Max Richter’s ‘Sleep’ and the ecstasy of live music

I was lucky enough to be able to afford (and to lack the impulse control which might have stopped other, more sensible people dropping $800 on) a pair of tickets to Max Richter performing his epic eight-hour piece Sleep at Sydney Opera House last weekend, along with soprano Grace Davidson and the American Contemporary Musical Ensemble.

This is an experience engineered from the start for an odd kind of intimacy. After jaffles and hot chocolate enjoyed with pyjama-clad strangers, we’re guided to the concert area. The steps at the back of the Joan Sutherland Theatre are converted to house rows of camp-beds; forming a temporary amphitheatre backed by the dark water of the harbour and the lights on the opposite shore.

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It’s Richter’s signature brand: quietly beautiful minimal classical, flavoured with electronic textures.The music ebbs and flows; kicked off with his piano, then joined by the string ensemble, and later by Davidson’s soprano. Human musicians can’t perform ad infinitum though; the soprano and strings leave the stage for long periods during the night. Somehow, however, Richter remains at the piano almost throughout. His only break of any duration is during the wee small hours as the music already played is ingested and then twisted by the automation he’s set up. This is music that unfolds glacially. I see why it’s been written to accompany a period when I should be asleep, because the sleepiness I’m trying to fight also affords me exactly the kind of patience I wouldn’t have if this were daytime. Rather than expectantly waiting for the sonic payoff, I’m content to lie back and wait for it to wash over me.

We’re situated on a balcony directly above the stage. I can look down to see the players, their instruments, and the infrastructure required to support eight hours of music; looking out towards the harbour I can see the premium ticket holders: a bunch of Sydney theatre faces, at least one recognisable musician and also, I’m later told, Brienne of Tarth. They’re in various positions, some asleep and already snoring; some not yet but soon to be; some cross-legged and engaged in a similar battle to my own, trying to fight the urge to drift off. This feeling of intimacy hits me again: a standard concert format doesn’t give you the chance to study the reactions of the rest of the audience, but here I can make a study of it over many hours.

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My fight against Sleep was always going to be lost, and for a few hours between 3 and 5am I drift off. I’m woken as dawn sunlight creeps above the horizon, turning the black water of the harbour to grey before diffusing through the harbour fog. The strings begin to rise, and over the final hour we’re treated to a slow-burn euphoric crescendo. The audience leave their beds and sit themselves on the floor around the stage. The music builds, alongside the dawn. I’m not the only one struggling to hold in tears. The mixture of exhaustion, our surreal setting and the stunning beauty of what we’re hearing is producing a feeling in me that can’t be too far from religious ecstasy.

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In the cab ride home, I’m comparing the experience I’ve just had to what I’ve come to expect from live music. I’m remembering something I’ve not felt in a long time, since the first gigs where I crowd-surfed and moshed my way to sweaty elation. I realise I’ve become too curmedgeonly to push aside the annoyance, claustrophobia and impatience and fully surrender myself to a live music experience. I’d forgotten how perfect this feels.

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