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You may not know Max Richter, but odds are you know his work. The neoclassical composer is most well known for his contribution to film and television scoring, creating the music for HBO’s The Leftovers, Christian Bale’s newest film, Hostiles, Jessica Chastain’s 2016 thriller, Miss Sloane, and many, many more. While Richter’s work in film and television is outstanding, his work as an experimental composer, bringing a theoretical and philosophical bent to emotion-laden music, is perhaps his most interesting musical iteration.
His most famous of these thematic works is Sleep, an eight hour experience that’s supposed to make you fall asleep...or stay awake...or stay awake then fall asleep. The result isn’t necessarily the point. Richter just made his US debut of the performance at South By Southwest, putting on an eight hour performance that featured five hundred audience members either dozing off to or fully enraptured by Richter’s Sleep (courtesy of Beautyrest mattresses). Richter served as the sleep advisor of sorts, putting on a performance he likened to a marathon, leading along a surprisingly intimate, vulnerable, and communal experience.
With the help of a neuroscientist, who helped advise Richter, the London-based composer literally created the perfect soundtrack to fall asleep to. For those without eight hours to spare either sleeping or listening, Richter went in and excavated the moments most conducive to keeping an audience awake. From Sleep consists of these noted pick-me-ups, the moments from Sleep that either wake you up or prevent you from wanting to sleep. From Sleep is a captivating experience, which may not be so good, depending on how you listen to it. How sleepy are you?
Can you reflect on Sleep and From Sleep? How did these two records come about as companion pieces, and did the approach differ for each recording process?
I wanted to make a work that was a creative inquiry into how music and mind could co-exist in a sleep state. It’s also a deliberately political piece in that it’s an invitation to pause from all of our activities. The dominant view of what people are is, at the moment, a unionist production and conduction machine—that’s the neoliberal consensus, right? I think that’s a very impoverished view of what people are. So I wanted to make a piece that resisted that. I was in search for a roadblock in the information super highway. The big piece, Sleep, really invites you to stop everything you’re doing and commit to it for an extended period.
The other origin point for it is that I’m very aware that we are a sleep deprived culture. I’m very lucky in that I sleep very well, but I know that very many people do not. So I wanted to make an environment for people to sleep in, an environment for them to wander about in the night. When I started working on the piece, I started to notice that there were aspects of the piece, fragments in it, that felt like they wanted to be listened to, rather than just inhabited. That was really the origin of the shorter one, From Sleep. It’s just a framework for the moments that call attention to themselves to be heard. The one piece is to be lived and experienced in an environment, and the other one is to be listened to.
Do you view them as companion pieces or as separate entities?
There are certainly unique things in each case, but there are things from From Sleep that come from the big one, and vice versa. They’re obviously very similar, but they do have different attributes. For me, the fundamental piece is the big one [Sleep]. That’s where it all starts and ends for me.
Did you do a lot of research for Sleep in terms of the things that help people fall asleep and help facilitate that mindset? Or was Sleep more focused on something you felt would help people sleep?
I think it’s both, really. I consulted with a neuroscientist, a man called Dave Eagleman. He’s a brilliant guy. We talked about sleep, the science around it, and the sounds and support and these sort of things. But there’s also more of an intuitive thing, me just feeling my way into a language. That has to do with the spectrum of the piece. The whole spectrum of the project mirrors, more or less, the spectrum an unborn child hears in the womb. It’s got its fingerprints on that as well. There are loads of low frequencies and almost no high frequencies, because the mother’s body controls that. There are lots of poetic suggestions in the material that point towards the same direction.
Do you think most of your recorded music features these deep-dives into concepts? Or were these two albums uniques cases?
My records are always kind of about something. Memoryhouse  was almost like a 20th century historical journey, and The Blue Notebooks  was written from the standpoint of the buildup of the Iraq War in 2003. Infra  was about the London bombings. They all have a special political dimension. I want a starting point for a piece, which is about more than making sounds. It’s something about human beings and the world. That’s always been the case for me really.
Is it ever a struggle trying to convey these themes through instrumental music?
It’s sort of paradoxical, isn’t it? Because there’s almost no text in what I do. But what I’m really looking for with my music is to create a kind of shared space where me and the listener can think about the same thing in that space, where it feels almost conversational. That’s really what I’m looking for.
That’s one of the cool things about the Sleep experience, too. It’s literally a shared experience, sure, but if you’re doing your job, they’re actually not sharing the experience because they’re all asleep.
Have you found the Sleep live sets to be successful or what you envisioned?
They are. They are successful in the sense that there’s more than one way to experience it. You get people who sleep all the way through, people who listen to the music all the way through, and then people do both. There’s something about the fact that you’re lying down, asleep with 500 strangers. It has a ritual quality to it, and people do seem to get into a zone. It’s really rewarding. People seem to get a lot from it. It’s a journey. It’s quite a moment.
It’s a very vulnerable thing you’re asking of people, to give up the deeply personal aspects of the nighttime ritual.
Exactly, yeah. Exactly. It’s a consensual—there’s a lot of trust for people to do that.
On a technical level, what’s it like on your end having to focus for eight straight hours?
Yeah...It’s like running a marathon, I guess. I’m saying that as someone who’s never run a marathon [laughs]. It certainly feels like that. You have to get through the jet lag. When I sit down in the morning I need the right food. To think of a gig where you have to stop because you get hungry is weird.
From Sleep has themes and undertones of outer space and the unknown. Where does that influence come from?
Yeah...The thing for me about sleep is that when we’re sleeping we’re in a conversation with non-existence. We’re awake, we exist, we go to sleep, we do exist...but we go somewhere else. In a way, that sort of echoes where we’re all going. It raises the big questions I guess. Some of the titles try to evoke those sorts of questions as well. Just the fundamentals.
You work in all sorts of compositional mediums, with your more traditional neoclassical solo work, your film scoring, your work with opera and ballet. Do you have a favorite style of work?
I feel like they feed each other. If I was only making my own records, that would just involve me sitting in a room of my own for days on end. Just doing only that. I think if I only did that I’d go crazy. I like cinema, TV, ballet, and these sorts of things. I really enjoy the collaborative process and the problem solving process, especially in film or TV scoring. You’re trying to solve loads of questions about how everything should stick together, and there’s something really satisfying about that.
Do you have a favorite film score you’ve worked on?
They’re all my kids, I love them [laughs]. I had a great time on the show The Leftovers. That’s an amazing storytelling vehicle and it’s brilliantly made. Waltz with Bashir was my first ever film score so that’s always special. Last year I did a film that Christian Bale starred in called Hostiles. It’s an absolutely amazing film, beautifully shot. I’ve got to say I’m very, very lucky with my film and TV work. I’m very lucky to have been a part of some really incredible things and it’s tough to choose between them honestly.
One thing I find really interesting about your career thus far is that while you do write a lot for film and television, your solo or collaborative compositions are used in film and television as well. What about your music do you think makes it fit so perfectly alongside film and television?
I’ve wondered about that. For me, music is really a storytelling language. I’m interested in stories—I think human beings are storytelling creatures. That’s what we do, in all sorts of ways. I guess the idea of narrative plays really strongly in my work, and that connects to other narrative forms. Also, generally, my work is unafraid to be emotional. That’s obviously something that connects with all sorts of stories. A lot of contemporary music is nervous about being directly emotional. But I always found that very important. I like to feel stuff.
Will Schube is a filmmaker and freelance writer based in Austin, TX. When he's not making movies or writing about music, he's training to become the first NHL player with no professional hockey experience whatsoever.