A selection from “Sleep,” by Max Richter.
It’s not typically the goal of musical artists to make their audiences fall asleep. Elvis Presley and the Beatles, for example, did not wow on “Ed Sullivan” by rendering screaming teenage hordes somnolent. And Kanye West is anything but a Mr. Sandman.
But all that’s mere pop music. In the world of contemporary classical composition, sending listeners to dreamland is a perfectly acceptable goal — one that leading composer Max Richter has embraced with the eight-hour “Sleep,” his new record out Friday on the legendary label Deutsche Grammophon.
“Sleeping and being asleep is one of my favorite activities,” Richter told NPR. “Really, what I wanted to do is provide a landscape or a musical place where people could fall asleep.”
To create the very extended piece, Richter, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music known as the composer for HBO’s “The Leftovers,” consulted with neurological experts to see how so-called “slow-wave sleep” — deep sleep that typically comes before rapid-eye movement — might be encouraged aurally. But though Richter describes “Sleep” as an extended “lullaby,” it’s as much an aesthetic statement as a scientific one — a musical manifesto offered as a challenge to our perpetually tuned-in, turned-on, 24-7 society.
“We are in a very dense information universe,” Richter told the Wall Street Journal. “It’s all coming at you. It’s all reactive, not reflective.”
“Sleep” offers an opportunity for such reflection — more specifically, an opportunity for meditation that’s eight hours, 24 minutes and 21 seconds long. Though The Washington Post was not able to review all of the record before writing about it — not falling asleep at one’s desk is, after all, the first rule of journalism — selections sound pretty much appropriate for the “Rock-a-bye Baby” genre. This music is tonal, gentle, piano if not pianissimo, and soundtrack-y. Strings swim in and out of what could be an electronica-ish undercurrent — Richter is noted for his frequent fusion of classical instruments with new technology — as somebody tickles the ivories.
If there’s a screeching guitar or John Bonham-style drum solo hidden somewhere in the sixth or seventh hour, don’t blame us.
“We spend more time sleeping than we do anything else — in the average life it amounts to several decades,” Richter wrote in liner notes published by Drowned in Sound. “What a miraculous part of our lives, this state of suspended animation existing between being and non-being (and for me personally, where all my work is actually done). What happens to music here? Are there ways in which music and consciousness can interact other than in a wakeful state? Can music function as a truly shared creative space?”
Richter is not the first to write music not exactly meant to be listened to, as he readily admits. There are whole genres used in ritual or to induce trance: Tibetan throat-singing, Gregorian chant. French composer Erik Satie created so-called “furniture music” — arguably a harbinger of Muzak — meant to be ignored. There are modern classical composers like John Cage — author of the “silent” piece “4’33”” — or minimalists like Steve Reich, known for his repetitive rhythmic structures, who toy with listeners’ expectations and, sometimes, their patience. And there’s an entire market for music meant to bring sleep with titles like “Relax Melodies” and “Ambient Music Therapy,” not to mention alarm clocks with sound effects that evoke rainfall or ocean waves.
“This isn’t something new in music, it goes back to Cage, Terry Riley, and LaMonte Young, and it’s coming around again partly as a reaction to our speeded-up lives,” Richter said. “We are all in need of a pause button.”
Richter said the piece was recorded in pieces — and, if you don’t want to attend a midnight performance in Berlin next month where the audience will be encouraged to actually sleep in beds surrounding the musicians — can be listened to that way as well. There’s also a companion volume to “Sleep”: “From Sleep,” an hour-long, edited version.
Some, however, were taking the plunge.
“3 hours into ‘Sleep,'” one listener tweeted. “So achingly beautiful. A brilliantly executed concept — banish the frenetic, let’s dream together.