Entertainment & Arts

‘The Leftovers’ composer Max Richter is set to debut a full night’s ‘Sleep’

Max Richter

German-British composer Max Richter in Oxfordshire, United Kingdom.

(Mike Terry)

Like many European composers before him who have made the pilgrimage across the Atlantic to offer their talents on the altar of Hollywood, Max Richter has learned to become proficient in the rituals of studio networking.

“Today is a meeting day. I’ll sort of have the same conversation 11 times,” said the Berlin-based English composer on a recent visit to Los Angeles.

It was early morning and Richter, 49, was seated in the dining room of his posh West Hollywood hotel, finishing a plate of scrambled eggs. Tall and pale in complexion, he seemed completely relaxed despite the demanding day ahead of him.

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“The one-to-one connections with the creative people, that’s easy,” he said. “It’s actually all the people in the suits — you have to get past them somehow. That’s the challenging part.”

Though he is the composer for HBO’s drama series “The Leftovers,” which begins its second season in October, Richter clearly isn’t the kind of composer to automatically genuflect before Hollywood executives.

“For them, their default setting is they want a safe decision. That’s not for me,” he explained.

His latest project is in many ways his most daring and least conventional work: The eight-hour “Sleep,” available from Deutsche Grammophon in September, is an epic piece designed to be experienced, as the title suggests, while you’re snug in bed with your eyes closed.


“Sleep” represents both an apotheosis of Richter’s unapologetically emotional and accessible style — a cross between minimalism and ambient electronica — and a significant departure into experimental territory.

Mixing lush instrumental harmonies and electronic soundscapes, the piece exerts a trance-like pull through its churning rhythms and pulsations. “It’s a gigantic lullaby,” explained the composer.

“Sleep,” which features 31 separate tracks, runs 8 hours, 24 minutes, 21 seconds. The piece was partly inspired by J.S. Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” believed to be written for a German count suffering from insomnia.

“People are chronically sleep deprived — eight hours is something hardly anyone gets,” said Richter. The new piece is intended to plug into the listener’s “slow wave sleep,” he said — a deep-sleep stage that precedes the dreaming usually associated with rapid eye movement.

“The state is very important in learning and consolidating information,” said the composer, who consulted with neurological experts. “There’s been a lot of research in how this state is very valuable to us.”

“Sleep” isn’t the longest piece of music ever conceived — that honor goes to John Cage’s ongoing, 639-year organ work “As Slow As Possible.” But it is believed to be the longest musical work ever recorded. (Deutsche Grammophon is releasing it in a full eight-hour version and an abridged one-hour version.)

The piece resembles Richter’s previous works in its unmistakably modern conception while also drawing on Renaissance and Baroque conventions — strategic repetitions and variations, simple melodies and castrato-like vocals.

“Sleep” was recorded this year in a piecemeal fashion, with the string instrumentals captured in New York, vocals in London and the rest recorded and mixed in Berlin.


“I think Max’s music blurs the line between being extremely emotional and meditative. For me those things are complete opposites,” said Clarice Jensen, a cellist with the American Contemporary Music Ensemble, a New York group that has worked frequently with the composer.

The instrumental recording session took two days. “The parts we recorded were modular bits that could be put together, stand alone or moved around,” she said.

“Sleep” will have its world premiere in live eight-hour sessions in Berlin in October, each lasting from around midnight until 8 a.m. Listeners will gather at a former power station where they will lie on beds arranged in concentric circles around the performers.

The musical event is being designed by the London visual art collective Random International, which has collaborated with the composer on a number of projects, including the popular “Rain Room” installation.

“We will try different ways of letting people rest — different beds over different performances. And for lighting, we’re thinking different wavelengths that support sleep,” said Hannes Koch, a co-founder of Random International. The live performance will tour internationally next year, but no dates or cities have been announced.

“Max has a keen understanding of technology. We both use technology to get to people — he does it on an emotional basis.”

Since the release of his breakout album, “Memoryhouse,” in 2002, Richter has made extensive use of digital technology in his compositions. At performances, he is often seated behind both a piano and a laptop computer, the latter of which he taps frequently to create a range of rumbles and sound effects to accompany the string instruments.

Musically, Richter works in a tone that is sincere and serious; many of his pieces could be described as beautiful. It’s a style at odds with the fashionable inscrutability of postmodernism.


The composer recalled that as a young student in the late ‘80s, “If you wrote a major chord by accident it was a big problem.... It had to be very dense and complex.” And not at all accessible: “No way! No way!”

Not caring much for the strictures of the symphony orchestra, Richter set off on a more unconventional career path, composing for and playing in galleries and alternative spaces.

In the last decade, he has amassed a devoted fan base thanks in large part to his album “The Blue Notebooks” — music from the album was featured prominently in Martin Scorsese’s “Shutter Island” — and his re-imagining of Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons,” released last year.

Richter has also written several original scores, including the Oscar-nominated “Waltz With Bashir” and the Wayne McGregor ballet “Infra.”

Whatever the medium, his compositions share the same somber, moody and sometimes melancholy disposition.

“I’m probably quite introverted, so it’s trying to convey that with a precision and intensity,” he said. "[My music] has a kind of inwardness.”

As a young boy growing up in England, Richter got an early lesson in music from the local milkman.

“Our milkman was kind of a composer, and he literally heard me practicing piano,” recalled Richter. “And he said, ‘Enough with the Mozart!’ And he started delivering music with the milk.”

The deliveries turned out to be albums by Philip Glass. “So all these sort of early Glass records would be delivered with the milk,” said the composer.

For Richter, it was a welcome intrusion in a household that wasn’t particularly musical. The composer was born in Germany but moved to England at an early age and grew up in north London. His father worked as an engineer and he “was quite appalled that I was not going to get a proper job,” the composer recalled.

Richter now lives in Berlin with his wife and three children and devotes himself full time to composing and performing. He said he doesn’t have to teach to support his family.

“I am very lucky. I think it’s a great privilege,” he said. “There’s always a balancing point between the amount of time a project will take and how much you’re paid… [but] I don’t have to do something only for the money.”

Richter wasn’t able to discuss the second season of “The Leftovers,” except to say that the location for the series has changed. He is also working on a handful of other concert projects as well as an opera.

“I’ve never had a situation where I’ve been stuck,” he replied when asked if he’s ever been blocked. “It’s actually the opposite…. I’m quite fast, I think. I have it sort of going constantly in my head.”

Twitter: @DavidNgLAT

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