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Max Richter’s Sleep (Natalie Johns, 2019)

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A schoolfriend and fellow Tangerine Dream fan, Paul Molineaux, first turned me on to Max Richter, although I’d clearly seen films for which he’d done the soundtrack. In fact, I’d probably heard about Sleep, Richter’s eight hour plus piece, which had been performed live from the Wellcome Collection overnight on Radio 3.

So, I fired up the streaming and, one rather long day, I worked in the library to the complete work. or most of it. And not long after that, Radio 3 repeated it — a disastrous experience, as I neither really heard it nor fell to sleep until about five hours in.

Ouch.

There are no rules: you can sleep or not sleep (although I’d rather have slept) and the very idea is for you to have that strange feeling of not being quite sure where you are or quite whether you are awake (I was).

In fact, the idea had been in part Richter’s wife’s, Yulia Mahr, who had worked in theatre and who he had met at a performance of the Mahābhārata — Peter Brook’s nine-hour epic, presumably — reflecting on notions of sleep and identity. He had been thinking along the same lines and spoke to a neuroscientist friend, David Eagleman, about his ideas on music and sleep, deciding to mainly focus the music on the lower part of the scale (he says below 100 Hz). 

Richter is on piano, with five or stringed instruments and a soprano accompanying him.

Mahr seemed to have persuaded him to perform it live and started filming parts on the experience, whether it was at the Wellcome, Billingsgate market, Antwerp Cathedral, a German factory or the foyer of Sydney Opera House. The audience are not seated, but provided with beds — sometimes these stay in rows, sometimes families pull them together. Richter was determined to get his music to people and become popular, even if this damages his reputation with contemporary music critics. As we see from this documentary, he does like to wander around the space when he is not playing to see how people are experiencing the event. On the face of it, it’s the kind of bat shit endeavour that Tangerine Dream and Rick Wakeman pulled off in the 1970s.

And so Mahr turned to documentary film maker Natalie Johns to make a full documentary — both drawing upon the archive and recording a concert in front of Los Angeles city hall. She interviews a range of audience members and looks at Richter and Mahr in their house. 

This Through the Peephole stuff is always fascinating — they have a great collection of art books but I couldn’t make out the spines on their fiction. They seem to have a greater ability to buy pictures than put them on the wall. And whilst we are told they struggled for years before and after the release of Memoryhouse, that can’t be a cheap cottage… But the two are never less than gripping and I gladly would have watched another fifteen minutes of him messing about with Moogs.

One odd choice is that none of the speakers are named — you have to wait for the credits for a listing, although that’s presumably mathematician Marcus du Sautoy at the Wellcome and then talking about the work and that’s Eagleman talking about brains. Nor is there a voiceover — but it works well without one. I think I might have been a bit more careful about showing the laptop clock as it reveals that the music extracts aren’t in order — or is that dream structure? (I wonder how in sync any of the playing is with the soundtrack.)

You do learn that the musicians get breaks — he’s only involved for about seven hours — but you don’t learn if they have to wear catheters (although may that’s just as well).

And a small part of me wonders if I’d like to be part of his vulnerable audience — “vulnerable” comes up plenty of times as a decription — and watch eight hours watching it live.

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