Slow Wave: An Interview with Max Richter

Posted May 7, 2016 in Features

Delta waves are neural oscillations that occur during the stage of sleep known as slow-wave sleep. Characterised as being the slowest and strongest of brain waves, they are indicative of an insensible, deep sleep — an increasingly rare state in this digital ‘always on’ generation where we merely enter a form of ‘sleep mode’. In his latest project, Sleep, composer Max Richter explores the various stages of the sleep cycle in an eight-hour long lullaby. I spoke to him over the phone early one morning as he was going through a form of reversed jet-lag, shifting time zones in anticipation of one of his overnight performances of Sleep.


I’d like to start by asking about your working method. How do you begin to work on a new project? Is there usually a continuation from a previous work, or do you have a clear concept that you decide on before developing it?

In a way, everything you do is joined up. It’s a continuous process of writing. I think of it a little bit like composting; you have this heap of ideas, thoughts, plans, projects, scraps of memories, all kinds of stories, stuff you want to talk about. It really all comes from the same place, which is your enthusiasms, your biography, your obsessions, your interests, society, politics, stuff that’s going on. Each project is really a facet of that bigger story; a little bit like walking around a sculpture and seeing it from another angle. Sleep is a continuation of many of my interests, and it maybe foregrounds some of the preoccupations that I’ve had in other projects in the past.


You’ve worked once more with the neuroscientist and author David Eagleman. Could you tell me about the collaboration?

When I started working on the project, I was composing away, making things, and starting to get a sense of the architecture and the landscape. I thought I’d better consult with someone who actually knew what they were talking about when it came to the way the mind functions while sleeping. David and I had worked previously on an opera project — I wrote an opera on his book SUM, which is a brilliant book of stories — so I thought, yes, David’s the guy. I called him up and we talked through the kinds of things I was doing musically. He was able to give me pointers about the kinds of processes the brain goes through when sleeping, and different parts of sleep, and how these two things could fit together. That really was my intention with the project — not to make an acoustic sleeping pill, but to actually investigate and try to shine a light on possible connections between music and sleeping. For me, they’re both altered states of consciousness, and maybe… they’re related in some way. I mean the idea of the lullaby is universal in human culture, and I think that points to an instinctive connection we make between these two things.

Please credit Stefan Höderath


Speaking of lullabies, are they something you remember from your own childhood?

No, I don’t specifically, but I do have some kind of an emotional connection between sleeping and music, and I don’t think I’m unusual in that. There’s something about the sleep experience itself, which is very emotional, and also very intimate. It’s a very personal thing. You have a unique experience with this other part of our mind, this other part of our lives, which we have incomplete access to. We have a strong sympathy with that state, I think. Nowadays of course, many of us struggle with sleeping, so it may in fact not be a good thing, quite a negative emotionality around it. I think it does affect us strongly, and for me it has something of a kinship with my feeling for music, and why music affects me.


The author Jonathan Crary has written about the ends of sleep and how our brains have become the new factories of late capitalism [in his book 24/7]. Was this piece made as a reaction to sleeplessness in today’s society?

Clearly we’re going through a kind of revolution, a revolution in the way we use our minds, and a revolution in the way that our environment is structured. We live in a very informational environment now, and that, to some extent, has superseded a physical world for many people — those who live in urban settings, who do intellectual work, who do cognitive work. Our dominant experience is to do with dealing with information flows, dealing with data. From my point of view, that is not wholly positive. I would say that having to deal with information in this way, constantly, and curated, that adds a significant psychological load. It doesn’t come for free, and actually, I don’t want to be ‘on’ all the time, because I recognise that a lot of my best work, a lot of my strongest ideas happen to me out of this other space, which is the state of being ‘off’. Obviously sleep is the most perfect example of that, so I value that state very much, and for me that’s a very fertile and interesting place. It’s interesting, specifically, because it’s unknowable. Those are the most interesting things, things which aren’t locked down and which aren’t pure data and can’t be measured. That’s what makes human beings as exciting as they are — unpredictable, unknowable-ness. Sleep is also a project about a pause in that information blizzard, and I think large-scale works like this can offer that experience of almost going on holiday from your informational brain, a bit like, for example, big novels. You have this sense of being in a landscape. If you’re reading some gigantic novel, Pynchon or Tolstoy, or something like that, you feel like you’re in another world. Or if you think about a painting by someone like Mark Rothko, there’s this big colour field which functions like a magnet for your attention. There’s not a lot of information there, and yet you do gain something from spending time just staring at that big monochrome space. So, yeah, that’s one of the functions of the project for me.


In the overnight performances of Sleep it seems to be a communal yet very intimate listening experience for the audience, one that I’d associate with listening to a radio programme more so than attending a concert.

Yes, it’s interesting actually; the live performance experience adds some quite unexpected aspects to it. Normally when we’re playing a concert, we’re really trying to project the material to the room, to the audience, and we’re trying to tell the story with as much directness and energy —it’s a reaching out exercise. With this performance, everyone’s in bed, and they’re sleeping, so it’s a completely different dynamic. You feel almost as though the music is a sort of accompaniment to what’s going on in the room. It was almost like we were playing, but we didn’t want to wake anyone. [Laughs] In a way it points to another of the things I wanted to do with the project, and that is to really put the listener’s experience right in the centre of it. I mean, in music, the modernist view is that the composer is the genius, and that they cast down these pearls to the audience, and if the audience tries really hard they might be able to understand it. Now I have a real problem with that view of what the composer and the audience are, because I just think that’s really a totalitarian way of thinking. That, for me, has always been quite a nasty way to think about culture. I’m sort of looking for a more flat structure, more like a conversation than a lecture. This piece has really turned that up to the maximum, so that really intimate, personal, unique experience the listener is having with the music is really the theme of the piece.

Credit Mike Terry please (2)(1)


I read that one of the audience members at your first overnight performance saw sacred geometry when they fell into a hypnagogic state. Have you heard any other interesting effects that are the result of someone’s brain wave frequencies interacting with the music’s pitch frequencies?”

Many people describe it as cosmic, trippy, hallucinogenic, but really what’s interesting for me is, when people have responses like that they’re really talking about the things that they themselves are doing. They’re in this experience, in the setting where the piece is being played, but honestly, they are doing that stuff, and I think that’s what’s so interesting about it. The work can catalyse that sort of situation, and I think people then ascribe it to the music, but actually, it’s their brains doing that stuff. People make a unique journey through the project.


What about your own listening habits? Are you able to fall asleep to music?

I can’t sleep with music on because I can’t stop listening analytically. I’m constantly thinking about how the harmonies are working, the tune, and all sorts of things. So when I listen to music, it’s analytical.


Performing this work must be very physically and mentally demanding.

It is like running a marathon. Physically it’s a big deal, but in a way, from a mental perspective, as a musician you’re trained already. When I sit down at the piano there are 275 pages of piano music, which I’ve got to play. That’s a lot, but I’m not really thinking about that, because I’m just thinking about the bar, and the notes that I’m playing in that moment. So in a way, it just goes by and, suddenly, you’re at the end! [Laughs].

Please credit Mike Terry (2)


Could you talk about the musical form of Sleep?

Sleep is two sets of variations which interlink. They alternate basically. There’s one group of material, which is the piano based pulsing material, and another group of material, which is vocal — vocal writing and strings. There’s a set of variations on each, but they A-B through the material. I was thinking about variation forms through this piece for lots of reasons, apart from the fact that I really like variation forms. I was thinking about the experience of someone who wakes up in the middle of the night, and there’s this music playing and you want to know where you are. There’s something about variation form that’s great, because that sense of identity, it’s always kind of recognisable, even though it’s different. I think that’s quite important in a project like this — a sense of knowing where you are. That was really the root of it. The other thing is that there is a precursor piece, which is Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which were written supposedly to accompany the insomnia of the Count who commissioned the work. There are thirty-one variations in the Goldberg’s, and therefore there’s thirty-one variations in the eight hour Sleep. The one-hour one, which we’re playing in Dublin, is obviously much less.


How did you arrive at the instrumentation for Sleep, and who will be performing with you at the National Concert Hall?

Well I wanted a variety of colours, so strings, piano, and the electronics give me that. I also wanted a voice because of the image of the lullaby, somebody singing, but a very specific kind of voice, which is an early music voice. It’s a very pure kind of sound. Grace Davidson is going to be singing on the tour in Dublin, and she’s a wonderful singer, perfect for this kind of thing. It’ll be me, Grace, and my ensemble, which is five strings.

Max Richter and his ensemble play extracts from Sleep and The Blue Notebooks at the National Concert Hall, Dublin, on Sunday 29th May at 8pm. Tickets cost €35-€40.

Words: Sharon Phelan

Images: Mike Terry, Stefan Höderath


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