What’s to like?
“Enjoy the trip. We’ll see you on the other side.” A fascinating documentary that delves into the composition of Max Richter’s Sleep opus, the challenge of performing the entire eight hour suite live and in real time, and the artistic struggle faced by so many musicians these days. Thoughtful, insightful and ultimately uplifting.
The low down
“Every note is deliberate. Every second is a deliberate second.”
Among my musical discoveries over the past few years, one which has touched me most deeply has been Max Richter’s Sleep, his eight hour lullaby for these stressful times.
With his cross-pollination of classical string ensemble and electronic synthesisers, Richter has created music that transcends the genres and offers a universal language with its gentle melodic ambience that both revitalises and relaxes. In his own words, Richter rejects the current trend for “super complicated modernism”, and instead composes music that is direct and uncluttered with unnecessary notes, which explains his wide appeal across the divide that often separates the classical and contemporary rock camps.
And yet his music is far from simplified. It takes inspiration to compose a suite that never feels repetitive over its eight hours, and you can read my review of the complete composition here.
But it also takes courage to perform the whole thing live. Which brings us to this film, documenting Richter’s development of Sleep from a work in progress for a one-off live radio broadcast, to its performance in venues around the world. In tandem with the relaxed ambience of the music, the documentary adopts an understated approach to the composer, dispensing with a narrator, and simply allowing the composer to quietly share his thoughts on the challenges and rewards of his vocation.
It can’t have been easy to edit an eight hour performance into 100 minutes, but the flow of the film manages it, capturing the essence of the music, while alternating between footage of its open air performance in downtown Los Angeles during the night, clips from other venues, and home video of Richter shot by his partner Yulia Mahr.
Considering the somnambulant nature of the music, the live footage is fascinating, as Richter and his string ensemble perform on a small stage, surrounded by a sea of bodies sleeping on cots. The film intercuts brief interviews with some of the sleepers, which offers an insight into the way this music touches each person differently, in between close-ups of the players performing, sometimes together, sometimes only the solitary figure of Richter at the piano.
He performs for seven of the eight hours, taking the occasional break to quietly wander around the sleepers and observe the impact of his music, but for the most part quietly focussing on his own performance, as the 200 pages of score are gently discarded one by one to his feet. You also get a sense of the strain on the string ensemble, as they have to concentrate on playing each note and sustain it for what must seem eternal moments. And yet in spite of the physical endurance test, the music flows continuously.
As far as I can tell, the soundtrack is actually from the studio album, and not the live performance, but it is beautifully remixed into 5.1 surround which is something I’ve been wishing for, ever since I first bought the album. I know some reviewers are disappointed that it’s only a portion of the music remixed into 5.1, and not the complete thing. However, I guess distribution rights prevent that because the film and the album are on separate labels.
Still, 100 minutes is worth the price of admission, as the 5.1 mix allows the instruments and the singing to float around you and immerse you in a way that the stereo mix can’t. The remix also unlocks the sub bass frequencies to bring an added depth, and warmth, to the sound. During the documentary, Richter reveals that he composed seven of the eight hours around the lowest of harmonic frequencies, before the music rises through the higher frequencies during the closing hour, as a form of “acoustic sunrise”.
The documentary also shows Richter’s collection of analogue synths, some of which he built himself, and his attraction to synths and “the studio as an instrument” to widen his musical spectrum, by providing the sub-bass sounds that traditional wood and wind instruments cannot produce. (Kraftwerk’s Autobahn music was an early influence.)
He discusses the challenges of bridging the divide between classical and contemporary music, and the maxim from the former camp that “if you are popular then you can’t be any good”. He dismisses such narrow interpretations, seeking a wider and more open conversation, which also accounts for his growing appeal beyond the classical community. But it hasn’t been an overnight success – his first composition Memoryhouse languished for ten years before it finally achieved wider recognition, and during that period he and his partner struggled to support their family.
Indeed, he only survived by taking on commissions for film scores, which he worked on by day, before then working on his Sleep opus through the night. Small wonder then that it took him two years to complete the music but Sleep’s enduring appeal is a testament to that perseverance and determination not to compromise his art.
For those of you already familiar with Max Richter and his music, this documentary will feel particularly rewarding to view because of the insight it gives into Richter, not just as a composer and artist, but also as a person. The home video footage feels very natural and relaxed and both Richter and Mahr come across as very grounded and likeable.
However, if you’ve still to discover Richter’s music, or simply want to explore an alternative to our fast-paced existence, then this documentary is also a nicely balanced introduction that gently draws the viewer in, and offers some welcome respite and revitalisation.