I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
“Everyone comes together, then they just go to sleep. It’s an anti-rave.”
As a musician and composer, Max Richter’s work has long been in the spotlight on both sides of the Atlantic. His first solo work, Memoryhouse, was released in 2002 (with a subsequent vinyl reissue in 2014). Since then, he has composed music for ballet and released a number of other albums—including a re-composition of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” and The Blue Notebooks, which features Tilda Swinton reading from the works of Franz Kafka and Czesław Miłosz during the interludes.
His most recent work is Sleep, an eight-hour piece designed to be listened to while unconsciousness. The full-length was released by Deutsche Grammophon in September, simultaneously with a shorter, one-hour companion piece titled From Sleep. I spoke with Richter about this project and great many things late this past summer.
Tobias Carroll Where did this idea of doing a composition to be listened to while asleep first come from?
Max Richter A few different ideas came together in it really. I think all of us have experienced the lullaby. That’s something in human culture or musical tradition. For me, it connects to one of the other things music is—a sort of daydream. It’s an imagined space, and sleep is a bit like that itself. It’s another space we inhabit—and also don’t inhabit. Part of us does and part of us doesn’t. It’s a puzzling state, and that’s why it’s so fascinating for me.
The other factor in this project is the whole neuroscience aspect of it. You know, there have been a lot of developments recently, even over the last two or three years, about what sleep is actually for, like in terms of our brains. And you listen to the benefits of sleeping properly, all of this, in terms of memory consolidation. So, I basically wanted to make this project a kind of a space for all of those things to happen. It’s like a landscape that you go into, and just inhabit… while you’re sleeping.
TC When did the full eight-hour scope of the piece come into play?
MR Well, I’ve always had an interest in this kind of stuff, in extended-duration things. With music, this goes back to the ’60s—those all-night happenings, like Terry Riley and John Cage, all that. It’s certainly an idea that’s been around a long time, and various people have picked it up in various ways. We can go back to Brian Eno in the ’70s, with his early ambient music, then look at the rave culture of the ’90s, with performances and people DJing all night. There’s a ritual thing that connects in, too. The other day I heard someone call Sleep an “empty rave,” (laughter) which I actually thought was kind of good. Everyone comes together, then they just go to sleep. It’s an anti-rave.
TC About a year and a half ago, I was talking with the author Jeff Jackson, who was involved with a play called Dream of the Red Chamber, which was staged in such a way for the audience to sleep through it. He mentioned repetition was a large part of things, and that they wanted people to be able to wake up and still get a sense of what was happening.
MR That’s something I’m interested in, in music, anyway—though one of my favorite things is to write variation forms. You have something with an identity, and you alter it, and you affect it slowly. It’s a bit like walking around. There’s a sense of the object, but with a different perspective on it. So, quite naturally, something like this idea of repetition gives the feeling of a greater architecture just sort of holding it together. You don’t experience the whole thing; it’s impossible to keep up. But you can have a sense of recognition.
TC I noticed that some of these pieces have numbers after them—in some cases 1 or 2, but there’s also “Space 26” or “Dream 19.” Were there really twenty-five other “Space” pieces, or eighteen more “Dream” tracks?
MR My process is, in a way, a collage—or maybe it’s a little like a compost heap. I call the “Dream” pieces in, and they’re all variations on the same basic bit of music. And there were lots of different trajectories to those. Then I made a greater assembly out of things that fitted together. So yes, there were more, with a lot of things on the cutting-room floor.
TC You’ve done a re-composition of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.” Did working with someone else’s music change anything about the way you compose?
MR The Vivaldi project was like a laboratory experiment. I needed to get that piece out of my system because I had this weird relationship with the original—I kind of loved it… and hated it, too. I loved the music, but hated the way you heard it the whole time. So, it was a way to reclaim that. I do think of it as a laboratory experiment—just put all the elements in the test tube and wait for it to blow up. And, in a way, it’s like co-writing as well, like collaborating with someone. It really connects more closely into my previous records, like Infra and The Blue Notebooks. I see it as a revolution of those.
TC The first few times I encountered your work, there were albums where, in between passages, these very distinctive voices were reading texts. Is that something you ever think about going back to, or something you’re finished with?
MR Well, I mean, I’m still interested in texts. I’m interested in words. When I’m not working on music I’m reading books—those are my things, really. And the words in The Blue Notebookand Songs From Before are really about making an atmosphere or scene-setting really explicit. Those records are about something, about whatever the text is about. Since then, I’ve written operas, so I’m engaged with words in lots of ways. I’ve just done a ballet on Virginia Woolf in London.
But this project, Sleep, is about the experience of listening, of traveling through that landscape. So, text didn’t seem like an appropriate way to do that. If we add texts, then we’re locking down that meaning and making it kind of one-dimensional. I wanted this to be an open space.
TC Have you put the record on as you slept?
MR I can’t. (laughter) I’ll just obsess about things in the mix. I can’t really hear it in the way other people would. In fact, generally, I can’t help but listen—can’t be stopped from thinking about what’s going on in the music, and how it’s made. I’m like the worst possible.
TC (laughter) Have your friends or acquaintances gotten to lay down with it? What have they said?
MR Quite a few people have slept through it. Everyone survived, and they’re still talking to me. What’s nice about a big project like this is that it allows enough time for the listener to come to it; you’ll sometimes be listening closely, sometimes you’re asleep, sometimes you’re bored, sometimes you’re remembering something else that happened earlier in the piece, or something new comes up, then you’re surprised. You explore it yourself.
TC How difficult was it to take the full eight-hour piece, then edit it down to an hour?
MR I think of that as like a daydream, really. So, those two projects are connected but not the same. The eight-hour Sleep has got music that is not in the one-hour From Sleep; and, in turn, From Sleep has got lots of music not heard in the full eight-hour piece. They’re different trips through the same landscape, but one is meant to be slept through and experienced as sort of a big space, and the other is, like I said, a daydream. It has a different architecture, a different grab, and it maybe pulls you through the material.
TC You were talking earlier about the neuroscience of sleep. Did you talk with any one from the scientific community as you were working on this?
MR Yeah, I did—a brilliant guy named David Eagleman. He’s an American neuroscientist. We’ve worked together before, when I wrote an opera for a book of his [Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives]. I was in touch with him because one of the things I’m interested in asking is this: Is it possible to listen, as opposed to hearing, while you’re asleep? Can we make decisions, make judgments? Can you like it, or not, while asleep? And also: How might hearing the long one while sleeping affect how you hear the shorter one when awake? All of that stuff.
It turns out to be a good moment to have written this piece, because neuroscience has made major steps forward over the last two or three years. One of the things they’ve been looking at is ways of inducing or supporting “slow-waves,” which is where your brain is off-loading sense-data, sense impressions, memory stuff—just basically getting rid of it. So, that’s what dreaming is—a fizzing sort of brain activity. It’s kind of random. Then there’s this other state called “slow-wave sleep,” where all your neurons kind of get into this slow-wave, all firing at once. This is where memory, learning, pattern recognition, and all this stuff get built, where you consolidate all the things you’ve been, coming into your senses all day long.
So people have been looking at when it’s due, and how to support and induce it using sound. This is, in a way, the origin for some of the repetitive things in the work. I use a lot of repetition anyway—I’ve always done that—but the neuroscience gave me a little permission (laughter) to foreground it. Also, there’s a lot of low end in this project, especially the atonal ones. There’s been research about how that actually supports the slow-wave sleep. For me, it’s like: Great! I get to do what I wanted to do anyway, and now I have neuroscience to support it! (laughter)
TC You mentioned music for a ballet based on the works of Virginia Woolf. What was that process like? Were you reacting more to the choreography, or to her text, extrapolating from that?
MR In a way, both. This was a project for the Royal Opera House with Wayne McGregor in April/May. It’s three acts based on three novels: Dalloway, Orlando, and The Waves. All her work is very autobiographical and very connected with her inner life, but the books are obviously quite different, and so there were lots of stylistic choices. The kinds of worlds, the choreography itself, all the ideas. And Wayne himself is a very thoughtful, bright guy—a dance-maker, a reader, a conceptual man. There was a lot of speculative head-scratching as well.
TC What have you enjoyed reading lately?
MR I’ve been catching up with old Julian Barnes. I read The Sense of an Ending, and, like everyone, I read it twice. Amazing twist, then you have to read it again straight away. And what else? Catching up, rereading a lot of Flaubert, also Woolf in preparation for the ballet. Just picked up a wonderful collection of Michael Donaghy’s poetry.
TC And with music? Are you often listening to stuff that is far-removed from your own, since you mentioned having this tendency to be very analytical with your own work?
MR I listen to quite a wide range of stuff, but not to things in my world very much; otherwise, I start censoring myself and overthinking things. But I listen to a lot of renaissance music and Elizabethan music. Bach, obsessively. And then drone guitar music and post-rock type things. I’m quite into that. Electronic stuff, more experimental things, too.
TC In the last year or so, Memoryhouse and The Blue Notebooks have been reissued. What’s it like to have both of these coming back into the world? Do you look back fondly, or are there things you would have liked to have done differently?
MR They are like old friends, because I don’t really listen to them ever. Performing them again is pretty interesting, actually. It’s good fun, like meeting either an old friend or a younger version of yourself. I would do things differently probably, but they are documents of those moments.
But my writing process is a continual one. The individual projects are sort of artificial. It’s more like a continuum, maybe with the exception of the Vivaldi, because that was more of an experiment. So, I just feel like they are the next installment of, basically, the same project.
TC Where do you see yourself going in terms of composition, after Sleep? What is the next phase?
MR I don’t really know to be honest. I’m sort of happy with that. I tend to really only start something when I get enthusiastic, and it’s just something I really want to get done. Having done Sleep and a ballet this year—that is twelve hours of music. (laughter) I’m content to wait for the next idea.
TC In terms of performing Sleep, how are you doing that? Somewhere between the full night of sleep and the daydream, or is it going to vary?
MR We’re actually going to play the whole thing overnight in Berlin in October. We’re doing two nights. I think of it as a lab, really, to figure out how to play it. The original cast will come onto the stage, and the audience will go to bed. We’ll see what happens.
TC I feel like this is one of the few cases where, as someone creating art, you’re really hopingthat people fall asleep. Does the humor in that ever strike you?
MR I don’t know. Yes, it is kind of funny because people go to concerts and fall asleep; they sleep at the opera. It’s one of those clichés in classical music. This incredibly long, boring piece comes on, and everyone falls asleep. In a way, I do think that is a valid response. Whatever bits you’re awake for, you have a response to—I think that’s cool.
TC Earlier, you talked about Brian Eno and John Cage. I know now, in New York, there is a new version of LaMonte Young’s Dream House. Is there are renewed interest in this kind of long durational work?
MR It’s an idea obviously embedded in those experimental works from the ’60s, but maybe it is coming around again. For me, that sort of emphasis on the texture of the sound, of the purely experiential aspect of listening, that’s something I have always been quite into. There is a lot of the ambient music hinterland in what I do.
TC What was the first durational work you encountered and really resonated with with?
MR When I was a kid, around twelve or thirteen, living north of London, I had piano lessons, practicing my Mozart in the afternoons. The milkman, who delivered early in the mornings before we were all awake, came back in the afternoon to get paid. At that time in the UK, being a milkman was a job you could do if you were secretly a painter or a composer or something. Deliver the milk, get that out of the way, and get on with you’re actually doing, writing your novel or whatever it is. This guy heard me playing the piano, and he took pity on me, really. He was into all sorts of experimental music, and he started giving me all these sort of downtown things, Philip Glass pieces and such, on vinyl. And he gave me Music With Changing Parts, Music in Twelve Parts, all this amazing stuff. Having never really even heard Stravinsky at that time, it just really blew my mind. Headphones on, listening to this sort of stuff, thinking: What is this stuff? I had no reference points to evaluate it really. I thought it was amazing and appreciated that hardcore minimal stuff, that feeling of being in the present moment.
Tobias Carroll is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn, and writes frequently about books and music. His short story collection TRANSITORY will be released on Civil Coping Mechanisms in 2016.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee