Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Thursday, June 30, 2016

On Sleep

For the last month, almost every night, I have listened to Max Richter’s Sleep. I have some things to say about it:

  • It amounts to more than eight hours of music.
  • It is comprised of 31 sections, ranging in length from 2:46 to 33:46. Only seven of the sections are shorter than ten minutes.
  • The music is made by voices, strings, and keyboard instruments (some of which are electronic).
  • I think I have listened to it all, but I am not sure. I have played it mostly in bed, though sometimes at my computer as I write. In bed I have drifted in and out of sleep while listening. I think I have listened to some sections several times, others no more than once, but I cannot be sure.
  • Sleep is dominated by three musical themes, one played on the piano, one played on the violin, and one sung by a soprano voice. (Though other music happens also.) One way to characterize Sleep is as a series of themes with variations.
  • The piano theme is the most restful, mimicking most closely the rhythms of the body breathing; the violin melody is the most beautiful; the vocal melody is the most haunting. (Also, when it appears when I am sleeping, or near sleep, it wakes me up.)
  • I could tell you which of the sections presents the violin melody most fully and most gorgeously, but then you might listen to that section on its own rather than in its context. I do not wish to encourage shortcuts in this matter.
  • It is said that the music of Arvo Pärt is especially consoling to the dying; I think this may prove true of Sleep as well. There is a very good chance that, should I die slowly, I will listen to Sleep regularly, perhaps even exclusively.
  • Sleep is the half-brother of death.
  • The number three plays a large role these pieces: the time signatures vary a good deal, but a good many of them come in units of three. Also, at least one section — maybe more; it’s so hard to be sure — features a bell-like tone that rings every thirteen beats.
  • If you have a very good pair of headphones, that's how you should listen to this music. If you're listening on, for instance, Apple's earbuds, you'll miss a great deal of wonderful stuff going on in the lower registers. 
  • The musical materials of Sleep are deceptively simple: Richter is not by the standards of contemporary music tonally adventurous, yet he manages to create a remarkable variety of treatments of his simple themes. The power of the music grows with repetition, with variation, with further repetition. This is yet another reason why sampling this composition will not yield an experience adequate to its design.
  • Since I started listening to Sleep I have thought a good deal about sleep and what happens within it. As Joyce insisted in Finnegans Wake and in his comments on the book when it was still known as Work in Progress, we have no direct access to the world of sleep. All we have is our memories of dreams, and these may well be deeply misleading: “mummery,” Joyce says, “maimeries.” And even dreams are not sleep tout court. A third of our lives is effectively inaccessible to us.
  • Listening to Sleep is, I think, one of the most important aesthetic experiences of my life, but I do not have any categories with which to explain why — either to you or to myself.


  • Thanks for this post, Alan. On reading it I immediately investigated Richter, who I wasn't familiar with. I'm holding off on buying Sleep till I have some spare cash, but I found his re-composition of the Four Seasons on Amazon Music, and it is quite lovely. As a fan of neo-classicism generally, it's nice to find some new listening material, and I like the touches of electronica Richter brings.

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