“I’m going to read you the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” As far as opening lines on albums go, it’s safe to say that this probably isn’t the most enticing. However, for Max Richter it’s the springboard for his latest album, Voices. From the opening line (spoken by Eleanor Roosevelt, who convened the group of philosophers, artists, and thinkers who wrote the document), Richter takes us through a series of musical suites where an international set of voices of all ages and languages read extracts from the Declaration. Richter describes the album as “a place to think and reflect”; much like his previous work, this is classical music with a modern twist, and during its best moments Voices offers the listener an opportunity to be introspective and consider the world around them and – perhaps more importantly – all the people living in that world.
Richter’s music-as-a-thinking-device is no new feat, as the German-born composer’s music has always had an ineffable quality of bringing peace to an already empty room, adding breath to a vacuum, or conjuring up ripples of goosebumps across your body. He thrives in the conceptual and with restrictions, and an album like Voices only seeks to continue Richter’s career-long view of music as activism and make his desire to unite audiences worldwide a tangible reality. This is an international document that will surely trickle out strands of humanity from the most hard-faced people.
Though separated into 25 individual tracks, the 54-minute album sweeps through six or seven movements (depending where you count your start and stop points), each ripe with details beyond the music itself: birdsong, street noises, faraway chatter, rainfall. Throughout the album, actor Kiki Layne’s reading of the Declaration rings out over all the other voices. She speaks with patience, hope, and a glimmer in her eye for unity, bringing life to a rather dry document. Her voice returns regularly across the album after the few truly instrumental tracks, anchoring the listener to what this is all about. Sometimes it feels like you’re listening to a soundtracked audiobook, or a podcast with a luxurious production value.
Even though the record came into conception over a decade ago, there’s no denying that this album rings louder at this point in history. The 30 articles of the Declaration serve as a reminder of what basic freedoms are still being denied to people across the world, from the right to work, to the right to participate in your own country’s government, to the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. As pessimistic as it may seem, it’s unlikely there is any point in history when this album wouldn’t evoke thoughts of something wrong in the world. And this, in a way, is the album’s strongest draw: it will always feel relevant.
Were it not for the aforementioned instrumental pieces, then it would be hard to recommend Voices unless you were in a particular mindset. While the tapestry of it all is undeniably magical (strings, voices, electronics, and the aforementioned details all woven together seamlessly), the high points are when Richter demonstrates how a sweep of his hand can evoke floods of emotions in the mind. A large part of this is Richter’s choice to score for an “upside-down orchestra”, flipping the proportion of instruments, meaning the 12 double basses and 24 cellos give the music a deep, bellowing foundation throughout.
On “All Human Beings – Pt. 3” the crystalline keys and streaking cry of the violin pressing up against the choral voices, cellos, and double bass is pure aural bliss. On “Murmuration – Pt. 2” everything seems stilled; shimmering tones ring out, like you’re peering through a glacier. “Chorale – Pt. 4” is the album’s centerpiece though, where Richter interlocks shifting deep swells of strings with rising voices. As the whole thing starts swirling and swelling, it builds and builds unrelentingly until it’s impossible not to be overtaken by it.
These tracks, like those where Richter’s busy but simple back and forths on piano are front and centre, are a go-to if you want that Richter fix – where you know you’ll come out the other end different than when the track started. However, it’s hard not to feel that the full effect of them comes from the surrounding tracks, which act as preludes and comedowns from the intense highs.
The only track that truly sits by itself is the closing “Mercy”. With just piano and violin, the latter takes all the focus, bleeding ache and sorrow from elongated bows and octave shifts. (One can’t help but think of the line from Amadeus: “Displace one note and there would be diminishment. Displace one phrase and the structure would fall.”)
As unflappable as Richter’s music is here though, focusing entirely on it does lose the point of the album. Much like 2015’s Sleep was about creating a peaceful soundtrack to dream and snooze to, Voices is indeed, as the name suggests, about the voices. Richter crowd-sourced hundreds of submissions in over 70 languages, all reading parts of the Declaration. It’s an album where the listeners and those across the world can unify for an hour to remember some basic human values. As said, it might not be an exciting document to have read to you, but it’s an important one. And the very least we can do is to listen to the voices of others.