Music Review: Max Richter’s Eight-Hour Sleep

Richter sleepMax Richter has released a new work called Sleep, and it’s available in two versions. The first is a one-hour version that you can get on CD (, Amazon UK), or stream on Apple Music, and the second is the full 8-hour, 24-minute version, which is only available by download from the iTunes Store for $35. The one-hour versions consists of excerpts from the longer version; it’s not just tracks from the eight-hour version, and each track on the short version has a name that’s not in the long version.

As I mentioned last week, when I wrote about the availability of this work by download, I’m quite enamored of long musical works. I’ve listened to all of Sleep over the weekend, in a variety of situations: while working, when reading, and when lying in bed just relaxing. (I have not, however, listened to it when sleeping.)

While Sleep is on the Deutsche Grammophon record label – a classical label with a long history – it’s certainly not classical music. It’s an attractive ambient composition for piano, strings, electronics, and vocals. It’s not the Brian Eno kind of ambient music, which is often generative, or created using randomness, but which has more texture and depth. And it’s not the new age tripe that you hear on the speakers in health food stores.

The 31 tracks of Sleep range from melodic cello melodies over a subtle background to slowly evolving drones, to sections with minimal vocals. In some ways, Sleep makes me think of what Philip Glass’s music would sound like if you sanded down all the arpeggios: it’s got the same types of chord progressions, and there are parts of Sleep that have a melody that reminds me of Glass’s soundtrack for the movie Koyaanisqatsi. But while Glass has a melodic drive in much of his music, as though he’s trying to get somewhere, Richter is content with just being where he is.

The whole thing about it being designed for sleeping is a bit of a gimmick. You can certainly use it for that, and, in doing so, you’d miss out on a lot of good music. But that gimmick stretches the work out to a length that it doesn’t need. Richter talks about the piece being made up of variations in the liner notes; they’re not really variations, they are rather different arrangements of the same melodic material. There’s a lot of repetition, but that’s all right. You’re not going to listen to the entire work at any one time, and the repetitions remind you of Sleep’s themes.

I respect the fact that Richter doesn’t present this music as something that needs to be listened to, but rather touts it as background music. In the composer’s mind, this music might help create dreams; or it might simply be a soft, subtle accompaniment to your sleep. But it can also be background music for your day, or you could listen to an hour of it when you want to relax.

This may sound a tad critical, but I actually like the music. There are some parts that sound a bit like filler – the drone sections, for example – but much of the melodic material in the work is catchy, in a slow kind of way. There’s probably about three or four CDs worth of music in this set, and it’s been padded to get past the eight hour mark, but that’s okay. If you buy it from the iTunes Store, you pay $35, or the cost of three and a half full albums.

Sleep is functional music, furniture music, a soundtrack for relaxing and sleeping, and as such it’s successful. It’s not “classical” music, and shouldn’t be judged as such. It does what it claims, and it’s enjoyable, and that’s a good enough recommendation to anyone who wants some light music to listen to when taking a break.