A view from inside The Longest Night sleep concernt. Image: Preyanka Gothanayagi
A view from inside The Longest Night sleep concernt. Image: Preyanka Gothanayagi

WellingtonJuly 10, 2024

What it’s like to attend an all-night sleep concert

A view from inside The Longest Night sleep concernt. Image: Preyanka Gothanayagi
A view from inside The Longest Night sleep concernt. Image: Preyanka Gothanayagi

How do you review a show you’re supposed to sleep through? Preyanka Gothanyagai heads along to The Longest Night, an eight-hour concert designed to make you lose consciousness.

It was a dark night. In fact, it was the longest night of the year. I found myself inside Massey University’s Great Hall to experience an all-night sleep concert in celebration of the winter solstice. The event was appropriately named The Longest Night, featuring a group of local musicians who would “weave a tapestry of sound” to guide us through the night and into the new day. It was part of Lōemis, Wellington’s mid-year arts festival that brings together the traditional, ethereal, and fantastic to create something truly special during the most miserable months of the year (weather-wise).

The experience was meant to encourage “transformative” deep sleep, but I wasn’t so sure – sleep doesn’t always come easy, especially in a room full of strangers. There was also a real tension for me – I was trying to review something I was technically supposed to be asleep for. Still, I was determined to relax.

I turned up in my comfiest sweatpants, hair tied up in my bedtime pineapple style – only to immediately drop my glass water bottle on the steps outside the hall. The sound of it shattering broke the stillness of the night, and my own attempts to cultivate inner peace. Not a good start.

Sighing, I went inside, borrowed a broom, and spent my first moments of the evening sweeping glass. Then I took a deep breath and prepared myself – the longest night had begun.

The hall itself was bathed in blue. Stage lights shone down from above, dim enough to invoke night, but still bright enough to read by – which is what several of the more organised event-goers were doing. Speakers set up at strategic points were broadcasting what I thought were frog noises, but which my partner later told me were crickets (that’s how long it’s been since summer). If I half closed my eyes, it was almost possible to mistake the distant ceiling for the night sky.

Most of the room was taken up by camp stretchers, laid out in rows and punctuated by battery-powered tea lights. People were setting up for the night, unpacking stuffed backpacks and fluffing sleeping bags. The lady behind me was already curled up under a brightly coloured homemade quilt. A couple walked past, smelling of smoke and wine. One woman was finger combing her long brown hair, plaiting and securing it with a silk scrunchie. A man in the back was doing yoga. It was a level of intimacy I wasn’t expecting, observing the bedtime routines of people I didn’t know.

Then there was the stage itself, at the front of the hall. A big feature was the myriad of gongs played by Erika Grant from Orchestra of Spheres. They came in all sizes, hung from a range of frames, some organised from smallest to largest, the bigger ones taking centre stage on their own. Other musicians were arranging and rearranging smaller instruments, most of which I didn’t recognise. A man with incredible dreadlocks was tinkering on a laptop.

A selection of instruments from The Longest Night. Image: Lōemis

As I lay back in my stretcher, practising jotting down notes while horizontal, it was easy to imagine I was on a ship sailing through the deepest part of winter. We were all travellers together, being gently steered through the night by this group of incredible musicians. There was vulnerability in it, but also a high level of trust. When we woke, it would be a new dawn. The darkest part of the year would be behind us.

The Night

Every movement made my stretcher creak like an attic door in a horror movie. I was convinced it could be heard from the other side of the room. I’d somehow managed to tangle myself up in my own sleeping bag. Trying to free myself was the auditory equivalent of opening a bag of chips in a quiet movie theatre.

But there was a surprising amount of goodwill for loud sounds. No one was gatekeeping the purity of the experience – everyone was here to see what would happen, and that included clumsy noises and an inability to lie still.

As the clock ticked over to eleven, one of the musicians stepped up to the microphone to deliver a half-whispered mihi. His low voice was soothing, gentle, reassuring.

“Haumi e, hui e,” he intoned.

“Taiki e,” we all whispered back as one.

Then, Erika of the gongs took over. She began another age-old ritual of concerts everywhere: housekeeping.

We were told where the exits were, and where we’d be able to find the volunteers if we wanted to report good dreams (or bad dreams). She told us we were locked in; if we left the venue, there would be no coming back. It was all about sleeping, dreaming, resting. What did we want to let go, what did we want to ring in? Just go with the music, go with the sounds, listen mindfully. Everything could be part of the experience, including snoring. But if we snored too loudly, she’d squeeze our foot. Was that OK? Hands up anyone who didn’t want their foot squeezed?

Then the music began. At first, I thought they’d switched the sound of crickets to a rainy seascape, but it turned out to be different instruments layering over the top of one another. I heard rain. I heard the sea. I heard low hums, vibrating through me. I opened my eyes, and watched a man with a Tibetan singing bowl glide past.

For the first half an hour, I traced the different layers as best I could, trying to stay on top of what was happening. But to my surprise, I found myself drifting away, awash in a sea of sound. For someone who struggles to fall asleep, it was a fight to stay awake. So I closed my eyes and gave in.

Attendees at The Longest Night (Photo: Rebecca McMillan Photography)

I dreamed. I remember being pulled under, helpless against the tide. This was highly unusual for me – I usually sleep shallowly, sometimes to the point of being able to control a dream’s action. I also usually remember what it is I dreamed about the next morning. It’s a highly valuable tool for processing the day that’s been, but this time it was all a blank slate.

The New Dawn

I first woke around four, when someone accidentally hit a gong slightly louder than intended. The deep blue light of the night was gone, replaced by the more mellow tone of a sky before dawn. The music had shifted from a percussive rainscape to a blend of notes and drones. I closed my eyes and sank once more.

At around six, I awoke for real. The lightscape had changed again, splashing the ceiling in the orange and rose golds of dawn with just a hint of the deep night and stars that were. Some of us were starting to stir, while others were still fast asleep. There was a call and response of snores from across the room that was actually quite comforting. No one’s foot had been squeezed in the night.

I took this opportunity to get up and move around the room. The musicians were still going, moving so slowly it felt less like a concert and more like performance art. A man named Zac in denim shorts was gently playing a triangle – only it was three dimensional, so actually a pyramid. I’d never seen one before. He slowly lowered it to the ground and picked up what looked like a brightly painted Milo can with a long tail, which he carefully shook directly into the microphone. To his left, someone painstakingly pulled a violin bow across a cymbal.

I got myself a cup of tea from the break room and settled back down in my sleeping bag for the last moments of the concert. I felt an unusual sense of calm – to my surprise, I wasn’t itching to check my phone. I didn’t even know where it was.

My fellow sleepers were mostly up and moving now, writing their thoughts and dreams in notebooks or gently shaking their loved ones awake. There was a sense of community, even though no one had introduced themselves. After all, it’s not often that you wake up with a hundred strangers the morning after.

As the morning drew to a close, Erika approached the mic one last time. “You have been sleeping to Erika Grant, Riki Gooch, Chris O’Connor, David Long, Nick Hyder, Zac and Holly Winterwood, and Ben Wood,” she told us, breaking the spell of the night. We all got up, collected our belongings, and shuffled thoughtfully into a bright new day.

Keep going!