By Karl. W. Nehring
Max Richter (b. 1966) is a leading figure among composers working to bring together elements of what we generally consider "classical" music and more contemporary instrumentation and styles of music. For those who follow current classical trends, Richter's most well known composition is probably his reworking of Vivaldi's Four Seasons, released by DG in 2012 and picked up by various classical outlets around the world. It may have not been a "big hit," but it sold well and brought increased attention to the German-born British composer who is now based in London.
But his most notorious composition is undoubtedly Sleep, an 8-hour magnum opus from 2015 that was released as a boxed set comprising eight CDs plus a Blu-ray disc that contained the whole piece for those who might desire to play the music uninterruptedly while they yes, slept. According to the composer, "It's a piece that is meant to be listened to at night. I hope that people will fall asleep while listening to it, because the project is also a personal exploration into how music interacts with consciousness – another fascination for me."
Believe it or not, Sleep has been performed live in numerous venues, with the audience being invited to come not only to hear the piece, but of course to sleep through it, with bedding being provided. A bit of a Bizarro World Woodstock, if you will…
Not to worry though, friends, I am not about to set off on a detailed, track-by-track exposition of all 31 tracks (with many lasting more than 20 minutes) of an eight-hour recording. Even if I had auditioned it (which I haven't), and even were I then somehow buzzed up enough to sit down and write such a review without falling asleep at my keyboard before completing it, I am afraid the end product would likely put you to sleep before you would be able to finish it. Instead, I am commenting upon a single CD, From Sleep, which contains seven tracks that were recorded during the same sessions that produced the Sleep recording but were not included in that release. From Sleep was released not only to give listeners a taste of what the full version would be like, but also to provide a coherent, satisfying musical experience in its own right. Having not yet experienced either a live or recorded rendition of Sleep in its entirety, I am unqualified to comment on From Sleep's success as representative of the full release, but I hope I am at least marginally qualified in some respects at least to declare that From Sleep does provide an enjoyable musical experience.
The net result is a pleasant, soothing, relaxing hour of listening. Several themes weave in and out of the tracks. On the surface, the music sounds much the same throughout the tracks with the same names, but with subtle variations that mean the music is never static. The "Dream" tracks – 1, 4, and 7 -- form the backbone of the program, comprising the opening, middle, and closing selections, with the four "Path" and "Space" tracks symmetrically filling up the rest of the hour-long program.
The opening track, "Dream 3 (in the midst of my life)." is in itself somewhat symmetrical, opening and closing with stately chords on the keyboard, but with strings slowly weaving their lines over keyboard accompaniment throughout its central measures. "Path 5 (delta)" features soothing soprano voice lines combined with keyboards and electronics, including a warm underlay of organ. "Space 11 (invisible pages over)" opens with synth chords and continues with rich-sounding washes of sound, including a deep bass foundation – yes, it sounds spacey. "Dream 13 (minus even)" opens with cello and keyboard, with the cello carrying the main melody in subtle variation. As the track continues, the keyboard sometimes sounds almost harp-like, with some synth and strings hovering above the keyboard accompaniment, all gently pushing forward. "Space 21 (petrichor)" opens with some bass synth notes and continues as a multilayer synth piece. "Path 19 (yet frailest)" sounds much like Path 5, but with instruments rather than voice carrying the melody. The final track "Dream 8 (late and soon)" reverses that strategy by reintroducing the vocal line.
The sound quality throughout is rich and full-range, with plenty of warmth despite the inclusion of electronic sounds. Indeed, there is no sense of edginess to the electronic sounds and the acoustic instruments are well served tonally. However, the usual considerations of sound stage and imaging and such are of course pretty much obviated by the overdubbing and mix.
Hopefully assuming that you have yet been lulled into slumber by my somnolent prose, I will conclude by noting that the liner notes include interesting brief essays by Richter, Tim Cooper, and neuroscientist David Eagleman, with whom Richter had consulted in preparation for undertaking such a project. There is even an intriguing and appropriate quotation from the nineteenth-century poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Enticed by this CD, I may someday go crazy and acquire the full-blown Sleep package, but if I do, I hereby promise not to write a review featuring a full-blown (overblown!) track-by-track exegesis!
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click below: