Max Richter : Interview

Eva Mackevic 10 May 2021

Composer and pianist Max Richter on politics, the purpose of music and his latest audio-visual project Voices, co-created with his artistic partner Yulia Mahr, and inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Reader’s Digest: Hey Max. So, how has lockdown been for you?

Max Richter: It's weird, isn't it? On one hand, it's been tough in the way that it has been for everyone. For many of my colleagues whose lives revolve around playing concerts because they're in bands or orchestras, it's obviously been much, much worse. And for me, I've cancelled a load of gigs, but that's not the bulk of my life; most of my life is writing. So, I've been very fortunate. I'm also lucky in that I have a wonderful family, it was great to spend time with them and not be away.

I'm hopeful that the pandemic can be a bit of a reset, in some ways. It's actually been really interesting releasing a record under these circumstances, because normally around a release, I would just be flying around the world talking to people the whole time. And that would be the expectation. And now, I don't. So that's good, isn't it? Hopefully that’s going to lead to a more intelligent use of time and resources going forward.

"I'm hopeful that the pandemic can be a bit of a reset"

RD: Have you been following the news closely over the past year?

MR: I listen to radio news. I try to avoid the news on socials because it's so kind of hysterical. It feels like this year, of course the pandemic was one thing, but there have also been all kinds of reckonings in terms of everything that’s been wrong over the last few decades, like racial injustice. And that’s great. Change is going to come.

I feel like what’s happening right now is very similar to the difference between the 1950s and the 60s. It's one culture giving way, and another culture is coming. I guess the big question is whether the old world is going to relinquish its grip on power voluntarily.

Black Lives Matter protestors

RD: Tell us about Voices. How did the Universal Declaration of Human Rights become the inspiration for it?   

MR: I guess the overriding feeling that I had was the idea that this kind of liberal consensus which has driven the post-war era—and the Declaration is obviously at the heart of that—was going into reverse over the last few years.

We had a kind of a return of totalitarian politics, xenophobia and nationalism and inward-looking­-ness. And so Yulia [Mahr, Max’s long-time work and life partner] and I wanted to make a piece which reminded us that there was something better, that there was something more fundamentally human. That all of these problems that were coming up, we'd in a way already solved, but we've forgotten we'd solved them. The Declaration is not a perfect document. It's a document of its time, but it is a kind of blueprint for a better way to run the world.

RD: Do you remember the first time you encountered the Declaration?

MR: Yeah, I was a student, attending some kind of a conference or something. And I remember getting this little booklet, which had the declaration in it, and just reading through it, and being amazed. It's such a simple text. And what's in it is, in a way, completely obvious. A five-year-old could probably write most of it. And yet it's very powerful and profound. If we were to really engage with it, our world would be very different from what it is. It made a big impression on me at that time.

When we premiered Voices back in February, people said, “It's amazing to hear these words, because I knew about the declaration, and I knew kind of roughly what was in it, but I never really spent time with that text.” And that's really what Voices is all about: providing a framework for people to spend time with that text.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

RD: It’s interesting how you emphasize the simplicity of the words in the Declaration. It feels like living life according to these principles, such as kindness and fairness, should be such an easy, universal norm. Is striving to be a morally good person something you’re actively conscious of in your day-to-day life?

MR: I think that's a challenge for everyone, isn't it? We're faced with these questions every day. And we always have choices. And we're always trying to balance our interests and the interests of others and the interests of a wider community. It's a continual process of questioning, negotiation and thinking. And it's very personal. Everyone has to do that for themselves.

I think what's wonderful about the Declaration is it does present a very simple framework and very unarguable, basic principles. In terms of how it applies to one's own life, I think really, the big challenge that we all face is that we've constructed a world where economic interests really point in a very different direction, almost a kind of total capitalism, which pulls us in the direction of selfishness and greed, amassing of resources, funds and power. And so, we have a dynamic between a moral orientation for the world, and a practical one. And that’s the problem; we need to bring those two things closer together.

RD: You often describe your music as “commitment to activism.” Do you think there's enough of this kind of art being made right now?

MR: People make art and music for all different reasons. From my standpoint, I've always felt that music is a way to talk about the things that I care about, and that I would like people to think about. And so it becomes a forum for discussion, for thinking, and that sort of creative, shared experience. And it's natural in a way and instinctively obvious for me, that the work I'm making should be about the world and the times we're living in. Dylan did that, Woody Guthrie did that, Beethoven did that. It's just it's kind of obvious.

"I've always felt that music is a way to talk about the things that I care about"

RD: How did you decide on the text being spoken rather than sung?

MR: Because the whole piece is about the text, I wanted the text to be completely intelligible so the best solution was to have the text recited. And then I came across this recording of Eleanor Roosevelt reading the preamble. She was really central to getting the Declaration written—an amazing woman who basically corralled the whole of the UN to get this thing adopted. So she starts the readings, and then KiKi Layne takes over and reads the articles. And also, we have readings in all different languages—about 70 of them—on the record, which were crowd-sourced via social media. Just people reading bits of the Declaration, which meant something to them personally.

RD: Tell us a bit about the music on Voices. You describe it as hopeful and optimistic, and yet, listening to it, the atmosphere strikes me as very mournful and sombre.

MR: I would say it is a reflective space. So we have Voices One, which is about the data, the information, all of these texts—you have a lot of a lot of stuff coming at you. And then Voices Two is a space to reflect on that and to dream about what's next. That's how I see it. And that's why there are no texts on the second part of the project. It's like, “Here's all this material. That's your toolkit. Now what?” It’s about what we haven't done yet.

 

RD: Yulia has been your creative partner for many years now—was working on this project with her any different in any way?

MR: “Work” is the wrong word for it actually. You know, we've spent our lives together. And a lot of what we do is just kind of sit around and talk. I mean, she's not a musician at all, and I'm not a filmmaker. But we do have this meeting point, which is a passionate connection to subjects, ideas and interests.

And this project in a way comes out of her biography, her family story. It's very personal for her. I think you can see that in the films she's made. She has a strong, emotional connection to this subject matter.

Max Richter’s Voices is out now on all digital platforms

Read more: The art of creating a mindful prayer space

Read more: In praise of the women of the ancient world

Keep up with the top stories from Reader's Digest by subscribing to our weekly newsletter