Invitation to dream: an interview with Max Richter

Featuring : Max Richter


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

The Dream-quest of Unknown Expositions

Featuring : Talbot Fade


The digital drums crackle like a bonfire.  Sped up and flitting about in the upper atmosphere of the mix like sparks.  Like an Expo on fire, the crackles serve as a backdrop to something grand, something utopian.

Which is where the big synth melody that slowly, inevitably dominates the world comes in.

It is the sound of some gloriously bureaucratic  organising committee in the 70s, commissioning a theme for a great city.  Powerful and memorable.  A confident stride into the future.  Yet here, among the crackling fire and the reverb, its Utopianism is haunting.

Talbot Fade Weathered – Sunrise

Weathered Sunrise is taken from the album November Versions.  It’s out on Dec 11th on Local Action and you can get it right here.

Norbert Wiener FTW

Featuring : Hieroglyphic Being

norbert wiener

“Let us remember that the automatic machine is the precise economic equivalent of slave labour. Any labour which competes with slave labour must accept the economic consequences of slave labour.” (Norbert Wiener, 1948).

Many smart people are getting worried about the implications of growing machine intelligence: will the robots take our jobs? What happens when we lose control over the complex systems on which our society and economy rely, things like energy or finance? What will these machine intelligences do about us if they ever acquire sentience and agency?

These worries are not new. They go back to the initial bouts of automation of the first and second industrial revolutions. They were however articulated most precisely, and in a way that connects more strongly to the situation today by the father of cybernetics, Nortbert Wiener, in a prescient response to early computers.1

Cybernetics, by setting machines in the wider context of the human, social systems with which they interface, provides an answer to the challenges of automation: to build systems that integrate machines and humans in a way that enhances human capabilities: we go from AI to IA (Intelligence Amplification).


The Hieroglyphic Being & J.I.T.U. Ahn-Sahm-Buhl We Are Not The First collaboration recently released by RVNG International provides an excellent illustration of what we are talking about. Listen to the aptly named Cybernetics is an Old Science, where the boundaries between human and machines in this Ahn-Sahm-Buhl dissolve in a chaotic melange from which wild, exhilarating order emerges.

Hieroglyphic Being’s legendary techno scrunch skips and rattles with disciplined unpredictability. Free jazz winds glide and soar like birds of fire and human intuition one moment, metal angels in a Richard Brautigan fantasy the next.

We experience futuristic visions of man-machine symbiosis where the machines overwhelm us not to create a grey goo of homogeneity, but extreme, baroque expressions of our own subconscious, like a non-apocalyptic version of Tetsuo in Akira, or the bio-technological fairy-tale palace gone sick Nostalgia For Infinity spaceship in Alisdair Reynold’s Revelation Space sequence.

Physical constrains to creativity are removed, and the absolute levels of freedom in the universe increase. We can’t wait.

Hieroglyphic Being and the J.I.T.U. Ahn-Sahm-Buhl – Cybernetics Is An Old Science

Acquire We Are Not The First from RVNG International.

Saturday Mixtape: Vactrol Park

Featuring : Podcast + Vactrol Park


Earlier this week, we were harried down the disturbing, tortuous lanes of Vactrol Park’s techno labyrinth.

Today, we see them expand the physical scope of the experience with a live bootleg they generated while practising for their show in Cafe OTO on the 11th of January 2016.

Home built modular synths effects and analogue drum machines spread like alien glyphs over the walls of an infinitely expanding, throbbing corridor where we are lost, and lost for words. Paraphrasing what Stephen King said about Peter Straub’s majestic Ghost Story:

“The sense of awe just mounts and mounts”

Vactrol Park – Live rehearsal bootleg 19 Nov 2015

Buy their first EP here, and get more information about the 11th January Cafe Oto show here.

Far East and West of Here

Featuring : Bamboo


There is a place among the reeds where the maximalist future dwells.  Birthed among the sacred flames of Young Marble Giants and Mariah it is all mystery, all the time.  Like, ’24/7 glints of light off the still rivers, is that a human or a water god?’ mystery.  Like, cascading polyrhythmic drum patterns sort of mystery.  The sort of mystery that is secretly plotting the awakening of the Old Ones as it plays the ‘synths or horn section?’ game [spoilers: it’s synths, it’s always synths with us].

Bamboo are that future, and dear god it’s glorious.

Bamboo – Khene Song

If only we still threw dance parties, this would be our go-to, ‘clear the floor to make room for the true believers but everyone’s dancing by the end’ track.  It sweeps in our favourite Far Eastern touchstones including Yellow Magic Orchestra (on the album there’s a fairly obscure cover of Harry Hosono‘s Love Theme for an early 80s Japanese TV Show) and the aforementioned Mariah (who’s Utakata No Hibi finally got a reissue a few months ago and promptly sold out — check the link to read Twitch’s post about it from 2008(!)).  It is OOIOO if they’d binged on Leven Signs instead of Italian Opera.  It is, as I mentioned, glorious.

You can get the album direct from Upset the Rhythm right here.  I just have, because it’s really fucking good.

All the wrong notes

Featuring : Robert Martin


It was apparently recorded in 1985. The era of Eddie Murphy’s seminal party jam, Party All The Time, a time when even the blues sounded like Born In The USA.

Appropriately little is known about Robert Martin, the Jandek-like who home-recorded a collection of scratchy, morose song-doodles, accompanied by a guitar that is scrawling all the wrong notes. His voice wails through a snakes’ choir of tape hiss.

A ‘deadbeat surfer’ with no musical training, Martin was apparently a work colleague of a friend of Tim who runs the Yik Yak label, who in 2008 compiled a bunch of Marting’s old 80s home tapes as an LP – Long Goodbye.

Robert Martin – Long Goodbye

Long Goodbye sounds like the blues as it leaks out of the ribcage of a slowly dying white man.

Mournful, terrible and truly psychedelic.

Buy Robert Martin’s Long Goodbye LP

Art is a detail from Folger Shakespeare Library, V.b.311, f. 129r


Featuring : Vactrol Park

Vactrol Park I - Artwork by Mario Hugo

At the beginning of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, Popol Vuh conjure an untainted Eden with their synthesisers. Waves of sound overwhelm our sense of balance, inducing an otherworldly trance.

Such is the power of their music.

Now let’s flip to the dark side.

In Stars Quivering Slowly, the track that begins Vactrol Park’s first EP, they deploy similar technologies with the opposite goal: to create an atmosphere of extreme dread, a dark corridor straight out of Kojima/Del Toro/Ito’s worst nightmares through which we are rid by a macabre scronk somewhere in between Klaus Schulze and Rhythm and Sound. Don’t. Look. Back.

Some heretical cults see morality as a loop whose extremes connect. They believe that sanctity can be achieved by acts that are extreme in their purity, or in their impurity. Perhaps. There are certainly moments, in our dazed stumbling down Vactrol’s Park technoid hallucination, when we perceive glimpses of a hidden truth, of a reality beyond, squeezed out of the darkness by muscular drums and satanic noises.

Vactrol Park – Starts Quivering Slowly

You can get Vactrol Park’s EP 1 from ESP Institute via Juno, and see them live at Café OTO on January the 11th .