Max Richter: The Zzz factor
ax Richter slept wonderfully, thank you. ‘I mean, I’m very lucky as far as sleep is concerned,’ says the Germany-born, England-raised composer, 56, with the serenity of someone who never finds himself scrolling through Instagram Reels at 1.39am, who is never tormented by regrets at 4.36am, and whose three children are long past the age of screaming ‘iPad!’ at 6.23am. ‘I go to bed and I’m asleep two seconds later. I basically always sleep well and I recognise that as a great privilege.’
Bastard. But I reckon I would sleep well if I were Max Richter, who seems extraordinarily composed for someone whose music is so full of melancholy. Perched on a sofa in his net-zero ‘art farm’ — a highbrow dream of a recording studio in rural Oxfordshire — he is something that is not supposed to exist: a composer who is both hugely acclaimed and hugely popular. He has written operas, ballets and scores for all the most august classical institutions; collaborated with creative stars from Margaret Atwood to Kim Jones at Dior; soundtracked more than 50 pieces of TV and film (The Last of Us, Black Mirror, Bridgerton…); and clocked up more than three billion streams on Spotify, a figure that wouldn’t disgrace a Korean boyband. ‘I mean, God, I play my [Max Richter] playlist every single day’, said Ms Mainstream, Ellie Goulding, when I interviewed her recently. Now that’s reach.
But as much as I’d urge you towards The Blue Notebooks (2004) or his Royal Ballet commission, Woolf Works, currently in rep at Covent Garden, most listeners head straight for Sleep (2015). Originally conceived as an eight-hour ‘theme and variation structure’ for piano, organ, strings and synths, to be performed overnight to audiences tucked up in beds, the edited-down album version has become a genuine phenomenon. According to Richter’s (and Lydia Tár’s) label Deutsche Grammophon, it is the most streamed classical album of all time, spawning remixes, a dedicated app and a new spin-off EP, Sleep: Tranquility Base.
It’s at once a nice thing to drift off to — and a portal into Richter’s music. Born in Hamelin, Germany, he grew up in Bedford and experienced a musical epiphany one evening as a boy while watching a BBC documentary featuring a strange futuristic noise. He wrote a letter to Television Centre, begging to know what it was. Weeks later, a reply came back: Kraftwerk, Autobahn. So he saved up his pocket money, bought the LP and entered the future. ‘My first loves were punk and electronica. Everything came from there,’ he says. He went on to study composition at a time when composers like Arvo Pärt, Alfred Schnittke and the American minimalists were producing music that was tonal, lush and, in contrast to much 20th-century classical music, accessible. His debut album, Memoryhouse (2002), was immediately hailed as a ‘landmark’ for its interweaving of electronic and acoustic instruments. Since then, he has benefited from the collapse of genre boundaries in the streaming age — drawing in an audience who would be highly unlikely to visit a concert hall. ‘I want to talk to people. And so I should try to speak to them in an intelligible way,’ he says.
I like the idea that people relate to my music as a tool. There’s music by Mozart for having dinner to, music by Bach for getting married to, music for going to war…
Which is all very well. But I can’t help wondering if it bothers Richter that so many people use his music as the audio equivalent of a lavender pillow spray? I mean, ‘Rain Sound’ and ‘White Noise 3 Hours Long’ also do the numbers on Spotify, right? Apparently not. ‘I really like the idea that people relate to my music as a tool,’ he insists. ‘We’ve got this hangover from romanticism so we like to think of artists as ego-driven geniuses. But if we go a little further back, utility music is everywhere. There’s music by Mozart for having dinner to, music by Bach for getting married to, music for going to war…’
So, Sleep falls into this tradition — only it is there to bring about the one thing that us stressed-out moderns prize most of all. ‘Oh sleep! it is a gentle thing / Beloved from pole to pole!’ as Coleridge had it. The initial inspiration came to Richter and his wife and collaborator, the Hungarian-born visual artist Yulia Mahr, back in 2012. ‘This was when the 4G internet moved into our pockets,’ Richter says. ‘It meant that all the social media was suddenly there all the time. And it is around this time that all sorts of things about human psychology begin to change.’
He hoped that the eight-hour version would be somewhere between a lullaby and ‘protest music’. ‘It’s really about trying to stop the machine for a moment,’ he explains. ‘To provide an alternative psychological space.’ What he is protesting against is ‘toxic productivity’, the capitalist imperative to be making money for someone, somewhere, all of the time. ‘We’re humans, so if we have opportunities to constantly be doing things, we will go there because we’re sort of made to do that — but it’s not necessarily good for us.’
Nope. According to one survey, 23 per cent of British people get less than five hours per night (with terrible implications for depression, dementia, you name it) while only 15 per cent of us report waking up feeling refreshed. A more wide-ranging study published in Sleep MedicineReviews in 2012 calculated that children had lost an average of 85 minutes sleep per night over the preceding century and this was before our devices came to eat into even larger tracts of our sleep. And there’s an increasingly large body of evidence proving Richter’s hunch correct: the main effect of internet, everywhere, all the time has been a mass explosion of depression, particularly among young people.
Still, looking around the lavishly appointed Studio Richter Mahr — it has an on-site chef, a kitchen garden, a sound stage large enough for an orchestra, shepherd’s huts for visiting artists and in Richter’s own studio, an array of antique synths, scribbled scores and a telescope pointed to the heavens — I can’t help noticing that the algorithm has done alright by Max Richter. His interest in sleep proved rather prophetic, too. His app is one of many tech-on-tech solutions to what is increasingly seen as a global sleep crisis. ‘Sleep your way to the top!’ enjoined the media entrepreneur Arianna Huffington in her 2016 book The Sleep Revolution, which described how much more productive she had become since she adopted a regime of chamomile tea and bubble baths. Sleep, once scorned by CEO types, is now pitched as the ultimate luxury, something you need to invest in, something that only the rich can afford — because, of course, sleep is not evenly distributed.
Richter is keen to distance himself from the Silicon Valley obsession with optimising sleep, which he sees as just an inverted version of toxic productivity — toxic wellness? ‘It’s a sort of narcissism isn’t it?’ He is more keen to push sleep as a means towards creativity and communion, as it’s the ‘perchance to dream’ bit he thinks we’ve been missing out on. One of his most cherished memories from his Sleep concert series was taking a coffee break in the middle of an overnight performance by the Great Wall of China. He saw a room full of soldiers who had previously been aggressively guarding the venue asleep on the floor next to their guns. ‘I thought that was an amazing scene — and that’s one of the things that creativity can do. It can just kind of — it levels everyone.’
This, indeed, is his guiding philosophy. ‘In order to understand a piece of music, you don’t have to know somebody’s language — you don’t have to know anything about them. But you get a sense of how it is for them to be in the world by listening to that music. I think that’s incredibly valuable in society because, you know, one of the big challenges we have as human beings is understanding one another, right?’
It is a challenge. But it is amazing what can be achieved on a good night’s sleep.