Max Richter: The Sonic Science of Sleep

Max Richter: The Sonic Science of Sleep

(Photo Credit: Mike Terry / Deutsche Grammophon)

[My education in fine art comes in handy all the time in my music writing, but this is especially true when I’m dealing with music that dips heavy into conceptual and experimental territory. With this Q&A with Max Richter, I think it makes a passable replacement for my lack of expertise in classical music.]

Max Richter wants to help you sleep.

With his latest project, the German-born British composer — whose past work includes the seminal albums Memoryhouse (2002) and The Blue Notebooks (2004), a modern reinterpretation of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons (2014), and the film soundtracks to Shutter Island and Waltz with Bashir — is trying to get his music to do what most musicians fear: make you fall asleep.

Aptly-titled SLEEP, Richter describes the composition as “an eight-hour lullaby,” which his label, Deutsche Grammophon, has called the longest single piece of neoclassical music to ever be recorded. Quite literally, SLEEP is designed to be put on as you’re going to bed and played out as you sleep through the night.

“It’s really an experiment to try and understand how we experience music in different states of consciousness.”

“Sleeping is one of the most important things we all do,” Richter says in a statement. “We spend a third of our lives asleep and it’s always been one of my favourite things, ever since I was a child… For me, SLEEP is an attempt to see how that space when your conscious mind is on holiday can be a place for music to live”

A one-hour adaptation of the piece, from SLEEP, is available for streaming and in physical formats, while a download of the full eight-hour version can be purchased through Deutsche Grammophon. Describing the different intentions between the two, Richter said, “You could say that the short one is meant to be listened to and the long one is meant to be heard while sleeping.”

Matching the ambition of the SLEEP project itself, Richter plans to perform the eight-hour piece live in its entirety.

True to concept, the world premier will be performed to an audience who, rather than sitting up, will be lying in beds. Held in a concert hall in Berlin this month, the series of shows will last from midnight to 8 a.m., with the audience tucked away in four- to five-hundred beds. At the end of the show, which Pitchfork cheekily described as “a classical music slumber party,” Richter will ask the audience about their experience.

We talked with Max Richter to learn more about his fascinating, slumber-inducing project.

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Can you tell the story of how the idea for SLEEP came to you?

I’ve always been interested in sleep. It’s the most creative time for me — a place where everything happens. I’ve always thought sleeping and music are related altered states. More generally, there is also an intuitive connection between sleeping and music beyond this — and this connection is summed up by the tradition of the lullaby, which seems to be a universal in human culture.

The project also comes out of some conversations I’ve had with my wife, Yulia. Sometimes when I’m away playing a show, in another time zone, and she is not able to be there, she will listen to the gigs over live streams, late at night and half asleep. We’ve often talked about how the music and sleep flow together in some way and influence one another, so in a sense this project is also born out of our direct experience.

What made you want to pursue the project into realization?

I felt that this alternative space we enter into when sleeping might be an interesting landscape to write into and to explore as a medium for musical storytelling.

What kind of research, scientific or otherwise, did you conduct prior to and while composing?

I have long had a fascination with sleeping, so, in a way, I’ve spent a lifetime researching it. But I did consult with the neuroscientist and all-around polymath David Eagleman on some specifics.

Specifically, what did you learn from David Eagleman?

We discussed the various stages of sleeping and how the brain behaves and responds to stimuli differently according to these. There has been quite a bit of research recently into how sound can be used on sleeping subjects to foster specific sleep states, such as those associated with memory consolidation or learning. Its been fascinating to look into the science behind the project.

How did your learnings, and the project’s specific purpose, affect the composition and recording?

The overall musical material is structured as a set of variations. I used this form because it allows the music to change gradually while still retaining a basic identity, and I felt that this would be important for people sleeping through it – if you woke up, you would still know where you are.

Looking a bit more closely into the sorts of musical structures that foster the most beneficial sleeping brain states, it turned out that these are more or less what I do in my work anyhow — repeated structures with small variations, et cetera. So that was a happy discovery.

What contradicted the rules you have when making music for people who are awake?

When you are writing for someone who’s awake you are trying to tell a story. When you are writing for someone who is asleep you write the landscape and the listener is the story, in a way.

What has been the biggest challenge?

The big challenge with this project has been the duration. Dealing with these very long stretches of material means the whole production process gets really, really laborious. Individual takes and edits last hours rather than minutes to put together. In that way it’s bit like the“slow food” movement; I’ve been “slow recording.”

And the whole thing did take a LONG time – it’s been four years in gestation, with two years of solid work to make it happen. I write everything on manuscript paper before I will even go near a computer, so there were books of scribblings on my floor, on the bookshelves, by the record player, everywhere! It’s been mad really. I gave up trying to keep track of it all and just followed the material.

(Credit: © Rhys Frampton/ Deutsche Grammophon)

You’ve called this project “an experiment to try and understand how we experience music in different states of consciousness.” What “results” has the experiment yielded thus far?

I think it’s too early to tell. We had some very positive comments from people who took part in the first live stream, but I think you only really get to know what it is that you have made when you play it live to an audience, and we are planning to do that shortly.

How successful has the lullaby been at helping you and others sleep?

I can’t sleep through my own music, nor any music. I find that I can’t stop thinking about how the material is made, the production… I think many other musicians feel this way too. It’s impossible for me to not be analytical about music. But I am really happy at the comments we’ve been getting from folks with sleeping disorders, et cetera. The piece was always an artistic experiment, not medicine, but it turns out it may be that too.

The remaining part of the project is to perform it to a live audience. How are you preparing?

Its a bit like marathon training: we need to get plenty of rest beforehand and then into the right time zone so that we are awake during the night, while the audience sleeps…

What are your hopes, expectations, fears…?

I’m very happy to have got to the point of this project seeing the light of day at all! Its been really demanding to make, and the whole composition and production process has been full of questions.

I’m curious to see how the project develops going forward, and I’m especially looking forward to hearing people’s experiences of the live shows when they happen. I love the sense of community that a musical performance can bring. I can’t wait for the shows.

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