Max Richter‘s Voices is the perfect album for this weekend, indeed for this time in human history: a heartfelt reflection on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Today is the 4th of July in the United States, a day when Americans celebrate their freedom, independence and ideals. How far have we drifted from the Founding Fathers’ original intent? Have we made any progress? Has the path been obscured?
The United States is currently engaged in a series of culture wars, many sparked or inflamed by its own president. He-who-must-not-be-named is planning to celebrate this weekend with fireworks at a packed Mount Rushmore gathering – no social distancing required. Borders are being closed. Civil rights are under attack. In contrast, according to The New York Times, Black Lives Matter may be the largest social movement in history.
The contrast between our ideals and our reality has produced an unexpected reaction as I play Voices again and again. I cry. And I am not someone who normally cries. So much for being an objective reviewer. I cry out of frustration at the way things are, out of hope that things might change, out of anger that the nation I believe in is led by a person who seems intent on destroying everything beautiful and holy. In the past few weeks, I’ve marched with thousands of people. I’ve prayed. I’ve tried to keep my anger in check and my despair at the door.
I cry because as I listen to Voices, I remember that I believe in this America, in this world, in this sense of shared humanity, in the capacity for human beings to change, to correct their course, to love. There is no embedded commentary, simply people of different nationalities reading the text of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, augmented by the soprano voice of Grace Davidson, who also appeared on Sleep, A Closer Listen‘s Album of the Year in 2015. Richter pulls out all the stops, adding “12 double basses, 24 cellos, 6 violas, 8 violins, a harp, a wordless 12-piece choir, violinist Mari Samuelsen and conductor Robert Ziegler.” Yulia Mahr’s video for “All Human Beings” is gorgeously produced and contains evocative juxtapositions: swingsets and soldiers, oceans and apartments, black and white, old and young, Roosevelt’s spoken words and Davidson’s wordless song:
The authors of the Declaration were convened under the direction of Eleanor Roosevelt at the UN General Assembly in 1948, the aftermath of the Second World War. The document was adopted two weeks before Christmas, and led to the International Bill of Human Rights. In the aftermath of such widespread, shared suffering, humanity rose to its highest height.
I cry because such things are possible, and because Richter’s music makes me ache for my ideals.
Richter writes, “It is clear we all have some thinking to do at the moment. We live in a hugely challenging time and, looking around at the world we have made, it’s easy to feel hopeless or angry. But, just as the problems we face are of our own making, so their solutions are within our reach, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is something that offers us a way forward. Although it isn’t a perfect document, the declaration does represent an inspiring vision for the possibility of better and kinder world.”
We’re all going through the same things: isolation, quarantine, fear, anxiety, a horror at racism, sexism and political xenophobia. Now, more than any other time in our lifetimes, we can see the potential for global empathy. When a square in Amsterdam fills with protestors chanting “Black Lives Matter,” we realize that we truly are a global community. The United Nations, despite its flaws, embodies this connection.
Everyone has the right to life, liberty, and the security of person.
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression.
Everyone has the right to education.
The words of the Declaration engage the mind; Richter’s music goes straight to the heart. Together, they create an impact greater than the sum of its parts. Voices has the potential to make the listener believe in humanity again. It’s more than just an album; like the document that inspired it, it’s a declaration. (Richard Allen)