Not only has Max Richter kindly lent one of his tracks to be covered in this year’s show, he’s also hosting a sleepover in the exhibition space on April 19. His latest work, ‘Sleep’, is an eight-hour epic of sonorous orchestration and vocals that aims to mimic and affect our natural night-time patterns. Fresh from its opening performances over three nights in Berlin, we spoke to Max to find out more about the project.
How did the idea for ‘Sleep’ come together?
Being asleep has always been one of my favourite activities really, even from childhood. It’s a long-term fascination with me, that other mode of being that we all spend so much time in but don’t really know an awful lot about, or don’t really think about enough. I wanted to try and explore sleep as a space for music to exist, to see how these two altered states of sleeping and listening to music can fit together. ‘Sleep’ is an experimental project really, a sonic, aural landscape for sleeping in. That was really the origin of the whole piece.
Did it begin with personal introspection or were you engaged in a lot of wider research?
These things all run in parallel, and it was about creating an intuitive, creative response to these ideas as a musical process. In parallel with that I consulted with a Neuroscientist called David Eagleman who’s an old friend of mine. We talked about the kinds of acoustic things that could work with an audience in the various stages of the sleep state. So there’s a poetic, musical research and neuroscientific background to it too.
How does a composer start mapping out over eight hours of music?
I decided quite early on that I wanted to use a variation form for the piece. Variation forms are great for knowing where you are because there’s always something you can recognise. You have this sort of DNA which keeps on coming round in altered from. I thought that was important because if I was listening to a piece of music and then nodded off in the middle and woke up several hours later, I’d want to know roughly where I was. The piece is basically two sets of variations which alternate all the way through. One is this pulsed piano and string music and the other is vocal music, and these two things alternate throughout the whole project.
It’s all composed in the way that people have been doing for hundreds of years, on pieces of paper. It’s a lot of notes. It’s a hybrid though too. At one end of the spectrum are the notes on pages for acoustic instruments, arranged for an orchestra to perform – as has been the tradition for centuries. At the other end of the spectrum there are electronic, immersive spaces which are made with a tape recorder, computer and synthesiser. They live in a slightly different way, but the idea is to have a continuity between those two different things that feel like two sides of the same coin really.
You’re known for working predominantly alone and at night. How did it feel to take this very personal composition and share it with a whole orchestra and then an audience of 450 people?
I always think my work is quite personal and introspective. When I wandered into the performance space last week – and it is a cavernous space, the interior is more than 100 metres long and filled with hundreds of beds – I thought, is this going to work, are we going to lose that sense of one-to-one communication? But actually it worked really well and the attentiveness in the room was amazing. People really embraced the spirit of the thing. With hundreds people in a room that’s like an airport, and it really didn’t have that kind of atmosphere. It felt great actually.
What is the space itself actually like?
It was the inside of an old power station. I suppose the nearest equivalent in London would be the Turbine Hall or Battersea Power Station – really vast. It’s so big that you feel like you’re outside. There were 450 people in bed and we could have had a lot more. It’s a big big space.
There are great things about that from the point of view of how the music is constructed, because it has a lot of low frequency energy which big spaces really like, as well as these very long tails, and the reverberation that produces is perfect for the slow pace of the music. It’s sort of an industrial cathedral really.
‘From Sleep’ is a much more digestible version of the complete ‘Sleep’ project. How did you edit it down into a single album?
‘From Sleep’ is not an edit, it’s a reconfiguration of the material in quite a fundamental way. It’s really a trip through the same landscape but in a completely different vehicle. You still have these two poles of material but they’re traversed in a way that is much more intentional. I think of the difference between the two projects as being the difference between listening and hearing. Listening is a conscious and intentional thing and hearing is more experiential. In fact, ‘From Sleep’ has got quite a lot of music in it which isn’t in the performed piece at all, and vice versa. There are the same themes and the same DNA and the same geometry that underlie it, but they’re really quite different the two projects.
The album is more like a daydream, like a time out and decoupling from the concerns of the moment. Again that sort of hypnagogic, altered state experience, is a very musical space for me and I think is a very fertile space for humans to spend time in. One of the things that’s going on in our culture right now is seeing that space closed down by all the glowing screens. Almost anyone, myself included, when they have a moment to daydream, reach in their pockets and start looking at what’s happening on their phones.
Do you think that has anything to do with the way our culture has become secularised too? It seems to me like ‘Sleep’ is kind of a church-going experience without any religion…
I guess there is that impulse in it to some extent, but I wouldn’t describe it as religious. Jung has this great word, ‘luminal’ and ‘luminosity’ which has to do with the something that lights up inside you – sort of an impulse for something other. I think that’s a very healthy and valuable thing for us to have, and that’s something that’s being marginalised in our lives. This project does engage with that in some ways.
How much do you concern yourself with the audience’s response to your music?
I am very interested in that. For me one of the big things about contemporary music culture in the classical world is that we’ve had this idea over the last 50 years that the relationship between the audience and composer was really totalitarian. The idea was that the composer was this genius and he – it was almost always a he – would write music that was incredibly difficult to understand. If the audience managed to get a hand on it they would be enriched by exposure to this greatness.
Everything about that dynamic to me is just horrible. It’s absolutely horrible. And it’s bizarre really that this kind of relationship lasted as long as it did. I’m more interested in a completely different relationship with the audience, which is less like a lecture and more like a conversation. To me if ‘Sleep’ has a theme, then the theme is the individual listener’s journey through that material; the act of hearing, the act of experiencing that music. The way people responded to that during the performances was really important to me.
Do you ever struggle with being classified as a ‘Classical’ composer and some of the implied snobbery that comes with that?
Classical music is kind of a museum and there are many great things about museums. They are our collective memory and that is wonderful thing. But classical music has got some really troubling social attitudes like those I just mentioned. And this idea of it being a moral, superior art form and all of this kind of stuff is a big problem. It’s brought us to a situation where the average person who goes to a classical music concert is well into their 60s. That’s just ridiculous because there’s so much amazing material there, but this fog of social weirdness prevents people from engaging with it.
There are big challenges with that world, but it’s a baby and bathwater situation you know, it’s about trying to dig down into the purely musical qualities that are there and to present those in a way which don’t alienate people. I think actually there is this cross-pollination that’s been going on for the last 30 years between classical music cultures and experimental music cultures starting to join up, particularly in electronica, and everything is starting to loosen up a little bit, which I think is great.
Now that ’Sleep’ has finally been performed, do you feel like it’s a true musical representation of the act?
The patterns in ‘Sleep’ feel familiar, like a familiar physical and mental state. Obviously when you’re playing and performing a piece a different part of the brain is working as you’re busying yourself with notes and stuff, but I feel content with how it all fits together now, definitely.