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About 40 million Americans suffer from a chronic sleep disorder. Whether it’s sleep apnea, which makes it difficult to breath while you snooze; sleep paralysis, which temporarily paralyzes you while you’re sleeping or falling asleep; or simply a natural case of insomnia.
Well, say hello to the contemporary sandman, Max Richter.
A composer, pianist, producer and re-mixer, he appreciates the importance of a great night’s rest. This past September, Richter partnered with David Eagleman, a neuroscientist and director of the Laboratory for Perception and Action and the Initiative on Neuroscience and Law at Baylor College, to create an 8-hour piece of music entitled “Sleep” that guides the listener into their dreams.
This therapeutic composition is filled with calm strokes of the piano, transcendental echoes, and a low base—all proven conducive to the natural sleep cycle.
His live performances go for the full 8 hours, with audience members lying in beds instead of chairs. Richter calls it a sort of “anti-concert” since the point is to soothe the audience into slumber, rather than keep them on the edge of their seats. His performance on BBC broke the record for longest live broadcast of a single piece of music in BBC Radio 3’s station.
Fans have reported back to Richter saying that they use “Sleep” not only for achieving a good night’s rest, but also to keep a calm and productive environment in the office or as a type of analgesic for those with painful health issues.
Max Richter himself joins BTR to discuss the creative process and outcome of “Sleep.”
BTR: Tell us a little bit about the roots of your personal journey with music. Where did it begin for you?
Max Richter (MR): Well, I started composing as a really small child, before I even knew that there was such a thing as composing. I just used to always have tunes going around in my head. That sort of [thing when] you make up a tune one day and put it away, and then mentally pick it up the next day and work with this material—sort of like a game. Only a bit later did I figure out that not everyone had this kind of process going on in their head all the time. Then I started to study music, piano lessons, all that stuff, and it gathered steam from there and it’s never stopped, to be honest.
BTR: What was it like studying at the Royal Academy and studying with renowned composer Luciano Berio?
MR: That was amazing. I’d done my sort of formal university music training and conservatory training, and I went out to Italy where he [Berio] had this institute, and I had a few sessions with him and it was kind of spooky, honestly. It was a spooky experience because, up to that point, my experiences with composition lessons had been mostly about trying to get the tutors to get what I was trying to do. I might not be managing it really well, or I might not be very clear, but there was always this gap between what I was trying to do with a piece of music and what they would understand I was trying to do. But with Berio it was really a different thing. I would wander in there with this big pile of paper under my arm and dump it on his desk, and he’d come and look at it for about 30 seconds and then basically appear to be reading my mind. He would say, ‘Oh no, no. You want a C sharp here,’ and I would be like, ‘he’s right!’ He was just kind of a genius. Just really, really a genius, and it was a very—kind of disturbing—experience, but also incredibly inspiring and fulfilling to have someone with that sort of vision looking at your scribblings.
BTR: Disturbing in the sense that he was so intuitive and naturally insightful with his reading of your work?
MR: Exactly. Yeah, I really felt like he was reading my mind. Absolutely.
BTR: So in the album, “Sleep,” what got the wheels turning for you to start this project; what really inspired you?
MR: There were lots of starting points for “Sleep” really, and looking back on it now, I feel like in a way it’s a fusion of all my obsessions. I mean, I’ve always been very interested in sleep states, and also altered states of consciousness; I include listening to music as an altered state. I think music transports us if we like it and we connect to it in some way. I wanted to investigate how music and the sleeping mind could interact. What’s in a dialogue you could set up between a piece of music and somebody who is asleep? So, it’s an experimental project, really. It covers the lullaby tradition. It also connects into neuroscience research in terms of what’s going on in the sleeping mind, all sorts of things.
BTR: How did you get hooked up with neuroscientist David Eagleman and decide to work together?
MR: David and I had worked together before–I wrote an opera a few years ago on a fiction book of his called “Sum,” which is a collection of stories and speculations of what happens after you die. There are 40 little stories, and some of them are rather serious and sad and thoughtful, and some of them are more like sci-fi, and some are kind of slapstick humor–they were a very brilliant collection of stories and perfect for an opera. So I wrote an opera on the subject and we kept in touch.
When I started to work on “Sleep,” in a way there’s a responsibility in writing a piece of music which is meant to be slept through, in the sense that you don’t want to write something that is some how destructive of sleeping. I thought I better check it out with David, since he was the expert. We just ran some ideas back and forth, like the kinds of things that a piece of music should or shouldn’t do and how it could influence the sleeping mind in a positive way. So, it was a dialogue between musical objects and neuroscience ideas.
BTR: What were some things you discussed with Eagleman that would prove destructive for the sleeper as opposed to the things conducive to rest?
MR: One of the things that’s interesting is that sleep is varied on waking up and causes frequency dependencies. Basically, you can have very low frequency turns, but ridiculously high levels, and they probably won’t wake up; you probably won’t disturb somebody. Which is great for me because I’m a sort of a bass junky, so that was perfect. I could put tons of energy into the low end, which I like doing anyway, and other things to do with the general architecture of the piece.
It was quite interesting because David explained to me that from a neuroscience perspective sleeping is not about physical rest, it’s actually an informational process that has to do with structuring the data that’s been accumulated through the senses during the day and putting it into some kind of order. It’s like a house keeping operation, and he talks about taking out the “neuro-trash” and all this kind of stuff.
BTR: You called this piece a “personal lullaby for a frantic world. A manifesto for a slower pace of existence.” That’s an amazing quote. Would you say, in a way, this is a reminder for us to slow down?
MR: Yeah! One of the things I started to focus on with all of this was the data universe we live in. We live in a time which is very rich in information, and that’s both a good thing and can be a bad thing too. I have the experience of my own life; a lot of my time is spent curating information flows, things I do want to engage with and then things I don’t want to engage with, and all of this. I think we all have that experience. We’re all on our screens and there’s a limitless amount of stuff coming at you and you have to curate it for yourself. That’s a significant effort, I think, and it can take its toll.
For me, one of the things I wanted to do was to make a big piece of music that could act like a pause, or a roadblock in the information flow. Just to switch it off for a moment so we have an opportunity to reflect. I think we spend a lot of our time reacting to data, reacting to information, and that has maybe decreased the amount of time we actually have to reflect on what we’re doing. That’s one of the things that “Sleep” is about.
BTR: You mentioned the importance of lullabies in this process; did you have any particular ones in mind while you were writing some of the melodies for this composition?
MR: That’s an interesting question. I didn’t really, but what I felt was that there must be something very fundamental in human beings which makes us, the world over, want to connect singing–or a melody–with the act of going to sleep. It seemed to me that that solid data, the fact that all over the world people sing lullabies, was a really good jumping off point, a sort of solid connection between sleeping and music. Like I said, I think of them both as different, but related altered states. That to me was certainly one of the origins of “Sleep.”
BTR: What was your BBC performance like? We know you broke a couple records for the longest live broadcast.
MR: It was really interesting. I think in a way there’s a sort of musical dimension to the performance and I guess the big difference with that is instead of trying to project the music and reach out to the audience and connect with them, you’re doing the opposite. You’re trying to not wake them up. Like a sort of ‘anti-concert.’ The other side of it, for us, is just the physical demands of playing for over eight hours, that’s a big deal. It’s like running a marathon. We have to get a shifted time zone, and we’ll do overnight rehearsals before hand and stuff like that. Little tricks to make it slightly less punishing physically. It is a big deal.
BTR: Have you received a lot of feedback from people who told you how this helps or affects their sleep?
MR: Yeah, there has been a lot of feedback, and that’s one of the really interesting and rewarding things about making a new project. You kind of hear all the stories of people connecting to it in different ways. It’s been fascinating. Obviously, a lot of people do play it over night. We’re chronically sleep-deprived as a culture, and very many people have trouble sleeping. I’m very happy that people have found a space for it in their overnight journey. On the other hand, I’ve had a lot of people reporting they use it in the day time, like they just play it in the office all day long, and there they are working on their spreadsheet, or whatever it is, and that’s also quite interesting. We’ve had people doing palliative, sort of end-of-life care, and people with Parkinson’s and all sorts of things like that.
BTR: What’s your relationship like between the dreams you have and the music you make?
MR: I don’t really know, honestly. Sometimes I’ll be sleeping and I’ll have something in my dream that in my dream-brain it’s the most amazing music idea I’ve ever had! Then I’ll wake up and it’s just like ‘what is that even?’ I think perception in a sleeping mind is different, but I think it’s… Well, I don’t know, it’s kind of a puzzle, isn’t it? That’s one of those things that keep me coming back to it as a subject. It’s just endlessly fascinating, because we can’t really know it in a concrete way.
BTR: Do you have any projects coming down the pipeline in 2016, perhaps any ambitions to create another piece as large in scope as this one?
MR: I don’t know. “Sleep” has kind of skewed my sense of scale a bit. I’ve made a lot of records and they’re all normal record length. Now, making a 45 or 60-minute record, it just feels a bit kind of weird. I’m slightly puzzled by the whole experience. Meanwhile, I’m doing some movies, which is my other activity, and I’m writing another double concerto for somebody as well, and lots of other projects going on at the same time.