Dreamcatching: The remarkable story of Robert Rich and the Sleep Concerts
Snoozy listeners had the rare opportunity to participate in a Sleep Concert at last year’s Unsound festival in Poland, when Robert Rich hosted an overnight gig at Krakow’s communist-era Hotel Forum. Ahead of this year’s event on October 16, we’re republishing our interview with the man himself, who explains the meaning and origin of these near-mythical performances.
If you’ve even a fleeting interest in music’s capacity to induce psychedelic and mystical states, you need to know about Robert Rich’s ‘sleep concerts’.
Anyone familiar with Ambient music will, more than once, have chanced upon Robert Rich. The California native has released a string of highly-regarded releases, from 1989’s Rainforest through 1991’s meticulous Geometry to 1998’s East-facing Seven Veils. Similarly, collaborations with the likes of Lustmord (on 1995’s dark ambient touchstone Stalker) and Steve Roach (on 1990’s Strata and 1992’s Soma) have become set texts for listeners dipping a toe into Ambient cool blue waters. If there’s one thing he’ll forever be remembered for, though, it’s his legendary early 1980s ‘sleep concerts’ – immersive all-night shows, performed to sleeping audiences, that stretched the definition of a ‘concert’ beyond all familiar limits. Much-mythologised and occasionally imitated – Steven Stapleton is among the artist to have followed Rich’s cue – these occasional, sparsely attended happenings continue to fascinate and inspire – part physical experience, part community intervention, part scientific experiment, part mystic ritual.
First performed in the early 1980s, the concerts saw Rich perform through the night to revellers drifting in and out of light sleep. Over nine or ten hours, Rich would perform a synthesis of found sound, prepared drones, and live instrumental playing at very low volumes. “In real time I’ll be mixing and blending those together, whilst also playing guitar and flute and keyboards, but through loops and long delays – everything being very slow. Anything resembling a melody could unfold over a half an hour or so. The concentration is really one of subtlety, slowness, extremely slow crossfades, and keeping that deep level of continuity.” Rich’s intention was to access the strange liminal zone between sleep and wakefulness: the music became a “thread of consciousness, where you can sort of guide yourself into a state of half-sleep and notice the way that your brain shifts perceptions into an internal world. And what’s fascinating is when the external world and the internal world mix, and the mixing becomes blurred.”
Rich elaborates on the theory underpinning the performances: “As we come to understand the nature of consciousness, we realise there are many different states when the mind is an a separated or internal state, but with a slightly open sensitivity to the environment, more so than REM sleep when we’re in a deep dream. We can have dreamlike experiences during hypnagogic states – well, hypnagogic and hypnopompic, which are the technical words for when you’re going into sleep and out of sleep.” These glacially paced performances were “intended to create such a state of silence that the brain’s own tendency to build words, becomes accentuated and we enter into a naturally hallucinogenic environment – the kind we enter into every night when we sleep. So as a person interested in psychophysiology and cognitive psychology, I found myself far more attracted to the natural states of consciousness, and to the idea that we are world builders by nature, that our consciousness is constantly creating the world we live in. It is a constructive – a constructed – environment.”
As Rich tells it, the sleep concerts were the product of a constellation of different influences. Harry Partch and Terry Riley, with their nods to African and Indian traditions were a rich source of inspiration; it’s no coincidence that Terry Riley was putting on all-night concerts in 1970s. John Cage and Maryanna Amacher’s ‘Close Up And Empty Words’, which layered Cage’s cut-up standard over Amacher’s delicate drone work, set off a light, as did Alvin Lucier’s 1969 performance piece ‘I Am Sitting In A Room’ (“a paragraph of him speaking was played through a speaker, and re-recorded over and over again until it turns into a sort of gong sound”). Some of Fluxus’ giddy absurdism had a part to play too, with Rich pointing towards Richard Hayman: “[He] would fall asleep on a hammock with whistles in his mouth. And I thought, well, that’s kind of cute, but doesn’t it make more sense to the audience for the performer to be working a little harder? [laughs] I thought it would be more interesting to invert that relationship.”
Extra-musical influences were crucial, too. Stephen LaBerge’s work on lucid dreaming – states when the sleeper is aware they are dreaming, and are correspondingly able to control their dreams – were highly formative. Doubly important was the example of trance rituals from elsewhere in the world: “In Indonesia, they would have the Wayang puppet plays re-enacting The Ramayana, and these things would go on two or three days. The whole village would be there participating – kids running around naked, and people sleeping and waking and serving food – and the whole thing would be a continuum of village life and ritual. I was very interested in that.” From this congeries of factors emerged the sleep concerts: “all of these things combined. I thought – this idea of long duration, and of very deep, slow trance – could be mutated into a modern way of performing.”
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The sleep concerts have long since passed into Ambient lore – but, as Rich stresses, their beginnings were humble. The maiden concert took place in 1982 in Rich’s grotty student digs at Stanford in a room with “70s blue shag carpet and a worn out couch with the stuffing pulled out of it”: “I Xeroxed a bunch of flyers and stuck them up on kiosks around campus. It was a free concert: I said “bring a sleeping bag”. I think I called it ‘Sleep Music’, and it started at 11pm and went until 8am in the morning, and it was in the lounge of the dormitory that I was living in.” Armed with a homebuilt modular and two cassette machines, Rich performed through the night to a 20-odd audience of friends, neighbours and curious passers-by: “I had a tape echo and a digital delay and a spring reverb and it was very simple, very primitive drone stuff. And very quiet.”
Rich continued to put on sleep concerts a couple of times a year, taking commissions from everyone from the Association for Sleep and Dreaming through to Berkeley experimental hub Strange Visions, where Rich would sit on the same programme as spiritualists and psychonauts. Despite the scene’s fusty/kitschy associations, Rich pinpoints those early years as the Golden Age of a genuine “authentic New Age culture” in the late 70s/early 80s, a period when New Age was “really the outflow of the counterculture hippie scene. That’s kind of where I saw the bifurcation occur where New Age culture went into schmaltz and icky stuff, and my interest turned far more to avant-garde and minimalism. But there was that meeting place with psychedelic culture and people like Terrence McKenna, where it was a little bit flaky and woo-ey, but also edgy.”
As it happens, there was nothing hippy-dippy about Rich’s motivations for the concerts. Indeed, he describes the concerts as an important corrective to the corrosive effect of our culture’s obsession with speed, stimulation and endless dataflow – a way of activating a state of mind that “might be a little bit more appropriate to the biology that we evolved with rather than the technology that we are forcing ourselves to adapt into.” It’s a point that, whilst pertinent in the early 1980s, feels especially important nowadays in the world of the tablet and the shuffle function: “The theme behind much of my work is to allow people to remember what the world is like that they live in, rather than the urban bubble of informational density that we’ve created, and this constant barrage of requirements. I feel rather strongly that the world that we are creating, fascinating though it is from a cognitive point of view, is not exactly beneficial to other aspects of our organism.”
In a world of power naps and “8-hours-a-night”, Rich thinks we should take a more respectful and holistic approach to sleep: “When you look at cultures that retain more of a ritual or a shamanic relationship to inner life, you’ll see that they are very open to sharing their dreams in the morning, to talking about the inner life. And it’s something that we have lost – it’s something that we have perhaps pushed away from ourselves as a remnant of puritanical materialism. [It’s] this strange state our culture is in where we deny inner life and we have very little use for religion, at least in the intellectual spheres, and everything is seen in these materialistic terms of functionality, and how hard can you work. I live here in Silicon Valley, where everybody brags about their 60 hour work weeks at Google and things – it’s kind of missing some fundamental aspects of human experience.”
Rich recalls some of the reactions those early shows would elicit. “This one person said they went into a dream which became lucid where they walking down a beach with figures on it that looked like Easter Island – these large stone monolithic gods, planted in the sand. And as the water rolled up and touched their feet, they felt the presence of these stone figures which were speaking to them – a very intense ecstatic experience that can happen in lucid dreams, these explosions of ecstasy – and it correlated to the sounds I was playing.” Others found the effects of the concerts creeping into their waking life: Rich proudly recalls one story of a woman who, post-concert, found herself unable to head home because the noise of the city was suddenly to loud to bear. On rare occasions, nightmares were reported: “There are some people who find that quiet space to be a little scary.”
For all their emphasis on patience and quietude, there are clearly parallels between the sleep concerts and more lurid types of all-night musical happening, with Rich acknowledging some shared DNA with the Acid Tests of the 1960 and the raves of the late 1980s. But the differences can’t be overstated: “One thing about the Acid Tests and raves and things is they were, and are, sensory overload environments, and they’re expecting the audience to be in usually an hallucinogenically altered state. I’m more interested in discovering what is inside in a natural calm state – a meditative state – rather than a forced state of overstitimulation.” These “overload environments”, it should be noted, are worlds that Rich has hovered on the fringes of: The Grateful Dead used to practice around the corner from his house – Ken Kesey would park his bus in the neighbouring road – and Rich also went to some of the earliest West Coast raves too, although he wasn’t a fan (“it sounded like disco, or just uncreative Kraftwerk rip-offs”). He’s friends with Neurosis, and, thanks to an association with ambient label Release – an offshoot of thrash label Relapse – he meets “a lot people in my audience who are into grindcore and death metal and stuff”. His music might be slow, but it’s “intense” – as he puts it, “a little bit edgy for massage”.
Rich retired the sleep concerts around 1986 following a bout of glandular fever (“that completely wiped out my ability to pull an all-nighter”). It wasn’t until 1996, when an Ambient DJ from UC Irvine university coaxed Rich out of retirement to perform versions of the sleep concerts on the radio, that Rich resumed the project. Thirty-odd performances, both live and broadcast, followed over the next few years, with the latter providing a new challenge: “Radio has some major restrictions which are dynamic range – you have to keep some sound happening all the time. The difficulty was that my intention with the live sleep concerts was to keep things so quiet that it was almost not there…You couldn’t do that on the radio.” Eventually, Rich put the kibosh on the concerts once again, although, in a final last hurrah in 2001, he produced the Somnium DVD – a 10-hour disc that gives listeners the chance to host their own sleep concerts within their own home. The DVD was very much intended as a kiss-off to the sleep concert project: “really I just tried to put the whole thing away.”
It was surprising, then, to see Rich top the ticket on the first wave of announcements for this year’s Unsound festival. On October 16, the Krakow festival will host the first live sleep concert in well over a decade. Why? “Somebody asked me to do it [laughs]. Simple as that!”. Economics have also clearly had a part to play in the absence of the concerts: he’s quick to point out that, as business models go, the sleep concerts are about as grand a folly as you can imagine: “You have to realise that when people are laying down you need some space around them, and so in a room that might seat 400 or 600 people, you can only sleep perhaps 50 – it’s about a 10:1 ratio…It’s the worst business model you could ever have for a concert! [laughs]…On my side, I’m making myself miserable, I’m making myself sick, I’m staying up all night long. On their side, they can’t fit more than 40 people.”
Rich describes the forthcoming concert with a clear mixture of relish and nerves (“I have a running joke: I’m basically just trying to not suck most of the time”), and he’s aware that, having turned 50, the all-nighters might not come as easily as they once did. Still, for all the apprehension, Rich is a man with a mission – to draw a chalk circle, within which listeners can have powerful experiences away from the world at large: “When we become accustomed to listening acutely, and having a more rarified experience – an experience which is measured in whispers rather than screams – then when we enter into the world we were once accustomed to, the world of chaos and noise, we realise what we’ve become used to, and how chaotic everything is.”
For those looking to hear about the ‘sleep concerts’ in greater depth, the fascinating full transcript of this interview is available to read here.