Last night I got ready for bed in the same way I usually do. I washed my face. I brushed my teeth. I put on some sweatpants and an old shirt and drank some water. And then I got in my car, drove to UT's Bass Concert Hall, and stood in line at 10pm with roughly 100 other SXSW attendees for one giant, ambient sleepover.
We were all there for Max Richter's eight-hour performance of Sleep, his 2015 orchestral album comprised of 31 tracks that reflect the nuanced stages of slumber. The UK classicist has performed Sleep live in Sydney, London, Amsterdam, Zurich and Madrid, but last night marked its North American debut. Waiting in line, we all bonded in the way that only dozens of strangers who are about to pass out in the same room can: A couple shared crinkle-cut fries that they had just ordered on Favor, a man in red silk pajamas chatted with a woman wearing a lizard onesie, and another woman from St. Louis, MO—here on business and still dressed in the day's formal wear—told me that she was a superfan of Richter's, but had no idea what to expect. None of us did, really.
At 11pm we all filed into the hall, where purple lights illuminated neat rows of single Beautyrest beds (all donated to a local shelter after the event) surrounding a center stage, and where images of the moon and sunlight-drenched clouds were projected on various walls. It felt incredibly dreamlike even before the music began, but I was worried about getting some actual shut-eye. I'm a light sleeper, and trying to doze off with a small orchestra (a handful of violins, a few cellos) performing a few feet away seemed almost impossible. Once Richter entered the hall, though, he made it clear that there was no wrong way to do this: "You can sleep through it all," he said. "Or you can stay up the whole night. It's really up to you how you want to experience this. See you on the other side." And, with a single piano note, his eight-hour piece began.
I slept, surprisingly; or rather, I dozed in and out as the music varied in intensity, though always with a steady, pulsating theme that acted as the album's heartbeat. At 1am, the pitch-perfect voice of a soprano reverberated throughout the hall, each pure note cutting through the room's air space. She came on again at 4am (or was I dreaming?) and then in the last 45 minutes of the performance as we started to stir and stretch while the music swelled like a gradually rising sun. Richter had taken a few minor breaks during the evening, but in the moments when I was in my half-awake state, I could always see him sitting straight and composed at the piano.
Then, as gently as it had began, a few final, faint piano notes ended the musical marathon. We all sat in silence for a moment before rising to give Richter and the orchestra a standing ovation. A guided meditation was about to begin, but the musicians took a couple bows and filed out of the room. They probably had some sleeping to do.
Download Richter's album Sleep here.