★★★½☆ Nodding off to Max Richter’s soporific epic is easier said than done.
Being told you have to go to bed to do a review isn’t a common job requirement. But then again, neither is listening to a piece that plays all through the night. I wasn’t expected to listen to all of Max Richter’s eight-hour epic. If my concentration lapsed and I nodded off, then good! The piece worked. It was a sort of musical product test – like trying out the newest Smartphone gadget, or vacuum cleaner. Just more quiet, and restful.
So, intrigued to review the soporific qualities of this marathon work, I started getting myself ready for bed at the slightly early hour of twenty past nine (9:30pm is a little before my Friday-night bedtime, I’ll admit). I brushed my teeth, put on my pyjamas and got all cosy under the covers with the radio on beside me, tuning the dial to ABC Classic FM’s frequency. It’s #MentalAS week at the ABC, who scheduled the broadcast to raise awareness of mental health in what was one of their longest continuous broadcasts in the history of the station.
At thirty minutes past nine, Julian Day’s velvety voice announces the beginning of the broadcast and the piece begins. Soft, piano chords emanate from the radio in a poignant progression of major and minor harmonies moving softly and slowly at regular intervals, like a heartbeat. After a time (a long time) the texture changes and those chords begin to wash together, revealing a new sound: the soft caress of stringed instruments.
The music is meditative and minimal, and naturally quite beautiful. After some time, the music changes, and I hear the sweet sounds of vocal music wafting over me. Richter’s message is a strong one: the world has become too fast, too “frenetic”, and many of us have forgotten how to slow down, take time and relax.
I’m a very good sleeper, so I was curious to see what effect this music might have on my regular slumber. I listen, letting my mind wander, as it does before I drift off. Annoyingly, I find my mind returning again and again though to the subtle changes in harmony and texture in the music. Perhaps it’s not as relaxing as I thought it might be. Or perhaps I don’t know how to relax properly, and I’m too analytical?
At any rate, after a while I begin to feel very comforted by the music – its gentle regularity is quietly reassuring, and I do come to sense a prevailing peace in the world that perhaps I didn’t notice before. I spend a good deal of time in a sort of half-sleep – that meditative dream-world you enter when you listen to ocean noises with your eyes closed for a long time.
And then, eventually, sleep comes. I’m sure there were more musical changes that arrived throughout the night, though I can’t say my musical memory is strong enough to have detected them. Richter is supposed to have consulted neuroscientist David Eaglemen about our natural sleep patterns while composing the work, and I’m sure this informed the pacing of the piece.
Was it a profoundly deeper sleep than that to which I am usually accustomed? I’m not sure. I did stir a couple of times, and in the wee hours of the morning (I checked my clock: around 2:30am) I did wake with the frustrated knowledge there was music playing, before I remembered what it was.
However as I’m writing this – the morning after the performance and my long, musical sleep – I do feel more rested than usual. Perhaps it was the music. Maybe it was the early night? At any rate, I don’t think that’s the point – Richter has delivered his powerful message in a very long and peaceful musical statement, and the ABC has reminded us that healthy minds need to rest and rejuvenate.
And classical music might be one of our greatest allies in the process.