- Slow Consumables
In 2015, the London-based German composer MAX RICHTER released Sleep, his longest and most enterprising album to date. Containing thirty-one compositions of varying lengths totaling almost eight-and-a-half hours of music, Sleep is based on repetitive variations of only a handful of musical themes. These variations are played by a small ensemble of piano, cello, organ, viola, violin, synthesizer, and soprano vocals. In putting together the intentionally soporific album, RICHTER collaborated with DAVID EAGLEMAN, a neuroscientist, to capture the sounds most conducive to shut-eye. As RICHTER explains:
There's a sleep stage called "slow wave," where all your neurons go into a roughly 10 Hz kind of phase—this is when memory happens and learning and structuring. … That's the beneficial part of sleeping for our brains. People have been experimenting by trying to induce this sleep stage with repetitive sounds that are not too loud, not too bright, sounds that have recognizable architecture or structure.1
Consistent with the biological purpose of slow-wave sleep—the period during which our neocortical neurons rest—Richter invites his listeners to drift off during Sleep should they wish to do so. Although Sleep can be enjoyed as an album in the convenience of one's home, Richter has also staged several performances as sustained overnight events. The first live concert took place in 2015 in the reading room at the Wellcome Collection, an eclectic museum-library dedicated to the history of science in central London. Among old [End Page 645] facsimiles of anatomical drawings, glass flasks, outdated birth extraction tools, and a now defunct X-ray machine, listeners nestled into blue sleeping bags instead of seats.2 Subsequent performances occurred in equally offbeat venues: outdoors in Grand Park in Los Angeles and indoors at the recently restored Kraftwerk, an industrial power station in Berlin. Gesturing toward the political nature of his composition, Richter has described his project as "a piece of protest music," "a deliberately political piece" that could serve as "a roadblock in the information super highway."3 Sleep was composed, in other words, to serve as a brake on the attention-draining quality of twenty-first-century life, a context in which the piece's intentionally protracted length becomes an act of critique. Despite that positioning, attendees were generally allowed to use their phones, and no one was expected to make it through the entirety of the piece.
It is exactly that lack of expectation, the permission to be sometimes inattentive, that ensured listeners were actually exposed to Sleep, despite its length. In not just allowing but encouraging listeners to sleep through the performance, Richter—whose work bears the aural imprint of, among others, Philip Glass's experimental minimalism—seems to be aware of the imposition that a complete listening experience of eight-and-a-half hours would entail. Richter shrewdly avoids trying our patience with the duration of his work by offering listeners an escape valve; even when the piece is performed live, listeners can simply choose to absent themselves from parts of the performance.4
I call works such as Richter's Sleep "slow consumables." These are works that embrace slowness as a political act of anticapitalist ideology, but that also mitigate the aesthetic risks of using performatively lengthy forms to communicate that political position. Their dual nature stems from a tension between a professed mission to counter the speed of life under late capitalism and a latent eagerness for the artwork itself to be engaged with. This tension results in [End Page 646] adaptations of aesthetic form—such as not requiring full attendance—in a way that is cognizant of not imposing on the audience's time. One of the principal ways slow consumables negotiate this tension is through the environment in which they are encountered: a concert at which you can sleep or a museum installation you can flit in and out of. Although my use of the term "consumables" may sound derogatory with its suggestion of ethical compromise, these works actually display a sophisticated understanding of their relationship to their intended audience, one that is conceived of less as a simple exchange of artistic goods...