Invitation to dream: an interview with Max Richter

Featuring : Max Richter

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The latest in our series of interviews with modern classical composers (read the previous on Whitney George, Roomful of Teeth, William Basinski) brings us to a chat with the architect of one of the defining musical landmarks of 2015, Max Richter, writer of the 8-hour sleepcycle-soundtracking composition SLEEP.

Max has described the music as “an invitation to dream”, and although the composer’s intention is for audiences to experience SLEEP in its entirety across the everyday – but still mysterious and kind of magical – process of setting down to sleep, and sliding in and out of consciousness before waking 8 hours later, its gentle, repetitive patterns of chamber orchestra and electronics generally just makes for beautiful listening in any setting.

Max’s band has performed SLEEP in its entirety at a night-long show in Germany, where audiences were provided with beds. The troupe have just announced a UK tour for 2016 performing an abridged version of SLEEP.

This is what Max told us about his motivations for creating SLEEP and the unique challenges the project has presented:

“From recent sleep research we have learned that two things specifically are handy in triggering slow waves, namely extremely low frequency sounds and small repeated fragments of material. It just so happens that these are two things I regularly use in my work anyhow, so it was a sort of permission slip to do what I would just do by instinct.

“I think there is something magical about those frequencies. We can make them with acoustic instruments easily, and we encounter them in Nature only in thunder storms and other large scale events. To be able to control and shape these sorts of things feels like a magical or maybe super human kind of activity, and is one of the reasons I fell in love with electronic music when I was a kid.

“Thinking about it now this isn’t really surprising, and it reinforces my feeling that SLEEP is, in a way, foregrounding elements which are already present in my earlier things.

Max 2 landcscape

“I decided early on to write the album as a big set of variations. There are lots of reasons for this. First, I love variation forms (memoryhouse is a big set of variations). Second I felt that if I were sleeping through a piece and woke up half way through (as people are bound to do) I would like to have something familiar around me, something to recognise, and variation forms are perfect for this because the basic DNA is always the same. There is also a precedent in music history, namel Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which were apparently written to accompany the insomnia of the nobleman who commissioned them. If its good enough for Bach…

“In a way the project is really an experiment to see what happens when sounds and consciousness meet in this other context. Thats exactly the question I was looking to examine. In a sense it is an intrusion in the sleep state, but a voluntary one. For me the centre of the project is this unique encounter between the music and the singular consciousness of the sleeper. It is a giant ‘What if…?’

“I thought only of how the music might connect to a sleeping mind, not of any other contexts for it. Of course people find their own relationships to the work once its out there, and thats one of the most interesting things really – how people encounter the material and what they do with it – thats when you really find out what it is you have made.

“The  8-hour live performance of SLEEP went really well – though for the first half hour we had two technicians literally taking the piano apart and repairing it while I was playing! Overall it felt like a mixture between running a marathon and sitting zazen. The audience all had beds to sleep in and most people did go to sleep for most of the show. It was quite a special atmosphere playing to people who are asleep because the performance dynamics were completely different. We were not projecting the material to the audience the way you do in a normal gig, but rather we felt like the audience were in some way in our care during their voyage throughout the night – it felt special. When dawn broke and the last chord faded away there was a brilliant 2 or 3 minute silence, which was maybe my favourite thing in the gig. I think overall people were quite affected by the show, though obviously everybody experiences these things in their own unique way – and thats the most interesting thing really.

Max Richter – Rainlight (composed for for Random International’s ‘Rain Room’ at the Barbican)

“This year I also wrote a full length Ballet, a TV series (The leftovers) and a couple of film scores. So, yeah, exhaustion is pretty much it.

“As to whats next, I’m not sure yet. I tend to wait for an idea to strike me rather than just do things, and nothing has really solidified yet, so I’m waiting for the next thing that feels like it wants to get done…”

 The full 8-hour version of SLEEP has been made physically-available for the first time as a deluxe box set containing eight CDs and a high-definition pure audio Blu-Ray disc. In May, the Max Richter Ensemble will tour an abbreviated version of SLEEP alongside a full performance of Max’s Tilda Swinton-narrated Kafka homage, The Blue Notebooks. A Vulnicura-style series of SLEEP reworking by acclaimed artists is also planned, with the first of these – by Mogwai – out now.


art is O Darkness! O Darkness! by Edward Ka-Spel