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Composer Max Richter’s ‘Sleep’ is Revisited In New Documentary

The film, directed by Natalie Johns, follows the artist and his creative partner Yulia Mahr through the course of executing eight-hour overnight concerts for the piece

Anurag Tagat Apr 20, 2021

Composer, pianist and synthesizer artist Max Richter. Photo: ©Mike Terry/Courtesy of MUBI

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At a time when all continues to be chaotic and unsettling very often around the world, composer Max Richter’s work Sleep – an eight-hour, 24-minute ambient piece – is especially relevant for anyone who wants a very well thought out, intelligent lullaby.

Released in 2015, the German/British artist and his creative partner Yulia Mahr had a hefty undertaking with Sleep but it went on to sell over 100,000 copies and led to several overnight concerts around the globe, including South By South West in Austin, Texas in 2018. As it turns out, performing for eight hours to sync with a sleep cycle for an audience who are provided with beds is certainly demanding. The ideas and people behind Sleep are explored in a new documentary film by Natalie Johns, called Max Richter’s Sleep and currently streaming on MUBI.

While the film premiered on World Sleep Day on March 19th on the streaming platform, Richter has been performing this piece for a few years now. Over a video call with Rolling Stone India, the composer talks about the film as well as the music of Sleep, his more recent piece Voices and India. Excerpts:

How are the times treating you so far?

Well, it’s a weird time, isn’t it? It’s, uh, you know, we’ve all been basically sort of, you know, in our houses for a year more or less, one way and another. It’s obviously a time of great anxiety, and a time of great stress. But also, it feels like an opportunity to rethink the way we’ve been running our world, and an opportunity to reassess how we would like things to go forward. And I think that feels like a positive as well, if we take that take that chance.

As a composer you don’t necessarily have to think of a project as something that’s passed when you make the next one, right?

In a way, the composing and recording of a project is really only the starting point. When I’m making a piece, I’m proposing a theory. And then when that piece meets listeners, when people encounter it, and they find ways to relate to it, then you get a sort of a conversational process, and then the piece takes on a life of its own. And that’s unpredictable.

Some things take root in surprising ways. And some things develop as you think they might, and other things don’t really develop at all, and just sort of there in their moment. And that’s it. And Sleep is one of these pieces that people have really embraced. I think it has a kind of universality, which people can relate to and, and I think it also has qualities which are very valuable in our world at the moment to do with… rest and pause, and just a bit of relief from the anxious world we’re living in.

For that reason, Sleep has its own kind of energy, I think. It keeps finding new ways for people to connect to it. It’s also been really interesting seeing how people find different spaces for that music to fit into their lives. Obviously, it was intended to be experienced while sleeping, but now lots of people have it on while they’re working, or when they’re writing the novel, or they’re going out for a run, doing their yoga… it’s really interesting.

Max Richter – SLEEP in Kraftwerk Berlin in 2016. Photo: Stefan Hoederath

Sleep is pushing the limits of public performances and performance art in itself. What has it been like doing that?

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Sleep is an experimental project. It asks all kinds of questions about what music performance is, and how, you know, a community of performers, a community of listeners can kind of come together in a in a different way. For a long time, I’ve been unsatisfied with the kind of hierarchies of music performance. Sleep very much puts the listeners into the center of the project. It’s the listening experience, it’s the sleeping experience that’s at the center of things. And it just seemed like to us that we felt there would be a more democratic performance space for this project. So rather than a concert hall, we performed it in factories and warehouses and all kinds of places outdoors, just to explore the different ways that audiences could experience this. Yulia comes from a kind of anthropology and film background. So this is very much part of her kind of thinking about what the project should be too.

How do you look back at it at this point in history especially, when performances like these may take quite some time to ever happen again.

It’s funny, isn’t it? I mean, seeing the film, all those people together in the live show… I sort of have a great feeling of nostalgia really, for that time and that experience which we all miss. Whether it’s collective music making or going to the movies or just being out among people, this is something we all really, really miss. We can only hope that things will get better this year, and that we can start to play again. But, I mean, this has been one of the things that the pandemic has really taught us; the actual value of things, rather than just the monetary value of things. The fact that we need to be together as human beings and music is a beautiful way to do that. It’s really highlighted what’s important and what isn’t important, right?

Definitely. You had a performance of this during SXSW which is one of the busiest festivals in the world. How did that go?

Well, that was that was interesting, because South By South West is like, absolute chaos, isn’t it? It’s so intense and so much going on. And it was actually quite wonderful to just have that focus of this big project.

One of the things for me and for us as musicians, is that in order to play Sleep, we have to (obviously) sleep during the day times to get sort of jet lagged the right amount so that when we go onstage at midnight, it’s morning for us. It makes you go into your own sort of timezone, really, in order to play the piece. So you’re in a sort of sleep bubble, preparing for the show, then playing the show. And then coming out of the show, of course, you have to sleep afterwards. So yeah, it puts you in this strange little planet of your own. It was really quite a peaceful kind of SXSW, which it never normally is.

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Someone likens you to a fox in this film. What’s one of your favorite reactions to Sleep been so far?

I guess the big thing really – to generalize – is that the piece seems to have the ability to allow people to reflect on the kind of bigger questions. Our lives are very busy. When you’re busy, you deal with what’s in front of you, but you maybe don’t deal with the big questions very much. And because sleep provides this open space to dream into, it allows people to think about the big stuff… life, death, love, you know, all these big questions, which we all have, but we don’t often have enough time to maybe think about them.

We get a lot of feedback from people who’ve listened to it, who are going through really big stuff in their lives to do with maybe mortality or family… all of that. That for me is always really sort of humbling, because these are important things people are going through. And it’s amazing to have made a piece which can allow that.

There’s a very personal story explored through this documentary, what goes into the later parts about vulnerability and Yulia’s perception of you. What is it like opening up those parts of your life to the public?

It’s kind of weird, because both Yulia and I, we’re private people, in a way. We’ve never really talked about ourselves. But I think we both felt with Nat the director, that we had met somebody who was a bit of a kindred spirit, and that we could trust her. I also came to understand that people do need to have a sense of you as a person. For people interested in a piece, they want to know where it comes from. I felt like it was it was fine to talk a little about ourselves.

What have your plans been like through 2021? What have you been working on?

Well, the, I guess the current project really is Voices. That’s the next kind of big project. That’s a very exciting project, which means a lot to me personally and to Yulia. This is a piece about the world we’re living in now. Somebody described it the other day as a sort of companion piece to Sleep, except it’s called “Wake Up” [laughs]. Because the piece is about human rights, it’s based on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Since I’m calling from India, I want to know whether you whether you’ve ever had the chance to come to India yet or whether you had any offers to perform here?

We have had a few attempts to come to India, I would love to come. For me, especially with the idea of music and nighttime and music, and sleeping… one of the kind of sources for that idea actually comes from Indian classical music, with the raagas of different times of day and stuff. Obviously, I’d love to play the piece in India. Thing is, it’s really hard to find ways to do it, but yeah, I’d love to come.

Watch the trailer for ‘Max Richter’s Sleep’ below. Stream on MUBI.

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