Max Richter’s Sleep

Max Richter’s Industrial Slumber Party

Soaring strings daggered by the ghostly soprano that’ll stay with me for a while. A return to the gentle ivory repetitions that started this whole thing, making you fall a little bit asleep… only to be woken by the minor-led vocals again, and the twitching bodies surrounding you. An unidentifiable body snores somewhere in the distance. Near, but far.

Magnificent and weird, relaxing to a degree, but also jarring to me – experimental composer Max Richter brought Sleep to Berlin this week, and the other way around. He’s worked tirelessly for eighteen months to bring the 2015 composition (remixed in 2016) back to the city where it was first written. Hundreds of patient concertgoers lie in wait for their eight hour lullaby, in sleeping bags they dragged on the ubahn at 10pm, privy to strange looks from strangers. The rows of camp beds face towards the stage holding the chamber orchestra centralised by Richter who gives a few words just before midnight as we tuck ourselves in. I am alone, and it feels wonderful. Richter speaks about us all being in the experience together, about breakfast at 8am, and there is a sense of togetherness in this situation that makes you think of being in hiding, seeking shelter, being a nameless body amongst all the others in a vast and usually derelict space that doesn’t even closely resemble a bedroom.

Max Richter’s Sleep

Built during the same years as the Berlin wall, Richter selected Kraftwerk, a space steeped in industrial history and it’s easy to see and hear why. Its enormity and brutality is awesome, and it’s super-clean perfection makes you feel almost sexually attracted to the walls. It’s naturally there to make you feel like human beings design things easily and well, and you’re at once transported to all things Ballardian. When everyone becomes still and quiet, you imagine the machinery of yesterday, slicing through gases and empty space before it was silenced with the Wall’s fall. Lost of its purpose to generate power for the former East German parts of Berlin, history left Kraftwerk (as it became known) defunct for many years until 2006.

It’s a Thursday night in March 2016 and today was uncharacteristically warm in Berlin. It felt like the first day of spring for certain. But settling down in the concrete nook of an upper tier of a former power station, cloaked in a mixture of darkness and pools of unnatural and creepy light, the day seems like a distant memory, months or years ago. It’s strange for something’s (based on sound) end goal to be unconsciousness – I hate the slightest sound disturbing my sleep – and in turn, strange that the setting for the experiment be so visually nice. I barely want to close my eyes. I suppose it goes someway to explaining why we tidy rooms and make our bedrooms pretty?

Finally the strangers around me: 99, 217, 396, 12 right down at the front… they begin to quieten down after annoying me for some minutes zipping and unzipping, twittering in loud whispers, crunching plastic cups underfoot. Some guests watched the first thirty minutes at the stage before turning in, and a handful forgo their camp bed to stay seated at the back of the upper tier. Smug couples pepper my area, holding one another taking smugger selfies. I take one of myself at dawn (pictured), looking rougher than I’ve ever looked before and wonder if you sleep better in power plants if you’re cocooned by a lover, and not just a lover’s sleeping bag.


What proceeds is a drawn-out eight hours (five of which I remained in my camp bed for) of Sleep; or in my case, six hours of a cocktail made up of the moment before you begin to happily dream and the jagged moment you wake up slightly skewiff. I’m not sure what happened in between but it was intense.

So, Richter proposed that this premiere offered a lullaby of sorts, in an age when our lives are accelerating. He observes a lack of rest, and this suggests a sped-up ageing process. From my understanding, a lullaby is gentle and forgotten once you enter the realms of your sleeping subconscious. Clock radios have forever disturbed me; I remember long accidental snoozes in which my tail end of the night’s dreams were soundtracked by music I hadn’t chosen to accompany whatever I was doing at that moment in time. The results were unnerving, and like a bad nightmare, would sometimes stay with me all day. Interestingly, the opportunity to attend Sleep came last minute, during a week where I had been questioning what is the right amount of time to be sleeping. Are we in fitful states of unrest and ageing? Do I sleep too much?

Max Richter’s Sleep

In the trailer for Sleep, one of Richter’s musicians from ACME comments how, though the music is composed to be slept through, in order to play it you must be very awake. As I lay through the witching hour of twelve to one, to 1:45 and through to 3am and beyond, barely resting anything other than my limbs, I contemplated the seemingly blissful slumberers around me. Maybe it was because I was alone, but I feel as though I achieved only the early stages of sleep. REM was nowhere to be found. My mind hurried about places: different corners of the industrial plant I was listening to a twilight orchestra in, over and under and around the smooth cement steps and pillars and steely beams where pink, green, blue and green lights gently sat around.

As the beautiful arrangements moved from piano to high strings and a soprano voice, my thoughts flickered to people and I suddenly kept getting glimpses of my friends without faces, but I knew who they were. Then Bowie walking, running, hiding out in Berlin and silently observing all the madness of the Wall and writing songs from high-up windows. He was Bowie with bright hair and then he was gone again. My body became paralysed – perhaps I was asleep. But I still knew where I was, and felt that maybe I’d wanted to be visited by certain faces and I’d made them come to me. The cello started to moan and I felt really sad and really still, like I couldn’t imagine being anywhere else and couldn’t bear to have missed the experience.

There was a moment then that maybe was over an hour, where the music felt like a sequence, and I started to regard it like an old friend coming to check up on me. Then someone shut a door somewhere, or a song ended, and I opened my eyes, staring straight up into the upper bowels of Kraftwerk where the lights were green and soft. I sat up and saw the slow movements of the cellist gliding their bow back and forth. I left my bed and walked up to the stage in my socks and felt I’d been here forever, and then I zipped up my things and left.

I’ve appreciated Richter’s work since I heard his 2008 score for Waltz With Bashir. He depicts hallucinations well, and apparently provokes them. Outside it was just about to start getting light and I felt protective of all the things I’d left behind in the building, like a human.

Sleep was presented by Berliner Festspiele / ‘MaerzMusik – Festival for Time Issues’ in collaboration with Deutsche Grammophon, Berlin Atonal and Kraftwerk Berlin.