Losing circulation in a very cold pond, an insanity workout in a gallery, dancing about in my pants for the sake of a reinterpreted Twin Peaks; I’ve done a lot of strange things in the name of art, but none as yet have made me as nervous as the prospect of a sleepover in a studio with ten strangers.
Our host, of sorts, is composer Max Richter, who in September last year released an eight-hour opus in the form of Sleep. This week, the piece was played in its entirety overnight for around ten people at audio brand Sonos’ London studio as part of its Secret 7-inch exhibition week. Max has described the record as “an eight-hour personal lullaby for a frenetic world and a manifesto for a slower pace of existence,” but despite its duration and profoundly calming aesthetic, Max has bristled at the idea that “the album has been written about mostly as if it’s a kind of sleeping tablet."
He says: "We’re chronically sleep deprived. The busier we get – and we are getting busier – the more difficult deeply sleeping is going to become. So in a way I feel like there’s a sort of psychological space in our lives that’s being closed down, that’s being eroded. So this is a sort of act of resistance!
“We have this saying – I want to sleep on that before I make this decision. It turns out that actually there’s a neuroscientific, good reason why we say that, because one of the things sleep does is it consolidates short-term learning into long-term memory. Physically. It moves it from one bit of the brain to another bit. That’s amazing.”
Noting that sleep is one of the few experiences that are completely universal, the record is a beautifully simple and smart concept: a piece of music that mirrors, induces or enhances a person’s recommended eight hours of shut-eye. In real life though, such bold concepts aren’t often easy to take advantage of, which is why the idea of a full playback of the record in the form of an in-store sleepover seemed like such a wonderful idea. Unlike popping it on at home, amid flatmates, neighbours, snoring, impending alarms et al, we’ve got a sounds system that does the piece justice, a frighteningly heavy door, a charming bouncer and hot chocolate laced with rum. For all this though, are people willing to sleep on the floor (albeit on mega comfy eve mattresses), overnight in a studio with a room full of strangers? Yes, they were, but that did little to temper my increasing paranoia about the whole thing: what if I snore? Or dribble? Or do that thing where I start shouting “never mind, don’t worry about that woman” in my sleep?
Popping the paranoia into my overnight bag and settled into hotchpotch pyjamas, the weirdness of the experience immediately faded into its somnambulant end-goal. Listening to the record again today, it struck me that I hadn’t even got ten minutes in before drifting off into the longest sleep I’ve had in weeks: a blessing for my tired old bones, but a curse for writing this piece. It’s pretty much impossible to review something I slept through all but around eight minutes of, and that’s left me in a strange post-hypnotic daze. All I know is that Max’s work, listened to with such intensity and with such clarity of purpose, is a truly beautiful and otherworldly thing. Max, if you’re reading, look away now: Sleep is superbly crafted, utterly mesmerising and a damn-near perfect “sleeping tablet.” Of course, it’s so much more than that; it’s a product of neuroscientific research (Max worked with neuroscientist David Eagleman in creating the album) and a perfect platform of a modern classical composer tackling a universal issue in a bold, innovative and conceptual way. But to all those who saw my confused, scrunched-up, grouchy morning face this week: I’m sorry.
“In a way, a big piece like this, Sleep, or if you think about other art forms like colour field paintings, Mark Rothko, someone like that, you know, this sort of large, quite simple object just sort of blots out everything else,” says Max. “So I think of it like a roadblock – a sort of creative roadblock – or maybe like a holiday, an eight-hour holiday.”
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