Night-time. A city. A space, filled with identical narrow beds. Two hundred of them, arranged barracks-like, row upon row. Laid out with slippers and snacks and eye-masks; the trappings of a first-class flight. Except we are in a nightclub in Berlin or an opera house in Sydney or a scientific hub in London, and if we are to be transported somewhere over the next eight hours it is not in an aeronautical sense but in a sonic one.
Soon it will be midnight, and a classical concert will begin. Here among the audience is a pregnant woman; a young black couple; a cancer sufferer; a guy wearing a tiger onesie. And there, on a stage at the centre of it all, is a man in jeans and black Converse. He doesn’t look like a classical composer. He possibly isn’t a classical composer. It is difficult to define the piece that he and his group will perform continuously while 200 strangers submit to varying stages of slumber between now and sunrise.
A gentle, repetitive motif emerges, a low pulsing B that morphs hypnotically into an A, and then to a G. A helpless falling. These are cadential frequencies that feel somehow like the beginning of a universe; like the purest form of acoustic heartbreak. The cellist draws a long, sustained bow, back and forth over the instrument’s D-string; the soprano hums a swooning melody. The composer calls this work “Sleep”. “There are no rules,” he tells his audiences. “No rules.”
Max Richter, 50, has long been a man of low frequencies and high ambitions. A graduate of the Royal Academy of Music in London, he is signed exclusively to Deutsche Grammophon, that most august of classical music labels (“since 1898”). His music is played on highbrow classical stations in Britain, such as BBC Radio 3. And his first album, “Memoryhouse”, was published by Boosey & Hawkes, publishers also of Edward Elgar, Richard Strauss and Igor Stravinsky. He composes, old-school, with manuscript paper at a piano, part of an analogue lineage that goes all the way back to J.S. Bach. Yet his is a hybrid language that draws crowds of listeners – young ones, those who defiantly don’t care for “classical music” – to festivals and nightclubs. Whether intentionally or not, the German-born Richter is the architect of a post-minimalist electronic revolution at the borderlands of classical music that has seen the likes of Olafur Arnalds reimagine the music of Chopin, and Nils Frahm and Dustin O’Halloran play the BBC Proms.
Richter has consistently redefined what music with classical roots might be capable of in a digital age. His pioneering reworking of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons” in 2012 topped the iTunes classical charts in more than 30 countries. He has collaborated several times with the Royal Ballet’s resident choreographer, Wayne McGregor, including on an opera that takes its inspiration from “Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives”, a book of stories by David Eagleman, an American neuroscientist.
“Sleep” arose in part from Richter’s “obsession with very low-frequency sound”, but this is not merely an experiment in ambient background noise. People do fall asleep to “Sleep”; one man admits he has gone to bed listening to the condensed album of the work for over 100 consecutive nights, and as much as I tried to keep my eyes open, at some point around 3am the somnolent shimmer of the music worked its magic and the conscious part of my brain seemed to dissolve – I’m not sure whether into sleep, or some other altered state.
The objective was not to confect musical mandragora, but rather to explore consciousness, creativity and the brain. Richter believes that many cognitive processes happen “under the hood”, in a space that is increasingly under threat by data overload and the way we live our lives. (The work’s subtitle is: “a lullaby for frenetic times”.) “This magical space of sleep, which is restorative, mysterious, creative, is being closed down,” he says. “Our psychological universe is being populated more and more by our screen lives. We squander so much energy just trying to cut a path through all that stuff, it’s like walking through a blizzard.”
If the work was envisioned as a “manifesto for a slower pace of existence”, audience reactions since its world premiere at the Wellcome Collection in London last year hint at a further purpose. “It seems to elicit big questions,” Richter admits. “We’ve had extraordinary emails from people who seem to be connecting to it in a quite profound way. You want to feel that people have been on a journey, and come back changed.” Much more than a “cradle song”, it seems to be offering “a landscape, a space to actively reflect”. For all its narcotic rhythms and haunting melodicism, “Sleep” might be viewed as protest music. “Everything’s going very fast these days and as a society, we’re very reactive. I do think the best versions of ourselves can be found when we have time for reflection and that’s what this is partly now about: to try and find that space.”
With performances on the cards in Paris, Amsterdam and London, Richter has been dreaming of taking “Sleep” to the city that famously doesn’t. One of his groups, the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, is based in New York; Richter plans a staging of the work as “a hopeful provocation”.