Flying in to Sydney from London is the perfect way to prepare for performing Sleep, according to British composer Max Richter. The work, designed to be listened to while sleeping, is a marathon eight-and-a-half hours long and will be played through the night to a live (if drowsy) audience in the Sydney Opera House as part of the Vivid Festival.

Richter is planning to harness his jetlag to get through the performance. “I’m going to try and stay on UK time,” he says, “You know, just ignore everything that’s going on around me and pretend it’s day time. When we did the performances in Berlin, I spent a couple of days getting into the right time zone – it’s a big commitment – so coming in from London is, in a way, the ideal preparation.”

Max Richter

Richter describes his work as “a personal lullaby for a frenetic world” and it is an idea that he has been developing for some time, with sketches dating back to 1995. “When I first started thinking about the piece, I had some intuitive assumptions as to the kind of music that would be useful for people to sleep through – material with low frequencies and repetition, steady states without too much change,” Richter says. But after working with this material, he thought, “I’d better just check in with someone who actually knows what they’re talking about.”

Fortunately, Richter knew just the person: Neuroscientist David Eaglemann, whose book of speculative fiction, Sum, was the basis for an opera the pair worked on for Covent Garden in 2012. Richter spoke to Eaglemann about the neurological information available about what happens in the sleeping brain. “There’s been recent research to do with the use of sound and music to foster specific brain-states while people are sleeping. These are the states associated with consolidating memory and information processing and what David describes as taking out the neural trash,” he says. This research fed right into the musical material Richter was working with. “I got lucky. The kinds of sounds that are useful are low frequency sounds and slowly repeated short structures – I mean, that sounds like a recipe for what I do anyway!”

Sleep was released as a recording by Deutsche Grammophon in 2015 and you can read Limelight’s review of the recent ABC Classic FM broadcast here. The Australian premiere of the live work will be performed by the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, with British soprano Grace Davidson, to an audience of sleepers in the Sydney Opera House. Richter describes performing the work as “a bit like climbing Mount Everest.” “The fundamental document is the recording,” he says, “but music is something that exists in real time, in the moment, person to person. It’s a conversation, really. I always thought we would play it live, but obviously it’s got some challenges. It’s a pretty demanding situation for us to get through from beginning to end.”

Despite these challenges, for Richter, performing is a pleasurable experience. “It’s great. You go into that performance mode, so you’re thinking about sounds and notes and playing. It’s a different way of being, but I do enjoy the trip.” The music of Sleep has been described as meditative and this is no coincidence. “I’ve had a lengthy engagement with Zen over, I don’t know, 35 years,” Richter says, “and the subject of that sort of engagement is consciousness. I think that feeds into music performance, into listening. It informs all those sorts of questions.” Despite composing music for others to sleep to, Richter himself prefers silence. “I can’t actually listen to music while I’m sleeping, because if I was listening to music then I wouldn’t fall asleep. I can’t really not be analytical about music – it’s what I do. So if there’s music on, I’m thinking about the music.”

With individual beds set up in the Joan Sutherland Theatre Northern Foyer and the Utzon Room, the performance in the Opera House will be an unusual one. “I feel there are too many rules about how music performance should be. It’s all a bit one-dimensional. With Sleep there aren’t any rules.” As such, Richter wants listeners to experience the work in their own ways. “I’ve written it to be slept through, but sleeping is a very intimate, personal matter and not everyone can fall asleep in a room full of strangers.” His advice for the audience is: “Don’t worry about it too much. Listen if you feel like listening, go to sleep if you feel like going to sleep.”

This is the first Australian performance, but according to Richter, audiences have responded positively to performances overseas. “I think it’s quite a personal journey for people. A big piece like this allows an opportunity for reflection. There’s plenty of time in it to think. And I think when people are listening to music – because it’s emotional – it connects to what’s going on in their lives. We’ve had all sorts of amazing feedback from people going through some big stuff, and it just seems to allow an opportunity to reflect on that. I think of that as a huge compliment.”

The event will begin at 11:30pm and finish early in the morning, giving listeners time to really immerse themselves in the experience. “I think the subject of Sleep is the act of hearing,” Richter says, “of listeners’ individual, unique journeys and experiencing those sounds moment to moment.”