Award-winning composer and pianist Max Richter’s landmark eight-hour minimalist lullaby Sleep (2015) feels as though it were composed with World Sleep Day in mind. After all, Richter has staged a string of night-time performances (complete with beds for the audiences), during which he has performed the work for piano, string quintet, electronics and vocals in its entirety.
Richter already had a distinguished career in contemporary composition before the remarkable Sleep was released by Deutsche Grammophon in 2015, becoming a wordless overnight global success. Having studied with the legendary Italian composer Luciano Berio, Richter recorded contemporary and conceptual material for Decca and the BBC, worked on ballets, Recomposed Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, and became a favoured soundtrack composer (notably for Waltz With Bashir and Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror).
He gained much experience and become influential in the crossover territory between classical and electronic music (above all, the fertile arena of ambient music), and has collaborated with acts as diverse as Future Sound Of London, Roni Size and Robert Wyatt. These contributions to the spirit of cross-pollination were recognised when Rough Trade asked him to compile a 2017 mix collection (Behind The Counter), which folded together music from the worlds of classical, post-rock and electronic music.
The landmark work Richter was born to compose
As with any important, large-scale classical work, particular excerpts from Sleep have become especially well-known. The project has been assisted most notably by a magical single-volume reduction, from Sleep, as well as an album of remixes by complementary acts such as Mogwai, while ‘Dream 3 (in the midst of my life)’ was also pressed as a collectible vinyl single in 2016.
Sleep was the landmark work Richter was born to compose, bringing together all the strands of his compositional career (from opera to ambient) in a readily accessible and bewitching conceptual piece.
Influenced by the symphonic works of Mahler, the Sleep consists of 31 variations on a small set of themes and features the suitably rich and moving voice of soprano singer Grace Davidson. The American Contemporary Music Ensemble (ACME) provide mysterious, drifting string quintet interludes which, in the eight-hour version (as the body moves between deep sleep and dreams), blend into the slow, splendid and stirring ‘Dream’ and ‘Path’ melodies which have made Sleep such a populist composition – particularly for World Sleep Day.
One of the 21st Century’s most successful classical works
As well as being one of the 21st Century’s most successful pieces of contemporary classical music, on another level Sleep is a very high-quality New Age relaxation aid. The work has a Brian Eno-esque ambient task-accompaniment philosophy. It is minimal yet accessible, and yet revolves around a vast amount of compositional toil – presenting something of a trial for any musicians who attempt to perform it. Richter has created a work of art that is for everyone, accomplishing this feat subtly yet curiously, without pulling any punches.
As the very act of sleep has come under threat in the Western world – so much so that World Sleep Day was created in 2008, in order to help promote this most fundamental of needs – so Max Richter has reset our expectations about the final third of each person’s day. The eight-hour Sleep is an essential part of any new rituals for that aspect of your life: an accompaniment to that crucial but often begrudged portion of our existence; one which could usefully flush out all the twitchy mobile phone activity and late-night emails which have conspired to separate us from proper satiation of one of our core physical and physiological needs. As Richter himself says: “We are all in need of a pause button.”
Whether it’s World Sleep Day or not, the next morning, when you wake up and start again, perhaps you will be reborn.