After recent events in Paris, the idea of writing a blog post about something as trivial as music has seemed frivolous. However, in the direct aftermath of the horrible events, I really wanted to listen to music that was soothing and wordless. The September Rough Trade album of the month fitted the bill.
I wrote recently about the re-creation of Brian Eno’s “Discreet Music” at the Barbican. On the same evening BBC Radio 3 broadcast a performance of Max Richter’s “Sleep” in the wee small hours of the morning. The piece is eight hours long and Richter has released extracts from it as a standalone album. For the hardcore insomniacs/classical fans out there, all eight hours are available from Deutsche Grammophon (DG). Apparently it was the longest continuous piece of music that Radio 3 has broadcast.
Whilst a mainstream classical label, DG have always supported the avant garde and left field, releasing work by Stockhausen amongst other in the 1960’s. It was their 111th anniversary in 2010 and to celebrate they released two 56 (!) CD box sets which are a great introduction into classical music. I was reading Alex Ross’s “The Rest Is Noise” at the time and the box sets were a tremendous accompaniment. By the way, if anyone wants in an introduction into 20th century classical music, it is an excellent book. The Southbank Centre in London had a year long season based on the music Ross wrote about. N and I went to see a few of the concerts and a combination of the book and the presentation of the pieces really took both us out of our comfort zones and was hugely rewarding.
I saw Max Richter perform many many years ago as part of the Six Pianos ensemble. They did a fantastic version of Steve Reich’s Six Pianos and at the gig I picked up a CD sample from their record label, Argo which was a great listen but has long disappeared from my collection.
Richter left Piano Circus after ten years and worked with varied artists along the way including Future Sound Of London and Roni Size. He has re-composed and re-constructed Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” and is now a recognised composer in his own right.
“From Sleep” is the distillation of the eight hours of “Sleep” into a more digestible listen, spread over an hour – perhaps an afternoon catnap? The full fat piece is designed to be listened to whilst drifting into sleep and to remain on during the night. I haven’t tried it for size (N might have some objections) but the lullaby qualities of the music is highly evident.
Richter recognises the parallel with Bach’s “The Goldberg Variations”. Bach wrote the variations for Count Keiserling, the Russian Ambassador to the court of Saxony in the 1760’s. The Count was ill and had trouble sleeping and the titular Goldberg played Bach’s music to try and help the Count’s insomnia.
Richter wrote his work with his children in mind. He says:
The whirlwind of a life – so fast. When I look at my children I wonder where they will find rest. Those moments of being that they used to have as tiny babies, arms outstretched, trusting of the world.
In the aftermath of last week’s tragic events in particular, the role of music in finding peace is a significant one for me. To sleep like a baby is something that will have been difficult for many people. This album may help.
The pieces are variations and in Richter’s mind can be re-ordered to suit. The album opens though with “Dream 3” which is, as is much of the album, stately with a piano and cello intertwining. “Space 11” is particularly beautiful with swells of strings, reminiscent of the work of the great Estonian composer Arvo Part. “Dream 13” continues this steady restful theme. “Path 5” and “Path 19” have similar themes with the former using the soprano voice of Grace Davidson to provide the counter melody whilst the latter uses a violin for the same lines. The remainder of the performers are from the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, joined by Richter himself.
The album was recorded in New York over a couple of days. Richter commented that the pace of the pieces created difficulties particularly for the string players who had to slowly bow their instruments. It was a demanding session by all accounts.
It’s obviously an album you have to be in the right mood for (probably not when driving or operating heavy machinery!). It does works as something that brings calm but not in a soporific manner. This isn’t muzak by any stretch of the imagination.
Here’s a short film that Richter made as a trailer for the album that gives an insight to the thoughts behind the record and the process involved in capturing the hugely lengthy piece for posterity and enjoyment.
To finish, here’s the Goldberg Variations played by the incredible Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. His recordings of this for Sony are just amazing. Lord knows how many blogs posts could be written about Gould himself.
A Canadian child prodigy, as a baby he hummed rather than cried. A doctor suggested that he could be a physician or a pianist after seeing him constantly wiggle his fingers as if at a keyboard. He hardly ever practised, learning from reading rather than playing music. He thought that live performances were a “force of evil.” He continued to hum (a la Keith Jarrett) whilst playing the piano, something that hinders the enjoyment of some listeners. The temperature of the studio had to be perfect and he altered the height of the piano if necessary. He had to sit 14″ of the floor and only performed concerts sitting in an old chair that his father had made.
Whilst something of a hypochondriac, he did suffer a stroke in 1982 just two days after his fiftieth birthday. He died days later and his gravestone has the first few bars of the Goldberg Variations carved on it.
His playing was wonderful, mesmeric and full of character.
The “Sleep” album can be purchased from Rough Trade here. It’s available still in 180gm clear vinyl with some bonus tracks. Rough Trade have just named in at #5 in their album of the year list.
I can thoroughly recommend it as a record for these troubled times.