Artist and Bafta award-winning filmmaker, Yulia Mahr, is creative director at Studio Richter Mahr alongside her creative partner, the acclaimed composer Max Richter. The studio develops a variety of art and music projects including SLEEP, an eight-hour overnight concert.
The inspiration behind and evolution of SLEEP and the impact that the event has had on its creators, musicians and global audiences is explored in Natalie Johns’ stunning documentary, Max Richter’s Sleep.
I was fortunate enough to talk to Yulia Mahr about her career, her collaboration with Richter and her forthcoming projects.
Could you tell me about your career so far?
I am an artist-filmmaker, but I started out working in theatre when I was in my early twenties. This is where I met Max. As I say in the film, I gave him his first job!
Max and I spent a lot of time doing theatre together and then, in our early thirties, he started to release records and we had children. I moved more into film. My family is a filmmaking family - my father was a film director. It was quite a natural move for me to focus on film.
I love the medium so much but I was never interested in mainstream, commercial film. I am more interested in alternative uses of film.
Congratulations on the documentary. I absolutely loved it. Could you talk about how you and Max Richter brought this project to life?
Max and I work very differently on every single project. There are some projects where there is no collaboration at all. On our forthcoming project, VOICES, it is very much parallel play - we are almost on two separate journeys.
On SLEEP we worked together throughout the entire project. Max writes all of the music, but we started to plan the staging of SLEEP really early on in the project.
SLEEP is a really expensive show to stage. It was a huge logistical undertaking to get it off the ground. It usually takes around 18 months to two years to organise - from the point when we start thinking about staging SLEEP to the actual event. It is a juggernaut!
How did the musicians first react to the idea of such a long, overnight performance?
Everyone couldn’t quite believe it was happening. The first challenge was in persuading the record company to actually release such a piece. They were fantastic but it was a long process.
In the beginning, the record company wanted Max to make a one hour version. They were worried that no one would listen to this eight hour piece. However, the full version was what we wanted and so we really pushed for it because that is the piece.
The musicians that play with Max know that we have big ideas and like to create substantial works. Even so, they were quite surprised by SLEEP. The piece is very exposing for them - they are playing hours and hours of very long notes. It is incredibly tiring. If they play a wrong note because they are tired you really know it.
While Max is on stage for almost the entire performance, he has written in rests for everybody else. It is still a marathon for the musicians. It is a huge challenge but everyone feels great afterwards.
What was it like to experience the first SLEEP performance?
For me it was a relief because I didn’t have to perform it! I was just concentrating on the filmmaking at that point. For Max it was a real slog to get through. The first time he performed SLEEP it was a shock to his whole system.
Max has now worked out how to prepare for a performance of SLEEP. He puts himself into something like a jetlag state. He will eat his porridge as if it is the morning - even though it is 8pm. He has learnt the tricks to fool his body in order to perform this piece. It still takes him about a week to recover afterwards!
But we both love it… we really love this show.
The documentary is really moving. I loved hearing the reactions of members of the audience.
Thank you. It’s directed by Natalie Johns – she’s wonderful. Originally, I was going to make the documentary but I am so glad she did. One of the only things I asked Natalie to do was to interview the audience. I really wanted to include not just our story but their stories too. This is what ties us all to this event.
I would love to experience SLEEP live. I just worry that I would fall asleep and miss the performance!
There are people who literally put their heads down, sleep all the way through and wake up for the clapping at the end. The way Max has written the piece, the music still resonates. Even if you are asleep, you are still experiencing the piece.
People think that the music is played quietly. It is actually played really loudly because it is an experience - it is about feeling the music in your body. Some people stay up all night. It is immersive.
You and Max share personal stories in the documentary. Was this always your intention when you started to make the film?
We made an active decision about this. Many musicians just present the pizzazz. We wanted to talk about the truth of what it is like to work in our industry. Of course you have the red carpets and the times when life is glitzy and magazine-like. However, this is just a very small percentage of what goes on. It doesn’t help anyone to hide this fact - we wanted to be very honest.
The film is a powerful portrait of your collaboration with Max. Can you talk about your partnership?
We spend a lot of time discussing art, sharing our creative ideas and talking about the different projects that we might do. We have a lot of ideas, but not many make it through.
To get something from a germ of an idea to an actual piece that you can get a record or film company to distribute, to finding venues and staging an event - it is a long and perilous journey.
With many projects, timing is everything. We will be thinking about something for many, many years and suddenly it is the right time. That is what has happened with both SLEEP and VOICES.
Max and I have been working together for almost 30 years. It is still hard sometimes to get people interested in the fact that there are two of us working on many of the projects. Our culture is accustomed to the idea of the singular artist-hero but the reality is often more complex.
We were very aware that we wanted to talk about our story in that context. It is rare that a singular hero has done something on their own. Of course Max deserves all the praise that he gets, but there is a bigger story and that story is really interesting. It is the story of a couple and a partnership - of two people working together in partnership for over 30 years.
Did you ever consider a different documentary title to reflect the story of your collaboration?
Yes. Ultimately it wasn’t our choice but there were lots of conversations about the title.
In addition to highlighting the value of communal experience and creative collaboration, is there anything else that you hope audiences will take away from watching Max Richter’s Sleep?
We want to show that people need not be frightened of the project. Sometimes people are wary of coming along - they are anxious about what it will be like. What happens if they fall asleep, what happens if they snore?
We wanted to show everyone that this is a really lovely space. Many people have a profound experience and they really enjoy the piece.
It must be wonderful to have such an incredible record of the SLEEP performances.
It is lovely for us. Live musical performances are so ephemeral. It is so lovely for us to have a document of SLEEP. It was a really special moment when Natalie first came to us with the film - a moment for us to recognise what we have achieved.
One of the real challenges of the documentary was to decide what to include in the film. There is quite a lot of my footage in the documentary and, while Natalie captured the LA Sleep event, we also added footage of previous performances.
Max’s music is not easy to edit - it is written to be very slow moving. In documentaries it is hard to resist fast pacing, it is hard to keep people’s interest when you are sustaining long notes. It must have been quite a challenge!
Max Richter’s Sleep is a powerful reminder of the value of a communal experience. Watching the film, it really hit me how much I have missed that experience.
Yes. The other day I was making an Instagram post and one of the pictures was of an audience from the last show that we did. I really felt quite emotional looking at the picture of all of those people together. It looked so wonderful. I am missing it terribly.
Communal experiences and communal activities - dancing and going to concerts - are such an important part of being human. It is absolutely fundamental.
Communal experiences are now, of course, few and far between thanks to the global pandemic. What do you think the future holds for live music?
We are certainly not planning too much until next year in terms of live shows. The word from a lot of the venues is that it is going to be a while still.
Will there be more performances of SLEEP in the future?
Oh definitely. We will hopefully still be staging live performances of SLEEP in ten years time!
What are you working on next? Can you tell me more about VOICES?
When I first met Max, I was directing plays about issues relating to human rights and we have been talking about this issue for almost 30 years. Now feels like the right time for VOICES, which is inspired by the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Max has written the music for VOICES and I am now using that music as a jumping off point to create a 90 minute documentary film. I have already started work on this project - this is what I will spend my next year doing.
I would like to thank Yulia Mahr for being so generous with her time. I loved talking to her and am really looking forward to VOICES!