Experiencing Max Richter’s VIVID Sydney production of Sleep…from Adelaide – a review.

Friday night in front of the telly! With a trundle bed and big quilt, a candle, the rest of the household in bed. I’m excited, although exhausted after a big week and would have preferred a nice quiet lead up to a long eight hour broadcast. But, it’s not a usual simulcast in that it’s designed to relax, quieten, and indeed put to sleep all comers. So in a way, it seems fitting that the hectic week collides, no, disappears into a long lull with an endless soundtrack.

The event was part of Vivid at the Sydney Opera House, where 200 lucky oneironauts are bedding down, but my home campground is comfortable and I don’t have to worry about whether I snore, or others do. It’s the first occasion Max Richter‘s composition “Sleep” is being broadcast live and it’s an ambitious undertaking for all. Falling asleep to it is the easy part. Max Richter is here, a preternaturally calm presence with that European poise; no logo, no bright colours. He is dressed instead in neutral black, along with all his musicians tonight.

It hits half eleven (curse this odd half-hour time difference we have in SA) while the more auspicious midnight in Sydney, and the lovely Myf Warhurst‘s short intro flows into the first piano chords of Max Richter, here in person, sitting at a Steinway grand with an Apple store’s worth of screens around him.

The pacing of these first chords are odd, each falling just slightly later in time than I expect, so slow, so deliberate, so beyond minimal. It must be at 60bpm, I think, as the early baroque of this tempo made a virtue out of calming the mind. There is so little happening, musically, but what is happening is very lovely, deep ostinato tones. No changes in key but variations around the chord start to creep in, and it’s meditative in effect. It’s working. I feel alone, nervous even.

Suddenly, weirdly, the moment is broken, and ABC cuts to the man himself in interview, telling us about his personal manifesto for calm in a frenetic world, which would have been fine, but it did rather puncture the performance. Luckily it doesn’t last long, and those watching at home who were gob-smacked expecting the latest clip by their nu-punk heroes on Rage, got an explanation – and a helpful message on screen directing them to Channel 23 for their fix of loud. Although, I hope at least one ska kid didn’t flick over.

There were precisely three times prior to this that I had deliberately slept to sound, investigating subliminal sound, trusting songs to my subconscious. The gentlest songs on Selected Ambient Works II (Aphex Twin) on loop made for an easy sleep, the songs having legendarily being composed by him in a lucid dream state and translated to recording immediately afterwards.  My Bloody Valentine‘s “Soon”, although generally played loud, was less successful quietly at night.

The third was off-station static from FM radio, drowning out a loud mind and loud surrounds, a virtual sea of predictable noise. The work of Max Richter and his motivation for making this music – to ease minds in a busy life and to sanctify the rejuvenation of sleep – convinced me to trust the work.

After around an hour of music, there was so little happening that my mind was convinced I wasn’t going to miss any action by nodding off. The only other gripe I had with the simulcast was the occasional tiny drop out of the audio, just short enough to be noticeable. Was it a recording deterrent? The TV being too bright, had a blanket placed over it, muting the visuals impressionalistically. Trundle beds are too short, I thought, idly.. And unremarkably, given all this, I fell asleep.

During the night, soft vocals woke me, soprano, repeating a note, it was well dark outside and I had no idea how long I had slept for, but here was the soft soundtrack still pulsing along akin to a YouTube 200x length clip of “Desert Music” by Steve Reich. But the voice had cut through my slumber. I was dead keen to recall dreams, but could only remember a friend in Sydney buying a holiday house for $66,000. I had clearly been transported far away from this space and time. A sense of peace was still with me and the pressure of the week was nowhere.

It turned out to be 4am already and the small ensemble with twin cello was still pressing on for the sleepers. Once the soprano stopped again, it was easy to drift off. It seems almost pointless to further describe the music, in its bare, watery unison swells and tone poem relentlessness. This music is available in 8 CD set or as MP3 download (via the esteemed label Deutsche Grammophone) but unless you have an 8 CD stacker, the latter option is the practical one for the intended purpose. Not that it wouldn’t calm the awake mind too.

At 7am, the blanketed television light was not as strong as the dawn entering the window. It was time to enjoy the last section of the music, as magpies and wattle birds contributed nearby. The soprano was back, and the ensemble dutifully kept up with the score slowly drifting by on Max Richter’s screens. When one of the musicians paused, their hands sometimes flexed and tried to shrug off the cramp, but there were no other signs of tiredness obvious.

In the Opera House, lucky sleepover attendees on their camp beds wandered with bed hair down to the musicians and sat nearby, still happy to bathe in the spell of the harmony. The final stretch was very moving, as this selfless act came to its eighth hour. A smile from the still headphone clad Max Richter illustrated a lovely connection with the live audience, and as it turned out the unseasonal heavy rain had done its best to batter down the venue and disrupt Sleep. A perfect night of restfulness may be harder to come by these days, but the closer we come, the happier our lives. Although ABC cut away from the simulcast just before the end, I was applauding and awake in wonder.

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