It’s 9:30 p.m. on a Friday in Manhattan and my name is on the list at the door. I’m handed a neon wristband that gives me access to the VIP room. No, I'm not at some swanky nightclub, but I am quite possibly at the city’s swankiest slumber party.
I’m surrounded by people in legit pajamas—flannel pants, plain white tees, matching button-down ensembles—as well as trendy art scenesters, but we’re here to participate in a totally equalizing, quintessentially human experience: We’re all going to go to sleep.
I know, it sounded really weird to me at first too. The event was billed as part concert, part slumber party; we were all there to listen to SLEEP, an eight-hour performance written by composer Max Richter, with input from a neuroscientist(!). The piece is meant to promote, of course, sleep, and mattress company Beautyrest partnered with Richter to provide bedtime accommodations for each concert-goer.
SLEEP made its North American debut at South by Southwest (because… where else?), and Richter and a team of musicians have performed in other countries as well. (You could also recreate the experience at home; the eight-CD set is available on Amazon for $43 and you can stream selections on Spotify.) But us New Yorkers don’t even like standing close to each other. Now we were expected to sleep an arm length’s apart?
I was too curious to let the obvious awkwardness dissuade me from participating. But I did have many questions. So, a couple of days before my own experience with SLEEP, I spoke with Richter over the phone. The act of sleeping is, he told me, "something fundamentally human, that connects us with other human beings since the beginning of time." He said he sees his composition as an invitation to press pause on everything but that shared experience. "It’s kind of an act of resistance, a moment we’re not on our screens," he says. Instead, we're alone together in an altered state.
Walking into the performance space felt like entering another world, some kind of futuristic dormitory where everyone had state-of-the-art mattresses instead of the squeaky, uncomfortable cots I still remember from soccer camp. Each Beautyrest mattress was maybe 18 inches from its neighbor, and the area was awash in the kind of blue light movies employ to make a scene look like nighttime. I was tired, sure—but surrounded by strangers and in an environment so wildly different from my one-bedroom apartment, I was convinced I wasn’t going to sleep a wink.
I had the chance to speak with Rebecca Robbins, PhD, Beautyrest’s resident sleep expert, about my concerns. While she agreed that sleeping in an unfamiliar environment can be difficult—the brain is on alert in “Am I safe?” mode, she says—the soothing music counteracts that, she assured me.
Eager to test out my mattress for the evening, I wandered the rows of beds until I found my reserved spot, then kicked off my sneakers and waited for the show to start. Even though Richter had already told me to expect about eight hours of relaxing, repetitive variations to ease our brains into sleep, I felt like I had no idea how this was about to go down. Were people really going to sleep? What if they snored? What if I had to pee at 2 a.m.? And were these musicians really going to be on stage for eight hours straight?
The music started around 10:30 p.m., and many of my most pressing questions were answered right off the bat. Some people dozed off nearly immediately. (Hey, Fridays are hard!) Some people continued to mill around the space, whether to get a drink, use the restroom, or snap the perfect pic of Richter and his piano. Yes, people snored. And yes, people scrolled through Instagram from bed, just like at home. At least two couples enjoyed some Rated G canoodling.
I made a note about some high-pitched singing on my phone around 11:20 p.m., and the next thing I remember is waking up to a similar tone two hours later. “I’m sleeping!” I noted around 1:25 a.m., clearly having surprised myself. Richter was in the process of leaving the stage temporarily, thereby answering my question about whether or not he’d get a break.
Over the next several hours, I repeatedly fell in and out of sleep, cracking one eye now and then to see what was happening on stage. It's not often that a composer wants you to zone out during a performance, and I kept coming back to something Richter told me during our phone chat. "One of the things the piece does from a musical standpoint is ask the question: What is the difference between listening and hearing? What role does conscious attention play in all this? Normally, [music] is trying to monopolize the attention and tell a story, but in this case, the story is the sleeping listener. The piece is a landscape for that to happen in. It’s a radical re-imagining of what music is, and what an audience is."
I chuckled to myself thinking I was doing a great job being the story; for how odd the set-up truly was, I couldn't believe how immensely calm I felt.
Around 5:45 a.m. I awoke to Richter on the piano. It was a variation similar to the very first notes he played for us. Dawn-simulating lights around the stage were starting to glow, and daylight was already flooding in through the floor-to-ceiling windows.
I lay in my bed as the gradually brightening light mimicked the crescendoing sound. Before I even realized it, SLEEP was coming to an end.
Concert-goers around me who had been deeply asleep moments earlier erupted into a standing ovation. Robbins led us through a brief in-bed meditation to focus our intentions on the new day. The mattresses were prepared to be delivered to a local homeless shelter. And with the invitation to pause officially over, we resumed our positions as screen-obsessed New Yorkers—prepared to ignore the profoundly human experiences happening all around us.