In Conversation: Max Richter

In Conversation: Max Richter

The composer reflects on his ambitious new album, 'Voices'...

A new Max Richter project is always worth celebrating. Known as much for his thought provoking solo projects, as his groundbreaking work for the stage and screen, Richter remains one of the most prodigious figures in the contemporary music scene.

His latest project, 'Voices', builds on his penchant for exploring the human condition, following the likes of albums 'The Blue Notebooks', 'Infra' and the eight hour-long 'Sleep', which has evolved in to a phenomenon in its own right since its release in 2015.

Inspired by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 'Voices' is the result of a decade-long creative project, which is planned to culminate with the release of a feature-length film created in collaboration with Richter’s partner, artist and filmmaker Yulia Mahr.

Crafted from crowd-sourced readings of the document itself in 70 different languages, the album is a contemplative affair, underpinned by the unique sounds of a specially assembled ‘upside-down’ orchestra. This sees Richter flipping conventional notions of orchestration on its head, mirroring the idea of a world turned upside down.

That 'Voices' should arrive in 2020, a time of dramatic global change feels somewhat apt. With its hopeful, reflective tone, Richter’s work comes as something of a much-needed tonic during these strange, strange times.

Paul Weedon recently caught up with him to find out more.

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How has lockdown been treating you, Max?

Well, it’s been a bit weird, hasn’t it? It’s a weird time… I think it’s a kind of age of anxiety, one way or another. It’s very unsettling. My working life is not really based around live performance. We cancelled a lot of shows, but that’s not really most of what I do. Most of what I do is sitting in a room working and scribbling on a piece of paper, so it hasn’t affected me directly in that way, but it definitely feels like the world has changed.

'Voices' feels like a very prescient album. It’s been ten years in the making, but I don’t think anyone could have anticipated what the world would have been like when it was finally released. How did the project initially come about?

I started working on it in 2010 and it really started with a piece - the track Mercy, which is on the end of the album. That was written in response to the revelations around Guantanamo and what was happening there and having written Mercy I started talking with Yulia [Mahr], my partner, about making a bigger piece on the topic of social justice and rights and looking at the changes that the world’s going through. So we set out on this voyage to make a bigger music and film piece. The record is the first iteration of that, I guess, and Yulia has started to release the film parts. She’s done a couple of promos, really, but eventually there will be a full-length film.

The record itself was premiered live at the Barbican in February. The world has changed a lot since then. It feels incredibly relevant now.

In a sense it feels ultra relevant because we come to everything through the prism of our own moment, but unfortunately the questions addressed by the declaration are always relevant. Human rights abuses and issues of social justice are happening all the time worldwide and it just so happens that, right now, we’ve got a couple of things that are very much front and centre and in focus.

Obviously, the pandemic has, in a way, revealed a lot of the fractures in our culture and the inequalities in our culture, so yeah. I think it’s just sort of highlighted things that were already happening.

You’ve described 'Voices' as a musical space that helps people reconnect to the principles of the Declaration of Human Rights. As an artist, do you see it as something of a kind of responsibility to create a space for conversation that reflects on the challenges of the past?

Well, I mean for me personally, that’s one of the things I love about listening to music. Because you are… when you are listening to a piece of music you love, you are in a way in another mental space. You’re in kind of another world. The music you love is kind of a world that you like to be in, in a way. So there’s a kind of wish fulfilment aspect about creativity.

I think generally, more broadly, music, art, creativity are spaces for ideas as well as feelings. Music is obviously emotional, but it can also be a place to think. It can be a place to reflect on ideas. And yeah, for me personally – and I can’t speak for other artists – the thing that makes me want to make a piece is that I feel I’ve got something which feels important to me to talk about.

The records and many of the film projects and other projects that I’ve done are driven by that sort of an impulse. There will be something that’s going on that I’d like to talk about and raise a conversation about.

Do you feel a kind of responsibility to use the platform that you have?

Yeah, I think so. I mean, I think it’s natural for artists to talk about the world they’re living in. I think that’s, in a way, obvious. We respond to what’s happening around us and that goes in to the creative’s work. I think all artists probably do that in one way or another.

A lot of your inspiration seems to come from the human condition and humanity in general – I’m kind of thinking specifically of 'Infra', 'Sleep' and obviously now 'Voices'.

I think it does. I think, in a lot of ways it’s not that easy being a person. I think we’ve made a world that is psychologically very challenging and trying to figure out how to make sense of it is… Yeah, that’s a lifetime’s work for many of us. And, again, creativity and art are ways to navigate that. So I think, yeah, it is. It’s quite naturally really that music and culture kind of focuses on these things.

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The album as a whole is really fascinating piece of work for a number of reasons. Can you talk me through the actual orchestration of the album? The press notes mention that the music involves a radical reimagining of the traditional orchestra formation. Yes. How did you find writing for that orchestration?

That was interesting. The orchestration for the record is kind of a metaphor, really. I felt that, over the last ten years, the kind of liberal consensus that was driving, I guess, world culture post-Second World War, it feels like it’s gone in to reverse a little bit. All of our assumptions are being upended with the rise of populism, authoritarianism, the environmental crisis, technology; all of these challenges.

So the world’s been turned upside down in some way and so I wanted to reflect that very directly, so I just turned the proportions of the orchestra upside down. So it’s almost all basses and cellos. It’s low-frequency instruments, rather than melody instruments. And I wanted to see if I could make music that had a kind of sense of elevation, I guess, out of this dark material.

It’s kind of a metaphorical project, really, because, for me… Yeah, we’re living in dark times, in a way – very challenging times. We’re facing a lot of questions, but the Declaration does feel like a hopeful document. It comes out of another very dark time – the Second World War – but it is a document all about human potential and a document all about choices. And we’ve got some choices to make as a culture, I think.

Was it particularly challenging process working with that kind of orchestration? Was it quite an inspiring new way to work?

Well, every project has its own kind of palette, I think, and you find that palette by making it. And actually, working with those colours was really wonderful. It was really exciting. I mean, it was sort of challenging, in a way, but also really satisfying. And all my records have got loads of bass – I’m just a bass head, so I love that, that whole physical texture of working with it.

Was the decision to use a wordless choir based on wanting to make the album truly universal?

There are a few reasons for that choir. I wanted there to be choral signing because that conveys the image of community very strongly. But I didn’t want the words to be sung, because then you get in to the problem of intelligibility and the text is so important. I wanted the text to be really legible and really direct in the project, so I though, okay, I’m just going to use this vocal colour as a part of the in instrumental group and present the texts just as spoken.

How did the crowd-sourcing process work in terms of collating the readings?

Well, the idea of crowd sourcing really came from the principal of wanting to make the piece feel as democratic as possible. So, the three kinds of narration are, first of all, Eleanor Roosevelt, who was involved in framing the declaration 70 years ago. And then she hands forward to Kiki Layne, who I chose because I wanted a young voice… I’d heard her narration in the film If Beale Street Could Talk, which she really carries with her narration. It’s a beautiful film and I loved her reading in it, so she was an obvious choice for me.

And then I wanted, in some way, to invoke the principal of the universality of the text by having many voices reading it. And so we very simply just put out a call on social media and got hundreds of recordings by return of people just reading little pieces of the Declaration that meant something to them personally – just on their iPhone and in their native language. And then I used those really as almost like sonic objects. Because there are 70 languages on the record and I speak hardly any of them, so I was relating to these texts as kind of little sonic objects and then I made a kind of landscape out of them and the music kind of flows through that landscape.

Was a lot of the orchestration done before those landscapes were developed?

All of this was done in parallel. I mean, everything talks to everything when you’re writing. You change one little thing and you have to change everything. It’s a very sort of organic process, so there was the composing, by which I mean notes on paper, and then the recording process, which influences everything and then the texts and the readings and the way that the electronics are. It all moves forward in parallel.

Can we talk about 'Sleep'? For many people, it has become something that they’ve been able to find a lot of solace in during these strange times. How has it been to see it be embraced in the way it has?

It’s wonderful and surprising. I mean, 'Sleep' is like everything – every piece that you make is a kind of question, really. It’s a proposition, or a theory. And when it goes out in to the world you start to understand what it means to people and how it connects to an audience and that’s always a surprising thing.

I mean, 'Sleep' was written originally as a kind of creative enquiry in to the relationship between music and sleeping, but people have found other uses for it. They listen to it when they’re coding or doing yoga, or whatever it is, as well as when they’re trying to sleep. So expanding it in the form of an app, from my standpoint, was all about increasing the utility of this music.

There is a utility dimension to that music. It’s a tool for people to use to support their kind of rest, or to find a kind of pause in very data-saturated lives and the app allows a very personal relationship with that material, because the algorithm that’s working behind the scenes can create a satisfying musical architecture of pretty much any length. That’s the magic part of it - it’s not just on / off. It’s actually very sophisticated what’s happening there. It’s actually re-composing 'Sleep' in real time.

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As an aside, how important is it for you to strike that balance between your own personal projects and scoring for film and television?

Yeah, in a way they’re quite different processes… They’re all composing, but film is fundamentally a collaborative team effort and a film score is not an album, it’s not a symphony, it’s not about the music - it’s about the film. So it’s about finding what music can bring to it in a kind of intelligent way and the things music can do that the other elements cannot do, or that are missing in some way… So, in a way, it’s a kind of conversational puzzle solving process, which is really fascinating.

Ultimately you’re looking to find the music that feels it inevitably belongs to the world of that film and that’s a really interesting thing. So there are a lot of, I guess you might say limitations or boundaries around what the music can do in that situation, whereas on a solo project there aren’t any. [Laughs] So they’re totally different things, but I love doing both. I find that, actually, the alternation between more collaborative things and then solo things is really good for me.

Your music has been widely used by directors to great effect in films you haven’t scored yourself. A standout example is the use of 'On The Nature Of Daylight' in Arrival, which complimented Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score beautifully. How do you tend to find the process where someone reaches out to you to use a piece of your music in a certain way?

Well in that case, I obviously knew that Jóhann was scoring the film and then I got the call from the production that they wanted to use On The Nature Of Daylight. So my first call was to Jóhann to find out a bit of context, you know? And he told me that they had On The Nature Of Daylight in the cut from the very beginning. So they had cut the movie to it – the beginning and the end – and he’d made some suggestions around score options, but that they were really set on using my piece and he was very happy that I should allow it actually…

Often filmmakers get in to this situation where they just can’t get past the temp score. They’re so in love with it and they’re so used to it. So the next thing was a conversation with Denis [Villeneuve] about what the film really was and what it was about, because On The Nature Of Daylight is from The Blue Notebooks, which is a kind of anti-war, anti-violence record. So I wanted to try and understand the subject matter of the film, which was at that point unknown.

I mean, Arrival is essentially an anti-war film. It’s a film about communication, right? So it made perfect sense to me that I should allow it, so it went ahead. And it’s a beautiful film and Jóhann’s work, obviously, is fantastic in it.

Is it strange to see pieces like 'On The Nature Of Daylight' take on a life of their own away from their original outlet?

Well, in a way. Not strange, but it is interesting. My position, really, is that I can control what’s on the manuscript paper, but I can’t control anything after that. I can control literally the sounds I make and I obviously control those a thousand percent. And then after that the music is released and it just finds its own connections to people and people find their own connections to it. That’s beyond my control, but I am really interested in it. It’s fascinating to see which pieces kind of float off in to the ether and people don’t really notice them and other things, people gravitate to and I don’t know why that is.

It’s chance, or… who knows?

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Waltz With Bashir is being reissued next month. It’s an incredibly powerful film, but it’s also an incredibly powerful score.

It’s an amazing film, yeah.

I understand that the director, Ari Folman, had been listening to The Blue Notebooks when he was writing the film. There are tracks from the album on that soundtrack. Is that quite a common thread when filmmakers approach you to compose their work – that your work influenced them in some way?

Sure. That does happen quite a bit – and that’s great. That’s actually a really nice way to start a process, because it means there’s a kind of shared language built up already and the world of the film and world of the music are already quite close together.

Other projects just come along and the film is finished and they’re looking around for a composer and that’s another way to do it, but certainly the more collaborative relationship you can have with filmmakers, the better it is. I do think that with Waltz With Bashir… I mean it was the perfect project for me, really. The themes of the project and its general emotional tone really suited my sort of musical language

. It’s almost the first score I ever wrote, so I felt very lucky, really, to have been involved with that project at that time.

What have you found yourself listening to during lockdown?

It’s a lot of different things, really. The radio is always on in our house, so that’s beyond my control. That’ll be either 6 Music or it’ll be Radio 3 or it’ll be NTS. It’s a whole mix of stuff, so I’ll be listening to whatever’s coming out of the speaker. It just goes on first thing in the morning and then it’s on all day.

And then, record-wise, it’s a real mix, again. I’ve been listening to a lot of quite old jazz, actually. And then, other things, quite a lot of Berlin-y techno. There were a couple of collections which have come out in the last month from a New York Label, Haus of Altr – electronic label, really interesting, two compilations, very wide ranging, which have been great.

The new Bob Dylan – also great. So, yeah, a real mix.

Do you still find yourself drawn to a lot of electronic music in particular?

I’m really just, as far as a listener, I’m just like other listeners, in that I just listen to the things I love and I’m interested in things that I haven’t heard before. I’m just led by my curiosity, really. I mean, the electronic music scene is very fertile. Over the last few years with the Eurorack explosion, there’s just so many interesting things going on. I just like to hear what’s happening.

Final one for you quickly, what have you got coming up next?

The next big one is going to be another ballet. So after Three Worlds, I’m making another ballet with Wayne McGregor. This is based on a series of novels by Margaret Atwood, so that’ll be great - good fun!

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Words: Paul Weedon // @Twotafkap 
Photo Credit: Mike Terry

'Voices' is out now on digital download, CD and vinyl. 'Waltz With Bashir ;is available to stream now and will be released on vinyl for the first time on August 14th, alongside a CD reissue.

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