Sleep is a Problem-Solver”

Max Richter has composed an eight-hour long lullaby to help listeners fall asleep and to pay tribute to the most enigmatic of human activities. On an album that is not intended to be heard.

You have just released an album called Sleep. What fascinates you about this topic? It may sound strange, but it’s actually one of the things I’m best at (laughs). I think of it as a very valuable human activity in the sense that it is a break from our daily life. In a way, it’s a moment of non-being. Your lucid mind is on a break and something else takes over. It’s a mystery because you never know what will happen.

When you say that you’re good at it”, what exactly do you mean? I mean it in the sense that I sleep very well — always have, actually. It’s a very important privilege because many people don’t sleep well nowadays. And yet it’s so important for your creativity and productiveness.

Are you referring to the idea of productive sleep? That it is the gateway to one’s sub-consciousness and creativity that can be tapped into? There is a part of our mind that is arguably more substantial and richer than our conscious mind and sleep establishes a connection to this part. We’ve all had this experience of working on a problem, going to sleep, and then somehow obtaining more insight into the problem. That’s why we have the phrase I’m going to sleep on it”. Sleep is a problem-solver. Neuroscience teaches us that sleep can consolidate learning, memory and all other cognitive processes.

You once said, that you started composing before you even knew what composing was and that as a little 5-year-old, you already had all these melodies in your head. Do you think that your subconscious is at the source of your compositions? Music is interesting in the sense that it involves a lot of technical and hence conscious cognition such as conceptualizing, planning, arranging. It’s a lot of computational thinking. But it’s also about emotions and inner thoughts and, by extension, the subconscious. Composing is really a high-wire act between the conscious and the subconscious mind. I usually just follow the ideas that are created in my mind and see where they take me. If you do that, the idea receives its own identity and intentions. I know that many other composers such as Philip Glass work in the same way. Composing in that sense is primarily listening to what the music wants to do.

Do you think that there is a difference between composing and making music when it comes to this? Composing is a little bit odd because it is imagined. Most of it happens in your head and it’s therefore a largely theoretical activity. Then there’s the actual process of making music, which is a very external and practical activity. I think that composing and making music are two different cognitive processes, yes.

Passenger on a bigger cognitive structure”

You collaborated with the renowned neuroscientist David Eagleman on your latest album Sleep — an eight-hour long musical sleeping aid that is intended to accompany the listener during his sleep. What was the most significant insight you gained during the recording? Working with David on this album, I wasn’t really looking for hard data or evidence but more for general ideas and concepts. I think neuroscience really confirms our instincts when it comes to sleep. One of the questions I wanted to try and look at with this piece was how our listening experience is influenced by certain factors. The whole album is eight hours long to represent a normal sleep cycle, but then there is also a shorter one-hour version of the album that represents a daydream or just a quick nap. I was interested to see whether people would listen differently to the two versions. If somebody had listened to the whole thing and would then listen to the short version, would he or she recognize it? Would the general experience be any different? These were some of the questions I wanted to find out more about with this album. But I also gained more in-sights into the science of sleep…

For example? One of the things I’m most interested in, is the function of slow-wave sleep which is one of these irregular phases of sleep where all the neuronal activity in the brain is synchronized rather than just being random noise. There is a point in sleep where you’re learning and pattern recognition and everything that is linked to your memory works at full speed and scientists are still trying to find out more about that and how it can be trained and triggered. Music has been proven to be a very good trigger to reach this state of consciousness. To me, that’s interesting because you get like a feedback-loop where music helps you create new music. It’s like a compost heap out of which sounds grow organically. One of David’s books is called Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, and I quite like this idea of being a mere passenger on a much bigger cognitive structure that we can’t really grasp. Sleep is your boarding ticket to this.

You called Sleep an eight-hour long lullaby” which reminded me of what John Cage once said: it’s useless to play lullabies for those who cannot sleep”. Is Sleep intended to be a sleeping-aid or a sleeping-companion? It’s both, really. It is supposed to help people fall asleep as well as accompany them through their sleep. What I find very interesting is that the concept of the lullaby is so widespread in human culture. It is one of the archetypes of musical forms. So why do we do it? There must be a human reason why we create songs to help us fall asleep. What I set out to do with Sleep was to create a landscape that can be experienced. Both sleeping and wakefulness are part of that landscape. It’s about variations. You could fall asleep during the piece and wake up and you would recognize where you are because it’s a variation. So it hardly matters if you sleep through the whole thing or if you are awake sometimes.

Photo by Mike TerryPhoto by Mike Terry

You have performed the long version of the album to an audience that was not sitting but lying in beds in the concert hall. Yes, I really wanted to perform the long version live and see what would happen in the audience. The idea of all-night concerts isn’t new, it goes back to people like John Cage or the Black Mountain College. I was hoping to see people sleeping to the music and luckily, many did. What’s interesting about that is that music is usually composed in order to be heard consciously. This album, however, is intended to be heard subconsciously. One of the main things with this album is really the difference between hearing and listening. Listening is a conscious and intentional act. So the one-hour version of Sleep is really a listening piece. With the longer version, it is more about experiencing the music. Usually, music has a specific overarching theme that it follows, something like a love experience or a specific event. With this piece, I wanted the experience of listening to it to be the overall theme. That puts the listener in the focus, rather than the composer.

Sleep is an anti-rave”

For most people, sleep is associated with nighttime. How do you feel about this time of day? I’ve always been fascinated and inspired by the night. Many of my compositions were done at night. I think all my compositions are inspired by the quietness and the reclusion or solitude of that time. As a composer, these aspects are very appealing. At night, almost everything is on hold, night is like a huge pause button that gives you the time and the setting to concentrate on things that you did not manage to do during the day. It is a refuge from the stress of our everyday life and in that sense, it almost has a ritual quality to itself.

Sleep is very much a nocturnal album. What I always found very interesting is how certain types of music are composed for a specific time of the day. Techno for example works best in a club at night. Absolutely. The idea of music being composed for specific times of the day goes back to the Middle-Ages if not before. With some compositions like Mozart’s Eine kleine Nachtmusik or Edvard Grieg’s Morning Mood, it’s very clear that they are linked to a specific time of the day. The same goes for many Indian Raags. As you say, Techno is mainly made to be played in a club, at a specific time and a specific volume. The other day, somebody told me that the long version of Sleep is sort of an anti-rave; you listen to it over eight hours at night but it’s not exactly appropriate for dancing (laughs).

But it’s also very much anti-classical in the way that it doesn’t fit the classical, seated concert hall. I’ve always had a problem with the rituals of the classical concert hall. There are valid reasons for these rituals and I admit that they enable a concentrated listening of what’s happening. But these rituals also alienate a lot of people who are not used to it. It has a specific vibe and also a political dimension that feels very oppressive. It sometimes feels like the music is smarter than you and you are being handed this great thing that you have trouble understanding. I think we are somewhat stuck in classical music. The American Minimalists cracked it open back in the day and I think it’s time that something like that happens again.

A lot of people are discovering classical or neo-classical music through film scores. Do you think that the cinema could be an alternative setting for classical music? What’s hilarious is that very often in movies, the music feels somewhat dissonant, the orchestra is just screeching away for an hour and a half, and the people sit there with their popcorn and don’t mind this dissonance at all. But if you would put these people in a concert hall, they might just get up and leave. It’s almost as if they only tolerate classical music as background noise in the cinema.

Why do you think that is? In the cinema, nobody tells them that they are too ignorant or stupid to really grasp the genius of this music, which was very much the vibe of the modernist era. So we have ourselves to blame that concert halls are becoming less popular. But coming back to your question: I think the movies have been wonderful for classical music. You can experiment a lot and there are no rules or limits. The concert halls can learn a lot from that.

You have yourself composed a lot of film scores. How difficult is it to establish a connection to the audience with these compositions? It is very hard, because the piece is only part of a movie and the people don’t come to the cinema to hear the music of the films but to watch the films. It’s very different from a composition like Sleep that is not part of a larger project and that you play to a live audience. But the popularity of classical scores in recent years shows that the audience appreciates it and that there is a demand for it. That’s certainly something to be optimistic about.

You can listen to the full eight-hour version of Sleep” here. Sweet dreams.

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