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British composer Max Richter would like to clear something up. Despite the media’s portrayal, his eight-hour symphony, “Sleep,” was not written to put people to sleep.

“I didn’t intend it as a kind of sleep aid — though many people have used it in that way,” he says with a chuckle from his studio, north of London. “Goes to show, the best intentions . . . ”

You could forgive listeners for thinking differently (and certainly Richter does), especially when, at a recent live concert, audience members were provided beds. But the distinction here is a matter of relative consciousness — the difference between the destination of sleep (being the goal of a sleep aid) and the journey there (to which “Sleep” is your guide).

Though quiet by necessity, the music is never less than engaging. Piano and strings dominate, and the piece pendulums from peaceful to deeply elegaic. At times, it’s gently rhythmic in its repeated figures; at others austere. It can also turn stately on a dime. The minutes and hours pass, leading to a meditative state. There is weird stuff floating around in that in-between place, where everything is half real. The piece perfectly complements that. 

Richter spoke to Van Winkle's about the inception of “Sleep,” and how he saw it as a “question about what happens when music and sleep meet.”

Was there any specific moment that inspired you compose this?

I don’t think there was any specific moment... I wanted to make a piece that could function like a big “pause” button, something big enough in order for you to reflect on it while it’s still happening. That’s something I really like in artwork generally. I’m very interested in gallery work, installation work and minimal traditions in fine art and music. Simple objects, which allow an extended engagement.

In painting terms, something like a Rothko, where you have a large surface you can engage with in an extended kind of a way. In music, this goes back to some of the extended duration stuff of the 60s, with Fluxus, Terry Riley and early Philip Glass.

How did you determine the length of each movement of the piece?

Those are really musical decisions. There are two versions of the piece: the one-hour version and the eight-hour. They have quite different sorts of grammar, and the music is often quite different. There are things that only appear in the one hour, and there are things that only appear in the eight hour. The one hour is the kind of architecture you’d associate with active attention. The eight hour is an architecture more to be inhabited, more like a landscape, and maybe that’s about hearing rather than listening or experiencing.

In the case of the small piece, the decision-making and the structuring are maybe more like the usual. And in the big “Sleep,” everything is stretched out. Interestingly, I sort of discovered that over a certain number of minutes, it wasn’t really possible to think about structure in the traditional way. You’re usually thinking about the moment that you’re working on and how that connects to moments before and afterwards. It’s all part of the sort of grammar, which is up to something.

But in the case of the big “Sleep,” when you’re six and half hours in, what happened at three hours 18 minutes really doesn’t matter. It was a strange realization, because you’re used to trying to make all the moments add up to something. And the idea that you could forget about it and concentrate on just this little bit — that’s really quite profound, a startling change in my way of musical thinking.

“I wanted to make a piece which could function almost like a big ‘pause’ button.”

How do you go about writing something that’s intended to make people calm or make them sleep?

“Sleep” isn’t really about intending to make people go to sleep. It’s more like an experiment, an investigation, a question about what happens when music and sleep meet. That’s the way I would characterize it. Of course, there is a lullaby element to it and that, of course, is universal to human culture. But I see that in a way as a natural facet of the project. You never really know what you’ve made until the audience tells you what you think.

But you’ve given the audience permission to relax their attention a bit.

Yeah, that’s one of the things that’s a difference between listening and hearing. Listening being intentional and analytical and making judgements. We sort of tell the story of the music to ourselves quite actively. In the case of “Sleep,” it’s a different way of engagement. It’s more like inhabiting, we are in a place, we aren’t conscious of every facet of it, nor do we analyze it. And yet we are in it. That would be the model for “Sleep.”

“Is musical communication possible with a kind of sleeping mind?”


How are your sleep habits?

I’m very lucky with sleep. I’ll go to bed and ten seconds later I’m asleep. End of story. I’m very conscious of the fact that that is a great privilege. Many people struggle with sleep, and we’re all kind of sleep-deprived. I can’t see that getting any better. Our lives are much more 24/7 than they were even five years ago. So this is a sort of space where, as you say, people have permission to switch off a bit.

Do you see differences in sleep between England and Europe, and the U.S.?

I think people in the States work really hard. Whenever I’m there, certain people in film and in music, they just never stop working. It’s really, really intense, the work culture there.

That could be working longer, not necessarily working harder.

Exactly. That’s partly to do with online culture. You feel you can’t look away from the screen, in case something happens. Most of the time nothing’s happening — but something might.

Were you pleased with the recent concert?

Yeah, it was really interesting. There was quite a lot that came out it that I wasn’t really expecting. First of all, it was quite complicated to deal with the logistics of it — that was expected. The atmosphere, the relationship with the audience, of their engaging with the music in real time — that was quite different.

Of course, the audience, they arrived into the performance space and then they went to bed. They just went to bed. That was really interesting, because everyone in the band felt a kind of responsibility that we don’t normally have. Normally, playing a gig is all about projecting the music, telling a story and trying to reach out. In this case, it was more about trying not to wake people up, which is a kind of anti-concert, like an anti-rave. It’s all-night music, but not for raving.

A lot of people were asleep?

Yeah, most people slept, I would say, most of the gig. I think everyone woke up from time to time, but generally speaking, people slept.

What were their reactions?

Overwhelmingly positive. People were very affected by it, which was quite interesting, because again that’s one of the things I wanted to looked at: Is musical communication possible with a kind of sleeping mind? That was a real question with the project. Whether or not that actually took place, certainly people seemed to have had some kind of experience. They definitely went on a journey. And they definitely connected with the music on some level.

I once went to a Philip Glass concert and my friend fell asleep. He said he had the best sleep ever.

It can work, can’t it? I don’t know what they played, but those can be quite loud. It’s like what they say about unborn children, in the bloodstream, it’s very loud. I think there’s something of that, something of a womb-like sensation, in just going to sleep in a sound.

Do you plan on performing “Sleep” stateside? 

We're looking at it. It'll be early next year.