Saints do it. Sinners do it. Children do it and adults do it. Sleep is the one universal constant that threads through humanity, that small period in the middle of the night when our bodies finally relax and our brains, finally, shut down.
In that sense, it's a wonder that no one has dreamed of doing 'SLEEP' before. Max Richter's new eight hour performative opus, it's a lengthy, immersive suite, one that has literally – successfully, in every sense – caused its audience to doze off.
“We're all chronically sleep-deprived – at least, according to science,” he tells Clash. “I mean I think it is an opportunity to just switch off and stop for an extended period. And I think that's a very healthy thing, actually, to do that from time to time.”
Given its live debut earlier this year, 'SLEEP' has now been packaged as a full, official, studio document. It's a truly fascinating experience: veering back to the 60s avant garde – think the immersive cinema of Andy Warhol or the lengthy works of John Cage – it's challenging for the audience, the performer and the composer himself.
“In a way, it's just a set of questions,” he muses, “and in making the piece you sort of try to, first of all, try to frame the questions, and then maybe scrape away at some answers. And for me, 'SLEEP' was about exploring a different way of music and consciousness co-existing. Obviously we can listen consciously, intentionally, but also we have this hearing thing which is more environmental and 'SLEEP' in a way speaks to that. I wanted to make a piece where you interact with it in the way that you interact, maybe, with a landscape.”
“I guess the other thing about 'SLEEP' is that I like the idea of extended duration in that it functions as a kind of pause in your life,” Max continues. “You have to actually make space for it and I think that sort of cognotive, psychological space is something which I personally feel has been closed down over the past few years. Basically since everything went onto the screen, a lot of our lives – or certainly a lot of my life – is spent curating data streams. Stuff I want to engage with, stuff I don't want to engage with. And I think that's quite a big psychological load for all of us and I felt like 'SLEEP' was an opportunity to go on holiday from that for a while.”
Ironically – or should that be inevitably - the composer himself struggles to switch off, particularly if music is playing in the vicinity. “I can't do that, at all,” he states. “If there's something on – either at home or if I'm out and about, in a bar – I actually can't not listen to the music. I can't not analyse it. So I can't sleep with music on, unfortunately. Which may be a good thing when it comes to playing this, actually.”
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'SLEEP' began with analysis. Consulting neuro-scientists, Max Richter began mapping out both sleep patterns and potential ways for this to influence his music. “During certain phases of sleep we are in some version of consciousness, and we are interactive and responsive, and others we've just sort of checked out, basically. And obviously music can sort of interact with that in different ways.”
“Also, in terms of the architecture of the piece, because it's such a big structure the normal sorts of ideas of musical architecture and structure building didn't really apply in the same way,” he continues. “When you're six hours in it doesn't matter what happened three hours ago. It just doesn't. We can't hold that much structure in our brain. So, weirdly, it did change the way I thought about the whole problem of composing.”
Abandoning any notion of a 'song' in the recognisable sense, Max focussed on thematic variation, and the recurrence of two distinct moods. “I like variation forms,” he explains. “And I've always liked that idea of mining a small piece of material, to try and dig as much out of it as possible. I like that idea. I like the ecology of that and the sort of minimalism of that. And the other reason for using variation form was that from a listeners point of view if I wake up then I kind of want to know where I am. And the thing about variation form is you get this sort of feeling of recognition. Like, we've been here before but it's not quite the same and I get it. You feel like you're in a familiar landscape. So I thought that would be really useful for this project, in terms of the way it works for listeners.”
“So really what I did was I made two themes,” he continues. “One of which is a sort of pulsed, dark, piano music, and the other one is this vocal material. And I just intercut them – they basically alternate throughout the whole thing. So you just have this sense of some kind of order, rather than it just being random and I felt like that was quite important, as well, for people to have this washing line to hang their thoughts on as it goes on.”
Leaving the audience dangling on a washing line isn't quite as precarious at it sounds. 'SLEEP' soothes in its absorption, the slow-moving beast seeming to imply both great size and enormous strength. It overcomes the listener in waves, with the audience at the work's London debut dozing off in record numbers. “I was sort of surprised by how different it was,” he recalls, “because normally when you're playing a show you're trying to project the music, you're trying to communicate with people and tell a story. But in this case, most of them had their eyes closed and were trying to nod off.”
“In a way, it was quite a special atmosphere because you really felt like these people had entrusted themselves to you in a completely different way,” he says. “There's a sense that they were in our care, really, through the night. It sort of made us all feel... in a way it's quite a sort of humbling experience, actually. Because it's an act of trust, isn't it? You go to sleep in a room full of people and you are, pretty much, in their hands. You're very vulnerable and that aspect of it, that campfire aspect of it, came over quite strongly in the performance.”
The soothing, immersive nature of the audience experienced sits in stark contrast to the enormous struggle behind the scenes. 'SLEEP' is, simply, a leviathan, something that left Max Richter physically, mentally and emotionally drained. “The score is like 300 pages,” he gasps. “Just the amount of data, because it was all recorded at high resolution. So just the amount of disc space, the huge number of tracks and files. It's just massive. It's really quite a challenge to find a system where we could play that back. We've been pushing what's possible, really.”
“I checked everything,” he adds. “I spent days and days just going through stuff. The whole technical aspect of it was really, really quite a big challenge, actually. Something I hadn't considered at all, when I went into it. I was a bit blown away, really. I thought I would just make an album!”
Out now as an album, 'SLEEP' is much more than a curio. Emotionally engrossing and conceptually challenging, it seems to have captured the imagination, lingering at the back of fans' minds like, well, the last remnants of this morning's dream. “In a way when you make a new record or anything else really you're just asking a question,” he explains at one point. “You have this theory about what it is and it's really only when you put it in front of an audience or the record gets out there and people start to listen to it that you discover what it is you've made.”
“It's actually on the condition that people bring their own biography and their own thoughts about it, and then you start to get a sense of the bigger picture of the thing. Because until then it's just hypothetical, really,” he states. “You've got this thing and you think this is what it is, but honestly, that's just through the lens of my experience and my intentions. And actually, especially in this piece, the experiences of the listener are really at the centre of it. If there is a theme, then it's the act of hearing and the act of sleeping – that's the theme of it. It's been fascinating to hear all the feedback and the kind of stuff that's happened.”
Remarkably, 'SLEEP' is just one aspect of an enormously productive 12 month cycle for the composer. Max Richter has worked extensively, completing film and television work while also moving into stage production. It's a wonder, actually, that he's found time for any rest whatsoever in 2015. “I mean, I wrote a ballet at the beginning of the year, which was two hours of orchestral and electronic music. And then I did 'SLEEP', which is obviously eight and a half hours. And then I've also completed two film scores and ‘The Leftovers’ for HBO – which is ten episodes. So I've been kind of busy! And I'm also doing a film called 'Morgan', with Ridley Scott.”
“So, really, what I'm going to do is just take a little breather and just try and think about what's next. So that's my next project – to kind of do nothing at all. It's like the perfect project!” Perhaps he should try sleep – it seems like a rather ruminative, inspiring, addictive activity.
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'SLEEP' is out now. Catch Max Richter live:
14 Bristol Colston Hall
17 London Barbican
19 Norwich Norfolk & Norwich Festival
21 Manchester RNCM
24 Edinburgh Usher Hall