Max Richter: Sleep
Deutsche Grammophon

One of the longest single works of classical music ever recorded, Sleep makes for a fascinating addition to British composer Max Richter's oeuvre. In its full form, his self-described “personal lullaby for a frenetic world” and “manifesto for a slower pace of existence” is eight hours long and recently was released as such in digital form by Deutsche Grammophon; the label has also made it available in various formats in the form of a one-hour adaptation. In differentiating between the two, the composer offers this clarification: “You could say that the short one is meant to be listened to and the long one is meant to be heard while sleeping.” It's the latter notion that accentuates the project's more provocative side, as it raises questions about how music is experienced and absorbed during the deepest stages of sleep. Referring to the eight-hour version, Richter has said that he doesn't really expect anyone to listen to Sleep in its entirety; instead, the long-form experiment is his attempt “to try and understand how we experience music in different states of consciousness.”

Sleep isn't the first time Richter's been involved in a boldly experimental classical project, by the way; it was memorably preceded by his 2012 re-composing of Vivaldi's Four Seasons. But Sleep certainly does up the ante as far as experimentalism is concerned, and as a conceptual piece it aligns him to provocateurs such as LaMonte Young, John Cage, and Brian Eno, all of who questioned the conventions associated with music and the limits of its constitution. This interest in a durational work derives in part from Richter's awareness of modern life and its accelerated form; put simply, Richter believes that “we are all in need of a pause button.” The lullaby-like tone of the work is also deliberate, its soothing character an explicit response by Richter to the complex, avant-garde classical works that dominated the twentieth century.

Scored for piano, strings, electronics, and vocals, Sleep was give its live premiere in Berlin earlier this fall in a concert performance that began at midnight and lasted eight hours and for which the audience members were given beds instead of seats and programmes. Harmonious and melodious, the seven serenades in the one-hour version feature some of the prettiest music you're likely to hear in this or any other year. “Dream 3 (in the midst of my life)” introduces the release on a suitably lilting note, in this case a slow, melancholy reverie voiced by gentle piano chords, a soloing cello, and strings; lilting too is “Path 19 (yet frailest),” a delicate, minuet-styled piece scored for violin and piano. A sombre mood permeates the lovely hymnal meditation “Path 5 (delta),” a church-like setting featuring wordless vocal counterpoint and organ accompaniment, the latter reminiscent of Arvo Part's “Pari Intervello” (Arbos, 1987). The stately “Dream 8 (late and soon),” on the other hand, exudes some of the dreamy chamber-like quality of Michael Nyman's soundtrack to The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover.

Does Sleep induce slumber? Speaking for myself, I didn't nod off during the one-hour version, though I could imagine such a thing being possible for the eight-hour presentation with the lights off and whilst lying in a recumbent position. More than anything, I was captivated by the prettiness of Richter's material and how effectively its lulling quality translates into entrancement.

November 2015