Last year, Manu Delago and friends scored multiple accolades at A Closer Listen, thanks to an audacious (some may say foolhardy) plan to hike into the Alps to record an album. The sonic and visual results were sublime. Less than a year later, how would the artist fare with “just” a concept and the music? To our delight, he’s scored another winner.
Circadian is a journey through sleep cycles, but is a totally different beast than Max Richter’s Sleep, as this album was inspired by a lack of sleep. As such, it’s a vibrant, upbeat album, for which listeners will want to stay awake. (And with so much percussion, they likely will.) There’s a lot more handpan on this album than on Parasol Peak, although the ensemble remains in full force. This is understandable, given the fact that Delago is one of a select few referred to as a master of the handpan; why not play to your strengths? This is apparent throughout the opening (title) track, and especially on the 21-minute “Delta Sleep (Live at 4:33am). Delago isn’t sharing music for sleep; he’s playing music to reflect the choice to get out of bed when one can’t sleep and to put that energy to good use. “The Silent Flight of the Owl” is a tribute to a nocturnal creature, graced with dignity and poise. Delago once encountered such a creature late at night, but to this day is unsure if it was a dream: a metaphor for the mingling of realities that takes place when the consciousness is in flux.
While generally lively, the album grows more relaxing as it progresses. The music conveys a sense of “letting go,” of making peace with the night and its incongruities, from jet lag to insomnia to dreams. The trombone of “Uranus” (no jokes please) is particularly restive. The tempo slows in “The Moment I’m Still Awake” to set the stage for the track that dominates the album, stopping only for a few bouts of sound versus silence that imitate the fight to stay awake. At the very end, Delago’s handpan enters like a church chime, tolling the hours of the night.
Once again, the ensemble inhabits its music physically, playing “Delta Sleep” “by candlelight through to the early hours of the morning.” We admire the dedication to cause. The piece ebbs and flows, at times adopting the timbre of a nursery, at others that of a frantic scribe, trying to scribble down the ideas that have come to him in a dream. The fifteenth minute sounds like a duet between a music box and a snore. As the listener enters the zone, one can understand Delago’s phrase “electronic music in acoustic forms.” The piece is more a soundtrack of sleep than for sleep, creating a form of trance akin to the type of music that bears its name.
Delago calls the festive finale a “musical alarm clock.” The word “Zeitgeber” refers to any event that synchronizes the body to the 24-hour cycle. As such, it’s a lively piece to awaken to. One thinks of the scientists who retreated deep into the earth to experiment with experiences of time; to a person, they lost track of days or even weeks. One hopes that after all the touring and time changes, Delago’s own clock has been reset by the production of this music. If nothing else, he sounds rejuvenated by the experience; this time, instead of suffering for his art, he turned his suffering into art, producing an illuminated sonic manuscript. (Richard Allen)