Name: Peter Gregson
Occupation: Cellist, composer
Recent Release: Peter Gregson's Mirror, Pause, Breathe EP is out via Deutsche Grammophon.
If you enjoyed this Peter Gregson interview, visit his official website for more information. Or pay him a visit on his socials at Instagram, Facebook, and twitter.
We also highly recommend our earlier Peter Gregson interview, in which he talks about a wider range of topics.
I'm curious about why the topic of sleep presented itself.
I have two young children; my life is currently defined by sleeplessness.
Jokes aside, our world is so saturated with content; I don’t know whether writing music for sleep is a good thing, or whether we should actually allow there to be time in our life and space in the world for silence … like, boredom and stillness and quiet aren’t bad things. It’s restorative in itself, the silence.
I personally enjoy having music, or radio, or just sounds, on when I’m travelling and jet lagged, I find the “hubbub” quite comforting. But everyone is different and it felt like an interesting space to explore: to write music to accompany such a personal time in the day.
In a previous interview, you mentioned you were, right from the beginning, “drawn to the darker side” of art and life. Is that perhaps - partly at least - a reason why you wanted to explore sleep in your music with this project?
I think, in exploring music for sleep, it’s a full spectrum thing. In our waking day, we can largely curate our experiences, or interactions and responses … but at night, it’s just our subconscious let loose and that, I think, is fascinating. Everything is possible in a dream state.
I wanted to explore music that was open to that sort of potential, neither happy nor sad, but could be interpreted as either and incorporated into the subconscious.
When we're trying to fall asleep or actually asleep, we're in a zone where our attention and listening focus is different.
I think there’s definitely such a thing as front foot listening and lean back listening. Just because we aren’t awake doesn’t mean our brain isn’t taking it all in; there’s research into frequencies stimulating different parts of our brain, and that’s fascinating and anecdotally informed my approach to this music.
I think the focus for me was to write music that had space in it for the listener to just let it wash over them if they so wished, but if they choose to listen there are details in there as well.
Composers have dealt with the topic of sleep for ages, from the "Goldberg Variations" via sleep concerts and up until Max Richter's epic Sleep album and associated concerts. Which of these works about sleep impressed you or left a mark?
The scale of Max’s work is incredible, I’ve never experienced the concert version but would love to one day!
The Goldberg Variations is, of course, one of the great works of art and Bach’s facility to complete a commission with such elegance and incredible precision is remarkable, let alone divinely beautiful and inspiring!
[Read our Max Richter interview]
Max Richter reported that he had conversed intensely with sleep experts when writing Sleep. In which way did scientific aspects contribute to Mirror, Pause, Breathe as well?
Mine was more abstract in its approach, less structured. I love the structure of Max’s, tracing the cycle of one night’s sleep, it’s a beautiful concept. But other than using certain frequencies to “hum” to relax the ear, it’s just music I wanted to write in response to sleep.
At its core, what do you think sleep is?
Sleep is a time to slow down, pause, and recharge.
How did your own sleeping “experience” factor into your approach to Mirror, Pause, Breathe?
I’m a very deep sleeper but for short periods of time. Typically I sleep for 5-6hrs a night, even before children (!). I’d usually be up and at my studio by 5am because I like the stillness. I can’t work late, though, my brain shuts off around 9pm. My least favourite time of the day is post-midnight before having to go to bed. I just can’t function.
My own sleep ‘experiences’ didn’t really factor in my writing of this music, I was writing music for the potential states of sleep - I don’t really know much more about my own than anyone else's!
Tell me about the process of composing Mirror, Pause, Breathe.
I’m a fairly “lean” writer; there aren’t any leftovers but it’s certainly a space I enjoy and would love to write more music like this. I think it feels a lot like cooking - you know, making a sauce or similar, it’s a lot of reducing. Bringing water to the boil, letting the ingredients simmer and reduce to really heighten the flavours.
Although these pieces have only a few sounds you can hang onto, they’re made out of lots of parts that, over the production process, have reduced and reduced - perhaps it’s a cello into a reverb, into a compressor, into a delay with a harsh EQ then played back in a room, then some distortion, maybe then stretched out … all these stages to broaden, thicken, reduce … it’s an iterative process, quite intuitive and less “planned” than a pen to paper composition, perhaps. For me it all comes to life in the studio.
How did you create the sound palette and what were some production considerations?
I only used two things - my cello and a Juno 60. Everything else was created by extended production techniques.
When you eat bread, very few people talk about the quality of the water that was used in the dough. I’m entirely obsessed with reverb: the space which the instruments inhabit is absolutely essential to how I write, and informs the pacing of melodies, harmonies … everything.
This EP isn’t really using “long” reverb tails, it’s using lots of short to medium length reverbs, delays in the middle of the reverb, that sort of thing. Otherwise it becomes sludge, and the music is so bass heavy it’s important it doesn’t become sludge!
[Read our feature about the Juno 106]
I'd be interested in how you went about gauging the quality of what you'd written? After all, how do you gauge the quality of what you've written if you're writing when you're awake but listening when you're near or in sleep?
This is a constant issue, regardless of whether it’s for sleep or not.
There’s a great story about Brahms who said he would take a melody for a walk and if it was any good, he’d remember it and develop it after his walk. If it didn’t survive the walk, it wasn’t any good. I guess it’s sort of the same with taking a mix in the car or something …
When I was writing this music I was walking my then newborn son around a few times a day for naps, so I definitely took these out on headphones to see if they were any good or not … you can only put out what you think is right at that moment in time, and hopefully when you look back it all stands the test of time and you don’t regret decisions.
So long as it’s all done with sincerity and conviction, it’s all ok.
Max Richter's Sleep cycle is a fascinating experiment in that its form is only imaginable and appreciable if we include the phase of sleep into the listening experience. What can a stronger focus on sleep as an “active state” add to creativity do you feel?
Despite releasing this music for World Sleep Day, I think it’s important we don’t just fill ourselves up up up with content - silence is valuable, space is essential, patience is a virtue etc.
Valuing sleep as a restorative state rather than an ‘opportunity’ is essential, but there’s no doubt that significant developments happen during phases of sleep, so setting ourselves up to sleep well is important. For some, that will be a strict pre-bed routine, for others, not at all - whatever works for you!