One of the year’s most ambitious projects, Max Richter‘s 8-hour, 25-minute Sleep (and accompanying highlight disc, from Sleep) is designed to send people to sleep and to keep them company throughout the night. An upcoming series of overnight concerts in Berlin (with beds) will test the theory, but the setting may skew the results. The live shows are likely to be emotionally exciting, creating the opposite of their intended effect, and the players are going to have to work hard in order to seem that they are not working hard at all.
It’s easy enough to test the album at home. I sprung for both the CD and the 8-hour iTunes version. I don’t play music while I’m sleeping, but I do sometimes use music to fall asleep. In my case, the opening tracks (on digital and disc) are the most important, followed closely by the intrusiveness, or lack thereof, of the subsequent tracks. I tried to help the composer by choosing times in which I was bone-tired, ready to crash. To choose otherwise (“I challenge you to make me sleep!”) would seem unfair.
The initial results were a failure. As a music reviewer and fan, I found myself unable to ignore the repeated piano chords that were played approximately every 1.3 seconds. This irritated rather than soothed, and whenever I awoke, I found that these same chords were being played. As one might suspect, I slept through most of the other tracks, although in deference to the name of our site, I was unable to offer them a closer listen ~ at least, not while I was sleeping. So what were they?
When the strings enter on “Cumulonimbus”, the compositional aspect of the work begins to show through; they operate at first as an undulating drone, free of jutting edges. The transitions are soft, and unlike the CD, the iTunes version contains no breaks between the tracks.
50 minutes in, a soprano enters, awaking me again. One might be able to fall asleep to a lullaby, but when one doesn’t expect one, it comes across as a human intrusion. For me, the first effective sleep piece was the awkwardly titled “who’s name is written on water” (although one is not reading track titles while attempting to sleep). The voice remains, albeit muted, and the music swirls around it like placid waters on a windless day. The mind has grown accustomed to its sonic surroundings. Then “Patterns (cypher)”, a full piece, albeit short, restful and serene. While these themes will continue over the next quarter-hour, the more finite piece stands on its own.
Toward the end of “Aria One”, the music subsides to a smooth orchestral drone. I recognize (based on bookends) that this is the time in which my sleep was most restful: nearly 40 minutes of uninterrupted slumber until those damned piano chords popped up again. And here’s where we get to the crux of the matter.
Reactions to sound differ from person to person. My 3-year-old nephew can fall asleep to anything. The same is true of my 21-year-old college friend, who is typically hung over. I once knew a metalhead who could fall asleep while lying on rocks with two speakers cranking tunes an inch from his head. As for the rest of us: some can sleep to drones (Yann Novak usually works for me), others to piano music, others to orchestral sounds. Others can fall asleep to the sound of the TV, but not to music. The best way to use Sleep is not to let the whole set play uninterrupted, but to find the parts that work for you.
If one can avoid making any jarring homemade splices, one can create one’s own version of Sleep, or even a few versions. For this reviewer, the stretch of music from “Space 26” through “Chorale Glow” is extremely effective, moving gently from drone to fully orchestrated waltz. The end of “never fade into nothingness” is another highlight – ironic, as it does fade into nothingness, which paves the way for the exquisite “Return 16 (time capsule)”. In fact, a near-perfect CD (unfortunately 3 minutes too long to burn to disc) would be the four-track stretch of music that concludes with “Sublunar.” But work with it a little bit, and one can find enough material to create one’s own private sleep disc or discs. These are mine:
Sleep Disc Two: Space
07:42 Space 2 (slow waves)
25:29 Chorale / glow
17:59 Space 17 (chains)
And so, despite its occasionally obtrusive passage, Sleep is a success, because the listener can work around such segments. The truncated CD is meant for listening, but more properly can be considered an entry point into the full work. Showcasing the symphony’s major themes, from Sleep provides an accurate indication of what one may encounter in the overnight experience. Congratulations to Richter and the members of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble for putting together a massive work that is somnambulant without being dull, peaceful without being simple, and engaging enough to inspire repeated plays in both the waking and sleeping hours: an unexpected yet delightful bonus. (Richard Allen)