People are falling asleep at Max Richter's performance – on purpose

by Elizabeth Kerr / 15 March, 2018
Audiences attending Max Richter’s eight-hour performance of Sleep are given a camp stretcher when they arrive. Photo/Getty Images

Audiences attending Max Richter’s eight-hour performance of Sleep are given a camp stretcher when they arrive. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Max Richter NZ

British composer Max Richter is inviting New Zealand audiences to snooze their way through his eight-hour performance. 

Sleep and the lack of it are hot 21st-century topics. Alongside dire warnings about the negative effects of sleep deprivation, there’s plenty of help on offer: sleep-tracking pillows, essential oil sprays, robotic bed companions.

And advice: wear socks to bed, paint your bedroom blue, give up caffeine, alcohol and energy drinks late in the day. Sleep was not such a big issue last century, so what has changed?

Composer Max Richter, coming to the Auckland Arts Festival this month, thinks it may be something to do with information overload. “We’re living in a sort of blizzard of data, on our screens all the time. That can be a psychological load,” he says. His eight-hour work Sleep was written as an antidote. “I wanted to make a piece that functioned like a mini holiday, a roadblock on the information superhighway, something that would allow people to stop scrolling on that screen. So, the piece has a political, social dimension as an act of resistance against this capitalist, neo-liberal, technocratic existence. It’s an invitation to stop and take time to reflect on other things.”

Audiences for Sleep arrive about bedtime, some wearing their pyjamas. They’re assigned a camp stretcher, then invited to sleep, stay awake or enjoy a mixture of both for eight hours while the musicians perform. Richter says he also had other starting points. “It’s a musical enquiry into the nature of sleep, drawing on the lullaby tradition, taking some things from [experimental group] Fluxus in the 60s, from Indian culture and, of course, Bach’s Goldberg Variations.” He’s referring to the apocryphal story that Bach composed that music to soothe the sleepless nights of a Count Keyserlingk, whose harpsichordist, Johann Gottlieb Goldberg, performed the variations. Insomnia isn’t a new phenomenon.

Photo/Getty Images

Photo/Getty Images

Richter’s music for Sleep is, as you might expect, calm, gentle, peaceful and repetitive. It has, to my ears, a New Age flavour. There are hints of Bach’s harmonic progressions and it’s not hard to hear the influence of the minimalists. The composer tells a story from his childhood in small-town England, where the milkman acquainted him with the music of the US avant-garde. An artist himself, the milkman heard Richter practising Mozart and Beethoven on the piano and began dropping off recordings of experimental music. “He introduced me to the post-Cage Americans and the minimalists – incredibly rare records at that time. I heard Philip Glass and John Cage and others in this very fortunate way.”

When asked to describe his art, Richter sometimes uses the term “post-classical”, but is quick to point out that this “jokey” term is not intended to be taken seriously. “I went to university and conservatoire and post-grad and all that, but the popular music cultures around me – electronic music, dance music – and fine arts and literature were a big influence.

“My work hovers between straightforward written-down classical music and music that is more about handling sound in a sculptural way, where the studio becomes part of the instrument. Some are straightforward classical or instrumental pieces, whereas others inhabit more of the electronic thing. There isn’t a single pithy formulation [for what I do].”

The composer. Photo/Getty Images

Richter is extraordinarily prolific, with eight or nine albums to his credit as well as numerous film and television scores. He still plays the piano and other keyboards and usually participates in live performances of his music. In Auckland, in addition to Sleep, he’ll present two more recent works, Three Worlds: Music from Woolf Works, drawn from a Royal Ballet commission for three scores based on Virginia Woolf’s novels Mrs Dalloway, The Waves and Orlando, and Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi – The Four Seasons.

He loves Vivaldi’s music, but is tired of the way The Four Seasons has become overexposed off the concert stage. He hears it too often on television, in muzak and in on-hold telephone music. “It’s tainted by those associations. Recomposed was an attempt on my part to rediscover the piece as a purely musical object by taking a kind of road trip through the landscape Vivaldi had composed, to be surprised by it again, to fall in love with it again.”

Like the popular original, his Recomposed is structured as four violin concertos, but Vivaldi’s harmonies seem smoothed out in a minimalist language and thinner texture, enhanced by electronics. How have audiences and musicians responded to what one critic calls a “classical remix”? “Honestly,” Richter says, “I don’t really think about what people think. If you do, you could never do anything. You certainly wouldn’t touch The Four Seasons, because you’re asking for trouble, aren’t you? But mostly people have received it in the spirit in which it was made – an act of affection and enquiry and a creative investigation into Vivaldi.”

The Richter Residency Auckland Arts Festival Sleep, Max Richter (piano), Grace Davidson (soprano), American Contemporary Music Ensemble, March 16; Vivaldi Recomposed/Three Worlds, Richter, Davidson, Mari Samuelsen (violin), Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra, March 18.

This article was first published in the March 10, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

Latest

White Noise: Who is shaping Auckland's future?
101439 2019-01-21 00:00:00Z Auckland Issues

White Noise: Who is shaping Auckland's future?

by Kate Newton

Some Aucklanders have more say in their city's future than others.

Read more
Stephen Fry revisits the world of the Ancient Greeks in Heroes
101242 2019-01-21 00:00:00Z Books

Stephen Fry revisits the world of the Ancient Gree…

by Lauren Buckeridge

In his delightful way, Stephen Fry dips back into the ancient world with more stories of tests, quests and feats of old.

Read more
Comedian Jo Brand on the benefits of not giving a toss
100970 2019-01-20 00:00:00Z Profiles

Comedian Jo Brand on the benefits of not giving a…

by Diana Wichtel

Jo Brand’s deadpan style is deceptive, as some blokes have discovered to their very public cost.

Read more
Green Book: A racially themed road-trip drama that stays within the white lines
101345 2019-01-20 00:00:00Z Movies

Green Book: A racially themed road-trip drama that…

by James Robins

Green Book joins a long tradition of civil-rights era movies that barely scratch the surface.

Read more
How I caught Marie Kondo's tidying up bug
101329 2019-01-20 00:00:00Z Television

How I caught Marie Kondo's tidying up bug

by Diana Wichtel

Four episodes into Netflix’s Tidying Up with Marie Kondo, something snapped.

Read more
The vital importance of full sleep cycles
100962 2019-01-20 00:00:00Z Health

The vital importance of full sleep cycles

by Mark Broatch

It’s a myth that older adults need less sleep, says University of California professor of neuroscience and psychology Matthew Walker.

Read more
Searching Great Barrier Island for the meaning of life
101413 2019-01-20 00:00:00Z Life in NZ

Searching Great Barrier Island for the meaning of…

by Joanna Wane

Joanna Wane goes to Great Barrier Island in search of the answer to life, the universe and everything.

Read more
Australian classic Storm Boy gets a modern remake
101340 2019-01-19 00:00:00Z Movies

Australian classic Storm Boy gets a modern remake

by James Robins

The biggest beak in Oz screen history returns in a remake of a 1970s favourite.

Read more