On December 10th, 1948, the nations of the world gathered in Paris to approve one of the most visionary documents ever created: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The idea for the Declaration emerged in the wake of the Second World War. Abhorred by the mass systematic genocide of Jews and other minority groups under the Nazi regime, nations of the world united with the belief that this could not happen again. Every human being deserved a minimum standard of dignity and fundamental human rights.
Chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, the widow of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a group of philosophers, artists and political leaders came together to create a system of principles detailing an individual’s key civil, political, economic, social, and cultural rights. Renowned for its “universalist language”, without reference to any individual culture, political system, or religion, the UDHR is considered a “milestone document” in the history of human rights.
Taking inspiration from the Declaration, Max Richter composed VOICES – 56 minutes of music for an orchestra of 13 double bassists and 23 cellists, with recordings of voices of individuals from all over the world. The composition aims to bring “the message of the Universal Declaration alive”, by creating “a place to reflect on the world we have made, and on the world we want to make.”
A decade in the making, VOICES originates from a pre-Covid time, yet with its 2020 release, it lands with particular resonance.
“We live in a time of anxiety — a troubled time, anyway, dark times,” says Richter. “I wanted to put something into the center of the piece which provided a hopeful perspective.”
“The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is this extraordinary document which comes out of another dark time, the Second World War, where the world was basically in ruins, in ashes. And yet these people came together under Eleanor Roosevelt and wrote a blueprint for a better world, and I think that’s a wonderful human achievement. There’s something very inspiring and hopeful about that text.”
Yet despite the Declaration’s inalienable importance, bringing it to life in 2020 is a creative challenge. How can we take something written over seventy years ago, and make it still feel relevant to people today?
In order for something to be meaningful, it needs to be able to move us to feel a certain way. Neuroscience tells us that our brains are more likely to focus on stimuli of emotional significance, and that we find it easier to remember things when we experience them emotionally. This means that when something impacts us emotionally, it is more likely to have a long-term impact on our lives.
To bring the Doctrine to life, Richter has collaborated with artist and filmmaker Yulia Mahr, creating a video which she describes as “a visual manifesto for a kinder, more inclusive world.” Both the visual and musical aspects of the composition are interpretations of the universal experience of human rights. Moving away from the technicalities of the document itself, they recreate the feeling of a world adhering to human rights.
The first track of the album, ‘All Human Beings’, begins with the crackly 1949 recording of Roosevolt’s voice reading the preamble of the Declaration. As she commences Article One – “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights” – the cultural baton is passed on to American actress Kiki Layne (best known for her starring role in the romantic drama If Beale Street Could Talk).
“The thing about her voice is it’s a very young-sounding voice,” Richter comments. “I really wanted to convey that sense of youth and potential in that performance because the Declaration is really about the future; it’s about the world we haven’t made yet.”
This then morphs into a crowd-sourced choral reading of the declaration, intermeshing voices in over 70 countries. Richter describes these voices as a sort of “landscape”, where individual voices meld into a single texture. Words become sound. Disparities between dialects dissipate. The momentous orchestral whirls, instilling the piece with a feeling of awe and wonder.
Shifting from shots of faces from around the world to footage of the Earth from above, Mahr captures our simultaneous sameness and difference. No matter who we are or where we live in the world, we are ultimately interconnected as a planet.
On December 10th this year, VOICES will be broadcasted on 35 radio stations across the world, to commemorate the anniversary of the Declaration. As articulated by the UN, this year’s Human Rights Day reaffirms “the importance of human rights in re-building the world we want”, as well as our “ interconnectedness and shared humanity.”
Whilst talk of Covid-19 as the “great equalizer” quickly dissipated, what remained was a reinforcement of the ways in which we are, in fact, unequal. Together with the BLM movement, the pandemic has highlighted the inequalities in our societies, showing us that in 2020, as we did in 1948, we must apply human rights standards to tackle entrenched, inequalities, exclusion and discrimination in our systems.
Like the idealism expressed in the 1948 document, we can learn from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights today. Together, we can strive to build back better – a world that is more equal, more free, and more just.