The Mindful Bard – Max Richter

The World is a Child Screaming, and Max Richter Wants to Lull it to Sleep

Album: From Sleep
Composer and pianist: Max Richter

“O sleep, O gentle sleep, Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frightened thee,
That thou no more will weigh my eyelids down, And steep my senses in forgetfulness?”
– William Shakespeare, Henry IV, Part 2

You know when terms like “easy listening” have entered the parlance of the de rigueur, culture has taken a turn. Long gone are the days when we rolled our eyes at our parents? instrumental platters and blissed out to the Woodstock album’s opening “Gimme an ?F!?” as if that were somehow more musically rigorous and significant than the Percy Faith Orchestra playing “Stardust.”

But even “easy listening” is a misapplied term for this album. British composer Max Richter isn’t just a serious neoclassical composer trained at the Royal Academy of Music, an exclusive artist to Deutsche Grammophon, and the creator of scores for numerous television shows and films including Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island; his deeply melodic music is also all the rage among fans of very different musical genres.

For example, a comment after one of these tracks on Let’s Loop reads, “Well, that was a minute well spent, now off to seek out some headbanging stuff.”

For head-bangers I recommend this short version, From Sleep. Regrettably I haven’t yet had time to listen to the full eight-hour version, Sleep, in which Richter accompanies himself with a small selection of master stringsters and the soul-stirring tones of Grace Davidson, whose wordless vocals carry all the intense and comforting beauty of the archetypal dam. The long version has been described as an eight-hour lullaby, but, if this short version is any indication, It’s the kind of lullaby that soothes you all night and in the morning is still going, convincing you that all’s well and a miraculous new day awaits you.

What does it mean that Richter wants to put us to sleep? Even more bizarre, why would such a hard-working composer create something which he explicitly wants us to sleep through? Is the artist expressing humanity’s wish to take a break from the nightmare of our current waking lives, to turn away from the burnout, the refugee crisis, religious extremism, political polarisation, global warming, and all the personal horrors that await us each morning? Is he suggesting that burying our faces in our smartphones or drowning in consumer goods may be making things worse?

Richter isn’t proposing an escape but rather a natural, restorative hiatus, both for the suffering and for those who empathise: “We are all in need of a pause button.” Richter confesses that sleeping is one of his favourite activities, and he observes that the world doesn’t get enough of it?with negative repercussions.

Sometime this fall he’ll be providing that pause button live in Berlin, where the orchestra will surround 400 beds and the audience will be invited to sleep as the band plays on for the eight hours of Richter’s score.

While writing the score he consulted with sleep specialist David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor college. But this isn’t just a scientifically informed effort to calm you down; It’s contemplative fodder for the unconscious. One reviewer, Jon Falcone, described his own experience of falling asleep to this music as follows: “Sleeping with Sleep as a subconscious companion cleared the canvas entirely; no images were retained merely deep dark sleep and moments of shock, awaking to ebbing strings or singular syllables. It felt like waking up in Lynch’s ?Mulholland Drive?, for the briefest of moments.”

Yes, the tracks on From Sleep can free you from the mundane and set you down in a kind of weird twilight zone, but they also grant a deep sense of assurance?assurance that, somehow, You’re loved, that your true self is solid and enduring, and that you can find your way out of the forest if you try.

A few high points: “Dream 13 (minus even)” is deeply healing, conjuring up tender feelings you didn’t know you had. Listen to it while looking at old family photos and wait for that old lovin? feelin? to flood you in waves. “Path 5 (delta)” has incredibly stirring vocals, mastered for maximum heart-rending power. And in “Space 21 (petrichor)” the strings sound like digeridoos, granting a sense of access to a primal world.

From Sleep manifests five of The Mindful Bard’s criteria for music well worth a listen.

– It’s authentic, original, and delightful.
– It provides respite from a cruel world, a respite enabling me to renew myself for a return to mindful artistic endeavor.

– It’s about attainment of the true self.

– It inspires an awareness of the sanctity of creation.

– It renews my enthusiasm for positive social action.
It makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomena, making living a unique opportunity.

Many thanks for the research assistance of Bill Waterman.

Wanda also writes the blog The Mindful Bard:The Care and Feeding of the Creative Self.