Emily St. John Mandel On the Calming Music of Max Richter

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Photo: Sarah Shatz, Image: Max Richter

Down Time is a Jezebel series in which we ask our favorite artists and authors what art, books, and activities they’re turning to in this moment of isolation and uncertainty. Author Emily St. John Mandel talks about the album she turns to tune out Brooklyn’s constant sirens.


This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

There’s an album I’ve been returning to and playing almost every day. It’s called SLEEP by Max Richter, he’s a British and German composer. His music is so beautiful. I guess if you had to describe him as one thing you could describe him as a classical composer, but he sometimes kind of drifts over into ambient electronica, depending on the project. SLEEP is a really cool album, it is eight hours long, and it’s meant to be played while you sleep. The idea is that you put it on at bedtime and it mimics sleep cycles somehow for the next eight hours.

I became familiar with it when my daughter was born. I have a four-year-old, and a challenge to the newborn is getting them to try to understand the difference between night and day. My husband and I used to put the SLEEP album on every night at bedtime and what’s funny is she won’t listen to it now because she says it makes her sleepy. I don’t listen to it while I sleep anymore, but I listen to it constantly, especially in the evenings when there are more ambulance sirens or I just hear them more. I put on noise-blocking headphones and this album and it is just the most beautiful calming music. It has an incredibly slow, almost meditative pace, I feel like it makes me instantly calmer, which is what I need right now. It’s a little bit of an exaggeration to say it’s the only music I put on, but only a slight exaggeration at times. [Laughs]

We talk about a great piece of art as being transporting and I think in a moment like this that becomes almost literally important. We really need to be transported out of the present moment in some way because the present moment is unbearable. You don’t really want to think about what whoever is in that ambulance [has] been going through over the last days or hours, but I do every time. I also think something about movies and books [is] just being reminded of the possibility of a different world, any different world. You get so caught up in the tunnel of catastrophe in a moment like this.



When the album first debuted, Richter arranged a two-night concert where the audience reserved luxury cots and settled in under the stars. (And $250 for two nights actually seems quite reasonable.) I was totally obsessed with the concept and downloaded the album to help me sleep on a flight from NYC to New Zealand. Didn’t help - I just cannot sleep on moving vehicles - but it IS a lovely album.