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Revisiting Max Richter's Sleep

Dominic Ellis

Max Richter has a finger in every pie imaginable. Premium cable and Oscar nominees, ballets, operas and Vivaldi rearrangements – Richter refuses to be confined by ‘classic’ or ‘contemporary’. He can wake you up with rousing reflections on war and violence, just as he can put you to sleep with scientifically-proven lullabies.

In two visits, Richter has made his mark on the Sydney Opera House. He describes the building as having a “spirit of optimism and possibility … a bright future” – high praise from a performer who is constantly challenging expectations of his form.
 

He describes the building as having a “spirit of optimism and possibility … a bright future”

In 2014, Richter recomposed Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. A twist on the classic work, respectful but innovative; the performance was a contemporary reconsideration of the sounds that have become synonymous with jingles and hold music. Richter’s aim was to take a “new path through a well-known landscape”, and he was met with an acclaim foreign to other similar revisionist projects: “If there was a predominant emotional trope it was of intense ethereality – the sort of vivid presence that might accompany a brilliantly clear night in a film,” said the Sydney Morning Herald.

'Intense ethereality' – Richter’s calling card – was given new meaning in 2016 when Richter, soprano Grace Davidson and the American Contemporary Music Ensemble serenaded a bedded audience in the Concert Hall’s Northern Foyer. Vivid LIVE is usually known for its lavish lights and stagecraft, but 2016’s most distinctive performance was characterized by pyjamas and camp beds. There’s an irony at the heart of a performance of Sleep: the sheer intensity of an eight hour performance next to the narcolepsy of the listeners, who fade in and out of slumber.
 

There’s an irony at the heart of a performance of Sleep: the sheer intensity of an eight hour performance next to the narcolepsy of the listeners, who fade in and out of slumber.

Performances of Sleep continue to break records – longest piece of music broadcast live, longest piece of music televised live, among others – but Richter’s ambitions are modest. Sleep is an escape from our digital lives, a “creative refuge” and, as such, the piece truly comes alive when seen and heard in person. Richter discovers a “meeting point between the venue and the music”, creating an affinity with the non-traditional spaces he plays in.

First performed in a decommissioned power station in Berlin, the vast, post-industrial space lent itself to wandering and exploring, while the rickety soundscape played like an additional instrument. Most recently, in Los Angeles at Grand Park, Sleep took on the political undertones of its host city – it would be remiss to nap in an urban park and ignore the 58,000 who sleep rough in L.A. on any given night.

Sydney had its own quirks. Wedged in the Northern Foyer, taking place mere minutes after a performance by New Order, Richter, Davidson and their ensemble serenaded an audience of 200. If Four Seasons Recomposed was a “brilliantly clear night” in a film, Sleep was its stormy emotional climax. Heavy rain accompanied the 2016 performance, audibly pattering atop the adjacent harbour. But as the sun rose and Sleep reached its stirring conclusion, the building’s intricacies revealed themselves – with them, the bright future and the spirit of optimism which had Max Richter so smitten.

Max Richter performs 'Sleep' in the Joan Sutherland Theatre Northern Foyer at Vivid LIVE 2016. Image: Teresa Tan

Constructing the stage for Sleep

Anwen Crawford sits in on the rehearsal and setup of Sleep and discovers how Tim Tams and a "management plan" for sleepwalkers brought the show to life.

Max Richter performs 'Sleep' in Grand Park, Los Angeles. Image: Patrick T. Fallon / Los Angeles Times

"A calming reprieve with a sense of loss"

Read August Brown's review of Sleep in Grand Park, Los Angeles, the latest performance of the work, and a meditation on love and loss in LA. 

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