Max Richter: “Sleep is a subversive act.” Interview by Innerversitysound


Max Richter is a musician and composer based in the United Kingdom who has scored music for film, television ballet and the stage. He has released seven studio albums, the latest being Sleep and it’s resultant remix album. Richter can be loosely described as a post minimalist musician who has been deeply influenced by punk, has worked in production and arrangement in the electronic explosion of the 90s and has an extensive discography of releases, collaborations and projects under his belt.

Innerversitysound: You have made the claim that Sleep is a political statement beyond the general importance of sleep to health and it being one of your favorite things – can you expand on the politics of this and how we can understand it against the general ideas of politics.

Max Richter: I think that music is a social activity. Music is part of the conversation we have with ourselves about society and culture and this intervention, or sort of co-existing, this idea of a musical work making an intervention or co-existing with sleep is an attempt to reframe musical performance, musical experience in this very particular setting. And also the longer duration of the work is intended, obviously to be slept through but also to be experienced as a sort of holiday or a roadblock or a pause in our data universe. For me the question of how we mediate our existence through the screen, which is pretty much the norm now I would say. Basically everyone’s on their screen, kind of all the time. And it seems to me to be a little uncritical about it. And it closes down all kinds of imaginative spaces which were there previously. So sleep is a sort of subversive act in that form of mainstream tendency which I think is a little bit uncritical just to engage with our data constantly.

Innerversitysound: In making Sleep you consulted American neuropsychologist David Eagleman, some of whose areas of expertise that seem to overlap with your project, synesthesia and temporal ordering. Can you tell me a bit about how neuroscience helped in forming your project as well as how you incorporated the discussions into your work? Does the work include lessons gleaned from this field or does it include psychologically mechanistic elements?

Max Richter: I have known David for quite a long time. Our relationship started when I read his fiction book Sum. Which I was amazed by and really enjoyed. I made an opera out of it for Covent Garden. So we had a sort of longish history. And when I started to think about sleep, obviously sleep is a physiological process, and from my point of view I was coming at it from a creative imaginative, poetic perspective. As a space where music could happen and really that was the sort of question I wanted to ask. Once I got into it occurred to me that I should be finding out if there are certain kinds of things which sound and music can do to co-exist peacefully with sleep. And if there are things I shouldn’t do, and what the processes of sleep really are in terms of the acoustic environment. So I called up David and we chatted a little about the current understanding about sleep. There has been somewhat of an explosion in this field since we have developed the ability to make real time imaging of the brain which has been fantastic. So you can sort of look at which regions of the brain are active in which particular ways and under particular conditions.

What was interesting for me, as a sort of lay person, was that David’s understanding of sleep and I think this is very general really within neuroscience, that sleep is not fundamentally about rest but it is an informational process. It is kind of a data activity. Certain bits of sleep are very important in the way we structure information, in our waking lives. That is fairly much the origin of our instinctive statement: ‘Oh I’ve got to sleep on that”. Actually you do have to sleep on that because your short term learning is consolidated in sleep into long term knowledge. So you are building your tool kit while you are sleeping. So there are all sorts of little insights like that and the other thing as someone who does creative work, and I think that we probably all feel this to some extent, something happens while you are sleeping and you can’t put your finger on it. And things sort of get better. If you have a set of ideas you are working on, you go to sleep and somehow the relationships seem more solid and interesting the next day. Or you have a kind of new idea. There are lots of meeting points and ways into the project from a neuroscience perspective. In terms of the sonics and the music itself there has been research about the kinds of acoustic events that can promote various neurological processes, for example this information structuring activity. I know people who have done research to try and trigger this with low frequency sounds and that has been quite successful. Now for me low frequency sounds are really fundamental building blocks to what I do. There were all sorts of happy accidents where I got to write the music that I wanted to write anyway which was great. It was a fascinating exchange.

Innerversitysound: We take in many impressions and we create impressions to convey to others in many forms? In some sense a musician’s work is the encapsulation of impressions and knowledges gleaned and retold. The difficulties of the form to connect and transfer knowledge in its very abstract nature has always been slightly mysterious. Can you tell me how you conceive of the process of transference that happens between the performers and the audience in respect to this piece of work?

Max Richter: It’s a very difficult question to answer in an objective sense. Music is a puzzle in that way. Because it is of course very abstract and very hard to pin down in a very pure information sense. And yet I think that we have all had the experience of being spoken to in a very specific way by a piece of music. So that’s interesting. Performance is obviously really a laboratory. A score that is written is really a set of questions or theories about how a piece of music can live in real time in front of an audience. It is a set of intentions, best laid plans in a way. The live performances of the piece have been very, very interesting. And for me as a composer I am fundamentally about putting notes together in particular orders that makes sense to me, the geometry works, the structure things and the grammar things are working. That is what I consider to be my kind of business. In terms of how that arrives and how that is perceived of by the listeners, particularly in a sleep state, well that’s an open question. And actually I feel that this project has moved a really long way towards a sort of cageian understanding of the role of the listener. I think of the listener’s experience of hearing the work of really being the theme of the project, really at the center of the thing. I think it is a very tough question to answer in any sort of objective concrete way but that is certainly my instinct about how the transactions, the mechanics of this piece of work so far.

Innerversitysound: American Contemporary Music Ensemble, Saprano Grace Davidson, amongst other collaborated with you on this project, which has all the hallmarks of new music storming the classical edifice once again. Is this interpretation reasonable or is it that the level of performance skill you are approaching needs practitioners capable of eliciting the demands of the arenas your music approaches?

Max Richter: Finding performers who you enjoy working with, it’s a sort of mysterious process. I always think it’s a bit like falling in love. You know you hear someone playing and you think, ‘I want to work with those people’. That person, that sound it’s like a fingerprint really, the ways some person plays. We have all had this experience really, someone may be an amazing player or singer or performer in some way and yet you think ‘well you know it’s not working for me on some level’. Other people it’s kind of like being struck by lightning. So these are obviously extremely accomplished very good players with a kind of omnivorous appetite. Grace sings in all sorts of settings, a lot of early music. ACME are sort of new music specialists, if you like, but new music in the broadest sense, you know, all having first division training, at Juillard mostly I think, and then spending most of their time engaging with current music. Music culture in it’s broadest sense. So yes it is kind of a mixed band really, on paper, and yet I think when you put everyone into that space with the same material in front of them, you do get a sense of those personalities, but it also becomes a truly collaborative experience. And I think it’s interesting to have those kind of different starting points in an ensemble. So yes it’s been a pleasure actually working.

Innerversitysound: As audio experiments can you give us an idea of what you are gleaning from your long form Sleep presentations? How has the manifesto been received, what has so far been your learnings from presenting this concept and its specific format?

Max Richter: It’s been received very well. We have done four overnights and they have been very warmly received by audiences. We played at the Welcome foundation in London. You know, very small audience, maybe 50 or sixty people, something like that. And also we have played in Berlin in the Kraftwerk at the Berlin festival which was 450 beds. So you know we have had a kind of wide range of audience situations and it has been very well received. In a way what I had hoped would happen did happen in that people really found their own way to connect to this work. In a way I feel that they have entered the landscape and wandered about in it in a way that they felt comfortable. And other people they just fell asleep straight away and they woke up in the morning and that was it. Other people stayed up and listened and probably most people did a bit of both. To me, going back to the experience of hearing being at the center of the thing, it’s been very rewarding to get a sense of how all these various valid responses to the project.

Innerversitysound: Your early work memory house was a collection of personal impressions made into a composition. The very idea of scoring memories and holding them in another form suggests the idea of the Giordano Bruno’s memory house technique. The scoring of an epic 8 hour piece requires a psychological ability to master both the composition, the ordering and synchronization of music and experiences presented to the audience. How far can the idea of music as psychological research, practical mental ability as well as a balm for an over excited world take you as a musician.

Max Richter: Certainly my own writing process with Sleep, it was fascinating to be inhabiting such a large architecture. I have written extended durations before and miniatures before, but nothing on this scale. Trying to construct and control and relate to an architecture across that sort of timespan was a big challenge compositionally. In fact writing it imposed its own sort of working rhythm. Because the durations are so long, in order to make any sort of creative judgements you need to spend a certain amount of time with the material. Which was really, really interesting. In terms of how it has affected my own sort of writing process, going forward, I feel it is too early to tell, to be honest. I’m still, having written the piece, I’m still learning my way into it as a performer and discovering it in a live sense. Which seems peculiar but it does feel like that. Just because it is so long. Certainly the three performances we did night after night in Berlin, each one was radically different in terms of our experience on the platform. Certainly by the third night it just didn’t feel that big. It felt like an ordinary duration. We had got five or six hours in before I thought, “I wonder what the time is”. You know, it just sort of went by. So it certainly has changed my sense of time structuring music scale and more questions than answers at the moment. But I am very happy with that situation, you know for me that’s sort of fertile. But I would say it’s rather too soon to draw any conclusions about what’s next in terms of other work.

Innerversitysound: You have morphed into many a role; arranger, producer, performer, orchestra leader, and ensemble musician. How easy does moving between these roles with the different skill sets and functions that have to be performed. Is it just the lot of the modern musician, that to be successful you have to be able to do everything?

Max Richter: Not necessarily, I think music is a sphere of activity where you can follow your enthusiasms. There are many different sorts of arenas, different settings for making music and if you are a composer, if you are a musician, then you love making music. It is not always appropriate to conduct or to have an orchestra, sometimes it’s a different situation, it’s a band or some studio work. And you know I think that’s one of the nice things about it. For me the bulk of my work is me sitting in a room moving a pencil on a piece of paper or messing about with a computer or something. I like the fact that if I am working on a film or a ballet or doing something collaborative it is more of a social activity. So I think for me these all sort of enrich one another. I think it was Stravinsky who talked about hedgehogs and foxes. He said foxes can do lots of things and hedgehogs can do one thing really well. Know one thing really well I think he said. He adds that hedgehogs want to be foxes and foxes want to be hedgehogs, So I don’t know I think it depends on your personality. If all you want to do is play the piano then play the piano. If you want to do other things then do other things I think.

Innerversitysound: In the 90’s you were highly involved in arrangement and production of electronic music in studios. Your work with FSOL in particular, yet you have in your own work steered clear of the arena of this music. Can you tell us a little about what guided your personal choices here?

Max Richter: I have always been interested in electronic music. When I was in my early teen years I was building synthesizers form schematics from components because I was fascinated by the opportunity that the synthesizer gives you to really take apart sound itself. So it’s been a long standing interest and it sort of still is. As you say with FSOL and others, there was a sort of creative explosion really in terms of the availability of tools and the development of the computer. It was a fascinating time, however for me music is fundamentally about the notes. In some ways I have a very straight forward classical background. You know a sort of conservatoire background. So it has to be about the notes ultimately. And I have come to think of electronics, there are electronics in pretty much every project that I do at some level, but I think of them more as additional colour resource. In the way that if you think of the 18th century orchestras which just grows through the 19th century, wind and brass sections get bigger and more sophisticated. I think of the computer and the synthesizer in that way. It is sort of an additional colour resource but not the only thing. So for me it’s not either/or, it’s sort of an organic combination. Of course some bits of material cannot be realized with acoustic instruments so then it makes sense to be only using the machines. I think of them both as really part of the same palette, just at other ends.

Innerversitysound: The remix project for Sleep is an interesting conjunction of the overlapping nature of your musical interests from avant garde popular music and the specific form you are making. How would you describe both the concept of this album, perhaps even the need for this and the long form project? What was the rationale for such a choice and how does it integrate with the larger project?

Max Richter: Well I see them as a conversation really. The long form project is the document and the remix album is a series of provisional answers to the questions set by the long form project. And these are all artists whose work I find interesting and have followed and music is conversation. It is a communicative art fundamentally. So it’s interesting for me personally to get a sense of how people are hearing this work and how it makes them want to respond. What they are thinking about it. So for me it’s like casting a fishing hook into a deep pond and seeing what you pull out. So it’s really interesting I think to get a sense of the other responses and other insights into this material.

Innerversitysound: ‘Songs from Before’ has been rereleased which has in it psychedelic rock experimentalist Robert Wyatt reading some of Haruki Murakami’s text. Murakami has been among other things described as a contemporary surrealist. Can you tell me a bit about how your works focus on minimalism, specifically American minimalism, and the intersection with surrealist or Dadaist elements of the musical movements from the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.

Max Richter: One of the things that drew me into music itself was discovering the early minimal works of the New York school of Glass, Riley and Reich. This is in my early teen years via the milkman who delivered milk to our house. Which was a fantastic bit of luck. He was a part time composer, delivered milk in the mornings and wrote music in the afternoons. And he heard me practicing my Mozart dutifully and then started delivering early Phillip Glass vinyl records with the milk, which was fantastic. So the thing that struck me about that material when I first encountered it was the extraordinary intensity of it and the physicality of the sound. And the almost sort of hallucinogenic quality of that sort of very intricate pattern based material. That has a sort of dream like quality, at least for me, and again going back to sleep being probably my favorite activity, I have always been interested in dreams. Murakami has this ability to navigate that sort of boundary zone between factual data experience and dreamed experience and I think his writing is very sophisticated in its handling of those sort of psychological states. So I think these things do join up. I think that Murakami’s forerunner, who I think of as Richard Brautigan, is quite a central figure, I guess he is proto-beat writer. So this set of concerns has a kind of common experience and a common genesis in the mid to late 60’s and obviously Robert Wyatt with the Soft Machine, he was an important figure in that culture.

Innerversitysound: As an aside, would you have been slightly different if he had just delivered twelve tone music to you, the forerunners of the minimalists? Their very serious classical experiments that lead to all this, lead to the Juilliard School and the formation of characters such as Glass and Reich.

Max Richter: Well I was aware of the 20th century proper classical music. I knew the rite of spring, incredible work. That was amazing, but I had never heard work that was so embedded in the here and now. There was something about high church modernism that for me had a kind of historical dimension. If you listen to Berg or something, you hear Mahler, it’s absolutely a structural outcrop from the late romantic. And Schoenberg himself considered his work as a sort of historical inevitability from what was before an all the sort of reverberations against and as a consequence of the twelve tone explosion, their all sort of historical reconfigurations of that tradition. Until you get to Cage and it’s like somebody opening a window into another space. So this for me, this encounter with hard core minimalism, I call it, felt like music that came really from the world around us. Even though I guess Glass would say, that in spite of this extremely radical approach to the material, that he is really engaged with musical history. But in a very idiosyncratic way.

Innerversitysound: Can you tell us a bit about the projects you have in the wings, that you are working on as this Sleep touring phase is going on. After this hypnogogic state what will your listeners have to awaken to?

Max Richter: I am working on a ballet at the moment. I have written a few ballets and I enjoy that collaborative process, storytelling situation. So I am working on another ballet, just getting started with that and there will be more Sleep performances. I have been working on a TV show for the last couple of years, a HBO show called The Leftovers, so I will do one more season of that and lots of other projects. But those are really the main things.

Sleep, Sleep Remixes and Songs from Before are available from Deutsche Grammophon

The Australian premiere of Sleep will occur as part of the Vivid Festival on the 3rd of June 2016. More details here.


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