The Mindful Bard – Insomnia

Come, Sleep, and With Thy Sweet Deceiving ...

Album: Insomnia
Artists: Aurora Orchestra
Conductor: Nicholas Collon

“Come, Sleep, and with thy sweet deceiving
Lock me in delight awhile;
Let some pleasing [dreams] beguile
All my fancies; that from thence [I may feel] an influence
All my powers of care bereaving.”
– John Fletcher

What does it mean that several concept albums with nighty-night themes have just appeared? At least three classical, two pop, and one world album about night, dreams, sleep, or lack of it, have just been released for your listening pleasure. Just last week I recommended Max Richter’s From Sleep, and this week the most mindfully engaging album around is Insomnia. Coincidence?

In my piece on Richter’s work I suggested that far from being an expression of a desire to escape the nightmare of the postmodern landscape, music in honour of night and sleep?or, in this case, sleeplessness?might be be an expression of a universal need for a repose that evades us (if we don’t evade it ourselves). Perhaps the prevalence of this theme in recent recordings proves the need is more deep-seated than previously supposed.

From Sleep had the explicit purpose of being a kind of highbrow sleep aid. Insomnia is a little different, as the title suggests, being a complex of ideas, thoughts, sounds, and words grouped around the idea of insomnia, arranged so as to present a multidimensional way of looking at and experiencing the torture of unwanted wakefulness.

Tenor Allan Clayton is divine throughout; I don’t know if I’ve ever heard the Beatles’ “Blackbird” (included here for thematic and not just aesthetic reasons) so expertly and yet so lovingly interpreted, complete with masterful whistling. And how he can keep to the relentless tyranny of the metronome while sounding so at ease and uncontrived is beyond my understanding.

I’m just plebeian enough to be put off when I hear the grandiosity of a classical voice taking on pop and folk, but this arrangement and presentation is something completely different. A bit of a lilt, a gentle pulse, and an audible gasp each time he starts whistling are the cat’s meow.

A number of critics have dissed this album for being too vague a concept, but I don’t think they really listened. Every detail of this project was clearly chosen to integrate with an idea that can only be expressed in poetry, music, or both.

The centrepiece of the album is Benjamin Britten’s Nocturne for tenor and chamber orchestra, composed in 1958, which couches poetry by Shakespeare, Shelley, Tennyson, and more within the most stirring musical contexts. (If you’re trying to avoid having nightmares when you do finally nod off, don’t listen to the lines from “The Kraken” by Tennyson, about a great, sleeping, underwater beast.)

The nightbirds motif doesn’t just appear in “Blackbird.” Brett Dean’s Pastoral Symphony, dating from 2000, juxtaposes birdsongs and an increasingly anxious orchestral soundscape, making a distinct statement about the natural world as we are ceasing to know it. (This piece has the right dissonance to evoke that feeling you get when you wake at three in the morning in that weird mental space where all your aspirations and achievements suddenly look absurd and ridiculous. If only the right people were listening.)

The metronome, oddly, is like an extra player on the album, appearing in nearly every track like the relentless ticking of a grandfather clock. One track, Poems Symphonique for 100 Metronomes by Gyorgy Ligeti, puts the metronome centre stage (in the live performance audience members activate metronomes around the hall), and it sounds like the horsemen of the apocalypse? if there a hundred of them.

The Aurora Orchestra, established in Great Britain in 2005, has a reputation for well-crafted orchestral theatre involving collaborations across different artistic platforms. They’ve endeared themselves to the Mindful Bard not only by their music, but by their pursuit of accessibility; their Learning and Participation programme strives to help young people develop musical skills and eclectism. May it ever be.

manifests five of The Mindful Bard’s criteria for music well worth a listen.

1. It’s authentic, original, and delightful.
2. It poses and admirably responds to questions that have a direct bearing on my view of existence.
3. It provides respite from a cruel world, a respite enabling me to renew myself for a return to mindful artistic endeavor.
4. It inspires an awareness of the sanctity of creation.
5. It displays an engagement with and compassionate response to suffering.

Many thanks for the research assistance of Bill Waterman.

Wanda also writes the blog The Mindful Bard:The Care and Feeding of the Creative Self.