As Saturday turns into Easter Sunday this weekend, there will be music playing. Though that is true of every night, somewhere in the world, on this night it will be special. At 11pm UK time, BBC Radio 3 will commence playing in full Max Richter’s Sleep, an eight-hour-long 2015 work intended as a “lullaby for a frenetic world” and a reflection of the state of dreaming. Radio stations across Europe and North America will also play the work in simulcast. Listeners around the globe, most of whom are physically distanced from loved ones during the coronavirus pandemic, will all be listening to the same music.
Richter’s Sleep could not be more fitting for this moment. It is profoundly slow and meditative, scored with piano, strings and electronics. It was released in 2015 as an album — with named tracks that flow into one another continuously — to both critical acclaim and widespread popularity, reaching No 1 in the US Billboard Classical charts, and garnering attention for its extraordinary length. “The piece has its roots in my sense at the time that we were all getting a little bit data saturated,” Richter tells me over the phone from his home in Oxfordshire, where he is self-isolating with his family. “Life was moving very much on to the screen, into the virtual space — and that space is a 24/7 space. So I wanted to try to make a piece which could function as a holiday from that, a pause.”
The broadcast of Sleep today feels apt, thanks to the pause the pandemic has forced us all to take. “The musical language and the way the piece is made is really an invitation to rest and to reflect. And here we all are,” Richter says. The title is also an instruction. A lullaby of sorts, it is eight and a half hours long, so can be played over a full night’s sleep. The recording in question is from the work’s September 2015 premiere at the Wellcome Collection in London, where audience members were tucked into beds instead of chairs. (The performance was aired live on Radio 3, making it the longest continuous piece of music broadcast live on radio.) Writing the piece, Richter consulted the neuroscientist David Eagleman to investigate the physical state of sleep; parts of the work deliberately encourage “slow-wave” sleep, which consolidates memory.
Unlike some of Richter’s more analytical work, Sleep is musically plain-spoken. “That’s deliberate: the door to the piece is wide open,” he tells me. The piece is full of affirmation, which provides familiarity and comfort. “If I’m a listener and I wake up in the middle of the night, I want to know where I am,” Richter explains. “So the piece is built out of these recurring cycling elements, which you recognise, even though they’re transformed the whole time.” The work has an immersive quality that means you do not so much listen to it as inhabit it.
In his early twenties Richter studied in Florence with the Italian experimental composer Luciano Berio. Though Berio’s music is known for being dissonant and erratic, it was under his guidance that Richter’s style turned from overtly complex and modernist towards something more straightforward. “There was an extraordinary feeling with Berio that he was reading my mind,” he tells me. “I would just show him a score and he would almost immediately understand everything about it.” Richter was encouraged by Berio to turn back to the basics of his intentions. At the same time, he was discovering Arvo Pärt, a composer with audible influence on Richter, and the work of the American minimalists. “It was an earthquake in my musical orientation – away from this super-complicated idea of music as a manifesto or thesis, towards something much more direct,” he explains.
Though Sleep is accessible, it is far from simple, both musically and conceptually. “There’s a sense within Sleep of protest music,” says Richter. “It’s got this element of critique against a very technocratic, neoliberal view of what human life is: production and consumption.” Richter’s normal working life has been disrupted very little by the lockdown – “I go to my room and sit there on my own, scribbling on pieces of paper,” he says – but Sleep at this moment seems to reflect the surging appetite for a slower pace of life.
There are plenty of timely conclusions to be drawn from within the work – but perhaps the most profound element of Saturday’s simulcast will be its sense of community. Richter describes music as a “social glue”: a “fundamentally communal activity”. “In the era we’re living in, people are returning to culture as a source of comfort and perspective,” he says. The piece draws on emotions that are, remarkably, being felt across the globe today: a collective pause, a desire for comfort and togetherness, but also a sense of grief. Richter reflects that during this period we are forced to consider the bigger questions that are normally usurped by day-to-day life: it is art, and its ability to unite, that can help with the challenge this presents.
“I think in a way creative works are wish fulfillments. They’re a proposition for an alternative universe, where you get to control everything,” Richter says. “Sleep is a musical universe where everything makes sense. There are questions, and they’re answered in the way you expect them to be answered.” In a time of unknowns, this piece – a calm space to inhabit, in which ends are tied up and we recognise our surroundings – can provide some much-needed solace.