Dayton Hare: 500 minutes of solitude — The incomparable stillness of Max Richter's ‘Sleep’

Thursday, March 16, 2017 - 7:22am

It’s quiet here.

Outside, in the frigid darkness, nothing moves. No birds sing, no deer wander, no headlights cut through the clear air. Even the wind seems to be hushed. Somewhere over the trees the moon silently hangs suspended above the wisps of cloud. In the apartment around me, each of its inhabitants respire in steady, relaxed tempos. The world is sleeping.

It’s 5:19 a.m. and everything is still.

For the past several hours, essentially all night, I have been immersed in Max Richter’s composition “Sleep.” Listening to this piece is like a sort of trance — once you enter into it, you stop noticing it’s there. The music gradually melds into the scenery, fades into the background of whatever you are doing and enters into you. It isn’t so much doing anything as it is simply being: being present, being absent, being everywhere and nowhere at once. Its principal characteristic is its inexplicable, elusive feeling of grounded placelessness. It invites you into its care and envelops your tired mind in a soft embrace. It hovers at the periphery of your senses. “Sleep” doesn’t ask for anything from you. It doesn’t demand your attention or your love or your hate, or even your recognition. It goes on whether you’re listening or not. To try to analyze it would be beside the point.

“Sleep” is a few years old now, but to me it still feels relevant. I won’t say that it’s fresh — applying such an adjective to music which is so simple, constructed with such an economy of means, would be unjust — but it isn’t dated, and the ideas that Richter put into the piece might even be more important today than they were when it was first composed. The entirety of “Sleep” is slow, unelaborate music scored for piano, strings, voice and electronics. There are no words. There is no drama. The piece lasts for eight hours, moving along at a gradual, unhurried pace. It is composed to last the average amount of time that it takes the human brain to complete a healthy night of sleep. In Richter’s words, it is a “personal lullaby for a frenetic world. A manifesto for a slower pace of existence.”

But as far as manifestos go, it’s rather innocuous. It’s difficult to say what it feels like to listen to “Sleep.” It has a certain quality of timelessness (in the sense of time being stopped) and displacement, but there’s more to it than that. Lost in its soundworld, I can’t seem to shake the feeling that I’m walking on some distant lunar surface, wandering in an alien landscape. There is at once an otherness and an intimacy with the self. In the wide sonorities of the piano and the strings, Richter leaves space for the listener’s thoughts to roam freely. Suggestive of nothing, it opens up distances to fill with your own expression. Creation and form at your fingertips, godlike, you can mentally wander through the music in search of whatever it is you need to find. But more than anything, when you listen to “Sleep,” you feel somehow totally alone.

In this respect, the piece is like the act of sleeping itself. Slumber is by its nature a solitary act, and even those of us who share a bed with someone else must eventually cross the threshold into the dreamworld alone. As with sleep’s inevitable and permanent cousin, each of us must sail into the undiscovered country on a solitary voyage, with neither maps nor guidance.

Heavily influenced by minimalism, the textures and ideas of “Sleep” are very simple. For minutes on end the cello may play a single pitch while the piano slowly cycles through chords in an even rhythm. The violin may play all of two pitches for an entire movement. An elegiac voice melody may played on loop until it ceases to be noticed.

Richter, a German-born British composer, is no neophyte to these minimalist techniques. For over a decade he has been making an impression as a composer who isn’t afraid to apply the tenets of the minimalist movement to genres outside of classical. He is known for his work in collaborative projects, as well as for performing and for his film scores. His minimal aesthetic makes him accessible to both regular classical listeners and to many who might not otherwise listen to classical music. For this reason his work can be found in wide-ranging places, from the Netflix documentary series "Chef’s Table" to the Royal Opera House in London. My reintroduction to “Sleep” was instigated a few weeks ago in New York, when I encountered it as part of a video involved with the Mysterious Landscapes of Hercules Segers exhibit at the Met (also featuring the voice of John Malkovich).

I recognized it then, but the feeling is even stronger now, that something about “Sleep” is incomprehensibly, inexplicably sad. Throughout the composition, there is an unplaceable feeling of loss, some sort of absence of something I hadn’t known was missing. I just can’t quite place where this feeling comes from, but it permeates the entirety of the work. But even in sadness, “Sleep” reflects a world that is calm, peaceful and entirely our own. Everywhere in “Sleep,” the music pulls you towards the realm of dreams. It beckons you into a world where you are unable to be touched by the troubles of reality. It creates a space in which you are free from care and obligation, where you may go to rest your weary head.

It’s calling me now. I think I’ll answer.