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In Writing

Philip Clark: Asleep at the wheel

March 2015

"No one is saying anyone ought to sleep through music – just that you might as well make the best of it when the inevitable happens." Philip Clark on the pleasures of Francisco López, Bruckner and blindfolds

“If I get into a situation where I can actually sleep just before I play,” Derek Bailey told Jean Martin in 1996, “that is pretty near the perfect preparation as far as I am concerned. And I take that to be something to do with the fact that after (sleeping) you are in a semi subconscious state, and while that might interfere with technical things, it’s better. Conscious influences I find not helpful.”

Those wise words of Derek Bailey’s rewound through my mind as an email arrived from BBC Radio 3 inviting me to hear two new compositions by the Spanish sound artist Francisco López at London’s Cafe Oto, a gig scheduled to begin at 10:30 in the evening and finish at midnight. I do win the occasional battle, but as the father of two young children, aged four and one, the daily war against tiredness is never ending. That early morning timpani of fingers against keyboard, squeezing out as many words as is feasible before the inevitable crying, nappy duty and breakfast is how each day starts. By the time I show up to a concert or gig, I’ve generally been awake for 12 or 14 hours. And however admiring I am of López’s work the chances, to be frank, of actually remaining conscious throughout his performance seemed slim at best.

Reading my invitation in depth, I discover that López is intending to plunge Cafe Oto into darkness and his advice that audience members wear the blindfolds that will be supplied (“to increase concentration on the sounds”) sounds sensible enough until, upon inspection, they look suspiciously like the sleep masks handed out on transatlantic flights. The powers that be really are determined to have me snoozing my way through this concert, I think. Then the Radio 3 presenter Robert Worby delivers his killer line: “We hope to get off to a prompt start – assuming the live opera before us doesn’t overrun…”

Great concert halls of the world where the plush upholstery and dimmed lights have seduced me into a sleepy twilight zone would include New York’s Carnegie Hall, the Wiener Musikverein and London’s Royal Festival Hall. Through experience I’ve learnt that those comfortable sofas at the back of The Vortex just up the road from Cafe Oto are best avoided.

With everyone at home asleep, one night Anton Bruckner’s third symphony rose to the top of the listening pile and, through headphones, I started to journey through its 70 minute structure. Midway into the first movement, I began to sink into my chair, my consciousness divided like a broadband connection between semi-wakeful awareness and a dream-like state punctuated by the climactic peaks and inclines of Bruckner’s string tremolos, brass chorales and athletic woodwind runs.

Renowned for the monumentalism of music that marches forwards in blocks, Bruckner premeasured his manuscript paper, mapping out the outline of his structure with empty bars that he would subsequently layer with notes and orchestration. There is something uniquely unmovable about Bruckner. But I found that floating in and out of consciousness blunted, flattened even, those structural blocks. I hit my pillow with liquid fragments floating through my dreams, sleep imposing something like a Cageian non-intentioned grid over Bruckner’s original construct.

Coming back to the symphony the next day, fully awake, I heard it with knowing freshness: Bruckner and I had indulged in intimate pillow talk. No one is saying anyone ought to sleep through music – just that you might as well make the best of it when the inevitable happens. In January, the London premiere of James Dillon’s Stabat Mater Dolorosa was played out in pitch darkness, an atmosphere that helped reinforce composer’s unerring ability to pace his music as though sound were suspended in a trance, running slower than time itself. Last year a London performance of Georg Friedrich Haas’s ensemble piece in vain also thrust the audience into darkness, the house lights symbolically dimming as the music lurched from equal-tempered tuning towards intervals traced around the natural overtone series: the more refined tuning, perhaps, requiring a heightened mode of listening.

Meanwhile back at Cafe Oto, perched on one of their rickety wooden chairs with my blindfold safely secured, thankfully the Francisco López concert starts on time. To be honest, I don’t know if I managed to stay awake for the whole 90 minutes. López’s new pieces – which he prefers to leave untitled – were remixes and reassemblages of pre-existing material tailored, using surround sound, specifically for the cafe’s acoustic.

Words about sleep and music need to be chosen carefully in case they inadvertently give the wrong impression. This music was both hypnotic and mesmeric, loops subtly evolving as they recurred drew me in; then a sudden change of texture woke up the senses like a splash of cold water. But López’s somnolent harmonies also had an unexpectedly sedative effect. Even if the concert had happened at lunchtime, they would have been suggestive of dreams; time would have dissolved in the same way as narratives escaping their reality. Music that continues to work on your senses even when your brain is at the point of shutting down is rarely discussed. Admitting you’ve fallen asleep at the wheel comes with stigma. But music that can communicate something during even this most ultimate of distractions clearly has residual strength – beyond even the wildest dreams of its creators.

You can listen to López's performance at Cafe Oto here, available until mid-April


i often fall asleep while making music - i'd like to boast about that but i feel like others wouldn't understand why

beautiful story

beautiful story

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