Showing posts with label Max Richter. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Max Richter. Show all posts

Friday, September 18, 2015

Why Sleep is a smash hit

I had a fascinating chat with Max Richter recently about his new piece, Sleep, which is eight hours long and designed to be slept through. A one-hour version on CD has gone straight to the top of the classical charts and has made it into the pop ones too. The premiere of the long one takes place at the Wellcome Collection - overnight. I couldn't resist asking him what happens if people snore.

My piece was in the Independent the other day, but in case you missed it and fancy giving Sleep a whirl, here it is...


When composers unveil new works, they do not generally want the audience to nod off. Not so Max Richter. The intention behind his latest piece, Sleep – which is eight hours long – is that his listeners should slumber peacefully throughout. He has termed it “my personal lullaby for a frenetic world” and “a manifesto for a slower pace of existence”. The world premiere at the Wellcome Collection on 26 September will apparently offer beds instead of chairs – and as it is broadcast live on BBC Radio 3 you can even try it at home. 

Richter, 49, knows plenty about frenetic pace. This German-born British composer’s works have become increasingly high-profile, and many are ambitious in scale. His Recomposed by Max Richter: Vivaldi - The Four Seasons was a smash hit in 2014; his score for the Royal Ballet’s Woolf Works triumphed earlier this year, and his many film soundtracks include Testament of Youth, Sarah’s Key and Waltz with Bashir. Yet the notion of a piece devoted to the vital nature of sleeping, he says, simply wouldn’t leave him alone. 

“My starting point was a personal fascination,” says Richter. “I couldn’t ignore the idea. It kept popping up while I was in the middle of working on other things. It was something I had to get off my chest.”

The premiere is to be given not in a traditional concert hall, but at the Wellcome Collection, central London, where it forms part of a long weekend of talks, discussions and performances entitled ‘Why Music?’, from 25 to 27 September. A collaboration with BBC Radio 3, this intensive series explores the power of music and the way it can affect our brains, minds and bodies; in the middle, Sleep will become the longest piece the BBC has ever broadcast. 

The work is in 31 sections, each bearing a title such as “Cassiopeia”, “moth-like stars”, “Dream 11 (whisper music)” or “nor earth, nor boundless sea”. “I often choose titles from literature that I love,” Richter says. “Music is writing and storytelling, so, for me at least, the titles are a clue, giving people a door into that material.”

Sleeping is, of course, vital to us all. “I have a sense that while I’m asleep some of the most important work is taking place ‘under the hood’,” Richter says. “I started talking with the neuroscientist David Eagleman, and it seems that cognitive mental processes really are going on while we’re sleeping that relate to our waking life. I think most creative people would intuitively agree: for instance, if we sleep on a decision we often feel more comfortable about our thinking in the morning. 

“I see the eight-hour piece as an environment, a place to inhabit,” he adds. “If it has a subject, it’s that the piece is the experience of the listener. The consciousness of the listener is the story.” 

This idea might have rung a bell with the composer John Cage (1912-1992), whose most famous work, 4’33’’ – supposedly of silence – is really about the audience’s personal experience of the ambient sounds that occur during that silence. Cage, almost as much a philosopher as a composer, had embraced Zen and mysticism while the musical world was still dominated by the rigours of modernism; and Richter agrees that Sleep bears the influence of the American alternative scene, notably 1960s New York, where the notion of an all-night concert at which people could relax, sleep, or come and go as they pleased, was pioneered. “It’s a very New York thing,” he notes. “From ‘the city that never sleeps’…”

“Sleep is another step away for me from the modernist position,” he adds, “which was: ‘The composer’s smarter than you and you’d better sit down and listen, and if you’re clever enough you might understand it’. I always had a problem with that and in various overt or covert ways I’ve been critiquing it for a long time. I think of musical performance more as a conversation than a lecture.”

This work, he suggests, reflects trends that counter our information overload, such as the current widespread interest in “mindfulness” (a rehash of ancient principles of meditation). “Sleep is under siege by contemporary culture,” he says. “We live in a dense data universe; many of us spend a lot of time curating our own data landscapes from email, social media and TV. It’s a significant psychological load to manage all that. 

“I feel that creative work can provide a holiday from that experience. Painting, cinema, music, books: these are places where you have a single object for contemplation and engagement, rather than millions of little objects which we’re forced to react to in a one-dimensional way. 

“You never hear people complain that life’s getting slower or less complicated,” he points out. “I think many of us do feel that there’s a huge emphasis on quantity of information and objects at the expense of real reflection and quality. To a certain extent that’s the inevitable consequence of a networked world: everything just gets multiplied. Therefore there’s this statement of mine – a ‘manifesto for a slower pace of existence’ – which sounds very grand and ambitious! But at heart it’s about engaging with fewer objects in a more extended and deliberate way, which personally I find rewarding. I think there’s something about it that connects with the renewed interest in mindfulness, or slow food – those traditions. It’s a kind of ecology of mind.

“In a painting by Mark Rothko, for instance, there can be a single object with which you engage; it leads to lots of thought, but it is very simple in essence. That’s what I’ve sought to do with Sleep: make a single object that can function like a landscape for the listener to inhabit while sleeping.”

Some people will not sleep at all, though: namely, the musicians performing the piece, including Richter himself (it is scored for piano, strings, electronics and wordless vocals). “It’s a bit like preparing for a marathon,” Richter remarks, “but I’ve structured it so that everyone gets a break. Nobody actually has to play for eight hours. Perhaps the ideal thing would be to be in the right time-zone: to arrive from somewhere jet-lagged and jump straight on stage.” 

One possible downside exists. If you’ve ever been to a performance at which people are meant to stay awake, yet a person near you drifts off into the Land of Nod, they may snore. That can be anything from a mild annoyance to a serious disruption, depending on volume. What happens if people go to Sleep and snore? Richter takes the question in good spirit. “Performance traditions are practical things as well as conventions,” he says. “Some of those conventions I find, personally, sometimes rather oppressive, but at their root they’re there for a reason: so that people can enjoy the music. I think we’ll just have to wing it and see.”

There is also a one-hour version of Sleep, a recording of which is available now; its material is notably different, intended more for active listening than dozy absorption. “The one-hour piece is a little like a daydream, or the tip of the iceberg which pokes above the sea,” Richter says. “I think of that as intentional music: music that you can engage with consciously, listen to analytically and make judgments about. There’s music in the one-hour piece that isn’t in the eight-hour version at all, and vice-versa, because it’s structured for wakeful consciousness. In a way, the two pieces are asking a question about the difference between experiencing or inhabiting the material and listening to it consciously.”

And if you are hesitating about giving eight hours of Sleep a whirl, don’t let the unfamiliarity put you off. “I see the concerts as a laboratory – a bit of an experiment,” says Richter. “I expect some people will try to stay up; others will sleep and I imagine most will do a bit of both. It’s a voyage of discovery. But don’t worry about not knowing the rules. There are no rules.”


Sleep: Wellcome Collection, London, 26 September, midnight. Live broadcast, BBC Radio 3. It is part of Why Music?, a weekend of talks and concerts. http://wellcomecollection.org/exhibitions/why-music One-hour album is out now on DG; eight-hour version will be available as a digital download.




Sunday, May 17, 2015

Woolf Works - it does

Federico Bonelli & Alessandra Ferri (photo: Tristram Kenton)

The wonder of dance is that it makes the human body capable of expressing extreme emotion through movement alone. And what a treat it is to see Alessandra Ferri portraying the anguish of the suicidal Virginia Woolf simply by walking across the Covent Garden stage. The Italian ballerina, who left the Royal Ballet for ABT in her twenties, is now 52 and back from what looks to have been a premature retirement. Artistry oozes from her every centimetre; delicate, vulnerable, dignified and technically flawless too, she is a privilege to watch. Why should it be assumed that dancers will retire in their forties? Why should they, and we, miss out on the fruits of mature artistry?

Woolf Works really does work. Wayne McGregor's choreography in the past has often been virtuosic, intellectual, trendy, or all three at once, yet it's in poetic vision - expressed in whatever medium - that the best creators live on. McGregor has in the past offered flashes of that poetry in moments like Raven Girl's final pas de deux. But here, at least in the first and third sections, the physical poetry of emotion is there in force. It's as if he has found his true voice lying beneath all the bedazzlement and is now letting it sing. Edward Watson in 'I Now, I Then' (based on Mrs Dalloway) as the shell-shocked World War I soldier Septimus accompanied in Max Richter's score by a keening solo cello à la Elgar, matches Ferri and her younger self (Beatrix Stix-Brunnell) in the evocation of that poetry and is a special highlight.

Steven McRae & Natalia Osipova (photo: Tristram Kenton)
Natalia Osipova and Steven McRae (right) navigate the central section, 'Becomings', with the expected magnificence, Osipova's legs reaching what looks like a 240-degree extension. This episode - based, but less tangibly so, on Orlando - perhaps overstays its welcome; half an hour is a long time for any composer to sustain variations on 'La Folia', especially this loud, and while the idea was always that one dance idea begins while another is still in full flow, it can at times be hard to know where to look - whatever you focus on, you always feel you're missing something else. This episode is constant movement, a collage of ideas flashing and whirling by in a continual state of evolution, stunningly lit with lasers through dry ice (though the gold crinkly crinolines are a bit garish).

Finally, in 'Tuesday', Woolf's suicide note and her death blends with the stream-of-consciousness flow of The Waves, unfurling against filmed sea breakers in slow motion; a tender duet  takes place as she pays heart-rending homage to her husband, before walking into the water-embodying corps de ballet, is partnered by them, becomes one of them.

Richter's score is studded with moments of impressive imagination; its surround-sound electronic effects, the use of chamber music moments, voices - notably Virginia Woolf's own at the outset - plus the sounds of nature or of a much amplified scratching pen add constant new dimensions to the minimalist-derived style. Tchaikovsky it ain't, but it serves this multimedia dance theatre experience strongly and is an organic part of the whole.

If you love Woolf Works as much as I did, by the way, and you want a different kind of souvenir, I can highly recommend Caroline Zoob's gorgeous book about Woolf's garden at Monk's House. We see filmed glimpses of this garden in 'I Now, I Then', but the book is so beautifully done that it's the next best thing to visiting the place. In this strange world of ours, too, it is also possible to download an e-book of Woolf's complete novels for all of £1.19.

Woolf Works continues to 26 May. Book here.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?

I had wonderful chats with choreographer Wayne McGregor and composer Max Richter about the ambitious new ballet Woolf Works, which opens at Covent Garden on Monday and stars the great Alessandra Ferri, making a comeback. It's in the Independent today, but here's the "director's cut"...

Here & below, Woolf Works in rehearsal (photos Andrej Uspenski/ROH)

The Royal Opera House must be hoping that ballet audiences are not afraid of Virginia Woolf. On 11 May the curtain rises on the choreographer Wayne McGregor’s first full-length narrative work for the Royal Ballet: Woolf Works, an enormously ambitious creation inspired by three of the novelist’s books, plus the tragic story of her own life and self-inflicted death. 

When the news of McGregor’s plan first broke, jaw-bones splintered on floorboards across a dance world more accustomed to traditional, linear tales – rustic fun like La fille mal gardée or magical metamorphoses like Swan Lake. But McGregor has been working for a different sort of magic as he seeks to translate Woolf’s literary intensity and resonance into dance. “It was a bit overwhelming at first,” he admits. “Woolf is such an iconic figure and her work is incredible, frustrating, difficult, exciting – where do you start? I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to do justice to the brilliance of her writing.” 

Choreographers do not often risk stepping on the toes of literary critics. “There are so many experts on Woolf,” McGregor reflects, “and so many people who love it or detest it that when you say you’re doing a Woolf project you get an absolute tirade of either positive or negative energy. I’m not used to that. I only relaxed into the work after about six weeks, when I realised all I could do was to make a piece about my own experience of Woolf, filtered through my body, my imagination and my mind, and that was it.” 


McGregor, 45, the resident choreographer of the Royal Ballet since 2006, came to the company from the contemporary dance sphere and has always pushed at the limits of the possible. He stretches everything, from his dancers’ physical capacities in pieces such as Infra and Chroma to the potential of creative collaborations, notably Raven Girl with the author Audrey Niffeneger; last year he challenged the audience’s powers of perception in the detailed and symbol-laden Tetractys – The Art of Fugue. Now in Woolf Works, he is giving the process of storytelling itself a conceptual makeover. 

“I was interested in exploring multiple narratives and multiple viewpoints,” he says, “and our dramaturg, Uzma Hameed, put a copy of Mrs Dalloway under my nose. I felt the whole idea of stream-of-consciouness writing, many points of focus, shifting between times, was exciting and could be analogous with dance. It could also challenge, perhaps, the orthodoxies of how we make story ballets, which for me is about having a dialogue with heritage in a different way.” 

Wayne McGregor
Each of the ballet’s three parts is inspired by a different novel; McGregor has retitled them. A “meditation around Mrs Dalloway” becomes ‘I Now, I Then’; the second act, Becomings, which he terms “a flamboyant, very virtuosic 35 minutes of extraordinary dance,” is based on Orlando, Woolf’s whirl through the centuries with the protagonist changing sex en route. “It’s very lavish, with new visualisation techniques and a collage structure with a full-on assault and collision of the senses,” McGregor says. Finally, The Waves: “This is one of my favourite Woolf novels, because it’s like poetry, very abstract, but it’s also the one that relates most closely to Woolf and her passing.” Woolf drowned herself in the River Ouse close to her home in Sussex. “For her, water was a place of solace and beauty and her drowning is almost about becoming one with the universe. We’ve called this section Tuesday because that is the first word she wrote on her suicide note.” 

McGregor has commissioned for it a new score from the British composer Max Richter – the current Mr Cool of the classical contemporary world. The pair had already collaborated on Infra, among other projects, and more recently McGregor has choreographed for Zurich Ballet Richter’s major hit, Recomposed by Max Richter: The Four Seasons. 

Woolf Works’ score involves full orchestra, live electronics, pre-recorded sounds from nature and fragments of text: “Everything’s in there, including the kitchen sink,” Richter declares. “I love collaborating and the projects I do with Wayne are my favourite things. If I’m writing an instrumental work, then it’s me sitting in a room on my own and going slowly bonkers. But a ballet is the opposite process – it’s all about conversations and puzzle solving.”


Max Richter. Photo by Yulia Mahr
“I think what’s so impressive about Wayne,” he adds, “is that he has phenomenal skills as a maker of movement, but that’s just the starting point. He has an omnivorous intelligence and he’s always seeking out new ways of structuring ideas and information. That is the meeting point for us; in the musical sphere I’m also constantly looking for new ways to present material and to combine and enlarge languages.”

For Richter, reading Woolf during his schooldays was a revelation: “She handles language in such an extraordinarily personal and musical way,” he says. “She manages to pull off amazing literary tricks without drawing attention to them, and under her beautifully wrought surfaces there’s an amazing intelligence at work.” Her structures have been a direct inspiration for the music: “For me, Orlando is a novel in variation form,” he says. “I’ve written it as variations on a famous baroque theme, La Folia.”

The Orlando section’s central figure is to be Edward Watson, McGregor’s muse – prime among a cast of Royal Ballet luminaries that also includes Natalia Osipova and Sarah Lamb. But all eyes are upon the Italian ballerina Alessandra Ferri, 52, who is returning to the company to dance the dual role of Virginia Woolf and Mrs Dalloway. Ferri began her career with the Royal Ballet after training at its school, but left in 1985 to join American Ballet Theatre at Mikhail Baryshnikov’s invitation. Although she officially retired in 2007, she began to appear again as both dancer and choreographer two years ago. McGregor says that he went to New York to ask her to consider the role.



“Dance is notoriously a young people’s art form,” he remarks. “Even though dancers often remain phenomenal into their fifties and sixties, we don’t see them much on stage. Alessandra is amazingly physical and always a great actress. And you just cannot trade those years of experience and training in a body. I’ve learned so much from her – she’s very collaborative, she’s in extraordinary shape and we’ve been able to push each other to find new ideas.”

Indeed, it sounds as if Woolf Works allows McGregor to question all the regular discourses around ballet, literature, design, music and performance. “It’s not a straightforward story,” he emphasises. “Woolf writes about the prosaic matter of getting from lunch to dinner – but is that the only reality? Is reality La fille mal gardée? There’s nothing wrong with that: it’s great and funny and there are dancing chickens. But who said that had to be the only version of reality?”

What’s certain is that it is not every day that a groundbreaking venture on this scale is unveiled on the Royal Opera House’s main stage. “It’s a real challenge, because people don’t know what to expect,” McGregor admits. “But I think it’s the responsibility of a big lyric opera house to offer work that is on the edge. If they don’t, and they only present things that are easy to watch and that they know people already like, that would kill off the art-form. They have to be able to take risks.” 

Woolf Works, Royal Opera House, 11-26 May. Box office: 020 7304 4000