“Are you joking??” asked a woman in line after a staff member told her about the night’s coming performance. She clearly hadn’t read or heard about Sleep and if you come unprepared, it would be a bit of a shock to find out what’s in store. But it’s no joke. Sleep is eight hours of non-stop music, performed live overnight, and, yes, there are beds. To call it a concert does not seem accurate. Sleep is an experience.
It isn’t surprising that the woman in line was unfamiliar with Max Richter’s enormous work. Prior to this event, Sleep had only been performed in Sydney, Paris, London, and Berlin. This performance at South by Southwest (SXSW) marked the North American debut of the monumental Sleep. With Richter himself on piano, keyboards, and electronics, soprano Grace Davidson lending wordless vocals, and members of the American Contemporary Music Ensemble on violin, viola, and cello, those brave (or un-informed) enough to venture out for this marathon concert were in for an unforgettable night.
With purple-hued lights and Beautyrest mattresses covering most of the Bass Concert Hall stage (Beautyrest donated the mattresses to local charities after the event), a definite atmosphere was in place as we entered the venue. Not being a SXSW badge holder, I managed to get a VIP wrist band, which allowed me to spend the night, but seated in the audience. Luckily, I came prepared with a pillow and blanket, and was able to stretch across a few seats to form my own makeshift bed. Not quite a Beautyrest, but I was determined to stay the night.
Described as “an eight-hour lullaby,” the audience is encouraged to sleep during the performance. Obviously some people stay awake for part or all of the performance, either by choice or chance, but many really do sleep. And in case you were wondering, yes, some of them snore, too.
Sleep relies heavily on variations of the same few themes. The repetitive harmonic patterns and simple melodic lines rooted themselves into my brain early on, and instead of putting me to sleep made me want to keep time with my body and hum along. They kept repeating like a thought that isn’t unpleasant, but just won’t leave you alone. For the first hour or so of the piece, I kept subconsciously waiting for a pause – for one movement to resolve, end, then another movement to begin. I knew that wasn’t how the piece works, but my brain is so programmed to expect this, that I found it quite distracting when it didn’t happen.
Don’t let the repetition fool you. Ethereal, lush, evocative, at times disconcerting, there is much more to this eight-hour behemoth than you might think, as subtle changes, both in the music and your own mental state, gradually take you along a journey. I realized the same music can sound very different when heard at varying stages of fatigue. Unless you manage to sleep solidly for all eight hours, some parts are bound to catch your ear more than others, both in a good and possibly bad way. At around 4:30AM, droning electronic sounds seemed to take over for about half an hour and I felt like I should have been wide awake in a planetarium searching for constellations rather than trying to sleep in a concert hall. When the droning finally stopped, I felt my whole body breathe a sigh of relief, and when Richter again took to the piano with that familiar harmonic line, like an old friend by 5:00AM, I was once again convinced that in order to truly experience Sleep, you must be there for all of it.
Listening to Sleep while trying to sleep is sort of like being in a musically-induced dream state – at once disorienting, yet unwavering, like your very own soundtrack to your dreams, or your insomnia. As an experience rather than just a concert, I believe Sleep is perceived differently by everyone, as it really taps into that special type of introspection that seems most prominent in the wee hours of the morning. For me, I felt like my ears were continuously tracing the same pattern of notes, the way my eyes would trace the repeating pattern in a wallpaper – absentmindedly, but repeatedly and without fail. Sleep is an experience unlike any other, an unforgettable exploration of wakefulness, sleep, consciousness, and how music has the ability to shape it all.
– Submitted by Erin Yousef, Music Design