Beats to Sleep to: An Exclusive New Remix From Max Richter’s 8-Hour Lullaby
The composer shares a new remix by Digitonal and talks about the somnolent music of 'Sleep' and 'The Leftovers.'
The 9-disc box set
Above: Digitonal's Theo in Dreamland Mix of "Path 5." Richter's new album, out on digital on February 19 and on vinyl in March, contains 5 remixes and various other edits of the same tracks.
Max Richter's somnolent opus Sleep is mostly premised on this overlooked question: falling asleep during a presentation, a funeral, a comedy routine, or a conversation is bad, sure, but should being lulled to sleep by music be such a bad thing? Could it be a good thing to fall asleep to music, both for the composer and the dozer?
I'm a musical sleeper myself, maybe under the spell of both the city (where I grew up and where noise at night is its own kind of lullaby) and the pseudo-science and the science that says that babies should listen to Bach while they're sleeping and that old people should too. One 2005 study found that for seniors with sleep problems, listening to relaxing classical music for 45 minutes before going to bed helped improve their subjective sleep quality. In a 2008 study, twenty-something students listened to classical music, audiobooks, and nothing as they fell asleep; only the students who listened to music showed marked improvement in their sleep.
At eight-and-a-half hours long, Sleep ($34.99 to download; $52 on 9 CDs) is purpose-built for a ride on the Z train. Richter's work is already steeped in dreams and elegy, but he doubled down, consulting with the neuroscientist David Eagleman to build its 31 sections, a soft fabric of string quartets, duets for piano and violin, his keyboard wanderings, drones, and the occasional wordless voice. But Richter's own unconscious was doing most of the subtle work.
"The music incorporates some specific frequencies that are useful in fostering healthy brain states while sleeping (specifically to do with memory and learning), but beyond that I followed my instincts as a composer," Richter said in an email. "Actually, from my research it became clear that much of what I do by instinct in my process is actually in tune with the neuroscience of sleep, so I got lucky there!"
The composer also considers himself lucky in bed, i.e., in no immediate need of 9-CD sleep therapy. "I'm very fortunate in that I'm almost always asleep within a few seconds of my head hitting the pillow, so in that sense, for me personally, [the project] hasn't affected me."
But there have been long nights. "The main ingredient I needed was lots of time," he said. "Because of the 8 1/2 hour running time of the record everything took ages to do. The recordings, editing, mixing all just mushroomed into these really long days and weeks of refining the material."
"I never considered writing for television until that script landed in my inbox, but when I read it I felt like it had been written for me personally."
I have only listened to Sleep on the verge of sleeping, and awoken to its gentle, sometimes plodding, sometimes liturgical webs of melody and voices for only drowsy moments, so I can't yet say what's going on (I haven't really tried listening to it during the day, but some afternoons, I think it might be dangerous). It's not bland or monotonous, some musical white noise, or meditation musak: every minute is fixed by some dreamy idea (and all of it has been performed for a dozing audience as part of a happening broadcast in full live on the BBC), but it also aspires to a lull, a certain boredom, a mode that seems perpetually scarce in the days of screens everywhere. (Also see Pitchfork's exhaustive history of the sleeping genre.)
"I think of every project I do as a theory or an experiment, as sort of 'what if..?' question. By making the project I get part of an answer, and that answer is completed once we start to play the project live and people hear the records." Or, in the case of Sleep, don't.
Another somnolent experiment of late: Richter is also the composer of The Leftovers, HBO's bender-friendly supernatural noir. "I never considered writing for television until that script landed in my inbox, but when I read it I felt like it had been written for me personally," he said. "The material is outstanding and the creative team on the show are brilliant to work with, so its just pure pleasure working on it."
Watching—binge-watching—The Leftovers is, well, whatever it is, it isn't pleasure. Because I have the habit of watching just before bed, that theme stuck in my head, I wonder if Richter has managed to complete his colonization of my sleeping life. His music is putting me to bed, and now it's scoring my nightmares too.
Listen to a Max Richter remix by Mogwai and hear more from Sleep here: