Sleeping to Robert Rich’s “Somnium”

By · Illustrations Daire Gaj · Date 2/22/2018

Have you considered that your needs for sleep at 19 may be different from your needs for sleep at 24?” my therapist asks me, looking at me in the compassionately bemused way that competent mental health professionals have down to an art.

I am almost three years out of college, and my always-edgy relationship with sleep has been particularly strained lately. Then I was offered an assignment: review an album that I’m supposed to sleep through. “Somnium,” by the prolific composer, writer, and mycologist Robert Rich.

In his days at Stanford University, Rich would give nine-hour concerts in which he performed through the night, mixing synthesized sound with field recordings of nature sounds and his own live piano. Audiences were encouraged to bring their own sleeping bags. “Somnium,” he writes in the note to the album on Bandcamp, is intended to re-create that experience for individual listeners.

“The music is aimed at the nebulous territory that exists in your mind when you are hovering between awake and asleep, when you are still aware of your environment, yet detached, when your half-sleeping mind wanders into the realm of hypnagogic images and dreamlike non-linearity,” Rich writes. “You might find that this music can act as a trigger for these flowing thoughts, and the activation of the environment around you can help you to skate around the edges of sleep, with one foot in the dream world and one foot in the room where you are sleeping.”

I’ve experienced intense visions on the edge of sleep and waking all my life, but only this past year did I learn that those half-dreams had a name of their own. One night last winter, I was lying on the couch waiting for my partner to show up at my house. One moment I was awake, the next I was in Harvard Square, where the brick-and-vine Harvard Yard had somehow been elevated 50 feet above the ground on a vast natural pillar. The only way up was via catapult basket, and I seated myself in one and launched into the air.

When my partner arrived, I told him what I had seen.

“Oh, hypnagogic hallucinations!” he said.

Instantly, I felt a strange kind of lightness. There’s such power in naming your experiences and sensations, and finally I had the words for this one. It was the same feeling I had after I found the online autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) community in my freshman year of college, and learned that I wasn’t the only one who had shivery tingles ripple through my body every time I heard a quiet, soothing voice.

In the years after I finished college I used to mainline ASMR videos before going to sleep most nights, floating in a lights-on haze halfway between sleeping and waking, sometimes hallucinating; perfectly capable of listening to an hour more but incapable of getting up to brush my teeth. After zonking out till 2 a.m. or so, I would slip into five hours of heavy sleep, rarely remembering my dreams. I’ve been trying to quit listening until I’m in bed, lights off, face washed, but the videos are as addictive as any drug.

“Somnium” is seven hours long, spread over six tracks. I listen to a little bit while awake, to know what to expect. It’s not really ASMR-soothing material. The soundscape is full of long drones, dripping water, and skittering sounds, but it’s oddly comforting to float in. I choose the evening of Friday, February 9 for my somnolent journey, because it’s the only night coming up when I know I’ll be able to get seven hours of sleep. I’m certainly ready to sleep when I arrive home at 1:30 a.m. after playing for a contra dance two hours away. On the ride back, I fell asleep multiple times in the front seat, but now I feel even more drained.

When I turn “Somnium” on and get in bed, I start to hallucinate almost immediately. I dream I’m about to play the same contra dance I played that night, and I’m pulling cards from the digital card game Hearthstone to see what beats what. Somehow this has to do with which fiddle tunes the band is going to play. My eyes snap open. I’m still at home. There’s no need to drive back from western Massachusetts again.

And then I dream. I dream long, and I dream big. My final dream of the night is set first in a movie theater where I’m supposed to be seeing “Get Out.” I’m looking for my partner and can’t find him before the lights go down. I leave to find myself on the Tanglewood grounds where I join a group of mummers. Then I’m in a vertigo-inducing version of Cambridge’s Sanders Theatre. I begin to watch the play, and then I see a person on whom I used to have a crush the size of Greenland. He takes me by the hand along with another woman. I let him lead me to the upper levels of the theater, and he leaves me on the second-highest balcony before ascending to the next level and cuddling with the other woman. I turn around to keep watching the play and find the view from my new seat is awful.

The dream doesn’t end for what feels like an hour. I descend into the flooded catacombs of the theater, and there I struggle with an ancient computer and scanner that a mummer said they’d been given by a witch.

I remember only one dream in my life during which I heard music that was playing on the outside. Some years back, Enya’s “Aldebaran” drifted through the veil to soundtrack a dream where I was trying to defeat a fireball-wielding sorceress. This one isn’t the second such dream. I don’t remember if I heard the sounds of “Somnium,” though the appearance of the watery tunnels makes me think that some may have leaked through. What I do know is that I must have racked up one hell of a sleep debt, because with no alarm, I wake up at 11 a.m. the next day and furiously record what I saw before it gets away. I want to try again.

The simple noises of other people can keep listeners in a lighter sleep,” Rich writes. “Interestingly, people become more physiologically activated merely by being in the proximity of other people. Perhaps this arousal is a purely chemical phenomenon. This is one of the interesting features that distinguish a live sleep concert from listening to ‘Somnium’ at home. In the act of bringing a group of people together in the same room, we create an energized environment, which can contribute to the intensity of personal experiences.”

I don’t have a group of people to gather around the speaker all night, but I do have a partner who seems to enjoy hypnagogic hallucinations. So the next night, when he stays at my house, I ask him if he’s interested in snoozing with “Somnium.”  

We settle under the blankets and it doesn’t take long for me to slip into a hallucination. I’m holding my phone and the glass seems to dissolve into thin air, and where the screen was, a portal to another world appears. My restless partner stirs, and I’m tugged out into the physical realm. The sounds of dripping water and low drones are reminding him of Guillermo del Toro’s eerie film “The Devil’s Backbone,” he explains.

I ask him if he wants to keep the record on, and he says yes, but something has shifted in my consciousness. The drones and water sounds were hovering in the back of my mind before, but now they seem to be boring through my forehead. It starts to feel physically painful. I switch to the second track, which has a gentler, higher-frequency beginning, and then I drift off after hallucinating that I’m staring at the sun out the window of an airplane.

My partner dreams of being on a train from Rhode Island to Massachusetts with a woman whom he’s helping get away from an abusive family. I remember having a vivid dream, but I lose the details upon waking up. This time as well, I remember none of the music, and it stings that I don’t remember my dream. But the fact that I know I dreamed at all is comforting. ¶