Max Richter - SLEEP - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Max Richter - SLEEP

by David Bruggink Rating:9 Release Date:2015-09-07

The funny thing about trying to listen to an eight-hour album is that it reveals all the little subconscious factors that go into why you decide to listen to something at all: when you're taking a brisk walk or a short drive, you find yourself instinctively choosing to listen to something punchy, sugary. When you're attempting to work or study, you need something that blends sufficiently into the background, but maintains enough character to keep your mind stimulated. I also find myself thinking in terms of album length: "that album will be just long enough for the trip to the beach." I often want something I can play from beginning to end, and feel that I've had a cohesive album experience - the way I expect the artist designed the album to be heard. 

So what do you do with an album that's eight hours long? Do you force yourself to listen to it in a single, exasperating stretch? Or do you split it up over a week? How can you hope to casually listen to it, especially when the tracks often exceed ten or even twenty minutes?

One of the great things about Max Richter's new album is how unrepentantly it defies any conventions of the length or purpose of popular music. Richter knows that you're used to ingesting songs as delectable, three-minute singles; to snatching up digital albums on Amazon for less than the price of a cup of coffee; to enduring insipid lyrics and thoughtless rhythms. In a pointed, perhaps slightly tongue-in-cheek, challenge to all those things, he's offering something unimaginably long (I couldn't fit it on my iPhone), ludicrously repetitive (it features, at most, only a handful of themes), and even confessing, sadly, that the damned thing will most likely put you to sleep.

Once you actually start listening, these concerns mostly go out the window, and even get transformed into assets. The Richter we are familiar with is soon on display, as a minimal piano passage, hopeful and mournful at the same time, gently unspools itself across 'Dream 1 (before the wind blows it all away)'. Much of the album's strength lies in the endurance of its melodies, which are simple but elegant enough to allow near-endless variation over the course of eight hours. The simplicity, of course, belies what was surely an immensely thoughtful composition process - after all, how many melodies would you really feel inclined to hear for hours on end? 

This piano theme will wash over you many times as you listen, eventually becoming a kind of familiar refuge from which you embark to new destinations. The melancholy organ and vocal piece 'Path 3 (7676)' will remind some listeners of the deep sadness present in his album Memoryhouse, while 'who's name is written on water' transforms the melody of the former into the kind of grainy, enveloping ambience that Tim Hecker regularly creates. The variation between styles is similar to Richter's approach with his excellent 'recomposition' of The Four Seasons: by blurring crisp piano keys into translucent streams, or undergirding them with string sections, he reveals in the original melodies some inherent, hidden possibilities. Sometimes the same effect is achieved the opposite way, as he unexpectedly presents nothing but a pristine, twinkling piano line ('Constellation 1') while also echoing an earlier theme.

Although it never reaches the energy level or complexity of the more animated sections of The Four Seasons, the tone and feeling of SLEEP will be familiar to anyone who has listened to Richter's previous work. In addition, this album provides him, for the first time, the chance to fully indulge his inclination towards colossal servings of blurred, abstracted melody moving in slow motion. 'Chorale Glow,' at 25 minutes long, might be the album's best example, but other tracks also deconstruct the album's themes in similarly interesting fashion.

With upcoming performances at which audience members will be provided beds rather than seats, it's clear Richter expects his listeners to sleep during at least part of the show. I guess it's debatable to what degree one is really listening to music if one is sleeping through it. But one thing I can say with confidence is that SLEEP is a sublimely pacifying experience. Though Richter consulted a neuroscientist during its composition, this music resists the rigidity that typically accompanies any songs (if they can be called that) written expressly to induce sleep or meditation. Whether you end up sleeping or not, you will find yourself at peace.

 

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