In the key of zzz: the concerts intended to send you to sleep

An increasing number of concerts are being performed in the dark, with the aim of encouraging audiences to listen to music in a new way or drift off

Its just after 7pm on Thursday in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a time when restaurants and bars are just starting to buzz with activity. But inside the National Sawdust arts space, audience members are stretching out on pillows and cushions, forming two long rows. The lights go out. Antiphonal volleys of snoring become audible. It is just what the musicians had in mind.

Theo Bleckmann, the experimental, genre-hopping singer, and Shai Maestro, a jazz pianist, billed their concert as a kind of musical meditation, in which audience members should lie down, unplug, shut their eyes and immerse themselves in sounds, melodies and landscapes.

With the exception of several glowing red exit signs, lighting was completely extinguished and only the performers silhouettes could be seen. One patron in a grey suit shifted awkwardly and glanced at his phone, before pulling his knees to his chest and apparently succumbing to the conceit.

Sometimes we have to coerce or push the audience into a new experience, or in my case, it was an old experience, Bleckmann said in a phone interview. As a teenager, the German-born singer would lie on his bedroom floor and scrutinize jazz recordings. We dont listen to music sitting down, closing our eyes and really taking in the music any more. Were doing other things were checking our phones, were watching TV. There are so many distractions.

The 75-minute sequence of airy, lushly textured songs, many of which featured Bleckmanns wordless vocalizations and live electronic processing, is the latest wrinkle of an ongoing trend: concerts in utter darkness. At a time when orchestras are adding video and staging effects to generate visual interest, performers from a range of art music traditions are nurturing an opposite impulse, taking the (literal) spotlight off themselves and focusing on their audiences inner needs.


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This can be seen in Georg Haass In iij. Noct (In the Dark), a knotty yet fashionable string quartet in which darkness is a compositional device; in Max Richters eight-hour lullaby Sleep; and in a dramatic staging last month of Brahmss German Requiem at Lincoln Centers White Light Festival. For the latter performance, 60 casually dressed members of the Berlin Radio Choir traipsed amid the audience at Manhattans Cathedral Church of St John the Divine in near total darkness.

Bleckmann said he welcomed the inevitable outcomes of his experiment. If people fall asleep, its completely fine, he proclaimed. The first step in listening is to have your body relaxed and let your mind just wander and not be distracted by visual stimuli.

Unlike Bleckmanns songs, which artfully straddled the line between introspective and narcoleptic, the string players for Haass quartet surround the audience in a more confrontational tableau. Haas asks for complete darkness, with even emergency exit lights extinguished (ushers at some performances have been equipped with night-vision goggles and a fire marshal has stood by). Los Angeles Times music critic Mark Swed writes that he first laughed off a liability waiver he was asked to sign, but then, after an initial thrill of enveloping darkness, got nervous.

Warnings to the anxiety-prone were similarly issued at a 2013 performance at Lincoln Centers Clark Studio Theater. It sets up a completely different dynamic for audience members, conceded Jane Moss, Lincoln Centers artistic director. If you are in complete darkness, to a remarkable degree, you have to trust the person sitting next to you. In terms of the human wiring, that is a state of alarm. It took me 10 minutes to settle into that piece.

But Moss believes that audiences develop a stronger sense of community and camaraderie during concerts in the dark, or in other physical formats that depart from the proscenium stage with a curtain. Even 20 years ago, you would buy a ticket to the great, celebrity performer and you would sit there as a rapt worshipper of this god who is performing on stage, she said. What were seeing now is audiences wanting an experience that theyre a part of. Its a shift in audience orientation.

These same impulses have, to varying degrees, influenced the participatory trend of immersive theater. Perhaps not to be outdone, Lera Auerbachs 2013 opera The Blind calls on attendees to be blindfolded and led into the hall as gusts of cold air rush through the auditorium. Next month, the Brooklyn Academy of Music will present a sensorial concert of Debussys String Quartet, in which blindfolded patrons are fed and exposed to various scents.

But the largest subcategory involves sleep-themed music. Richters Sleep, for piano, strings and vocals, which received its premiere in London in September 2015, has drawn attention not just for aiding sleep but <a href=”” data-link-name=”in” body link” class=”u-underline”>interpreting the act into art. But as Victoria Williamson, the director of music and wellbeing at the University of Sheffield observes, such pieces cant be universally prescribed. If we say, this is the perfect music for sleep, and you put it on and say I dont like that, thats a really strong barrier, she said. So much of our response to music is based on aesthetics and you cant divorce it from that.

Spotify currently hosts 1.9m user playlists titled sleep, topped by Peaceful Piano, with 2.1 million followers. Pandora offers channels such as Spa and Relaxation, which range from new age massage-table music to mellow singer-songwriters. There are even music-playing pillows and sleep-tainment options on Netflix. But as concert presenters aim to soothe frazzled urbanites, research is still ongoing. The Cochrane Report, a meta-analysis of major music studies, reported last year that while there is some evidence to suggest that music may help treat insomnia, more high-quality research is needed.

Bleckmann says that while he enjoys listening to music late at night, he wont use it as a sleep aid. I cant sleep if I know an electronic thing is running, he said. That would give me insomnia. Im too neurotic.

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