Max Richter's Sleep: Not Meant to be Enjoyed While Awake

Sleep. On average, we spend a third of our day asleep. It’s a large portion of our lives, and one that British composer Max Richter wants to consider. In addition to several albums, Richter has composed for movies, television, and now for an audience that is (he hopes, anyway) asleep. Richter’s most recent project, the recording of which is available today, is eight hours long, and composed specifically for a listener who is in a somnambulant state. And later this month, Sleep will become the longest single continuous piece of music ever broadcast live on the BBC.

Not only will Richter be presenting Sleep live for the population of Britain, but also a select audience who will attend the performance at the Wellcome Collection in London. Instead of providing seats, the Reading Room will be filled with beds, and attendees will be encouraged to doze off. Richter wrote Sleep while consulting with neuroscientist David Eagleman and intends for the piece to explore how “music and the mind can interact in this other state of consciousness, one we all spend decades of our lives completely immersed in, but which is so far rather poorly understood.”

Written for piano, voice, synthesizers, and a small string ensemble, Sleep is, by Richter’s own admission, difficult to play. In an interview with NPR, Richter described the challenge the instrumentalists face when playing his piece. Not only is it a marathon eight hours, but for the strings, playing long, quiet, even notes takes exceptional concentration and skill. While everyone gets a small break here and there throughout the performance, it is nonetheless a composition that will challenge the limits of the musicians’ endurance.

Listening to Sleep last night, I found the structural presentation of themes and variations called to mind Bach, yet the melodic lines (especially in the “Dream” movements) evoked Debussy, or Philip Glass on Xanex. It was repetitive, to be sure, but in a hypnotic way. Your mind settles into the comfortable pattern and begins to slowly let go. After the 18 minute first movement, Sleep sets off in new melodic directions only to bring you back to the slowly rolling opening theme. And then ventures off again… or at least that’s what I could remember before passing the heck out.

Which is what Richter hopes for. However, for those who want to experience the piece when awake, an hour long version was released today as well. Richter says that where the eight hour recording is for sleeping, the hour long collection was released just for listening. Both versions are available on CD, streaming, and digital download on the Deutche Grammophon label.

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