To sleep or not to sleep? Madeleine Chapman stays overnight at Max Richter’s eight-hour show and realises how tired she is.
This post was first published 17 March 2018.
Being tired is a privilege that must be earned, and I earned it for the first time as a 23-year-old.
I used to think being tired meant being sleepy. I thought being tired meant being physically exhausted. In reality, being tired isn’t a feeling or an emotion, it’s a state of being. And it’s a state of being I’ve inhabited for the past six months.
At Max Richter’s SLEEP event, an eight hour continuous performance of his album by the same name, he walks onstage at 11pm to silence. The 100 or so audience members, all sitting or lying on their makeshift beds, aren’t sure if it would be appropriate to clap. Eventually someone does and it slowly builds to a decent reception, but it’s still odd. Richter speaks for a minute, introducing what he calls “an experiment… a lullaby… a protest against our data-saturated lives”.
Known for his minimalist compositions, Richter’s work has been featured in numerous movies, most recently Arrival. His 2015 album, Sleep, was intended as an aid to sleep, with rhythms to match natural sleep cycles. This overnight event presents the full experience, though even Richter hasn’t figured out how to absorb his own work. “I don’t know what you’re supposed to do. You can listen or you can sleep, it’s up to you.”
As he sits at the piano and plays the first notes, most of the audience settles down to sleep. Some sit up to watch for a while or rearrange their bedding. I just feel tense. After listening to those same notes a thousand times since January, I only now realise my listening to Max Richter has always been accompanied by desperate, frenzied writing. In essence, hearing the opening notes to Sleep tells me that I should be stressing out, so I do.
I try to lie down and relax but instead take out a notebook and start scribbling in the dark. Good, I’m doing something productive. Tonight is just one of countless nights this year, beginning at 11pm with me trying to force some words out while blasting Richter’s repetitive compositions in my headphones.
In that time I’ve occasionally gotten an “are you okay?” from friends and colleagues, to which I would reply “just tired” without any real weight behind the words. As long as I preface my tiredness with a “just”, it doesn’t count as a complaint. I still plod around with the firm belief that were I to say “I’m tired” aloud three times, a new mum will appear to announce that I don’t even know what tired means. She’d probably be right but the cure for a headache isn’t the knowledge that others have experienced worse. It’s still a headache and it still hurts.
At 11:38pm, soprano Grace Davidson makes her first appearance. She hums a note, one I had assumed was played by some sort of flute on the album. They’re long, winding notes, and a sharp intake of breath can be heard before each one. Those deep breaths are edited out of the recording, removing any evidence of effort. Being tired is a privilege.
It creeps up on you, this tiredness. It begins with sleepiness. Being up all night and working the next day. There’s stress; of deadlines, quantity, word count, word quality. It’s all still normal and manageable.
Then something happens. A sickness. It’s not going to kill you but it’s added a layer to your tiredness. The irony? It was triggered by being too tired. But sickness is fine. Sickness is physical and physical ailments don’t stop the mind from working. The cure? Rest. Don’t do too much or stress too much.
Then another thing happens the very next day. Something that you in all your sickness and exhaustion and self-pity hadn’t even considered a possibility. Or perhaps you’d simply chosen to ignore its inevitability. But now it’s happened, right on time, and you’re forced to remember all the times you saw a missed call from your mum and didn’t call back.
When looking into a crystal globe and seeing your life without a loved one, everything else doesn’t matter anymore. I lost sleep over work? I boo-hooed about shingles? How silly. But then a week later the fog clears and thank god, your loved one is still there and the rest of your silly life is back in focus. You still have deadlines and a word count and shingles, and now you have to give them time and attention.
By one o’clock, most people are fast asleep or at least closing their eyes. I’m fighting to stay awake. A staunch plan to get an early night last night predictably resulted in me getting four hours’ sleep. So I had a nap after work, woke up two hours later in a panic that I’d slept through and missed the show, inhaled a lift plus and a coffee, and arrived at Shed 10 ready to stay awake all night. The event description had encouraged sleeping throughout the eight hours but to sleep would mean missing the performance. I didn’t pay $190 to miss out on the music.
Fear of missing out. The final straw on the tired camel’s back. I try to say yes to everything because I don’t want to say no and then find out that it was the greatest event to ever take place. Free movie tickets? Yes please. A concert by an artist I barely know? Sure, why not. Something interesting might happen and I want to be there when it does.
Me being at this show is a result of that fear. I couldn’t possibly miss out on such a unique event just because I’m tired. Rest when you’re dead, goes the bad crossfit slogan. It’s a sleeping event and I’m going to be even more tired at the end of it. I knew I wouldn’t regret it and I was right. But the irony isn’t lost on me.
At four o’clock I open my eyes and realise I’d dozed off. I’m momentarily annoyed and blink hard to wake myself up but my eyes won’t stay open. For the next two hours I’m in and out of a restless slumber, trying and failing to take in the music. Sleep is never peaceful when you don’t want it.
I told someone I was tired last month and she laughed then said: “you’ll get used to it”. Is this it? Never not being tired, just getting better at living with it? God, I hope not.
At six o’clock I come to the realisation that perhaps it’s the sleeping I’m missing out on, and the music is secondary. Of course, once I decide this, sleep eludes me. The woman on the cot next to me has been lightly snoring since 11:05 pm.
I lie on top of my sleeping bag, kept warm by my self-pity, and listen to the three violins play. The string quartet is rounded out by the world’s smallest violin playing just for me. I wonder what my mum’s doing. It’s early so she’s probably asleep. Or maybe not. She never could sleep through the night. Sixty four years of never sleeping through the night. You don’t even know what tired means.
At 6:30 I go to the bathroom, take a walk closer to the stage, marvel at Richter’s posture after seven hours of sitting at the piano, and return to my bed. The final hour of the album gets steadily more powerful to wake up the listeners. Like a fade in if a fade in took 45 minutes. Such slow but rock steady volume changes are something I never noticed or appreciated until hearing it done live. Seeing people gently wake up in the final fifteen minutes, as if on cue, is impressive. When the final, long note ends in a dense silence, there’s more hesitation before the round of applause begins. We give the small orchestra a standing ovation, but a slow one because people are literally waking up and some are still fast asleep. It’s so quiet – 100 people can’t make that much noise – and feels an inadequate response to such a marathon effort.
I’m still tired and should go straight home but people are lingering, hoping for a chance to speak to the musicians. I have so many questions I want to ask them. Is it harder to play the same long notes for hours on end than it is to play a more advanced composition? Do they think it’s weird that people are sleeping at their show? Are they tired?
I wait an hour with these questions, but really I wait an hour because I don’t want to leave and maybe miss an opportunity to speak with them. After all my introspection, I still can’t bear to miss out on something.
An hour passes and there’s no sign of the orchestra. I head home, spending the whole Uber ride with my eyes closed, wondering if Richter appeared the moment I left and maybe I should’ve stayed a bit longer. I have a lot to do today but it would’ve been too good an opportunity to pass up.
It’s 8:30 when I get home. I look at my messy room which I told myself I’d clean when I had time. I trip on my running shoes and remember I’m supposed to be running every morning. On the desk are 200 pages of writing I need to edit. I look at everything and press play on the album I’ve just listened to in its eight-hour entirety.
I try to sleep but sleep eludes me.
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