My first thought when I heard about British composer Max Richter’s eight-hour opus, Sleep, was of Andy Warhol’s avant-garde film of the same name, made in 1963, and depicting a man in various phases of slumber over a six-hour period. It was met with boos back then, but its conceptual quirkiness is now seen as yet another aspect of the Warhol genius.
Richter is considered a bit of a genius himself in contemporary classical music circles. I first became familiar with him via his masterful reworking of Vivaldi’s baroque chestnut, The Four Seasons, released on the Deutsche Grammophon label in 2012. In a piece for Blogcritics which appeared that year, this reviewer wrote that “His [Richter’s] magnificent melding of past and present shows again that great works of art are organic things, which, in respectful hands, can be reshaped into something fresh and wondrous and altogether new.”
Sleep is, as well, “an organic thing” – and most certainly altogether new. Its length is not coincidence; timed to synchronize with the average sleep cycle, Richter has called it “My personal lullaby for a frenetic world – a manifesto for a slower pace of existence.” It debuted last September in a London performance that lasted from midnight until 8 a.m., and was broadcast live on BBC Radio. (It also broke two Guinness World records: longest broadcast of a single piece of music, and longest live broadcast of a single piece of music.) At the premiere, audience members were provided with beds instead of seats, and encouraged to sleep through the broadcast. The nine-CD set, as well as the one-hour version, From Sleep, were both among the bestselling classical albums of 2015.
Richter consulted with the noted neuroscientist, David Eagleman, director of the Laboratory for Perception and Action at the Baylor College of Medicine, when he embarked on the project. “For a long time people have wondered, ‘Can you influence the brain through music and speech while you’re asleep?’ The answer is, ‘sort of,’” Eagleman told The Daily Telegraph last year. “We’ve all had the experience of an external sound influencing the content of dreams.”
In the liner notes for Sleep, Richter says, “It’s a piece that is meant to be listened to at night. I hope that people will fall asleep listening to it, because the project is also a personal exploration into how music interacts with consciousness – another fascination for me.” (Interestingly, Richter also mentions The Goldberg Variations as providing inspiration; many believe the Bach masterpiece may have been commissioned by a patron who suffered from insomnia.)
For those who have neither the time or the money to invest in the full-blown affair, Sleep Remixes is another offshoot of the original work, offering edgy alternative tracks crafted by such artists as the Scottish indie band Mogwai and the English trio, Marconi Union. None stray too far from the overriding concept, nor from Richter’s deep roots in minimalism. “Path 5,” with the gossamer tones of soprano Grace Davidson as its underpinnings, recreates a delta sleep wave, and Mogwai provides a trenchant backbeat that could add a bit of tumult to any sweet dream. Digitonal’s Theo in Dreamland “Path 5” mix is more of a soft, yearning mélange, ethereal and otherworldly.
Of course, there are those who may approach all this as a sort of aural Ambien for the overly stressed. (I got a chuckle out of one of the Amazon customer reviews that frustratingly stated: “Did not help me sleep.”) But far from gimmickry, Sleep Remixes represents yet another milestone for one of classical music’s most original voices, whose creativity and imagination only serve to expand the boundaries of the genre.