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

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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.

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