“Music and minds, music and people connect in all sorts of ways and people find their own way through it.”
When I call Max Richter on Skype, fresh, morning sunlight is streaming into his U.K. based abode. He looks like he’s already had his coffee and is bright and ready to start the day. It’s a stark difference to the dark, gloomy 2:30 A.M. of Eugene, Oregon, where I sit in my apartment, trying not to wake my roommates.
The mood (on my end) is quite fitting for Richter’s newest project: SLEEP. The mammoth, nine-hour long album is meant to accompany the REM cycle and ease listeners into a gentle rest. Richter, who’s recomposed Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and has written dozens of ballet and movie scores, has, somehow, topped himself in ambition with SLEEP.
I talked to Richter about using the album in the waking hours, “failing upward” and placing subliminal messages in his music.
I listened to SLEEP for quite a few nights in a row and I didn’t actually fall asleep to it. But my body experienced some very strange things. I had sleep paralysis and something called Alice in Wonderland syndrome, where you feel like the room is growing around you and you’re shrinking. And I’ve had all these things before, but while listening to SLEEP I had them fairly often. I don’t know if you wanted to do that, but it was a really interesting effect I got while listening to your music.
I think the thing is, from my point of view, the project is really an experiment. It’s been fascinating to get some of the results from the kind of people that are listening at home and also the live performance. And I think that every new project is a kind of a “What If?” “What happens if I do this? What happens if I do that?” and in this case obviously it’s very—in a way the theme of the project is the experience of the listener and that’s what it’s all about. It’s kind of fascinating to hear your experiences. I mean, various people have experienced–have reported experiencing very intense physiological symptoms, hallucinations and all this kind of stuff (laughs).
I think this liminal state, this boundary state between sleeping and waking is a very fascinating one and it’s very fertile creatively. Because I think we experience our mind in a different way. So yeah, that sounds interesting.
It was kind of terrifying at first and then it became very relaxing after a while.
(Laughs) That’s funny!
It was very weird. Sometimes I would have to turn it off and then I would get the best sleep ever because it felt like my body was asleep, but my mind was just working through the music as it was going through. So my body shut down, but my mind was still working. So I’m wondering what other feedback you’ve had. Have people told you of specific dreams they’ve had?
Not dreams so much. It seems to polarize folks in some ways. Some people find that they go to sleep and they sleep well. And other people, a bit like yourself, have quite an intense nocturnal listening—quite active. Those are the two sets of responses. And I guess—really the question I wanted to look at with the project is: is there a set of relationships that can happen between music and consciousness, in this other condition, in this other state. And I think both of those responses, not sleeping and sleeping through it, are completely valid. And it becomes a landscape that you just are in. And I also think that this sort of boundary layer, this boarder zone experience is interesting. I personally cannot go to sleep with music on. I just can’t. So I’m sort of a special case, but I think musicians, generally, find that hard because we sort of interact analytically with music. So it’s a different part of your brain. But it’s been fascinating actually, getting a sense of the kinds of experiences people are having.
You’ve had previous projects that have worked in tandem with ballets and film, and this one is supposed to work in tandem with the listener, but, on top of that, you’ve had a serious of music videos coming out. And the videos work really well with this theme of being between conscious states, especially the ones made by your wife [Yulia Mahr]. Like the one for “Dream 3” has the moon floating over and over again. It seems very, not just dream like, but in between the wake and the dream state. So it seems like there are three different levels to this project.
In a way Yulia’s films are outcomes of our conversations. These are things that she and I sit around drinking coffee and speculating on. And I think the films speak to that dual aspect of being while we’re sleeping. There’s this conscious activity and then there’s a sort of objective body lying in space activity. And that’s a hugely interesting imaginative space. It feels like sleep is all about possibilities as well. It’s an informational state, in the sense that the mind is organizing things, the brain is organizing data and structuring and all of that and we’re resting. But it also feels like a very poetic, creative space too. And I think that’s what’s nice about this, it’s an interaction with the unknown. And that’s always exciting.
I also wanted to ask about the song titles on here. They’re really evocative in and of themselves. The first song has the subtitle of “Before the Wind Sweeps it All Away.” My favorite one is “Moth Like Stars” which reminded me of Stars of the Lid. Were there any visions you had going into this? Because the titles all seem very descriptive.
They vary. Some of them are just abstract constructs which I’ve made up which, in some way—I think of them as entry points for the music or provocations. Sort of grit in the oyster where you start to assemble that meaning for yourself. And others are little fragments of texts that I love, mostly poetry. “Moth Like Stars” are from a Yeats poem, I really like Yeats. There are lots of bits and pieces of [Richard] Brautigan and [Haruki] Murakami and Keats is in there quite a bit and Shakespeare. Just a whole bunch of writers who I love. For me that points to the sort of poetic dimension of sleep that space where creative thinking and imagination seem to take place without us being actively involved with it.
It sort of reminded me of your work on The Blue Notebooks I thought that—not the chords or notes exactly—but the feeling of SLEEP reminded me of “Horizontal Variations,” which was the first song I ever heard from you, so it was interesting to have this bookend with that and SLEEP. And on your previous work you had Tilda Swinton reading out poetry.
I think that the electronic dimension of sleep and the general architecture of it—it’s interesting that you mention Stars of the Lid—it speaks to that sort of, call it ambient or droney, all of that stuff, that material, in a way, has always been present in what I’ve been doing. If you go back to The Blue Notebooks there are drones and such, but they’re kind of in the background. Maybe this is just a foregrounding of that part of the language.
There were parts of The Blue Notebooks that could have worked on SLEEP, in terms of putting them on and going to sleep and having a pleasant REM cycle—except for “Shadow Journal” and other songs with really creepy organ in the background. I had a vision of just slipping one of those songs in the SLEEP play list and just having the listener going “OH GOD!” So have you hidden any subliminal messages in this like, “Buy more of my CDs”?
Buy more records! Yes! No actually (laughs) I missed an opportunity there! No I’m afraid it’s free of marketing messages.
I wanted to ask about some of the progressions of these songs. What I found interesting was the reappearance of motifs and themes throughout the songs. My favorite was the female singers repeating that simple harmony. For me it felt like a comforting thing. Familiarity can create comfort.
That’s very deliberate. I thought about it from a listener’s perspective. Well if I were asleep and I wake up in the middle night half way through this thing, I want to know where I am. That’s really important. The way we can do that is by having recognizable material. So I structured the whole piece as a set of variations so that you get recurring material and you have that sense of recognition. So in a way it’s a sort of low information environment. And that speaks to the other side of the project which is curating our data universe and having a single object to focus on rather than multiple data streams, which is how we live our lives these days. It’s an act of data ecology you might say.
The tool against multi-tasking.
In a way yeah, which I’m terrible at anyway. I’m only an imaginary multi-tasker.
In a previous interview you had a quote that I loved “I’m obsessed with the low end, it’s kind of my religion.” I liked that because as I was re-listening to SLEEP I realized how important the low frequencies were, sometimes you couldn’t even pick them up but they were always there, humming in the background. It reminded me of the reappearing themes and that constant comfort.
The low end is a physical thing. I grew up listening to…electronic music with enormous amounts of low end to them and it’s just always been a part of my language. I think of it as a kind of fundamental. It’s an artificial thing because those frequencies are not available in the orchestra. In nature we hear them in thunderstorms, but we don’t hear them really—it’s just not around. So it’s kind of a magical area of sound which we’ve managed to open up this century. So it has that luminous, special quality. For me those whole bottom couple of octaves—that’s a magical space.
Have you thought about using this for music therapy?
In a way that’s not down to me. I think of it as a place to be inhabited, a landscape. I think people find their own ways through it. That’s one of the interesting things: you have a piece and you have theories about it. In a way a project is a kind of theory and you test it by releasing it and you get data. Part of that is how people choose to use it, how people choose to experience it. It seems like people are listening to the piece in the day time too, which is quite interesting (laughs). People just stick it on when they go to work. It’s the right length for a working day if you’re in an office (laughs) so it’s kind of funny. So a low productivity rate I assume (laughs). Music and minds, music and people connect in all sorts of ways and people find their own way through it.
So you had the Vivaldi recomposition and then you had SLEEP, which seem like two monolithic projects to undertake within a fairly short time.
Yeaaaaaaah I mean–yeah I’ve been busy! I actually wrote a ballet in between, a two-hour ballet.
And a bunch of movie soundtracks. The thing for me is that I’ve always just written; I’ve written from childhood. Composing is just what happens when I sit down in a room. It’s not like (laughs)–it’s just this constant sort of thing. I think of the projects as—they appear distinct, but really it’s just one process, it’s an ongoing process of writing. The Vivaldi was a little bit of a side step. I think of it as a co-write. And that was interesting, again I think of it as an experiment. What happens if I investigate Vivaldi’s landscape and take a new walk through it and go off-road? I enjoyed it, it allowed me to reconnect with that material and fall in love with it again. That’s what I wanted to do.
And in between there was the ballet Woolf Works which was based on Virginia Woolf novels—big piece, over two hours. And then Sleep! In a way their all ambitious projects, but I do like to stretch myself. Everything is a failure in some way (laughs). So I like to sort of fail upwards as much as I can (laughs).