Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Sundance ’20: Max Richter’s Sleep

Brahms’ lullaby is three minutes long. Max Richter’s titular composition is eight hours. Yet, they both represent the same musical genre, sort of, kind of. Natalie Johns follows the composer as he prepares for another marathon concert of the minimalist classical work in Max Richter’s Sleep, which screened during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

Frankly, it is hard to get a sense of Richter’s Sleep during Johns’ film, because listeners are meant to immerse themselves in it—and yes, let it lull them to sleep. Each ambitious performance is appointed with cots for the audience rather than the typical bucket seats. Obviously, this takes a lot of logistical and physical preparation, since Richter is on-stage at the piano for something like seven hours.

It would be interesting to know what the average deviance is for concert length. Do musicians ever say: “wow, seven-and-a-half hours, we really galloped through it.” Are they ever getting the universal “wrap it up quickly” circular hand gesture after eight-and-a-half hours? A lot of musicians and friends of musicians will probably have even more questions about the performance experience itself.

What we could do without are the shallow reflections from audience members, many of whom seem intent on making it a political rather than personal experience. At least Richter and his manager-wife have some intelligent things to say about the music and process.

It is always a happy turn of events whenever contemporary classical music gets some media attention. Richter’s considerable film-scoring work should ensure plenty of festival pick-up for Johns’ documentary. (As an Easter egg for cineastes, we can briefly spy in the Richter home an illustrated book of Gerhard Richter’s paintings—the artist who partly inspired Donnersmarck’s Never Look Away, which features one of Richter’s best scores.)

Unfortunately, there are not a lot of significant pay-offs or insights to be found in the documentary. Instead, it is a 90-minute report, informing us there is an eight-hour piece of music out there we might want to check out sometime. It is too bad nobody noticed when Jacqueline Caux’s The Colors of the Prism, The Mechanics of Time came and went, because it is a far grabbier and more dynamic showcase of contemporary classical music. Regardless, Johns’ Max Richter’s Sleep is still a perfectly respectable, somewhat promotional film his admirers should enjoy when it screens at further festivals, following its American premiere at this year’s Sundance.