Album du jour: Max Richter, “from SLEEP”

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Now here’s an original concept for you: Eight hours of music designed to put you to sleep. “It’s my personal lullaby for a frenetic world,” says composer Max Richter of his “SLEEP.” “A manifesto for a slower pace of existence.”

No offense to Mr. Richter, but I do not need someone else’s manifesto to regulate the pace of my existence, anymore than I need yet another pundit to amaze me with the revelation that if you turn off your electronic devices you can actually do cool stuff like talk to other people. Maybe it’s the cynic and libertarian in me and I’m being close-minded about such things, but that’s who I am.

On the other hand, I’m no less susceptible to the soothing powers of music than the next listener, and have been known to nod off occasionally during concerts, especially of the Sunday afternoon (i.e., nap time) persuasion. So, if Mr. Richter has a nice new musical soporific to offer, I’ll snooze to that!

Basic info: Max Richter is a prolific German-born British composer of post-minimalist music for concert, stage, film and electronics. His resourceful and entertaining “recomposition” (his term) of Antonio Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” was one of the biggest classical hits of 2012-2013, and a favorite of listeners to my NEPR classical show. His latest and longest opus, “SLEEP (received) its world premiere this September in Berlin, in a concert performance lasting from 12 midnight to 8am at which the audience (were) given beds instead of seats and programmes,” to quote from the Deutsche Grammophon record label’s website. No word on whether crackers and juice were served prior to sleepy time.

In its full eight-hour version, “SLEEP” consists of 31 distinct selections scored for various combinations of instruments (played by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, aka ACME), electronics (programmed by Mr. Richter) and wordless voice (the angelic Grace Davidson). I economized in both time and funds, going for the one-hour, seven track single-CD sampler called “from SLEEP.”

And by and large, I found the music to be attractive, appealing and indeed quite restful, if not exceptionally original. In particular, the resemblance of the acoustic (i.e, non-electronic) selections to the music of the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt, especially such Pärt works as “Für Alina” and “Spiegel im Spiegel” (click on titles for Spotify playback) cannot be ignored. But originality and other typical priorities of many modern artists are not prioritized as highly by Mr. Richter. Quite the contrary:

I’m perpetually curious about performance conventions in classical music, our rigid rules that dictate how and what music we can appreciate. Somehow in Europe over the last century, as complexity and inaccessibility in music became equated with intelligence and the avant-garde, we lost something along the way. Modernism gave us so many stunning works but we also lost our lullabies. We lost a shared communion in sound. Audiences have dwindled. All my pieces over the last few years have been exploring this, as does SLEEP. It’s a very deliberate political statement for me.

There’s a bit of straw in that statement, and not just the kind you sleep on. The avant-garde, to the extent one currently exists in classical music, is hardly as devoted to “complexity and inaccessibility” as it once was. Under the influence of the aforementioned Arvo Pärt and others, quite a few younger composers now write in quiet, meditative styles, among them Caleb Burhans, who happens also to be a member of ACME, the ensemble featured on this album.

But once I freed myself of my customary cynicism and put aside my critical judgments, I derived considerable pleasure from this music. And despite Mr. Richter’s admonition that “the short one is meant to be listened to and the long one is meant to be heard while sleeping,” I enjoyed a brief nap during one session with “from SLEEP,” nodding off during the soothing second track, an overdubbed vocal duet with organ called “Path 5 (delta)” and coming to during the very lovely final track, “Dream 8 (late and soon),” featuring Ms. Davidson’s voice tolling like a bell in the middle of (almost) every measure. Nice!

And who in modern times hasn’t ever longed to escape our “frenetic world” for a “slower pace of existence?” A few years ago, the choir I sing in performed a number that ended with (in translation) these words:

Sing, ye birds, your tender ditties, lull the weary past;
haunts of men and busy cities, oh farewell, I rest at last.

In their original German, the words come from a Paul Heyse poem called “Waldesnacht” (“Woodland Night”) published in 1850, and set to music by Johannes Brahms in 1874. Some things never change, however many pundits and artists think that they just discovered them. Now please pass me my pillow…

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