Entertainment & Arts

World premiere sends audience to sleep

Image copyright Mike Terry

BBC reporter Emma Jane Kirby was among a select band of people - many of them winners of a BBC Radio 3 competition - invited to listen, in her pyjamas, to the world premiere of Max Richter's experimental composition Sleep, in the hope that she might do just that.

Composed in consultation with US neuroscientist David Eagleman, Richter's 'lullaby for a frenetic world', is intended to be heard whilst sleeping.

It was performed in the Wellcome Collection Reading Room in London - and broadcast live on Radio 3 - from midnight on Saturday to 08:00 BST on Sunday, securing two Guinness World Records in the process.

Here's what Emma-Jane had to say about it:

My relationship with sleep is, at best, fragile. I've tried herbal teas, lavender oil on my pillow and I've tried listening to classical music. But although I can drift off while listening, I'm inevitably startled awake suddenly by a burst of enthusiastic strings or a crash of dramatic percussion.

Max Richter's new 8-hour long composition, Sleep, has been worked through with a neuroscientist to make sure the cyclical rhythms don't surprise and stimulate, but instead soothe and reassure.

In the Reading room of London's Wellcome Institute, I was invited, with a dozen or so others, to put Sleep to the test.

I will admit that my heart sank when I saw exactly where I was supposed to try to achieve this feat - a narrow, Army-issue camp bed, adorned with a nylon sleeping bag and placed under a large picture of a vagina.

It wasn't until we had been settled into bed by a softly speaking organiser that I realised why we had all been given eye masks - Max Richter and his musicians, who would be performing just twenty feet away from our beds, would, of course, need the lights kept on all night so they could read the score.

Image copyright Mike Terry

Like most of my bed-fellows, I spent the first thirty minutes of the performance sat bolt upright, fascinated by the sight of Max Richter in his black polo neck sweater at the keyboard and with a childish sense of excitement at the ridiculousness of being up past midnight in a museum while dressed in my pyjamas.

When the singer first appeared at 00:40, everyone was wide awake, staring at her as she sang above us in a Tavener-esque, angelic fashion on the balcony.

Although I was well aware that the whole point of the exercise was for me to sleep, I felt it distinctly rude and ungrateful to even think of turning my head away while these artists performed for us. Do nicely brought-up people really sleep through a concert?

But gradually, the recurring patterns of the gentle music, washing over me in waves, encouraged me to brave the crackling nylon sleeping bag and hunker down. Like a lullaby on a loop, the musical themes were insistent and persistent - and I found myself drifting out of consciousness. Beside me, a woman slept serenely, her hands clasped across her chest in a yoga pose. Another was curled in a foetal position, out for the count.

My sleep was fitful and I woke often, but I always knew that the challenge to my ever achieving deep sleep would be the people around me. A snorer and a man with a beeping digital watch drove me to distraction at 4 o'clock in the morning, and raw with tiredness, I waited for the music to start to irritate me.

Image copyright Mike Terry

It never did. Its effect was only ever comforting and reassuring. Each time I fell back into consciousness, it was wonderful to know that I was still being cocooned by the beautiful sound and that the musicians, in generous solidarity, had not abandoned me to the electric white light of insomnia.

Just before six, listening to the lyrical sadness of the cello, I found myself remembering how I'd always used to listen to Arvo Part's Spiegel im Spiegel to calm myself down after a hectic day, and considered how Richter's Sleep shared the same simple musical grammar. I thought…

I thought no more. I was woken from a deep, dark sleep by a thunderous applause. Ripping off my eye mask , I saw Max Richter take his bow. I would have happily slept through an encore had he offered.

You can listen to the entire performance on-demand via the Radio 3 website or as a download via the iPlayer Radio app, for 30 days.

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