Bowed vibraphone and marimba swells in a shimmering sea of gong overtones.
When I was a teenager I spent a lot of time at the piano. With no formal training and limited technique, all I could do was create my own simple compositions. More often though, I would embark on long, meditative improvisations, often involving extended techniques (prepared piano, muting strings with my hands, playing the body of the piano percussively, etc.). These improvisations were sometimes sprawling, deeply personal and cathartic, a release of the angst, rage and depression that accompanies that age. Other times, they took on a meditative, trance like quality–a quiet cathedral of sound, a place of refuge, hushed escapism. Though this music was never meant to be heard by anyone else (fortunately for them!), I dreamed of being a performer. In this fantasy, instead of seats, the hall would be filled with mattresses and pillows. I would play my audience to sleep, enveloping them in soft blankets of sound.
This idea of sleep-inducing music has stayed with me but not until 3 decades later have I begun to explore it again. I like the idea of functional music and what better function than to move the listener to a time of comfort, rejuvenation and dreaming.
The process of creating these pieces has been meditative as well. For this piece I set up two different 36” gongs face to face about two feet apart with a ribbon mic in the center and stereo miked on the outside faces. It was late at night, the room lit only by candles. I sat between the gongs with my head right by the ribbon mic, crossing my arms over to the opposite gong to play a long soft tremolo, completely still other than the motion of my wrists and arms. By exploring with the mallets, moving slowly through different locations on the surface of the gongs, subtle differences in timbre could be discovered, sometimes finding a sweet spot where a high, shimmering focused note would sing out. The longer I played and the closer attention I paid to these subtle variations of color, the more attuned my ear became. While at first, it may strike the listener as opaque and muddy, after some moments of focused listening soon opens up to reveal a rich, ever-shifting symphony of overtones.
This piece uses only acoustic instruments played in real time with no looping or editing. (I did some editing to pull out tiny little creaks and other noises–mostly my wrist popping or mallets clicking as i changed angles for bowing different sides of the vibraphone or mallets clicking together. I’m playing so quietly on these tracks that any little thing like that comes through). In many ways, these sleep pieces, like any long-form minimalist composition, are exercises in restraint. I had to do two takes of the gong track because I was so excited by sonic universe expanding around me in the first take that i began to play louder and louder to discover what tonal possibilities there could be at different dynamic levels. In the sheer catharsis of it I lost track of the sleep concept. So, I did a second take with greater restraint which of course pushed the process even later into the night. The irony of the process and the rules I have set up for them is that I deprive myself of so much sleep to create this sleep inducing music.
Added to this was a big, symphonic bass drum played in the same manner which also revealed a great deal of tonal variation (although it is harder to hear because it is down low in both the frequency spectrum and the mix). Then, I wanted to have something embedded in the texture to interact with the gongs so I added some bowed vibraphone. I thought a more rigid approach would serve to contrast relatively freeform nature of the gong track (although there is some formal organization in the guiding principle of a long, slow dynamic taper). After a short intro a 6-note melody slowly develops, repeats for a long time, then begins to break down. The melody is harmonized by soft tremolo chords in the marimba, taking various different harmonic accompaniments against the same melody each time
Because of the meditative nature of the creation of these pieces and the extreme, close, quiet listening it entails, I always find that for about a day after a session, I become hyper aware sound in my world. The birds, the breeze, my footsteps, breathing, cars, trains, planes, lawnmowers, myriad household hums of refrigerators, ceiling fans, lights, computers and other machines. As John Cage spent his life trying to tell us, most of the time we go through days desensitized to the richness of all of these everyday sounds but they are all musical in their way. Once, the day after a late night recording session I was driving somewhere and became totally overwhelmed by the sounds of my own car as heard from the inside. The engine, the tires on the road, the heater, the various rattles and shakes. It was this amazing wide spectrum of sound, and very tonal. I wondered if I was hallucinating because I kept hearing this high, sustained, chord-like sound coming from the empty interior behind me. It was like an organ or a choir of flutes or something. Is this sound always there? Was I imagining it? How was it produced? Was it just an echo in my mind of what I had been composing the night before? I considered this carefully. Music of some type is always playing in my head–sometimes quite vividly–but always clearly in my head (in so far as I believe myself to be still sane enough to tell the difference). This sound was definitely coming from outside of me. What beautiful things do our senses miss out on each day as we hurry through our lives. And even as we “listen” to the music we love, what more could we be hearing and feeling in those supposedly familiar sounds. There are deeper, more rewarding levels to all of this. I worry that modern life increasingly discourages and devalues the deeper levels of everything.
As for sleeping to this music, I like sleeping to music. It seems like many people I talk to, adults in particular, have trouble sleeping on a fairly regular basis. There are all sorts of remedies and strategies for this, of course, with varying degrees of effectiveness. Pills, alcohol, CBD, melatonin etc. The idea of a sonic sleep aid is certainly not new. White noise machines, sounds of the rainforest or the ocean, etc. These can be very relaxing and help drown out environmental noise in your sleep space. But, like many people, when I lay down at night, I’m physically exhausted but it’s my mind that’s racing, going over the events of the day, stressing about tomorrow, etc. I find that if I have something musical to engage my mind in, it helps disengage from these discursive thoughts. In a strange way these are like meditation tapes. They may help others reach a meditative state but they are also recordings of personal meditations.
As they made their way through our solar system, the twin Voyager space probes, launched in 1977 made audio recordings of various celestial bodies as they passed by. Made by bouncing signals off of the electromagnetic fields of planets and moons, these recordings present a sonic representation of celestial vibrations. They’re wonderful for sleeping (and though the original NASA CD releases are out of print, they have now been made available by The Center for Neuro-Acoustical Research for exactly that purpose). These recordings were a major inspiration for my sleep music project and they are sampled in some of the volumes. I wanted to create something that had a similar feeling but that was more musical–exploring the edges of our musical system just as Voyager has explored the edges of our solar system, walking the line between music and noise.
What I like about how these pieces came out is that my mind can engage at just the right level,-engaged but not distracted. In most of them, I avoided any clearly repeating rhythmic, harmonic or melodic patterns in which your mind can get stuck. On the other hand, the music can’t be too unpredictable or full of surprises that keep you on edge. They are subtle but rich, They create spaces, like sonic worlds that envelop the room, enticing the ear/mind to let go. When I listen, I feel like my mind is reaching for something just below the surface of these pieces–reaching for something just below the surface of consciousness, pulling me out of my mind into the dreamworld. The abstraction of the music is necessary to disassociate and disconnect from the concrete, conscious universe. The notes themselves are spectral, with a tenuous hold on the waking world.
Sometimes too, I wonder if I’m really hearing what I’m hearing. In this piece, the marimba and vibraphone seem to materialize out of the texture of the gongs, then at the end, they evaporate back into it. This is my favorite part of this piece. About two thirds of the way through, the vibe and marimba fade away completely, leaving only the bass drum and gongs. What I love about this is that when I listen, I can’t actually tell exactly when that happens. The remaining gong texture is so rich with overtones in the same realm as those tonal instruments that the ghosts of them seem to remain for the final 20 minutes.
Other times there seems to be a psychoacoustic effect wherein the sounds that are there lead your mind to perceive sounds that aren’t there.
I like to sleep to music. But most music is not made for sleeping. You may find a nice mellow CD to put on, but it’s unlikely to find one that maintains the right mood all the way through. The formal organization of music is usually designed for increased excitement and engagement over time. It starts soft and mellow but builds up, like Ravel’s Bolero or a raga. My sleep compositions have the opposite dynamic organization: They start off soft and mellow and get even less exciting and engaging over time. Even the silence between songs on a nice mellow CD can be a problem. The music lulls me to sleep but that sudden silence wakes me up. I designed these pieces to taper off so gradually that they just slowly dissolve into the environmental sound of the room with a seamless transition like dust settling or a cloud evaporating. Some music has too much empty space for sleeping. Morton Feldman, for example, is one of my favorite and, especially in this project, most influential composers. I like sleeping to his music. But there’s too much empty space. Too much silence. This is of course what makes his music so beautiful and so unique but it’s not immersive enough for sleep, It doesn’t paint over the environmental noise.
The idea of music with a specific function/purpose appeals to me. The intent of this music is to be listened to at night, on your way to sleep. Of course, if I’m successful with these compositions, no one will ever hear the whole thing (although I took great care in the how the music ends–precisely for that reason. The way it ends is more important to the function of these pieces than the way it begins–somewhat akin to Morton Feldman’s idea that the decay of the notes in his compositions is much more important than the attack). In any case, these pieces hold little interest and make little sense when removed from the function of sleep. I wouldn’t bother listening to them in the daytime or with lights on. And I would definitely avoid listening while operating heavy machinery.
Eric Schopmeyer, 2018