Photo: Mike Terry / Courtesy of Universal Music Group

Max Richter’s ‘VOICES’ Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.

Max Richter
31 July 2020

From the Balkan Wars to the Iraq conflict and London’s 7/7 terrorist attacks, the electro-ambient-classical composer Max Richter has never eluded socio-political and humanitarian concerns in his decorous, heart-swelling and yearning brand of post-minimalist contemporary classical alchemy. His latest outpouring, some ten years in the making and arriving five years after the shape-shifting experiment that was Sleep, is directly inspired by the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights – a blueprint for a better world. It builds its velvety shimmer, post-Glassian circling phrases, and paradisal vocals around recited chunks of the document read by the actress Kiki Layne and a coterie of anonymous, crowdfunded voices from around the globe.

The author of The Blue Notebooks experiments with narrators and musical formation, yet his characteristic style shines like a beacon: passages of ambient murk, gently vibrating strings and somnolent stretches of piano. The readings are employed as mini-dramas, and the supreme, wordless vocals float angelically like birds swooping over woods.

Richter’s ninth studio album prioritizes lower register timbres of double basses and cellos in his purposeful deployment of an “upside-down” orchestra. It accommodates a sonic arsenal of a 12-piece choir, 12 double basses, 24 cellos, six violas, eight violins, and the soprano Grace Davidson. The ebb and flow of echoing motifs and the use of found sound are trademarks of the composer’s toolbox, repeated with restraint and grace here: “Origins”, “Cartography”, and “Prelude 6” are bound by sonic DNA and harmonically linked to conjure the texture of a fever dream.

Tender protest propels “Voices”, which opens with the alluring lead single, “All Human Beings”, cushioning a crackled sample of Eleanor Roosevelt against a web of incisive strings and choral sobs. The stately “Origins” pits the composer’s keyboards at the forefront and against the soothing lace of beach-lapping waves.

Elsewhere, the album’s stunning centerpiece, “Chorale”, provides a feast for the ears with its wordless ascension of ethereal voices. Meanwhile, “Journey Piece” melds Layne’s solemn recitation, chirruping birdsong, and a blooming chorus of voices to haunting effect. The concluding “Mercy” harks back to earlier Richter works as its crescendo of strings and piano pull one another between poles of regret and rapture.

VOICES employs music as a forum for activism, spreading sentiments of unity, tolerance, and compassion throughout a pensive, sweeping, and goosebump-inducing song cycle of drones, arpeggios, and keyboard figures. In the wake of a surge in anti-liberalism, oppression, bigotry, and bloody violence and unleashed in the middle of a global pandemic, it’s a becalming rebuke and a heartening conduit for hope, reflection, and radiance.

RATING 9 / 10