Half the audience asleep and eight-hour work's composer, Max Richter, was delighted

Richter 'woke up one day' with idea of composition, eventually called Sleep, that explores the boundary between sleeping and waking and encourages listeners to doze off

PUBLISHED : Friday, 23 October, 2015, 11:02am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 November, 2015, 11:34am

More than half the audience was asleep and at least one was snoring during the world premiere of Max Richter’s latest composition at the  Wellcome Library in London. And the 49-year-old British composer couldn’t have been more pleased.

The piece, called Sleep, lasts eight hours, and it is designed to do exactly that: encourage people to fall asleep. And stay asleep.

Richter had the idea one morning. “You could say I woke up with it,” he tells the South China Morning Post in a recent interview in Oxford.

“I wanted to explore the boundary  between sleeping and waking: it’s a fertile space and I wanted to see whether music could really send people into that space.”

Richter rarely listens to his own work – except when it’s one of his film scores; including for The Lunchbox (2013) and Disconnect (2012), and he has never had a problem sleeping.

“The opposite really – I’ll go to bed and literally 10 seconds later I’m asleep. You could say that I’m on the edge of sleep most of the time, and just waiting for the excuse.”

In fact the only thing that would get in the way would be if he had to listen to Sleep.

“I can’t usually sleep if I’m listening to music. It seems to fire up my mind and I keep engaging with it to see what it’s doing.”

The last time he didn’t sleep through the night was when his teenage children were babies “and I thought I can understand the criminally insane for the first time”. Then there are nights when he has intended not to sleep.

The most recent example was the premiere of Sleep, playing live on BBC Radio 3 in Britain through the night from midnight to 8am (making it the longest continuous piece the BBC has ever broadcast).

It was performed in the Wellcome Library – a splendid multistorey reading room in central London with huge windows and several floors on which a total of 20 camp beds were installed, with sleeping bags. The musicians sat facing east, looking towards the windows.

“When the dawn came up, that was magnificent,” Richter  says.

There were seven musicians, including Richter on piano and keyboards, five string players and baroque specialist Grace Davidson as soprano. He chose a single female voice partly because he loves the genre (“Renaissance music is my heaven”) and he wanted a pure Renaissance voice to create an ethereal sense of angels; but also because this is a lullaby, of sorts, and so should be sung with a mother’s voice.

Eight hours is exhausting for  musicians, and Richter wrote in breaks for everyone to take brief rests at different times, so they could stretch or make coffee or sleep (though Richter doesn’t think that anybody actually did that: they were too wired).

On October 30,  the Suho Memorial Paper Museum in Taipei will test drive the recording by hosting an event at  Daan Forest Park called "SLEEPin’ the city forest" between 2pm and 10pm. The event is part of its 20th anniversary celebration and promises all participants a relaxed afternoon (though some have left a comment on its Facebook page, worried that they will not  go back to sleep that evening).

The eight-hour piece has 31 sections – ranging from two minutes to 33 minutes – and  titles such as Dream 1 (before the wind blows it all away)Patterns (cypher)Path 3 (7676)Constellation 1Space 2 (slow waves), and never fade into nothingness.

Richter conceived of the work as a narrative curve, he  explains, drawing the shape on a piece of paper.  

It is the shape of a story, with the protagonist going into the depths before emerging transformed. “Or a hammock,” Richter  says.

It ends with quiet, not with a jolt like an alarm clock.

“I’m not a morning person,”  the  German-born British composer says. “I didn’t want to give anyone a shock.”

Sleep might be the longest piece performed by the BBC but it is not even close to the longest composition ever written, Richter says.

There’s Longplayer, which is a computer-generated musical composition created by Jem Finer to last 1,000 years. It started to play on  December 31, 1999 and we are approaching the end of its 15th year.  “It’s being performed in a lighthouse right now,” says Richter, “and a John Cage piece which takes 639 years, which is being played right now in a church in Germany. It’s a series of chords with individual tones and there’s a funny calendar which tells you when the next note is going to be, which is in about 2020.

“People have written about Sleep as if it were some kind of record attempt, but I could just put repeat marks at the end and it would be 16 hours. It’s not about that,” he says.

Richter started composing  when he was around three years old.

Little melodies would come into his head, he  recalls, which he would  play around with until they worked.

“I thought everyone did it,” says Richter. It was only a decade later, when he’d been playing piano for a few years and understood what notation was, that he began to write it down. But in his head he is still in that prenotation world. He is always humming; his wife and three children joke about how much he hums.

“It’s a liminal thing, humming,” he  says of the concept of being in-between or in transition. “And I’m always interested in liminal things.”

Sleep too, is liminal. “It’s a creative place – you could say it’s where I do my best compositions.”

Before he started, he wanted to know more about sleep and the brain so he turned to US neuroscientist David Eagleman, with whom he had collaborated a few years before.

“David is a superhero: a neuroscientist by day and a novelist by night. He wrote this beautiful little book called Sum (a play on the double meaning of the English for “addition” and the Latin word for “I am”) about what happens when we die.

“I wrote an opera – or I suppose 40 operas – for Covent Garden based on Sum, and so it made sense that David was the first person I went to.”

He found that  research over the past few years has started to unpick the way the mind functions in sleep.  

“I was able to incorporate the kinds of structure and grammar which foster a sleep state. That’s not to say I was remote controlling anyone’s sleep but I was mindful of the kinds of things which might be helpful.”

According to Eagleman, the kinds of things that are helpful are just what you might expect: “very low frequency tones, repetitive tones, repeating structures.”

“And I thought ‘Great, that’s what I do anyway’,” says Richter. “And with Sleep I did get some comments along the lines of ‘Max Richter’s music sent me to sleep again, only this time he meant it to’.”

If Richter had not been a composer he would have liked to have been an astronaut.

“That was my number one job. Then when I was about eight I told my mother that that was what I was aiming for, and she laughed and said ‘But that’s what everyone else wants to be too’.”

“Actually,” he  reflects, “I think that in a way, metaphorically, it’s what I’m doing right now in my work. Every project I do is like a journey into the unknown.”

Sleep is available on iTunes; a shorter edition is released on CD by Universal Music

 

Sleep is soothing and has relaxing beautiful melodies but didn’t knock me out

As a chronic insomniac, Post writer Elaine Yau was excited when she heard about  Sleep.   

Unlike the mostly (in my opinion, useless) anodyne soundtracks posted by meditation gurus and hypnotists on YouTube to console the sleep-deprived, Sleep sounds more promising as a therapy. There is science behind its production – Richter consulted American neuroscientist David Eagleman for the project, and the eight-hour piece, as it progresses throughout the night, is said to lead listeners through the four sleep cycles normal  people go through.  

But hope soon turned into disappointment as I was still wide awake, tossing and turning, 45 minutes into Richter’s composition. The music is soothing enough,  playing in slow rhythm and featuring a repetitive sound resembling a bell quietly tolling in a serene monastery.

 Yet it is not much different from the free sleep therapy music I found online. Except that YouTube clips last mostly one to two hours, which means I have to get up and hit the replay button several times if I  am having a really bad night.

But beyond its duration, I don’t find anything special about Sleep.

There are different kinds of insomniacs. Some wake too early and can’t  get back to sleep. In my case, it’s difficult for me to fall asleep; I spend an abnormally long time (i.e. hours) in stage one of the sleep cycle  and my body  is deprived of  the refreshment a deep slumber provides. So I wake up feeling exhausted the next day.

Sometimes, I watch old black-and-white films or read long and tedious passages in books to tire my eyes and rely on boredom to put me out. Music seldom works in the same way as words or images. But insomnia affects sufferers in unique ways, with everybody reacting to sleep aids differently.

For those who can fall asleep but wake too soon, Sleep might be able to help them; immersion in ambient music might be able to extend their  shut-eye. For those who are not chronic patients and just stay awake on some unlucky nights, Sleep, with its relaxing and beautiful melodies, should also be able to calm their frayed nerves. 

elaine.yau@scmp.com