Max Richter is one of the most influential post-minimalist composers of all time. From the solo career he began with 2002’s Memoryhouse, to his scores for Waltz with Bashir, Black Mirror and Ad Astra, his music continues to be celebrated not just in concert halls, but in cinemas and homes the world over. And following the recent inclusion of On the Nature of Daylight in The Last Of Us, the 56-year-old has now found himself a whole new audience over on TikTok.
For many, Richter magnum opus remains 2015’s sprawling ambient work Sleep. Created in collaboration with his partner, the visual artist Yulia Mahr – with advice from neuroscientist David Eagleman – Richter has described the 8.5-hour listening experience as his “manifesto for a slower pace of existence”, aimed at facilitating a full-night’s rest. If anything, its relevance has only intensified in the intervening years, which is why Richter is now revisiting the project with Sleep: Tranquility Base.
Released ahead of World Sleep Day on March 17, the EP offers 30 minutes of original music, with additional remixes coming from Kelly Lee Owens and German sound artist Alva Noto.
To coincide with its release, Richter sat down to take our questionnaire.
1. Where are you today? I’m in LA.
2. What was the last thing you ate? Pineapple.
3. What keeps you awake at night? Basically nothing. I go to bed, I fall asleep. Game over.
4. How many hours of sleep do you average? I probably get eight hours. I’m a good sleeper and it’s my favourite activity.
5. Have you ever found inspiration in a dream? Sometimes I’ve thought I’ve found inspiration in a dream. But when the logic of dreams meets waking reality it tends to be a bit disappointing.
6. Why did you decide to create Sleep: Tranquility Base? Well, Sleep had its origins around 2013/2014, when the internet moved into our pockets. And in a way, it’s only got more intense in the years since. I thought it would be nice to make another trip through it, from a more electronic standpoint, and to invite a couple of people to respond to the material and make remixes.
7. One of those is Kelly Owens. Are you a longtime fan? Yeah. I think she’s a really interesting artist, with a very distinctive voice and a unique perspective.
8. Sleep is the most streamed classical record of all time. What’s the best thing about streaming? That people can just follow their enthusiasm through the entire universe of recorded music, discovering new musical languages they maybe wouldn’t have encountered before. That’s amazing, especially for artists operating outside of the mainstream.
9. What’s the worst thing about streaming? Well, the commercial aspects of streaming are pretty disastrous. I mean, they’re good for the streaming platforms but they're not good for the artists. Streaming is full of unrealised potential as far as the artists are concerned.
10. On the Nature of Daylight appears in The Last of Us. Have you seen the scene? I’ve been travelling, so I'm saving it ‘til I can see it on a big screen. I’m going to do that when I get home from this trip.
11. Have you ever played The Last of Us? I have not. My son is quite into it though.
12. Do you play video games yourself? I don’t. It’s not like I’ve got a philosophical objection. I’m just doing other things, you know?
13. Do you use TikTok? Yeah, I think TikTok is fun. You know how in a science lab, when you have litmus paper and you poke it into a test tube to find out what's going on? TikTok’s like that. It’s a sort of digital litmus test.
14. Do you follow any specific creators? I see it more like a cloud of confetti. I’m not so interested in the individual things; just in seeing what’s happening in a more general way.
15. Considering Sleep was a reaction against overstimulation, do you find it ironic your music has gone viral on TikTok? Well, there’s an upside and a downside to all of these things. Social media is still so new, I think we have to try and find ways to intelligently handle it on a personal level, and on a societal level.
16. As an artist, what is the relationship between art and technology? A piano is a piece of technology. The tonal system is a piece of technology. So I think it’s very natural to be engaged with technology as an artist. I mean, creativity and art, these are all experiments. Art is about being at the forefront of discoveries. Art is about asking, ‘What if?’
17. What’s your favourite musical key? G flat major. I like keys with as many black notes as possible, which makes it hard for the string players.
18. Is there such a thing as a guilty pleasure? No. I mean, I like cheesy, old sci-fi from the 1950s and 1960s, where the monsters look really bad. And I like old disco music. But I think they’re just pleasures, really.
19. What’s your karaoke song? Probably London Calling by The Clash. I performed it once in Tokyo. Apparently.
20. What was your intention when you started out? How can I tell stories in a way that makes sense to me? And how can I build a language? There are a lot of those experiments on Memoryhouse.
“I mean, creativity and art, these are all experiments. Art is about being at the forefront of discoveries. Art is about asking, ‘What if?’” – Max Richter
21. Did you have a nickname growing up? No. I was a pretty isolated kid though so I probably did have a load of nicknames I wasn’t aware of.
22. What was the worst thing you did at school? There was a penalty system in my school called a black spot, and if you’ve got a single black spot in a term, that would go on your report. I got 13, which no one had ever got before. I think I was responsible for devaluing the whole concept of the black spot.
23. What did you get the black spots for? Being generally incredibly uncooperative and annoying and rude and never doing any work at all.
24. As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? An astronaut.
25. In your opinion, who is the greatest composer of all-time? The greatest composer of all time is Bach. I don’t think there’s really any argument about that. Music is a historical form and without Bach the whole edifice falls to dust.
26. Which composer has had the biggest impact on you? I love Mahler’s music because it’s about storytelling.
27. What one piece of music do you wish you had written? Because it’s almost a piece of autobiography, it’s quite hard to pick someone else’s music. But maybe I'll take The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky. It’s not bad.
28. When did you know that you’d made it? I’m not even sure what “made it” means. For me, it’s all about having interesting days.
29. If you were to write a protest album in 2023 what would be its focus? We’re in a multi-dimensional crisis at the moment so it’s hard to know where to begin. The thing that I’m interested in at the moment is how creativity and music can make things a tiny bit better on an individual, human level.
30. Is it an artist’s responsibility to say something profound? Maybe not profound, but definitely something that has relevance to the important things going on in the world. It’s like Nina Simone said: an artist’s duty is to reflect the times.
“I think impostor syndrome is quite healthy. It’s a sign that you’re still questioning things” – Max Richter
31. Are you a tidy person? Sometimes. But if I’m working on a project, then my studio becomes less and less tidy.
32. What do you collect? Records and books. And I guess I’ve got quite a lot of synthesisers, though I’m trying to stop that.
33. Do you suffer from impostor syndrome? I think impostor syndrome is quite healthy. It’s a sign that you’re still questioning things.
34. What was the last film that you loved? James Gray’s Armageddon Time.
35. What’s your most unappealing habit? Probably droning on about music.
36. What's your favourite word? Iridescent.
37. What’s your least favourite word? Am I allowed to say Brexit?
38. What or who makes you laugh? I like a lot of stupid old B-movies from the 30s, 40s and 50s with cheesy humour.
39. What do you miss most? My family.
40. What or who gives you hope? The activist generation that’s coming up.
41. Most spectacular performance venue? I just played in front of the Giza pyramids [for Dior’s Pre-Fall 2023 show]. It was absolutely incredible.
42. How would you define your personal style? I like things that are beautifully put together but have a simplicity about them.
43. What or who is the future of music? Caroline Shaw. Moor Mother. Caterina Barbieri. Duval Timothy. Cassandra Jenkins.
44. Have you ever had writer’s block? No. I’ve got the opposite of writer’s block, whatever that is.
45. What’s the secret to never having writer’s block? For me, getting out of bed.
46. What would you like your legacy to be? I think that’s not a question for me, really. I’m just interested in the notes on the page.
47. Do you believe in an afterlife? I think it depends what we mean by life. I’ve got a long history with Zen Buddhism so really these things are more about semantics than anything else.
48. What are you doing after this interview? Another interview.
49. What’s next for you professionally? I’m working on a new album. I’m quite near the beginning of that process.
50. Did you enjoy the interview? Yeah, it was kind of terrifying, but also really interesting. Was that one of the questions?
Sleep: Tranquility Base by Max Richter is available now via Deutsche Grammophon.