a collaborative thing, the music is part of something bigger and the scoring process is figuring out what that part should be. It’s a really interesting, fun, conversational process. You’re working with smart and interesting people. Music can do so many different things in cinema. It can set atmospheres and moods, also you’re manipulating the way time passes and points of view. It’s a really interesting process.”

Richter and his partner Mahr are currently developing ambitious plans to create an artistic hub in woodland. “We’re building an art farm, a farm that grows art,” he explains. “So many collaborative projects founder because there’s just no money. Whenever you’re in a studio you’re on the clock. Just getting a bunch of people together and going, ‘Hey, let’s spend a few days in the studio’, well somehow you have to pay for that and it means that open-ended, freewheeling creative exploration or recording is really difficult to make happen. We’re trying to put the kind of infrastructure together to allow that, so you don’t have that anxiety of a bill being racked up all the time, and to make that space in a sense to reflect our ideas about what culture can do in terms of, for example, access to recording facilities for artists who just can’t afford it or who are from under-represented communities. That’s something that Yulia and I are really excited about the potential of.

“We’ve been talking about it for twenty years, but we’re only about two years away from it now, so happy days.”

Voices is out now on Decca