Interview: Max Richter on His Sleep-Inspired Album

Emma Robertson talks to the celebrated composer about his new project

Mike Terry

Max Richter wants to put you to sleep. No, really. We’ve come to expect something special from the German-born British composer. His albums always include some kind of special twist, drawing from art, poetry, fiction, and dance. This time, Richter brings us Sleep, an ambient meets classical album that’s stuck somewhere between a dreamscape and a lullaby. At just shy of nine hours long, Sleep is meant to be played just before bed; a kind of futurist take on white noise that Richter is calling the “anti-rave.” We sat down with the neoclassical visionary to discuss dreams, neuroscience and the power and process of sleep.

Do you believe in the power of dreams?

I definitely do. You have to dream a thing in order to do anything about bringing it into reality. It’s the starting point of everything, in a way. I used to write my dreams down! [laughs] But I realized that after a while that I ended up dreaming stuff that would be interesting to write down. My dreams got really baroque and convoluted, you know? [laughs] I’ve become really fascinated with the parts of our mind that we don’t really have access to.

So do you think dreams play a role in our waking lives?

I think they do. But, you know, our brain doesn’t even know that our conscious mind exists, so who knows? The interaction between our conscious and unconscious mind is a big and important part of what and who we are. It’s a puzzle. I think also it’s kind of nice to have unsolved puzzles, you know? That kind of empty space of not knowing is one of the nicer things about sleeping, actually.

Max Richter - Sleep (Trailer)

Is that what you’re trying to tap into with Sleep? That empty space?

Well, over the last couple years, neuroscience has started to uncover what sleep is really about. In a way, not surprisingly, it’s about what you might think it’s about. When we say things like, “Oh, I need to sleep on it,” when you’re making a decision. You do actually get better at thinking by sleeping. You have more intuition, you get more in touch with your bigger mind. Sleeping is a way to connect to a part of our mind we don’t have access to when we’re awake. There’s a sleep stage called “slow wave,” where all your neurons go into a roughly 10 Hz kind of phase – this is when memory happens and learning and structuring and all this stuff. That’s the beneficial part of sleeping for our brains. People have been experimenting by trying to induce this sleep stage with repetitive sounds that are not too loud, not too bright, sounds that have recognizable architecture or structure… That’s my music. That’s perfect. And also, this idea of the 10 Hz thing? That’s just sub. That’s bass, you know? That’s where I live.

It seems like almost too perfect a match.

Exactly, I took that as a brilliant excuse to make this album incorporating ideas that I already loved.

So, this is something you’ve always been interested in?

Sort of. One of the things that got me into electronic music in the first place was hearing the ambient music of the ’70s, Brian Eno and that kind of stuff. I fell in love with music as this kind of landscape to dream into... Textures, space. I’ve always been interested in an immersive experience, this thing of music being bigger than you in some way… You just kind of walk around in it. Someone said to me the other day that this project is kind of like the “anti-rave.” It’s the complete antithesis of a rave!

I don’t listen to music before bed because then I’d never fall asleep!

Have you tested it out? Have you tried to sleep with the album on?

You know, I can’t test it on me because I’d just be there thinking about EQ and reverb and stuff. [laughs] I just can’t think of it in that way! Other people have listened to it though and they’re still alive, so that’s good.

I actually did test it out. Once I was able to turn off the part of my brain that was actively listening, I found having the album playing actually kept me asleep for longer. Kind of like white noise.

That’s great! For me, though, that part of my brain is just incapable of turning off. Listening to music is a really busy activity. I’m going, “Hmm… I’d rather do that, I’d fix that noise…” [laughs] That’s how I’m wired. I don’t listen to music before bed because then I’d never fall asleep! You think about it from a maker’s perspective, you know – how is that made? I think that’s quite natural, that sort of curiosity.

Speaking of, what can you tell me about how Sleep was made?

The big thing about it from a musical perspective is that it’s really long. It’s roughly eight-and-a-half hours. The creative process on it was very unique and kind of this discovery project for all of us, you know? Normally when you make a record, you make a record. It’s a manageable thing, it’s a bunch of little objects, you shuffle them around… But in this case, the workflow was completely different. You do a take, and the take lasts, like, an hour. [laughs] You want to bounce a mix? That’s another three hours. The pulse is really slow. You almost have to get down to that speed. You have to slow down, take a moment, take a breath.

Writing music and listening to music is an invitation to dream.

Most of your albums have something special about them: Memory House featured poetry readings, Infra was an extension of a ballet score, Songs from Before had excerpts from a Murakami book. Will you ever make just a “normal” studio album?

[laughs] I don’t know! The thing that gets me started is an idea or a story or a question. For me, music is like a storytelling language. It’s about something. There’s a reason. It’s not just the notes themselves, the sounds themselves. It’s communication. Music is a way of talking. It’s important to not just talk, but to talk about something.

What story are you hoping to tell with Sleep then?

The thing that I want to put at the center of this project is the listener. Listening. The experience of hearing it. And that’s incredibly personal, that’s very emotional. It’s intimate. Everyone has their own unique trip through the material, and the story with Sleep focuses on that rather than on me.

Already, I was going to say that with classical or ambient music, there’s a real lack of visual feedback in live performance – no dancing or hands in the air or anything. Performances of Sleep will take it to a whole new level.

Exactly, it’s sort of an anti-performance as well because if we project it and we really perform it, well, we’re going to wake people up! [laughs]

For me, there’s something very similar about listening to music and going to sleep. It’s this weird liminal space.

Sleeping and dreaming is an interesting thing. You’re a passenger in a dream, aren’t you? You’re just sort of being carried along. I love dreaming! It’s my favourite activity, and music is totally a type of daydreaming! Writing music and listening to music is an invitation to dream… That’s actually one of the reasons I wrote this album. An invitation to dream.

By Emma Robertson on September 11, 2015

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