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Text by ELIOT HAWORTH
Photography by IVAN RUBERTO

AWAKE / ASLEEP
with Max Richter

Text by ELIOT HAWORTH

Photography by IVAN RUBERTO

Text by ELIOT HAWORTH
Photography by IVAN RUBERTO

Max Richter - Path 5 (Delta)

00:00 / 11:13

Path 5 (Delta) is taken from Sleep, an 8 hour landmark recording by acclaimed British composer Max Richter.

Most composers would take offence if you dozed through one of their concerts. Not so Max Richter. Sleep, his dreamy musical masterpiece conceived as a lullaby for our frenetic world, is designed to be enjoyed at both ends of the spectrum of consciousness. Indeed, from the Sydney Opera House to an old power station in Berlin, audiences have been lining up at nightfall, duvets and pillows in hand. Once tucked in, they’re exposed to an eight-hour opus of electronica and vocals that Max concocted with a neuroscientist. As our writer observed when he attended one such slumber party in London, a fascinating tension ensues between giving in to Max’s mesmeric soundscape and not wanting to miss a thing.

Eliot Haworth: How did you sleep last night? You look well rested.

Max Richter: I slept well actually. I usually sleep well.

EH: You’re lucky!

MR: I’m very lucky. I’ve always felt that sleep is one of the most interesting things that we do. I look forward to it.

EH: Are you a good dreamer?

MR: It comes and goes in waves really. For years and years I wrote my dreams down in a little diary, but I actually came to the realisation that my dreams were actively trying to be interesting so I put a stop to that. I caught myself trying to generate spectacularly interesting content and I just thought: “Hang on a minute, this is all wrong.”

EH: I’ve heard that you personally can’t listen to music while you go to sleep, something that many people find an absolutely crucial part of the bedtime ritual.

MR: If I’m listening to music, on some level I’m working. I may be enjoying it but I’m also in an analytical mode. I’m thinking about the way the music is structured and what it’s doing and how it’s put together.

EH: It’s a busman’s holiday.

MR: Exactly. I mean, that’s what I do all day long every day so it just doesn’t work for me to continue doing that when I’m trying to sleep.

EH: Was it your love of sleep that led you to develop the Sleep project?

MR: Actually that did feed into the project. Valuing sleep as much as I do in my own life I’m aware how data-saturated our lives are becoming and how hard it can be to find repose. So it felt like there was a need for an act of resistance. I do think there’s a sort of political dimension to sleep. A socio-political dimension.

EH: Oh yes. Sleep has almost become a luxury.

MR: Definitely. I do feel like it’s being eroded by our culture somewhat, and that’s part of the impetus behind the Sleep project, to think of it as a big, eight-hour-pause button. The piece is something of a manifesto.

EH: How did you go about composing a piece of music with a sleeping audience in mind?

MR: I consulted quite a lot with a friend of mine, a neuroscientist called David Eagleman. We had a series of conversations to determine what research was out there and to ask questions like: What does the sleeping mind perceive? Are we just switched off*? Which faculties are active?

EH: And what did he say?

MR: Well, there is a lot of research, but it’s still early days in terms of our understanding of how sleep works. There are a few broad-stroke things, which in a way confirm what our instincts tell us would be useful sleep music.

EH: Such as?

MR: There shouldn’t be sudden, dramatic changes, and there should be an emphasis on low-frequency sounds. The point that he made to me that I found really interesting was that from a neuroscience perspective sleep is actually an informational process rather than anything else. It’s about consolidating short-term memories into long-term ones, and it’s about sort of “emptying the trash” almost.

EH: Was that the big study published in Nature in 2013? Where researchers found that the sleeping brain immerses itself with spinal fluid, doing a big clean out, almost like a dishwasher?

MR: Yes. It’s interesting, right?

EH: Fascinating. We all spend a third of our lives asleep, however we seem to know so little about it. Sleep is an enigma.

MR: That’s the beauty of it. And that’s why it’s so rich for poetic associations. Because it’s an unknown space. I guess the overriding thing when composing the piece was to create a landscape for people to sleep through.

EH: What do you mean by landscape?

MR: Very often people will wake up a little bit at night when they’re sleeping, and then go back to sleep. I wanted people to feel as though they were somewhere that they recognised. So the piece is structured as a big set of variations, so that the basic material on the piano and strings is kind of always the same. The second thing is that the sound spectrum of Sleep mirrors the spectrum that the foetus hears in the womb, so there’s no high-frequency sounds. It’s essentially what would be filtered through the mother’s body.

EH: That’s really interesting. I remember being struck by the low-frequency sounds when I attended your recent performance in London. I was expecting the music to be hushed and whispered to help people to go to sleep, but it was really low and booming. The sounds were almost physical. It felt like being cocooned there in the bed.

MR: There’s something quite magical about low-frequency sound.

EH: It was quite comforting in this unfamiliar space. I remember walking into the hall, this huge room filled with camp beds, and not really knowing where I was or what I was supposed to do.

MR: There’s a sense of disorientation, isn’t there?

EH: It’s rare to see a space that looks like that. The only thing I could think of was a massive hospital ward, or it’s what I’ve always imagined boarding school might be like.

MR: Yes, these gigantic dorms!

EH: Did you go to a boarding school growing up?

MR: No, I went to school near Bedford and I didn’t board. But I guess the space is like a huge dormitory. I think there’s also something disorienting about the fact that sleeping in public...

EH: It’s makes you very vulnerable.

MR: Yes, exactly. Sleep is a very vulnerable state; it’s an intimate state. To be doing that with 500 strangers gives it a very particular psychological framework.

EH: What’s it like performing the piece?

MR: It’s mostly about physical endurance. First of all you have to get yourself purposefully jetlagged so you’re awake at the right time.

EH: Oh wow, I had no idea! What do you do?

MR: My band and I have an overnight rehearsal the night before and then sleep all day. Otherwise you literally cannot play for that long; you’d conk out. So tiredness is the first thing, and then, second, is just the physical labour of playing all of that music for so long.

EH: I saw you coming off stage during one of your breaks at about one o’clock in the morning, and you were rubbing your shoulder.

MR: It’s physically hard. It’s really hard. When I sit down at the piano at the beginning of the night there’s something like 200 pages of manuscript in front of me that I’ve got to play through. It really feels like climbing Mount Everest or running a marathon. So the music is composed to make sure that we all get a break, just to stretch and get a coffee and actually eat something.

EH: Ah! I thought you were off stage napping.

MR: No! I’m awful at napping. They have opposite effect and actually make me groggy. 

EH: What is it like performing in front of people who are asleep? Are you put off by snoring?

MR: I like the snoring, to be honest. There’s always people snoring. There’s something quite comforting and regular about it. It’s like hearing a cat purring while you play.

EH: There’s this odd tension in the audience when you’re playing. Nobody knows exactly how to behave. I noticed for example that the convention of not speaking to one another was upheld, and nobody really made eye contact, but then again people were perfectly happy to get up and wander down to the front of the stage, which would be totally outrageous at a normal concert.

MR: Performances are rituals. They’re codified. At a classical concert you sit still, you don’t talk, you don’t clap between movements. At a gig, on the other hand, you stand up, you drink, you jump about. They’re social rituals. There is no precedent really for what we’re doing with Sleep.

EH: Exactly, nobody knows what’s expected of them at a sleeping concert; it’s funny.

MR: And it’s interesting, these sorts of agreements that you mentioned. I do notice that people tend to agree not to talk to one another, and they don’t look at each other.

EH: I was wondering whether that’s because we’re all Londoners and that’s just our natural state of being. Do other cities respond to Sleep in different ways?

MR: Actually, yes. We played it in Berlin, and Berlin is very much a night-time city with a big electronic music culture.

EH: Now that you mention it, the closest thing to Sleep is probably the 48-hour Berghain clubbing experience, right?

MR: Absolutely right! We played it in a power station above Tresor, the techno club, so it’s a very similar culture. In Berlin it felt like a sort of “anti-rave,” different but very much connected to the club culture of the city. It meant that all of those ways of being came into our space and people knew what to do. There was more interaction. It was a ginormous space, so we had enormous subwoofer speakers. I mean, they were probably the size of this room actually.

EH: Wow.

MR: People were taking their duvets, climbing up on the subs and sleeping on the subs.

EH: We would never do that in London!

MR: No, it would never happen in London. Everyone’s a bit more polite there. We played it in Sydney at the Opera House, and that audience was more of a listening audience. Some people did sleep but most people were awake. There were all these people sitting round the front of the stage just listening.

EH: Personally I felt this uncertainty about how long I should listen for and when exactly I should go to sleep.

MR: Almost a fear of missing out?

EH: Yes, but not knowing what exactly I was missing out on. Because it’s music that has been composed to be listened to when asleep. So was I actually missing out by being awake? It posed these tricky questions.

MR: One of the questions it asks, I think, is about the duality between listening and hearing.

EH: So knowing you’re listening to something, as opposed to just taking it in subconsciously?

MR: Yes. It was important to me that the piece allows for multiple modes of engagement. It doesn’t tell you how to relate to it; it’s not prescriptive.

EH: I have to say that when I got up and walked around I saw a handful of people on their phones, which is a bit naughty and does seem to go against your idea of a pause.

MR: Did you really?

EH: Someone was playing Candy Crush.

MR: Ah, that’s so funny!

EH: I know! I was just looking, thinking, “What’s the point of being here then?!”

MR: But that’s a valid response, right?

EH: I guess so.

MR: I think it’s a very human response. It’s like, “I’m sitting here, I’m doing this thing, but really what I want to be doing is playing Candy Crush.” So if that’s the case, you should play Candy Crush.

EH: I was a couple of beds from Jarvis Cocker, who I think sleeps in his glasses, by the way...

MR: Oh does he?

EH: Maybe he was just napping. I know he’s a fan of yours and made Sleep his “album of the year” on his BBC Radio 6 show last year. Has he been in touch with you about the performance?

MR: We actually did an interview directly after the show, which was pretty funny. I was obviously really exhausted, and he was too, so we were both absolutely blasted. I’m not sure anything I said made any sense at all.

EH: I feel more comfortable admitting this now, but I actually didn’t sleep very well.

MR: It doesn’t matter. Everyone has a different trip through it.

EH: I had this very odd experience where I finally got to sleep at around 5am and slept solidly through the last couple of hours, only to be woken by a standing ovation.

MR: Hilarious!

EH: It’s a really surreal way to start the day. Very uplifting though. What’s it like having all these groggy people in pyjamas standing up and applauding you?

MR: The end of a gig is really interesting. The sun comes up, the music gets a little bit brighter, more and more high-frequency sounds go into the composition for the last 40 minutes. And then we finish, and there’s often this feeling of people not really knowing what to do. They’ve been in bed, most of them are still lying down in bed, there’s been eight hours of continuous music and now it stops. So what do we do? There’s this big question mark in the room. I think in London there was about a minute’s silence afterwards. It’s rather beautiful actually. Very intimate. You know, we’ve been playing and hearing all this music, and it’s just this lovely moment of silence.

EH: A pause within a pause.

MR: Yes, exactly. It’s quite nice, that. 

*) Contranym 1: OFF

A contranym is a word that has contradictory meanings, depending on its context. The word “off” can mean both activated (“the alarm went off and he got up”) and deactivated (“he turned off the alarm and went back to sleep”).

“I’ve always felt that sleep is one of the most interesting things that we do.”
That’s the beauty of sleep and that’s why it’s so rich for poetic associations. Because it’s an unknown space.
Pyjama-clad audience members attend a performance of Sleep at the Kraftwerk Club in Berlin last year. Photo by Stefan Hoederath.
Sleep is a very vulnerable state; it’s an intimate state. Doing that with 500 strangers gives it a very particular psychological framework.
Max, who grew up in Bedfordshire, is seen here wearing clothing by COS.
There are always people snoring. There’s something quite comforting and regular about it. It’s like hearing a cat purring while you play.
“I’ve always felt that sleep is one of the most interesting things that we do.”
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