A Soundtrack for Slumber: Max Richter’s 8-Plus-Hour Overnight ‘Sleep’ ConcertSouffleur
In a giant loft space with 160 beds overlooking downtown Manhattan, concertgoers came to experience the sounds of the live nightlong performance intended to help them hit “pause” and sleep, or not sleep, as they wished.
Music and sleep have been connected in our minds ever since the sweet sounds of the lullaby first helped people drift off into slumber. And in fact research shows that listening to relaxing music before going to bed helps improve sleep quality in people who don’t rest well. But what happens if the music is playing all night long — via a live performance?
That’s one thing German-born British composer and pianist Max Richter set out to examine with his eight-plus-hour-long performance of Sleep, a 31-song masterpiece that he and the American Contemporary Music Ensemble performed at Spring Studiosin New York City Friday and Saturday nights. (Officially titled “Beautyrest Presents: Max Richter’s Sleep,” the U.S. premiere of the event happened in March at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas.)
“It’s like hitting a giant pause button to facilitate us in switching off from the day-to-day and offering an environment where we can disconnect from our concerns,” says Richter of the concert. A “fortunate” good sleeper himself who is not unaware of the benefits good sleep brings to both everyday activities and creative work, he adds, “Something is happening while you’re asleep, and it’s very important in creative life.”
At 10:30 p.m. last Friday in a giant room overlooking the traffic circle where cars are spit out from the Holland Tunnel — lights totally dimmed — the audience was in various stages of crawling into the 160 mattresses provided by Beautyrest as Richter hit the stage along with a string quintet, a soprano vocalist, and a couple of computers. “This piece is your opportunity to pause. I’ll see you on the other side,” he wished us goodnight before diving into the first of 250 pages of sheet music that started with soft, sweet, almost behind-the-beat droning chords in the piano’s mid-range.
Low-Frequency Sounds for Prolonged Slow-Wave Sleep
While he said he couldn’t compose different types of music for different stages of the sleep cycle — since every person is on their own clock — Richter teamed up with neuroscientist David Eagleman, PhD, an adjunct professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University in California, to determine what kinds of sounds and musical structures would support slow-wave sleep, the deepest stage of non-REM sleep from which it’s hardest to awake. During slow-wave sleep, the heartbeat and breathing slow down, the brain is less responsive to external stimuli, and memory consolidation occurs.
The two worked together to create a “very special sound spectrum” for the musical landscape of Sleep, according to Richter. High frequency sounds, which vibrate at 4,000 cycles per second (hertz) or more, wake us up, while low-frequency tones, which are anything up to 500 hertz (Hz), can prolong slow-wave sleep and won’t necessarily disturb us even when they’re loud, he says.
“For about the first seven and a half hours, there’s nothing above about 1,000 Hz — the middle of the piano. That mirrors the sound spectrum the baby hears inside the womb. I wanted to suggest or remind us of our first hearing experience” Richter explains. “Then toward the end, during the last hour, I add more and more high frequencies; the piece has a sunrise written into it.”
He also referred to Sleep as sort of a Woody Guthrie-style protest song. “We now live in this kind of neoliberal late-stage capitalist society where the model of the human being is an object that produces and consumes. That squeezes a lot of our humanity out,” he says. “That’s not the whole picture of the person. We spend all our time staring into our screens, so [with Sleep], we can stop that for a while and do something else.”
Sleep Deficiency: An American Public Health Concern
Indeed for the more than one-third of Americans who are sleep deprived, getting better slow-wave sleep — and more sleep in general — would be a good thing. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, sleep deprivation is a public health problem in the United States affecting all age groups. Physical and mental health can both suffer when you’re sleep deprived, potentially causing everything from accidents and injuries to moodiness and depression, as well chronic conditions such as heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, stroke, and obesity.
Seven to nine hours of sleep per night is optimal, according to recommendations published in March 2015 in Sleep Health, the journal of the National Sleep Foundation, but the average adult sleeps fewer than seven hours per night.
Establishing and sticking to bedtime rituals is a very important part of falling and staying asleep, which can help you get those hours and promote better sleep overall, says Beautyrest sleep expert Rebecca Robbins, PhD, a sleep researcher at the NYU School of Medicine in New York City.
“A lot of people struggle to power their minds off at the end of the day, so a bedtime routine for winding down is paramount because your body understands internally what’s happening next,” she explains — meaning sleep. Light, soft, classical music can be especially helpful during the sleep onset stage, but whatever helps you relax will work, she says. And if you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t go back to sleep right away, get up.
“The bed is where rest happens, so the body and mind looks at it as a special place,” Dr. Robbins says. If tossing and turning become habitual, the bed itself can evoke stress. So if putting your sleep soundtrack on in the middle of the night will help you get back to sleep, do it, she recommends.
Settling in for a Night of Slumber — or Not
Going into the night, I was wondering just how — and if — I would fall asleep myself. I purposely hadn’t listened to Sleep beforehand, and like Richter, I’m generally a good and fairly deep sleeper: I conk out shortly after going to bed and am out until I naturally wake up or the alarm goes off, maybe waking up once briefly in between. But I’m also an avid concertgoer and a musician with upwards of 800 performances under my belt, so I like to be front and center at shows, alert and taking everything in — I don’t like to miss out. But then again, this was no normal concert: I was situated in a very comfortable bed with a very soft yet supportive pillow, listening to very peaceful music. And I love sleep and can’t do without it.
By the time the music started, it seemed that at least half of the comfort-clothes-wearing audience was contently in some stage of slumber — or at least resting comfortably under the sheets with their eyes closed, many with eye masks on. I couldn’t tune out that quickly, though: I was mesmerized by beautiful sounds coming from the stage and had to watch what was going on around me.
Soft and steady solo piano soon blended in with slightly dissonant strings in the first song, “Dream 1 (Before the Wind Blows It All Away),” and then about 40 minutes in, the soprano came onstage for her solo “Path,” which was somewhat like a distant chant accompanied by fugal organ sounds. I don’t think I could have fallen asleep to it if I’d tried, but maybe that was the point. The songs then became more string focused again, and were at times even pretty loud over the sound system. At their low frequencies, though, Richter said this wouldn’t disturb the sleeper; I was awake, so I wouldn’t know.
I dozed off for a bit shortly after 1 a.m., but happily woke up again a little after 2 to hear the piano had switched to a new, slow waltz-like beat with solo violin playing a simple yet pretty melody above it. Most of the room seemed to be sound asleep, but the music more or less drowned out what little snoring I heard.
The musicians took breaks throughout, which was a necessity for what Richter described as a physically pretty intense undertaking. “You have to prepare like you would prepare for an extreme sport … you get hungry. I never thought I’d perform a concert where I get hungry in the middle,” he says.
Leading up to a performance, Richter said he has to shift his body clock around: He generally stays up really late the night before a concert, then sleeps all day leading up to it. So when showtime rolls around, he’ll “do my normal morning routine: have tea, eat some porridge, stretch, listen to the morning news … all the morning stuff. So when I go onstage, it’s like my morning,” he says. And jet lag can actually help. When flying from London to Sydney to perform at the Opera House, he said he stayed on London time and it worked out perfectly.
Telling the Story of the Sleeping Listener
I wondered what others in the “concert hall” were hearing and experiencing throughout the night. Richter’s hope, as with any work, is that each listener’s experience would be unique and personal to them based on their own biography — and that there’ll be a meeting point between performers and the listener. But this piece was also different, he says, because “when you’re writing an ordinary piece, you’re trying to tell a story and have a conversation with the listener. This is kind of the opposite. The story is the listener, and the piece accompanies the listener’s experience. If Sleep has a theme, the theme is that of the sleeping listener,” he says.
When I expressed my concerns about missing out if I slept too much, he assured me that that would be fine. “The piece is also an inquiry into listening and hearing — it’s directed attention. You inhabit the sonic landscape, so if you sleep, you still experience it, but another part of you is experiencing it. You find your own way,” he says.
My way was waking up for about 20 minutes again around 4:30, sad that it would all be over soon, then dozing for another half hour or so until the sun started to rise around 5:30, at which point I finally put the eye mask on. The next thing I knew, people were standing up clapping: It was 6:46, and the concert had just ended, apparently as I had finally settled into slow-wave sleep. The sun was fully up, but I totally missed the musical sunrise.
Following a brief guided meditation for which the hope was that we would “be more awake” (Beautyrest’s current mantra) everyone slowly got up, mingled a little, and began to head out. For me, it was just a tad different from the last time I left a concert after the sun was well up — that epic night in 2013 when Prince performed a semi-secret show just a few blocks north at the City Winery. That one had ended at 5:45 a.m., and Beyoncé and Jay-Z had at some point snuck in toward the back. There was absolutely no lying down during that performance.
But back to this concert, since my sleep had been in spurts and definitely not long enough, I went to back to bed for several hours as soon as I got home. Richter told me that he would likewise go straight to bed after the gig and would sleep all day — he had to get up and do it all over again Saturday night.
As to whether he listens to tunes as he dozes off, he gave a prompt and firm “Can’t. I can’t listen to music when I sleep. I get in analytical mode.” But lucky for me, I can repeat the experience from my own bed: The entire piece is available for purchase, and it streams on Spotify. As for the 160 mattresses, Beautyrest donated them to Help USA, an NYC-based homeless services organization.
Richter will be performing Sleep two nights in a row again this weekend, May 11 and May 12, at the Barbican Center in London. He then has five dates scheduled in Germany in early and mid-June. He’s also looking to perform the piece in other cities throughout the United States, but no dates have been confirmed as of yet.