Max Richter brings his nocturnal odyssey ‘Sleep’ to the Sydney Opera House
By August 2016
“I’ve always thought that one of the more interesting things about music performance is how it relates to the space,” Max Richter tells me by telephone. The German-British composer describes the Sydney Opera House as the product of a modernist architecture that had “great faith in the future”. He also considers a live performance of Sleep, his “eight-hour lullaby”, to be “a tremendous act of trust” on the part of the audience, who are encouraged to sleep through the work. And so it seems fitting that the two should be brought together. Both the Sydney Opera House, as a building, and Sleep, as a performance, hold out the promise that we will live to see a new day.
Sleep is “structured as a big set of variations”, Richter says. Its 31 sections repeat a small number of harmonic and melodic themes. Over the course of a performance seven musicians will come and go, like a “relay race”. Richter himself will play piano and electronics for about seven of the eight hours. Grace Davidson, soprano, will be onstage for three hours. “Aesthetically, psychologically, it’s a very demanding project. Which is paradoxical,” he laughs.
Despite the demands it makes on performers, Sleep creates a gentle atmosphere for its listeners, though one tinged with sorrow. It sounds as much like a hymn as a lullaby.
There are precedents for this night music: the plainsong of monks, which stands at the beginning of Western music traditions, or the nocturnes of Chopin, composed for solo piano in the mid 19th century. Richter names JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations as a “precursor” to Sleep: the 31 pieces for harpsichord, first published in 1741, were supposedly written to ease the insomnia of the Russian diplomat Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling.
Richter describes the variation form as a compositional technique that “allows you to have a conversation with the material, and with the listener, in real time. Having established what the landscape is, you can kind of get up and walk around in it, and the listener knows where she is.”
At the Sydney Opera House, production staff have considered this landscape in a more than metaphorical sense. Chris Twite, the venue’s senior producer for contemporary music, says there is a “management plan” to deal with any sleepwalking audience members. He’s showing me the performance space about 12 hours before the technical rehearsal for Sleep begins.
Twite wanted to bring Sleep to the Sydney Opera House because it engages audiences “in a different way, in a biological way” with the music. (The piece was conceived in consultation with American neuroscientist David Eagleman, a friend of Richter’s.) It will mark the first overnight performance in the Sydney Opera House, and the first time that a full-scale work has been staged in its northern foyer. The space was chosen, says Twite, for the fact that natural light fills the room as the sun rises to the east of the building.
Sleep was released in 2015 as a digital recording on the prestigious classical label Deutsche Grammophon, and featured Davidson and musicians from the American Contemporary Music Ensemble (who are also playing at the Sydney Opera House). The composition was performed live for the first time last September, in London, before an audience of 20 people, for an all-night broadcast on BBC Radio 3. It had its public premiere this March in Germany at the Kraftwerk Berlin, a former power station, where the audience of 400 were accommodated on camp beds.
There will be camp beds here too, but these haven’t arrived yet. Twite points out where they will go: some directly in front of the performers, others on a Juliet balcony immediately above the temporary stage. Still others will be placed at the bottom of a staircase, in a part of the foyer with a corner discreet and dark enough to accommodate anyone who might snore so loudly as to disturb the performance. And, on the other side of the Opera House, in the Utzon Room, the cheapest tickets will allow audience members to experience a live streaming of both music and visuals.
“You wouldn’t believe how many meetings we’ve had about particular sheet-folding techniques,” Twite tells me. Because it’s winter, there will also be woollen blankets available, selected to comply with the building’s fire regulations. Audience members are allowed to bring a pillow “no bigger than a handbag” (anything larger will have to be checked in at the cloakroom), along with one “personal item” that can be stowed under the bed. A teddy? As long as it can be stowed, says Twite. The logistical preparation he describes is like that of a long-haul flight, and indeed audience members will be given a “travel amenity pack” when they arrive: toothbrush, eye mask, slippers and a pair of socks. There will be front-of-house staff stationed outside the bathrooms, like flight attendants, reminding people to let their eyes adjust before and after they visit the toilets. “We don’t want anyone stumbling around in the dark.”
All of this careful planning exists to support a performance that, Richter says, is like “an experiment, a laboratory”. One of the questions that Sleep investigates is the difference between listening and hearing. What does it mean to have heard music but to retain no conscious memory of it? How do we experience sound at the border of waking and sleep?
After midnight, the six musicians – two violinists, two cellists, a viola player and Davidson – gather for the technical rehearsal. A value pack of Tim Tams sits open on a table. Next to the table, on top of a cello case, rests a score, textbook-thick.
Richter, wearing blue jeans and a black turtleneck, sits at the keyboard of a Steinway & Sons grand piano. Another score is open on the piano’s music stand. Cables and power cords trail across the plush red carpet. Lighting technicians perch on ladders, and audio engineers discuss the placement of foldback monitors.
Sleep will begin in less than 24 hours, running from 11.30 pm until 7.30 am. In order to maintain their performance schedule the musicians are keeping to European time. According to their body clocks it’s mid afternoon.
“Beginning with the click,” says Richter, as he presses a key on one of two computers beside his piano. A deep bass loop of surprising loudness issues forth from the speakers. Something inside the room is rattling, set in motion by the frequencies. Outside, white gulls streak past the building’s wall of glass, as if startled. Luna Park glitters silently on the opposite shore, and the navigation light of Fort Denison emits a steady pulse at mid harbour.