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SLEEP, A Music Concert at the Foot of My Bed: Max Richter in overnight performance.
October 5, 2015
SLEEP Live Broadcast
BBC Radio 3 and Wellcome Collection
26th-27th September 2015
Why Music? Weekend. 25th-27th September 2015
Influential composer Max Richter’s latest project SLEEP, formed the afterhours highlight of BBC Radio 3’s Why Music? Weekend, physically uniting live performance with site in The Wellcome Collection’s Reading Room. Why Music? broadcast live from BBC Radio 3’s popup studio was hosted at The Wellcome Collection, Euston 25th-27th September 2015. A myriad of performance, forums and free events given at the multi-disciplinary centre for medicine, art and life paralleled Radio 3’s broadcasting in current debate on neuroscience, psychology, language, memory, wellbeing and their relationship to music.
SLEEP is an eight hour piece of music composed by Max Richter in consultation with neuroscientist David Eagleman. It is designed around a full eight hour sleep cycle and was performed from midnight on 26th Sept 2015 to 8am the next morning as a world Premiere, the first time the lullaby has been performed for the full extended eight hours. SLEEP is both a product of and a catalyst for an exploration into states of consciousness and sleep and how the mind in its various states interacts with sound. As the Radio 3 presenter warns Richter not to fall victim to his own sleeping draft, I consider that perhaps this music is about more than merely sending people off to the land of nod.
In quiet anticipation and careful consideration of people and place, a community of Sleepers formed by competition winners, press, Wellcome and production staff tiptoe into the Reading Room. Twenty uniform camp beds dressed with a white pillow, a blue sleeping bag and an eye mask for each Sleeper are arranged in rows amongst the bookshelves, relics and installations of the Wellcome Collection’s Reading Room. Wondering through the eclectic mix of installations past a 1920’s x-ray machine, to a bed set before two pre-programmed keyboards and a Trident dental station it becomes clear that the lines between exhibit and viewer, performer and audience, doctor and patient, scientist and experimented are not just blurred but entirely broken.
As the Sleepers settle into place, and onto display on our demarcated camp bed plinths, Max Richter enters with five musicians to inhabit their lair of instruments. Steve Morris and Natalia Bonner (violins), Reiad Chibah (viola), Ian Burdge and Chris Worsey (cellos) are framed by the grand red carpeted staircase leading up into the gods and single soprano Grace Davidson in the gallery above. Richter sits at a grand piano surrounded by keyboards and electronics. He briefly describes that listeners’ are interacting by inhabiting it, to the Radio 3 audience catching it live from their bedrooms all over the country. It soon becomes apparent that rather than inhabiting it, the piece inhabits me. By laying myself vulnerable to the soundscape and landscape of the site, my body reverberates with the same waves as its surrounding architecture. I become a small part of an enlarged speaker that throbs in the centre of the building, a vessel through which sound travels I am grounded quite literally by its vibrations.
12.00 I sit up, marvelling at the spectacle of a music concert at the foot of my bed and notice the connection between Richter and his musicians, counting and cueing each other through their own system of signals. I share their satisfaction as they connect and smile and their anticipation as they overcome situations with timing, unpredictable instruments and noise pollution from the world outside. Chords of steady dinosaur steps lead me on journeys as top notes take me around corners and over hills.
12.05 Muffled piano notes are all encompassing, the air inside and out of my body is filled, a siren reminds me how comfortable I am inside my sleeping bag even though I have the sense of being watched. Strings accompany the tortured souls in the paintings to my right. Grotesque figures thrive and grimace in the 18thC oil painting A Blacksmith Extracting a Tooth. But I seem to float like Marc Quinn’s sculpture Free, a baby that hovers on a plinth below.
12.15 Three musicians descend the stairs like gods from Olympus or angels from the highest level of an altar piece. They are visiting, working their miracles on humanity as we sleep. A steady even beat, a reverberating pace is constant, safe and comforting.
12.20 Tremors build in intensity, a chorus of sleeping bags rustle. I succumb to the sway to Richter’s upright back, he is my conductor, I lay down beneath his command and occasional gaze.
12.40 A horizontal audience startles at an angel humming from the gallery above a she treads the names of the greats: Thirty physicians and scientists from Aristotle to Paracelsus, listed by Henry Wellcome.
12.45 I seem to hear pipes, through my ears, through my bed into my bones.
12.50 I am overcome with weight and tiredness, time slows down. The sound feels the same but different, a constant of variations and repetitions.
01.30 The sound is so loud that there is no escape. I can feel an entire orchestra through my skin, my muscles, my body.
I sleep sporadically, I see in; 02.15 02.40 03.20
04.00 My brain is pierced by a whisper up in the gallery behind, so cutting, so insulting. I realise that my sense of hearing is so heightened during sleep that I am acutely aware of every breath, turning page, click of a camera in the room.
05.00 06.00 07.10 The sound is the same but different. A new sky, a new world outside tells me more significant time has passed. A glowing pink and golden sky matches the glow of Richter’s sheet music under his lamp. I am reminded of the golden haze created in cathedrals assigned to God’s spirit. And a musician becomes a deity.
08.00 The sound is still there, its continuous but different, the pulse of the night reaches a quiet crescendo. A sleepy minority miss this entirely but the majority are ready if not yet alert. I am spotted by a musician, as I it up bleary eyed, dishevelled and transfixed. This feels increasingly intimate and yet I have been beneath this gaze all night.
My night is chaotic and intense with moments of bliss beside moments of invasion as my sleep deprived body searches for a way through the noise to unconsciousness. On my way back from the bathroom I make my discovery. Walking down an aisle of sleeping figures, watched over by what felt like a choir of angels surrounded by a golden glow in the dark was a moment of peace, bliss and awe. Returning to my bed I embodied the darkness, noise and torment of a beautiful sound in overabundance and incredibly high volume.
There is a placement and separation of our roles as clear as a Renaissance altarpiece, where levels of intercession and divinity are demarcated through composition. The inner sanctum of Richter’s musicians circled by instruments are central and form a channel of intercession between the SLEEPERS and the gallery. The grand wide staircase frames and leads the musicians to the gallery of angels’ voices above where the soprano soloist hovers. Rows of camp beds circle the core with a sprinkling of artefacts who in turn are surrounded by an outer circle of officials and photographers in constant orbit. Through immersive performance, a reciprocal relationship between Sleeper, Musician, Invigilator and Photographer is made and developed. Each role in this performance watches the other either officially or unofficially. How and whether the Sleepers slept was watched and documented and in turn the Sleepers focused entirely on Richter’s soundscape who protected us under their gaze. For all who enter the Reading Room there is no escaping an enveloping, encompassing experience transformed by the various levels of immersion in both the site and the SLEEP experiment. How we measure or quantify a subconscious mind remains a mystery but I wonder what spell Max Richter’s dark lullaby cast as my strange abstracted night turns into morning.