Sleep and music have an intimately complex relationship. In the last few years, researchers have used music to improve sleep for various groups, from burn victims to PTSD patients; yet the nature of their restorative powers remains a scientific mystery. The general population is warned against media saturation before bed, but music is a major exception. Yet there is also a darker side to the relationship. In literature and art, music often beguiles the unwary into vulnerable slumber. For Sigmund Freud, art and dream are the terrain of the unconscious, where repressed thoughts resurface and create turmoil. Two new releases share an instrument and a common foundation while offering opposing views of forty winks.
It is considered rude to tell an artist that their work put you to sleep. But the new album by Trio Ramberget – entitled Music for Falling Asleep – has some illustrious precedents. La Monte Young practised unusual wake/sleep patterns in his Dream House. Terry Riley spent the 1960s holding all-night concerts to restful audiences. More recently, Max Richter’s eight-hour Sleep (2015) garnered both critical and mass appeal.
Trio Ramberget is a young group from Gothenburg that plays ambient music on traditional instruments. Electronics have helped minimal styles of music flourish, but the tone and timbre captured on this record cannot be easily synthesised. Indeed, the young trio proves the value of this format in the opening tracks. Johanna Ekholm’s plucked double bass soothes the tired mind, ticking away like a familiar clock. But further afield, Gustav Davidsson’s trombone sounds out, a distant foghorn in the dusk. The reed of Pelle Westlin’s bass clarinet exudes a soft crackling, steering this blissful music away from soft-edged saccharine.
The album alternates between long and short pieces, rocking the brain in and out of sleep. The short, drone-based tracks have variety, one track capturing the swell of the wind instruments, the next dominated by Ekholm’s bass (now resonantly bowed). But the longer tracks make the album. On “D moll – Havet”, trombone and clarinet call and respond over a varying bass line. Westlin, in particular, edges into jazz, reminding us that this album showcases improvisation. By the ninth and longest track, “C dur – Bete”, we’ve entered the anteroom of dream, with soft percussive sounds shifting the furniture around us. Celebratory crescendos sound across the final fifteen minutes, ushering us gradually into sleep.
While music may function as a tender lullaby, dreams may produce music of their own. A decade ago, researchers in China mapped the waveforms of REM and slow-wave sleep into audible shapes. The resulting music was played to conscious listeners. Apparently REM music is fast and lively, inducing euphoria. The music of Gleb Kanasevich’s Asleep is likewise a direct transmission from the unconscious mind. The turmoil of the waking world redoubles and morphs into uneasy shapes. This sleep is fitful and nightmarish.
While the bass clarinet has a substantial history, it became a solo instrument and jazz outlier only from the 1950s onwards. Kanasevich plays unaccompanied and without a mouthpiece. He then uses guitar amplifiers and feedback to distort and mould the sound into erratic, mercurial structures. The first of his long-form tracks is the most minimal, comprised of dark, unbroken ambience. While Westlin’s bass clarinet sometimes sinks to a husky whisper, Kanasevich’s is a persistent gust of wind, blowing in from the nearby shores of black metal. On the cassette release, this opener is substantially longer. It begins on a brighter note, in a waking world that still has a shine.
On the remaining two tracks, Kanasevich produces rich but alarming noise, taking the clarinet ever further from its familiar settings. At times, the instrument sounds much like a guitar – high pitched in chaotic solos, or deep in doom metal riffs. At other moments, it sounds like the malfunctioning engine of an unknown machine, built in the unconscious by some nefarious force.
What does sleep sound like? These competing visions offer complementary answers, neither complete yet each substantial. Whether lulled by Trio Ramberget or haunted by Kanasevich’s clarinet, one may discover each album to be a memorable visitation in the night. Go ahead, tell these artists their music put you to sleep; they’ll take it as a compliment. (Samuel Rogers)