Off To Bed With Max Richter's 'Sleep'
When I was just out of college I had a somewhat run-down sofa that nevertheless had incredibly soft cushions. I loved it. It was a joy to sink into. I would turn on my stereo on a Saturday afternoon, throw on side one of Robert Fripp and Brian Eno’sNo Pussyfooting and doze off. The music, with its synthesized drones and delicate electric guitar melodies, had a way of lulling me into a most peaceful slumber. I would awaken an hour or so later, the orange power light of the stereo staring at me from across the room, the faint hiss of analog silence emanating from the speakers.
Max Richter’s new album from Sleep captures some of that same feeling. Its seven tracks are part of an even larger eight-hour composition that is meant to be played live, at night, while the audience nods off. That’s right, Richter wants you to fall asleep in the hall! (I hope they provide pillows.)
In the liner notes to the album, he explains, “this is my personal lullaby for a frenetic world — a manifesto for a slower pace of existence. [It is] also a personal exploration into how music interacts with consciousness.” There’s a long history of that—everything from classical depictions of dreams and nightmares to Paul McCartney waking up one morning with the melody of “Yesterday” pouring out of his head.
The one hour from Sleep is broken up into numbered tracks called “Dream,” “Space,” and “Path.” The “Dreams” are all variations on a slowly pulsating heartbeat-like minimalist melody, emphasizing cello. The “Space” tracks are ambient drones, and the “Path” tracks are variations on a wordless song sung by Grace Davidson.
I’ve listened to the album at least three times now in different settings. In the car, over headphones, and again on the computer while writing this. The music doesn’t satisfy in the way traditional classical music does, with forward propulsion and development on a theme. But in the car, I felt a sense of peace come over me while listening (and believe me, this is useful in the car). At home, I remembered that old sofa as I was lulled into a pleasingly vacuous, clear-headed somnambular state. I could move in and out of active listening and have the same effect. Sleep lives up to Brian Eno’s edict about ambient music: it is “as ignorable as it is interesting.” To which I would add, it's actually kind of therapeutic as well.