If you’ve managed to snag a ticket to one of Robert Rich’s Sleep Concerts -- they only happen about once a year and sell out quickly -- come prepared.
You’ll want a pillow, comfy attire, a sleeping bag and an air mattress. The concert runs for about eight hours, and the point is to sleep through it.
“It’s really about a different kind of listening, in a partially asleep, partially awake state of mind,” Rich told The Huffington Post. “I encourage [concertgoers] to relax because the concert goes all night long.”
Rich described his music as electronic ambient music, and extremely slow. The Sleep Concerts feature shifting layers of processed environmental sound, he said. Think of the sound of a mockingbird slowed down to half speed and homemade acoustic recordings.
“The decisions are improvised and it’s different every time,” he said.
The sound from the concerts are so quiet, Rich said, that recording it would be intrusive to the audience. So he recorded "Somnium" in 2001 as a studio interpretation of his Sleep Concerts.
Rich gave his first Sleep Concert in 1982 while he was a freshman at Stanford University. He was experimenting with long-form concerts and wanted to find a way to create an environment that encouraged people to explore deeper emotions, he said.
After about a dozen Sleep Concert performances in the mid-'80s, he stopped. “It’s just exhausting,” he said. Rich revived the performance in 1996 and now averages about one a year.
He’s performed in Krakow, Tokyo, Copenhagen and, recently, in Durham, North Carolina for Moogfest 2016. The concerts are all indoor and carpeted rooms work better, since they’re more comfortable for audience members to fall asleep on.
Audiences have ranged in size from a few dozen people to about 220. Rich explained you can only fit about a fifth of the people a venue would normally hold when you account for space for sleeping bags and mattresses.
In a phone interview, Rich explained more about what to expect at a concert you’re meant to sleep through and how he prepares for the all-night performance.
How would you describe the Sleep Concert?
It’s a concert that goes eight hours, from midnight until 8 in the morning. And I encourage people to bring pads, a sleeping bag and a pillow, and to just relax and not expect great fireworks to happen.
It’s not really intended to help people sleep better. The idea is to give people permission to explore their own inner consciousness -- to use the music kind of like [how] a cave explorer might unravel a string to find their way back out through the cave. It’s a thread that creates a sense of continuity through the different states of consciousness.
So are listeners supposed to be awake or asleep to do this?
Usually, people are very still and quiet. They’re sleeping or in a light state of sleep. It’s very very quiet. It’s definitely a different kind of environment -- not your typical kind of performance by any means.
The intention is to create a sort of hyper-focused auditory awareness. It’s a very fragile space with a beautiful type of silence. People are sensitive to the smallest sound.
How does being asleep or partially asleep allow listeners to explore other states of consciousness?
It’s more oriented toward stage-1 sleep, when you’re still aware of your environment, but your mind is going into a non-linear state. Sometimes your thoughts will suddenly form images -- hypnogogic and hypnopompic imagery -- or that’s when people sometimes get that strange dropping sensation.
When people are sort of gliding in and out of very light sleep, that’s when the music is most interesting.
What’s your advice to someone planning to attend the concert?
“I actually start [each concert] with a 10-minute discussion about what to look for. I explain that, in our culture, we don’t really have anything that fills the role of a public ritual of trance or internal journey.
I encourage [the audience] to use sound as a sort of thread to trace themselves through lines of shifting consciousness. ... I give them permission to explore their minds. Robert Rich, Sleep Concert creator
I encourage [the audience] to use sound as a sort of thread to trace themselves through lines of shifting consciousness, which happens to us everyday -- the idea that in sleep, the human mind enters different states of consciousness and offers chances to explore our world-building capabilities. This is an opportunity to explore those states of consciousness and use the environment as a stimulant.
I discuss the environmental differences between what they’re doing in the concert environment versus what they would be doing at home -- how we become more activated when we’re with other people. As soon as we step into a room with another person our heart rate goes up, our breath becomes faster and our sympathetic nervous system increases. We’ll sleep less deeply, purely from a logical point of view, with other people around. We’ll also sleep less deeply because there are environmental distractions -- there are usually one or two people snoring.
Basically I give them permission to explore their minds.
How do you prepare to perform for eight hours?
You probably know if you’re writing about sleep a lot, but the partially breaking out of one’s circadian rhythm is very difficult on the system. [Editor's Note: Absolutely correct. Shifting your sleep away from your usual sleep patterns causes all of the un-pleasantries that come with jet lag and can have severe health consequences over time.]
For the concert I recently did in Durham, I spent about two or three weeks slowly shifting my schedule later and later so that by the time I was ready for the concert I was going to bed around 3 a.m. and waking up around 11 a.m. Robert Rich
I try to shift myself slowly. For the concert I recently did in Durham, I spent about two or three weeks slowly shifting my schedule later and later so that by the time I was ready for the concert I was going to bed around 3 a.m. and waking up around 11 a.m. -- and, in a time zone three hours different from my own (I’m from California), I was able to use the jet lag to my advantage.
When I’m abroad, for example in Japan, there’s a nine-hour time difference and that’s perfect. When I arrive in the location, I’ll try to maintain my California sleep schedule. I’ll take an eye mask and try to sleep during the daytime and wake up at 6 p.m. [local time]. So that’s one way to take advantage of jet lag.
And musically, it’s very natural. This kind of sound is something I’ve been making for so long, there’s not really usually a lot of musical rehearsal. It’s mainly technical preparation, making sure everything’s working, and then getting myself into this mindset.
Do you take breaks?
It’s very slow-motion. In fact, it’s a lot of creating loops and using processed sounds that I study in advance. So, there is a lot of time where I’m just basically mixing these drones, natural recordings and environmental sounds. And so certainly -- I need to go to the bathroom, or sometimes I’ll grab a cup of coffee in the back (I ask the organizers to provide some good source of caffeine and a few snacks!) or I step away from time to time just to take a little stretch.
Do you have trouble staying awake for the eight hours of the concert?
I have a pretty good ability to focus through my intentions -- and I keep the intention. But it is exhausting.
What is the one thing you hope listeners take away from the experience?
The idea of community, embodiment and understanding our physicality -- and the importance of the place we’re in and the body we’re in.
These days, in our culture, there’s an increasing tendency to virtualize our experience. You see people walking around all the time with a smartphone in front of their face. The virtual experience -- it’s pulling people increasingly into a solitary state, into a state lacking of community, basically becoming socially isolated.
The sleep concert is a method to try to remind people of their physicality, so that when you bring people into a room and do something very unusual, like sleeping with strangers -- one of the natural outcomes is to remind us of community.
Sarah DiGiulio is The Huffington Post’s sleep reporter. You can contact her at sarah.digiulio@.