Here is a transcription of the entire conversation with Joseph Morpugo of FACT webzine, in advance of the live Sleep Concert that Robert Rich performed (October 2013) in Krakow Poland for the Unsound Festival.
What inspired and motivated the initial sleep concerts?
Well, it was a combination of a whole range of interests that included the tonal minimalism here on the West Coast in the 60s – Terry Riley in particular – and my increasing interest in certain ritual aspects of world music. One of my big influences is Indonesia, gamelan…especially central Javanese gamelan. When I was a teenager in the 70s, I was really just discovering this world of people like Harry Partch and Terry Riley – the tonal avant-garde composers who were influenced by African music and Indonesian and classical Indian music as well. So feeling as a modern Westerner that, without really having the faith in traditional religious aspect of ritual, feeling there was still ritual lacking in our culture, and looking at the way different cultures used duration and trance and community ritual to enhance experience of life. In Indonesia, they would have the Wayang puppet plays re-enacting The Ramayana, and these things would go on two or three days. The whole village would be there participating – kids running around naked, and people sleeping and waking and serving food – and the whole thing would be a continuum of village life and ritual. I was very interested in that.
Also, Terry Riley was known for doing all night concerts back in the 1960s, with the audience usually somewhat chemically enhanced, shall we say. Then here in North America, the traditional Navaho ceremonies, the “blessing way” and things like that that would go on for two or three days. They were fascinating in that they would be invalidated if the shaman forgot any words or made any mistakes – it was actually very exact, much more so than most of the improvisational culture I was growing up in, I found that rather interesting. And then in the more avant-garde world, I’d read about this Fluxus performer Richard Hayman, who in the early 1960s Fluxus performances, would fall asleep on a hammock with whistles in his mouth. And I thought, well, that’s kind of cute, but doesn’t it make more sense to the audience for the performer to be working a little harder? [laughs] I thought it would be more interesting to invert that relationship.
I was getting very interested in sleep research – at the time I was a freshman in university – and I’d chosen the particularly university I went to, which was Stanford, because they had a famous sleep research department in the psychiatry department in the Med School. And there was also a person there I had read about named Stephen LaBerge, who was doing work in lucid dreaming, where you become aware that you’re dreaming while you’re dreaming. I hadn’t yet started doing research there, I hadn’t declared a focus yet as an undergraduate, but I was there for that reason in part. So all of these things combined. I thought – this idea of long duration, and of very deep, slow trance – could be mutated into a modern way of performing.
Another big influence right at the time when I was formulating this idea, was a performance I heard on the radio by Maryanne Amacher and John Cage. It was a duet performance – that went on all night long, surprisingly – called ‘Close Up and Empty Words.’ It was Cage’s performance of ‘Empty Words’, which was a cut up of Thoreau’s ‘Walden Pond’, and Maryanne Amacher‘s extremely quiet drone electronics which she called ‘Close Up’. Her approach to drones was very similar to what interested me – these kinds of cloudy amorphous shifting tones. There was one other reference point there, which was Alvin Lucier’s piece ‘I Am Sitting In A Room’ , which I think he did in 1969 – it was a tape piece, where he used the acoustics of the room as an resonator. A paragraph of him speaking was played through a speaker, and re-recorded over and over again until it turned into a sort of gong sound, a big cloud – and all those things basically merged into a vocabulary which became my sleep concerts.
I’m curious what you said about the Sleep Centre being a big attraction for you at Stanford, because I think there’s something about sleep research as a scientific arena that has an interesting crossover with the sort of Navaho ceremonies you were talking about. It seems, more than other areas of psychological research, to require the body being tested, endurance experiments, etc…it seems like an interesting sphere of practice. I wondered how far the sleep concerts, rather than being musical endeavours, were psychiatric experiments?
I’ve always found it was wise to separate science and art, because usually you end up with bad science and bad art when they get too linked together. So I wasn’t claiming any scientific veracity or any experimental qualities to this. Later, I was doing actual research with electrodes on peoples’ heads, and we were trying to improve people’s skills with lucid dreaming, and I didn’t actually apply many of my artistic interests to that research either – I tried to keep them in separate spheres. However, as I did come to understand more about sleep states and altered states of consciousness, I think it did inform even early on my approach to the sleep concerts. Not so much in the sense of probing the audience for their experiences, although I did encourage them to share them in the morning if they wished to, but more in that I was paying attention to states of consciousness other than REM sleep in particular. Because as we come to understand the nature of consciousness, we realise there are many different states when the mind is an a separated or internal state, but with a slightly open sensitivity to the environment, more so than REM sleep when we’re in a deep dream. We can have dreamlike experiences during hypnagogic states – well, hypnagogic and hypnopompic, which are the technical words for when you’re going into sleep and out of Stage One sleep. I realised over time as I was understanding these different states, a few years after the first sleep concert, that that was really more what I was playing to, not so much dreams, and it took me a few years to realise that.
So essentially I was creating a very quiet, very subtle removal of the walls to create a synthetic acoustic space, and getting people to do something which was socially different, which was to sleep in a room with strangers. That changes one’s activation level – when one enters the room with another person, their bodies activation level goes up – heart rate increases, breath becomes shorter, simply by being in the presence of another person. So that fact makes people sleep less deeply, and also the fact that there’s this sound, and I’m encouraging them to pay attention to the environment, which is very quiet (except for the inevitable sound of other people breathing and snoring and moving around). So the fact is that their sleep is very disturbed – it’s really not intended to create deep sleep. It’s intended to create activated sleep. The sound, then, becomes like a thread of consciousness, where you can sort of guide yourself into a state of half sleep and notice the way that your brain shifts perceptions into an internal world. And what’s fascinating is when the external world and the internal world mix, and the mixing becomes blurred. That one moment – or moments – during the night of the interaction between sleep hallucination and external stimulus was really what I realised I was playing to.
To take it back to your first concert: tell us a little bit about that first foray – where it was held, and how it went down.[laughs] You have to realise how humble the whole beginnings were. I was a freshman in college, 18 years old. I was just intense and would do things on my own – there was no money involved. I Xeroxed a bunch of flyers and stuck them up on kiosks around campus. It was a free concert: I said “bring a sleeping bag”. I think I called it ‘Sleep Music’, and it started at 11pm and went until 8am in the morning, and it was in the lounge of the dormitory that I was living in. These dormitories were three story buildings with 20-30 on a floor – I suppose there were 80 or 90 people in each building. The lounge was a fairly large room with a piano in it and a little stage, not a huge hall – these were not gracious old mansions or anything, essentially cinder-block bunkers which looked more like a prison or military barracks [laughs]. With 70s blue shag carpet and a worn out couch with the stuffing coming out of it.
About maybe 18 people showed up – which felt like a somewhat full room for these lounges that would seat 40 or 50. A few of them were friends of mine, a few of them were strangers, and the others were folks who came from upstairs in the dorm to see what their weird classmate was doing [laughs] I had my homebuilt modular and two cassette machines, where I had recordings I had made of natural sounds. I had a tape echo and a digital delay and a spring reverb and it was very simple, very primitive drone stuff. And very quiet. So, after that, I thought it was an interesting idea, and the few friends that showed up thought it was unique, and we discussed things a little and the next day I decided to do a few more. I did more the next summer up in Berkeley, which was about an hour north of Stanford, and then over the next couple of years I did a few at conferences – the Association for Sleep and Dreaming, ASD, invited me to do one.
These happened maybe a couple of times a year for five or six years, I think I might have done maybe eight or ten of them. And then the problem was I came down with mononucleosis [editor’s note: glandular fever] from my first girlfriend I think, and that completely wiped out my ability to pull an all-nighter. I became a little weak and lost a lot of weight, and it just wiped out my ability to do that. So I stopped probably around 1986, and eight or ten years later, an ambient music director and DJ at university down in Southern California, UC Irvine, asked me about these and asked if I would ever do them again. And I said “I don’t think there’s any reason to, it’s just too difficult,” and he said, “Well, what about doing one on the radio?” So he kind of cajoled me into starting up this idea round about 1995 or 6 or something, and I decided I would go around the country doing them on the radio. I did a few with an audience again, a total of 20 or 30 in two years, then tried to get it out of my system and put it onto the DVD Somnium. So really I just tried to put the whole thing away [laughs].
How did the concerts change and develop? Can you plot the ways in which they adapted and evolved?
There were a few different things that changed them – one was time, and the equipment getting better, so with ways of doing digital processing, I was able to create much more interesting cloudy drones and abstract textures instead of just using cassettes of natural sounds. The difference between having a live audience and a radio audience is fundamental, and radio has some major restrictions which are dynamic range – you have to keep some sound happening all the time. The difficulty was that my intention with the live sleep concerts was to keep things so quiet that it was almost not there. It was extremely subtle. You couldn’t do that on the radio, plus you just couldn’t control the level that individuals were listening in the room in their independent listening environments. So that lack of control changed the nature of the sound – it had to be a little more dense, or active, if you want to use the word active, because it was still extremely slow. The live sleep concerts with an audience were by nature a lot easier to control and I could get a better sense of the energy level of the room, it’s a much more interactive type of process. Even more so, when making a seven hour recording, a studio version of it, then it has to be interesting over multiple listens. It should be able to unfold, and I know many people listen to Somnium over and over again. Some people work to it in the daytime and it could be in the background, and the idea of listening to the same seven hours 50 times or 100 times – now you have to pay attention!
I’ve likened the difference between performance and recording to the difference between dancing and sculpture. So if you’re, let’s say, Degas, and making a sculpture of a dancer, you have to make it look like it’s balanced and in motion, even though it’s in bronze and standing still. And it has to look good from all sides – a person has to be able to stare at it, walk around it, and see different aspects of it over time, even though it itself is not changing. Whereas the dancer becomes the art – the body is the art. The dancer is more like a verb, whereas a sculpture is more like a noun. And I think of performance in the same way. So when I’m playing live, it’s very much playing energy – I’m not so worried about the specifics of technical details. I want it to be energetically flowing. So when the sleep concerts became a recording, it transformed it in some way, into a sculpture. So I’d say that over time, that’s the biggest change – the nature of the listening environment. Also the tools keep changing, so the soundscapes change, but this is the first time I’ve prepared a sleep concerts in 12 or 13 years. So I’m debating how much new material vs. old material to bring into it.
As regards playing live, I was interested to know what sort of effect that nine hour process has on you as a performer. You’ve talked about it being physically gruelling…how far are you able to submit to the same sort of processes that you’re subjecting your audiences to? Is a trance state something you can access, or are you simply in too much of a state of concentration when you’re producing the concerts on the fly?
Well, it is unfortunate that I can’t be in the same state that the audience is – I have to be concentrating. It’s gruelling more in the sense of simply having to stay awake. The level of concentration isn’t always 100%. The music is so slow there are times I can just set a process going. These days I’ll be using a programme like Ableton Live where I trigger clips, and the clips in this case might be prepared audio that’s an hour or two long, and in real time I’ll be mixing and blending those together, whilst also playing guitar and flute and keyboards, but through loops and long delays – everything being very slow. Anything resembling a melody could unfold over a half an hour or so. The concentration is really one of subtlety, slowness, extremely slow crossfades, and keeping that deep level of continuity. I don’t want any moment to feel like it’s transforming quickly into another moment, but rather from moment to moment realising that it’s never the same. In retrospect, finding that each sound is evolving, and that nothing is just repeating ever. That’s the goal with this approach of blending pre-recorded sounds with live things.
Many of the ways that I create sound make the idea of performance a little irrelevant actually, because oftentimes I’m using natural recordings or found sound, or things that I’ve created in the studio using digital signal processing and strange time-stretching algorithms to create these abstractions. Those things never existed in a real space – they were always from the very outset a synthetic time domain. They’re something that existed in math, basically, in the computer. So the performance aspect is one of blending live playing with these flowing clouds of sound, and then shifting things seamlessly from one thing to the next. I have to be in a state of concentration, and I have to be alert for eight hours. At some point, I usually get that whiplash fall-asleep-standing-up kind of thing, you know [laughs] where the head bobs forward and I catch myself. Usually it involves lots of caffeine, and occasionally even a quick lie-down on the mat behind me to just close my eyes for five minutes to recover. I’m 50 now – I’m not so good at doing all-nighters like I used to be! [laughs]
You’ve gone into the importance of slowness in some depth there. How do you feel about primarily technological – and also, partly, cultural – developments regarding how people consume music now. I’m thinking specifically of iPods and the whole shuffle mentality, which seems to mitigate against consuming something in a slow or long-form way. Is that a change you’ve detected?
Not only is it one that I detect, and it gets more and more the case, it’s one that I react against to a certain extent. Even 30 years ago, the first sleep concerts were a reaction to what was too fast then. And to the extent that things have sped up even further, the reaction is still the same reaction of finding the space within each of us to rediscover a different pace of consciousness and a different pace of life. One that might be a little bit more appropriate to the biology that we evolved with rather than the technology that we are forcing ourselves to adapt into. I feel rather strongly that the world that we are creating, fascinating though it is from a cognitive point of view, is not exactly beneficial to other aspects of our organism. And so part of the theme behind much of my work – not only the sleep concerts, but also just the quieter, more invitational aspect of my active music is to create a small opening within experience – to allow people to remember what the world is like that they live in, rather than the urban bubble of informational density that we’ve created, and this constant barrage of requirements. I believe strongly that it is beneficial for us to separate from that, for periods of time at least, and rediscover slowness, and rediscover the space within our minds that allows thought to occur naturally rather than be forced from outside.
Are you hopeful that these pockets of space will continue to be inserted into our daily lives, or are you concerned that this continual process of hyper-acceleration will start to crowd them out even more?
Well certainly, these are choices that we make to a certain extent. The world does impinge upon us, but we can turn off the television and we can stop reading email for a half an hour. The constant news feed I think is toxic. The level of constant connectivity is not something that we require for our happiness – in fact, it’s quite the opposite I think. And one thing that art can do is remind us of that we are not being reminded of from moment to moment. We can choose to experience a state of perception through an artist’s work by allowing that work to engage us, so one role that an artist can take right now is to create something that is spatially more rarefied than the information stream that we’re accustomed to. I feel this is one of the duties I have an artist.
In terms of the historical lineage of the sleep concerts, there seem to be some parallels between the events and the collective experience of the Acid Tests of the 60s or the all-night raves of the late 80s. Musically it’s entirely different, but in terms of creating shared experience, maintained over a set nocturnal period…do you feel there are any parallels between the sleep concerts and those other cultural events?
Absolutely. The difference in energy level is extreme though. There’s less a difference in progeny and purpose than there is in form. One thing about the Acid Tests and raves and such, is they were, and are, sensory overload environments, and they’re expecting the audience to be in a hallucinogenic altered state, and I’m more interested in discovering what is inside, in a natural calm state – a meditative state – rather than a forced state of overstitimulation. I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area. A little funny story…I didn’t even quite realise this until about 10 years ago, but the Grateful Dead used to practice when they were still The Warlocks in a house a block away and I used to hear it. Back in the mid-60s, listening on Thursdays and Sundays to this loud music for about four hours, I could hear some band practicing. And later I learned that the landlord I had in my first recording studio, it turned out to be her house, and she was friends with Phil Lesh’s mother, and used to invite them to practice in her garage. Ken Kesey’s bus was parked right down the street in another direction. This was a quiet, suburban neighbourhood near Stanford University – I grew up right where I went to university. So certainly it was in the air. I remember being quite fond of that movement because it was the first time I saw naked people, as a six or seven year old, riding my bike down to the lake to see a bunch of naked hippies was a very pleasant experience [laughs]. So, the Grateful Dead were like the Bay Area house band, and certainly I was not so much involved in the early rave scene because my music was not rhythmic or dance music. Ironically, though, many of my friends were organising some of the very first West coast raves around 1989/1990, and I didn’t really like the music, because to me it sounded like disco, or just uncreative Kraftwerk rip-offs. But the intention of creating ritual, and using sound to enter into a state of trance or ecstasy – those are similar goals. The difference perhaps is in a balance point of sensory input. The sleep concerts were the opposite balance point – they were really intended to create such a state of silence, that the brain’s own tendency to build worlds becomes accentuated, and we enter into a naturally hallucinogenic environment – the kind we enter into every night when we sleep. So as a person interested in psychophysiology and cognitive psychology, I found myself far more attracted to the natural states of consciousness, and to the idea that we are world builders by nature, that our consciousness is constantly creating the world we live in – it is a constructive, a constructed environment. We only notice that at the extremes – perhaps we do notice it when under a state of sensory overload, when there are drugs in the system creating a heightened sensitivity; then we shove all of these flashing lights and loud audio into the ears and eyes. But I find that to be a chaotic state that almost too closely echoes the chaos of the noisy world we live in. And I’m far more interested in creating an antidote to that noise, to remind people of the beautiful spaces that happen in silence.
Do you have any recollection of particular dreams or visions or experiences that people have reported back to you following the sleep concerts?
A few did share with me some of their experiences – some people would have rather intense or not pleasant experiences. There are some people who find that quiet space to be a little scary. So the occasional person would come up and say, “I had some bad nightmares” or something – but very rare. One of the very first sleep concerts that I did in Berkeley – I think it was the second or third sleep concert I performed – I remember two people coming to me that morning with different stories. I encouraged people to share their experiences in a little circle after I was finishing – I was cleaning up cables and things and people could talk. A person mentioned that in the deep morning hours, I had been playing the sound of surf, these cloudy clouds behind the surf – cloudy clouds, that wasn’t very literate! [laughs]. This one person said they went into a dream which became lucid where they walking down a beach with figures on it that looked like Easter Island – these large stone monolithic gods, planted in the sand, and as the water rolled up and touched their feet, they felt the present of these stone figures which were speaking to them – a very intense ecstatic experience that can happen in lucid dreams, these explosions of ecstasy – and it correlated to the sounds I was playing , the ocean sounds. I found that to be an interesting and powerful dream.
That same day, after I was cleaning up, a woman left the room. This was a place called Shared Visions, full of all sorts of strange counter-culture – I remember Terrence McKenna used to give talks at this place, people like that. So it was an unusual energy in this place , a lot of people expecting something a little “outside”. I call it the “authentic New Age culture” of the early 80s/late 70s, really the outflow of the counterculture hippie scene. That’s kind of where I saw the bifurcation occur where New Age culture went into schmaltz and icky stuff, and my interest turned far more to avant-garde and minimalism. But there was that meeting place with psychedelic culture and people like Terrence McKenna, where it was a little bit flaky and woo-ey, but also edgy. And this place Shared Visions was also on that cusp. So this woman left the building, and it was kind of in a rough part of town in East Berkeley, with a fair amount of homeless people and traffic was kind of bad and dirt, pollution on the streets and stuff like that. Berkeley has its rough neighbourhoods. This lady left to go to her car, and she came back about two minutes later and said, “Is it okay if i just sit here for a while? It’s really loud outside.” She said “it was so quiet in here that I can’t stand the noise any more.” And to me I felt that was almost exactly what I was trying to do, which was to create such a sense of listening that suddenly we hear the world around us in a new way, and realise the chaos we create, realise how much noise there is in our world. And I mean not just sonic noise, but also cognitive noise as well. And when we become accustomed to listening acutely, and having a more rarified experience – an experience which is measured in whispers rather than screams – then when we enter into the world we were once accustomed to, the world of chaos and noise, we realise what we’ve become used to, and how chaotic everything is. I think that’s healthy.
On the topic of “authentic New Age”: when I was looking through the notes on Somnium, I noticed how prescriptive – or, at least, detailed – the instructions that came with it were in terms of optimal listening environments and suggestions for how to experience the DVD. I wondered how you felt about the way in which the music you and your contemporaries have made is now used in so many different contexts, from cognitive behavioural therapy to quote-unquote New Age meetings to soundtrack work – what’s it like to relinquish control of your music for to all sorts of commercial interests?
Well, I mean isn’t this just the nature of art? As soon as you create something, it’s out there – it’s sort of a golem that escapes, isn’t it? It goes off to wreak havoc. I mean, the irony is that some of the film work that I’m asked to do is for horror films or zombie movies or whatever – I did a bunch of sound design for an underground thing called Dead Girl a few years ago, a teen zombie movie – it was quite horrific. But, I find that really ironic, because I find that most of my music is deep and gentle in its intent, but it’s also a little scary – most people don’t find my albums to be very therapeutic, except if they’re into much more intense artistic experience. I find when I perform on tour, I meet a lot of people in my audience who are into grindcore and death metal and stuff. I remember I was on tour, I think around 2003 – I was on a label which was primarily a subsidiary to a grindcore label, Release and Relapse – Relapse was a death metal label essentially, and Release was its experimental ambient side. I was mastering a lot of the release albums, in fact. I’m friends with a lot of these bands like Neurosis and such. So this guy came up to have an autograph of one of my albums, and he had a shirt of one of these bands – I think it was Nile – and he had all these tattoos and piercings and tribal things. I said “Let me ask you – I see that you’re into metal – what do you find interesting about my music?” And he said, “You know, I can’t be angry all the time. Sometimes I want to relax and have something that’s not grinding, but I still like intensity, and your music fits that.” He said, “Your music is calming, but it’s intense – it’s not pretty, it’s deep.” And this was a guy who liked what we call Cookie Monster music (the vocals that grind in low noise, like the Muppets character), but there was an attraction to the deeper side of what I do from an audience thats into very dark music. I found a lot more of that than folks into New Age that listen to my work. I think my stuff is a little bit edgy for massage [laughs]. But yet it’s not dark music. I’m not a dark person. People think that about the album Stalker that I did with Lustmord because they mistake the theme as being about serial killers, whereas it’s really about Tarkovsky and the journey through the soul. I think part of it is that I’m not afraid of mystery, and I like the experience of awe and wonder, and for me that has to contain within it the shadows – it has to remind us of mortality, but also of the magic of existence. I truly want to create music that’s wondrous and mysterious, and it’s doesn’t bother me that much – if people want to interpret it as being dark or mellow or therapeutic, that’s kind of their problem. That’s their thing. What it’s mostly about, is finding energy and wonder within existence.
Just before we touch on the forthcoming sleep concert…relating to what you’ve been saying about wanting to locate wonder, what do you think about the way in which our culture describes and thinks about sleep? More and more, we tend to talk about it in quite a taxonomical way – a way of ‘recharging our batteries’, or getting ‘X amount of hours’ in order to be more productive in the day. It seems that talking about sleep as a mystical – or even an holistic – experience doesn’t seem to feature so much in the cultural dialogue anymore.
I think what you’re tapping on is a deep conundrum we face in our culture. I’m very fond of science – cosmology and physics and all these things fascinate me, and I think science is really a more appropriate way of asking the questions than religion is. However, as we’ve become such a secular society, we risk losing wonder, and everything becomes answered in our minds. Well, when you talk to a good scientist, you find that they’re full of wonder, and they’re absolutely curious about why we’re here and the nature of existence and the nature of reality. And these questions should not go away simply because we’ve created for ourselves a web of answers. I think the questions are far more interesting than the answers. When you look at cultures that retain more of a ritual or a shamanic relationship to inner life, you’ll see that they are very open to sharing their dreams in the morning, to talking about the inner life. And it’s something that we have lost – it’s something that we have perhaps pushed away from ourselves as a remnant of puritanical materialism: this strange state of our culture, where we deny inner life and we have very little use for religion, at least in the intellectual spheres, and everything is seen in these materialistic terms of functionality, and how hard can you work. I live here in Silicon Valley, where everybody brags about their 60 hour work weeks at Google and such – it’s missing some fundamental aspects of human experience.
I’ve been fascinated about this for years. Back when I was a teenager in the 70s, I was thinking, “how can I find a way to communicate a kind of modern day shamanism in a world that is secular, in this post-modernist world? How can we create magic in a world without belief?” And I find that to be an ongoing puzzle. One approach is to appreciate and respect the role of the unconscious and the role of the creative possibilities of the mind. When you look at cultures that have retained their connection to the shamanic realm – to the inner ways of being in a world – connecting to their experience through altered states of consciousness, and I don’t just mean drugs, you find that they have a willingness to share their inner experience. To share their hallucinations, their dreams – to say, “doesn’t that cloud look like a knife, I wonder what that means? I had this dream last night, in the dream you were dead – did you feel anything when I dreamt it?” Those kind of things when you’re connecting an inner world to an outer world. To be able to find ways of allowing those experiences in our secular society. I use science as a way of asking questions, and I like the scientific means of asking questions, because it has a built-in humility. Science is a process of proving yourself wrong – it’s a process of creating a hypothesis and allowing other people to improve upon it or disprove it – to use observation to verify experience. Now, the thing that I find interesting is that within mystical Buddsim, within Zazen and other forms of meditational traditions, including Christian spirituality, you’ll find that monks will use a similar psychological technique. They will question their own observations, and they’ll use mediation as a way of separating their conscious filters from the way they perceive the world, attempting to cleanse perception. There’s almost a scientific character to that process. I find this method of asking is not antithetical to an inner life; nor is it antithetical to science. Rather it’s a way of finding a holistic presence, of existing, within a secular society, without denying the role of intellect or philosophy or clear thinking. So I’m very very interested in the inner life, and I find that through art we can reawaken the aspects of consciousness that in shamanic cultures we were addressing through shamanism, through trance – and finding a new context for that.
What transformation in your inner life made reviving the concerts a going concern again? What was the motivation behind this year’s return?
Somebody asked me to do it [laughs]. Simple as that! The people behind the Unsound festival emailed me about 6 months ago and said “would you like to do this?”, and I said, “Well, nobody’s asked me for about ten years! [laughs]
That’s really the case?
Other people have asked me, but in contexts that I couldn’t really pull it off. Also, I’ve given permission to several other people to do their own versions. I suppose you could call it a franchise – there are two artist friends of mind who have done sleep concerts with my blessing, and they would do it completely differently than I do I’m sure.
Considering how long it’s been since the last iteration, what plans, aspirations, changes do you have in mind for your Unsound performance?
It could be larger – I don’t know exactly how big a room they’re going to find for me, but it might be more people than I’ve played for (in a sleep concert) since perhaps 1986, when I played the seminar for the Association of Sleep and Dreaming. There might have been about 40 people there, and that’s about the biggest I’ve done in a room. It might be that we can fit about 60, I’m not sure. You have to realise that when people are laying down you need some space around them, and so in a room that might seat 400 or 600 people, you can only sleep perhaps 50 – it’s about a 10:1 ratio. And so that’s one reason why these haven’t been done in so long – really its’s not practical. Every time they ask me to do something like this I explain to them what it involves. It’s the worst business model you could ever have for a concert! [laughs] On my side, I’m making myself miserable, I’m making myself sick, I’m staying up all night long. On their side, they can’t fit more than 40 people. And then you have problems with, y’know, oftentimes you need a bit of food or coffee in the morning, or some tea – it’s so much more difficult and so much more expensive, and there’s so little money to be had from it that it’s a bad model. Really I was not very pragmatic when I came up this idea, and I kind of forgot that I have to work all night to do it. I should have done like the punk bands, doing 30 second songs – I think that would have been smarter.
The grindcore model.
Yeah, get paid a whole lot of money for a 30 minute concert.
Well [with those numbers], I imagine people will have already been up all night camping out to get in even before the concert begins in order to make it in!
It would start around 11pm I think – I suspect it’ll be their normal sleep time. Luckily, because it’ll be in Poland, I’ll be time-shifted nine or ten hours, so I am hoping that if I can get some sleep in California time zone and maintain my circadian rhythms, I might be able to stay nocturnal for a couple of days in Poland, and use jet lag for my advantage. The only problem is it rarely works that way – usually I just make myself horribly sick and tired because I can’t sleep on airplanes. So we’ll see how that goes!
I imagine there’s going to be a golden ticket style set-up if the venue’s that small!
I don’t know! [laughs] I can’t imagine, but we’ll see… I’m leaving that up for them. The logistics are quite difficult. Really, that’s why these things don’t happen very often, they’re really not very practical. Because the theme of this year’s Unsound is Interruption, they found that this was perhaps up their alley. I’ve tried to indicate to them what they’re in for! I’ll be frank with you – I have rarely had a sleep concert that has felt 100% successful. They usually feel like potential, there was always a sense of potential that I never felt was quite reached. I think it was one of those ideas you have when you’re young and stupid, and they look better on paper. [laughs] But somehow it took legs – it had a life of it’s own, and I’m not sure if that’s a good idea or not.
And are you excited?
I’m dreading it a little bit. Excited isn’t quite the word. I’m working to create the material, and I’d like to make it sound different from Somnium. I haven’t created a whole lot of new very slow material in a long time, and I think as I’ve gotten older maybe my attention span is becoming a little bit shorter. So I think concern is probably a better word than excitement! [laughs] I have a running joke: I’m basically just trying to not suck most of the time [laughs].