Music Interviews

Max Richter: “It’s a legitimate thing for a creative work to have an activist dimension” – Interview

The composer discusses new album Voices, social activism, music as utility and being creatively inspired by history and politics

Max Richter

Max Richter (Photo: Mike Terry)

Over the course of his career Max Richter has proved himself a composer of ambition and vision, creating a series of poignant musical works that respond to a variety of real world events and take inspiration from broader concepts. He’s risen in popularity and prominence over the last 20 years, arguably becoming the leading name in the field of ‘modern classical’ music, a sub-genre that blends traditional orchestral instrumentation with electronics and other media and projects it all in a clean, contemporary style. His music has many facets, being able to inform, educate, inspire and reassure as well as entertain.

His previous albums have been inspired by subjects such as the Iraq war, the conflict in Kosovo and the 2005 terrorist bombings in London. There’s also been a strong literary dimension to a lot of his music, with the work of authors like Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf and Haruki Murakami also appearing in releases. He also reimagined Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons and wrote Sleep, an eight hour piece designed to be played while the listener sleeps. On top of all this he’s soundtracked numerous films, perhaps most memorably on Ari Folman’s 2007 animated film Waltz With Bashir. In short, he has a formidable back catalogue.

In this context the announcement that his next album Voices would be centred around the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights felt entirely appropriate and almost unsurprising. It features lines from the Declaration being read out by a variety of voices, led predominantly by American actress Kiki Layne, while a moving orchestral score plays out alongside. Richter is well qualified to take on such a weighty subject and the results are typically cinematic and spellbinding. The background to Voices stretches back 10 years and Richter begins our conversation by eloquently delving into its origins.

“It started in 2010 with I guess the events around Guantanamo Bay and the revelations that came out later about the CIA and the things they were doing. I felt that the world had gone wrong in a new and different way. I was shocked, so I made this piece called Mercy really as a place for myself to reflect on this situation. Mercy was kind of a sketch for this bigger piece that I wanted to make about it” (and appears as the final track on Voices). 

“Over the years I worked on it quite a bit, from time to time, just trying to find a shape for the music,” he continues. “Originally it was like protest music, very much about the things that I felt were getting lost in society but as populism and authoritarianism have risen over the last few years the world has become very shouty. There’s been a lot of shouting and not a lot of listening so I didn’t want to add that by making a protest type record. I decided to try to shift the material into something that was about a solution and the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights is very much that. It’s a human solution to human problems.”

It might help to begin with a quick history lesson. Essentially, the Declaration came out of the need for a point of reference for the global political community to use when considering the crimes committed by the Nazi Party in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s. The United Nations established a special commission to work on it. From 1946-8 a group of various thinkers and politicians from across the globe devised 30 articles that covered a range of human rights, which together formed the Declaration. It ended up in the United Nations Charter, a legally binding treaty for all founding UN member states.

Richter has previously remarked that many people will have heard of the Declaration but might be less familiar with its contents, and getting into the detail is an illuminating experience. It naturally covers the rights you would expect to feature (like freedom of thought and expression and the right to education and assembly) but it also includes some rights that, while undoubtedly commendable, might also surprise (for example the right to cultural activity and leisure time). Richter is quick to expand on the background. “The Declaration comes out of the crisis of the second world war and it’s a very comprehensive, almost legalistic text. It’s very detailed and the language is very precise. It doesn’t use very emotional language, it’s just facts and it was quite interesting. I haven’t used the entire text as it’s really long, but I’ve taken fragments of it and adapted it for this purpose.

“It’s also a text of its time it has to be said,” he continues. “There are some things in it that you probably would express differently today but nevertheless it does feel that it is a hopeful document and it’s a document about human potential, which is inspiring, right? It’s an aspirational text. It feels like a guiding light and that’s the effect it had in the postwar era. A lot of international institutions were built in its image, or were at least aspirational towards it. It drove this liberal postwar consensus and it feels like in the last 10 years things have started to go in reverse unfortunately. That’s one of the things that made me want to shine a light on it, and say this is a real and valuable thing that we should think about and treasure”. 

Some of the clauses contained in the Declaration feel particularly relevant to certain world events that have taken place over recent years, such as the right to asylum and right to nationality. Similarly, the right not to be held as a slave feels appropriate given the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement and the recent racial tensions in the USA.

“I wanted to reflect the sense that the world has been turned upside down over the last few years so I turned the proportions of the orchestra upside down”

“Human rights are under threat all over the world at different times and in different ways and right now the situation in the USA is in the foreground with the horrible murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and other victims of brutality,” he explains. “The Black Lives Matter protests are extraordinary, almost like a reincarnation of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. That grassroots activist response is a wonderful thing and the situation in the USA is a rights issue. It’s a group of people who have systematically, and by design, over centuries been deprived of their rights. It’s as simple as that. The Declaration speaks to all of those things.”

Listening to Richter talk, it’s clear he has immersed himself in the subject and sees its enduring potential as a force for good. “It’s easy to feel a bit hopeless now, there’s so many things going wrong but these are human problems. They didn’t exist before we were here, we made them and the Declaration is also a human made thing, it’s one possible solution. I wanted to remind ourselves that there are positive ways forward. That was one of the reasons why I wanted to make the piece at this point in time.”

Voices uses a different orchestral set up to Richter’s previous albums, something he describes as an “upside-down orchestra”. Why did he decide to do this? “I wanted to reflect the sense that the world has been turned upside down over the last few years so I turned the proportions of the orchestra upside down. Instead of there being loads of violins there’s loads of basses and cellos, it’s all low frequency. It has a weighty, dark texture. I wanted to see if I could make hopeful music out of this dark material. It’s a bit like alchemy, like the idea of trying to turn base metals into gold.”

The readings were crowd-sourced from people around the world in over seventy languages, a suitably egalitarian idea given the nature of the subject matter. How did it feel receiving these contributions? “It was amazing, it was like Christmas. The album starts with the voice of Eleanor Roosevelt, who was involved in creating the Declaration, then Kiki Layne takes it up and passes forward over 70 years. We recorded her parts last year and then I wanted to broaden it out. The declaration is about universality and community so I wanted to have other voices. We asked people to submit something, just to record it on their phone and we received all these amazing readings of the Declaration in different languages and it was really moving actually hearing them. It was so beautiful. It was extraordinary.” 

“I like music being a space to think about things and the texts in my work are jumping off points for that process”

Kiki Layne’s narrations are especially striking, delivered purposefully and euphoniously. What made him choose her? “I chose Kiki because I had heard her in a film she did a few years ago called If Beale Street Could Talk, which is a beautiful film. She plays the lead and narrates that film, and her character talks you through it. I thought her voice was perfect – it feels like it is a very young voice, and the future is about young people. We’ve made this world but the future isn’t written yet – which world are we going to make? That’s in the hands of young people, so I wanted a young voice.”

The album is made up of 25 ‘movements’, grouped together under poetic names like Cartography and Murmuration. Richter explains how the individual titles “all refer to some aspect of the Declaration. Obviously cartography is about where you are in the world and murmuration refers to the movement of birds. The place where you live and migration are big topics right now so I wanted to just point at those a little bit.” 

While listening to Voices it’s impossible to escape the high, conceptual nature of the piece. Addressing bigger issues through his music clearly continues to be important for him. “I think creative works are actions and actions have consequences so that means we get to choose what effects we make in the world, whether it is making someone a cup of tea or writing a piece of music. They are similar things in a way and I think it’s a legitimate thing for a creative work to have an activist dimension, that’s reasonable. We had that in the music of the 1960s with the likes of Woody Guthrie, then you get punk which is fundamentally an activist musical movement and it’s within classical music also. Beethoven is like a social commentator, a social agitator you could say. Activism is around in creative works like music, movies and literature and it’s always felt instinctively natural for me to take that kind of position.”

Putting spoken word readings alongside music has been a central presence in Richter’s music over the years and is obviously still a combination he finds powerful. What is it specifically about that union that he likes? “The thing about music is that it feels like a language and it feels like you’re being spoken to by instrumental music but it’s hard to pin down specific meanings. I like music being a space to think about things, I really enjoy that and I guess the texts in my work are jumping off points for that process. So, in this case you have part of the text of the Declaration and then you have a musical space. Then you get another part of the text, then another musical space to think about it. That’s how I feel it works. I love the sound of the human voice, it’s an amazing thing.”

“I quite like the idea of a piece of music being a tool”

Given how this consistent use of human voices dates back to his 2002 album Memoryhouse I ask if his approach to composing music has changed over time? “Memoryhouse was the sound of me finding my voice in a way, trying to connect my academic, classical education with the studio and electronic music and different media. I don’t know if my approach has changed, I’m probably not the best person to say. I feel like I’m still trying to figure it out and it always feels that way” he remarks, which feels extremely modest and self-deprecating considering with the results. “You want to start something and you don’t have any idea how to do it and it feels like an impossible thing and it’ll never work. Sit there long enough however and something starts to happen.”

As well as the release of Voices, a new app has been recently developed based on his Sleep album. Users can download the app and choose the purpose for which they want to listen – sleep, meditation or focus – and state for how long, and a suitable section of music will be played alongside striking visuals. As an album I suggest that Sleep feels like his biggest crossover ‘hit’, higher in profile and more in the public consciousness than his other work. How does the continued success of that piece feel? 

“I guess Sleep has more doorways into it. It is a record but it’s a different kind of an object and it has a utility dimension to it as well. I quite like the idea of a piece of music being a tool. What I like about how Sleep has found its place in the world is that people have found their own way in how to relate to it. It’s not just for sleeping, people stick it on when they’re in the office and things like that and I really like that. It allows a conversational relationship between what the piece is and the way people use it. I enjoy that.”

We finish up by briefly talking about his extensive work as a composer for film and television – “music can do things that other elements can’t and it’s about solving the puzzle on how to make the story sing” – and the sad, recent death of acclaimed soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone – “the real thing, his music had an amazing emotional directness”. For now though, all focus is on Voices, one of the most beautifully realised artistic statements of the year and one that further elevates Richter’s reputation for making thought-provoking, deeply engaging music.

Max Richter’s album Voices is out on 31 July through Decca. Tour dates and further information can be found at

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