On the Mattress for ‘Sleep,’ an 8-Hour Lullaby

Posted May 7, 2018 5:23 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — My first mistake was waking up early to get groceries.

Then it was a long Friday at work, followed by a piano recital and finally a sprint downtown — where, exhausted, I was in the worst possible shape to take in one more concert. Except that the performance was “Sleep,” Max Richter’s eight-hour soundtrack engineered, with the help of scientific consultants, to provoke a relaxing night.

By dozing off, I’d be doing my job.

“Our lives are very data-saturated now,” Richter said in an interview last week. “We’re always on our screens, and mostly we’re being sold stuff. It squeezes out a lot of richness of what we are.”

A calm, relaxing, very, very long work like his, he added, “could act as a sort of protest song.”

But “Sleep,” which unfolded Friday and Saturday at Spring Studios in Manhattan after recently being released on streaming platforms for easy home consumption, was perhaps not the most robust protest against rampant materialism. For one thing, tickets cost $250. For another, the show ended up looking like a prolonged ad for Beautyrest, which provided the audience’s mattresses — to be donated later to a charity for children who have trouble sleeping, Richter said — and stamped its brand on everything: linens, sleep masks, swag bags.

The space, in a corner of Tribeca bristling with new high-rises, was tricked out like an upscale disaster shelter. Marina Abramovic’s “Goldberg,” a high-end sensory-deprivation treatment of Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations at the Park Avenue Armory a few years ago, came to mind.

But before that Bach performance, all belongings — even watches — were shut into lockers so that audience members could be, in theory, fully “present.” At “Sleep,” there were no such restrictions, and the data-saturated listeners, ostensibly approaching Richter’s Magic Mountain to briefly shun modernity, often had their phones out, busily documenting the night in text messages and posts on social media.

Some people stood in the center aisle to pose for photos, with the band — comprising Richter, members of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble and the soprano Grace Davidson — visible behind them. Spring Studios’ floor-to-ceiling windows offered the cityscape as an alluring backdrop for pajama-clad selfies. For some reason, water wasn’t available at the bar.

I put away my notebook and tried to listen to “Sleep” as Richter intended. For the first half-hour, it was just him at the piano, playing a slow, pulsing lullaby. His rhythmic precision was admirable, given that his score was just stretches of whole notes; he played with the focus of a dyed-in-the-wool minimalist.

Composers from that movement were Richter’s earliest inspirations. As a boy in small-town Britain in the 1970s, he would get records from his family’s milkman, an artist who was tapped into the music of La Monte Young, Terry Riley and Philip Glass. He fell in love with Satie’s furniture music, and, eventually, the ambient soundscapes of Brian Eno.

All of this factored into “Sleep,” which was first released in 2015. But the piece is also an homage to Bach’s “Goldberg” Variations. (The two works have the same number of sections.) While aware that the piece’s origin story is apocryphal, Richter was intrigued that the “Goldbergs” were supposedly written for a count with insomnia.

Bach, it needs be said, this ain’t. “Sleep” is rife with the hallmarks of Richter’s style: a clarity that can seem like superficiality; an earnestness and emotionality that often come off as more ersatz and manipulative than personal. And it’s difficult to buy into an eight-hour exercise in mindfulness when, against Richter’s best intentions, it opened itself to being more of a social media sensation.

Asked whether the performance could fall victim to the very thing it was trying to resist, Richter said, “It’s fraught with ironies.” But he said he also hoped that the piece could help a community build toward “a silence.”

Silence did reign in the middle of the night, when the piece reached its enchanting apex. Around me people slept, or lay awake as if in a trance. The lofts and office towers of Tribeca rested, too. There were no stars in the sky, but the lights twinkled in the choppy waves of the Hudson River.

I fell asleep, and dreamed that someone was walking among the mattresses, handing out water.

Around 5:30 in the morning, the sun began to rise, gradually filling the room with light as the “Sleep” orchestra played obvious music to match it: an increasingly loud, radiant major chord. If the earlier lullaby music had been purposefully low and mantralike, based on scientific research into what puts us to sleep, this gentle reveille also had an experimental basis: Higher frequencies wake us up.

As people awoke, they grabbed their phones to capture the sunrise. A couple kissed and said good morning, as if at home and not surrounded by 100 strangers.

“Sleep” ended with a fade-out, immediately followed by the voice of a Beautyrest staff doctor, guiding the audience through meditation with the phlegmatic voice “Saturday Night Live” actors use to parody NPR.

“Our motivation resets over the course of the symphony of the night,” she said. “What will you do today? What will you achieve today?”

It was difficult not to feel cynical as I walked out of the performance — the break from being sold stuff that I’d been promised — to have Beautyrest representatives handing me branded energy drinks.

But then I met John Carl and Mary VandeRiet, two 30-something filmmakers. They had been awake most of the night, thinking it a waste to sleep through something so transcendental and peaceful. VandeRiet said that she had never seen musicians onstage “so entirely connected to the music.”

“It was just perfect,” she said.

Indeed, during the performance Carl had asked VandeRiet to marry him.

“We’ve listened to this album as we’ve slept,” he said. “We’ve listened to it at important moments in our lives. I had to do this.”