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Feature: Sound On The Edge Of Sleep

I was on a gigantic set of stairs that stretched out endlessly before me, descending. Each step was about 10 feet tall and made out these massive sheets of taut, trampoline-esque elastic, bathed in a mixture of yellow, blue and pink neon lights that also spilled out onto the surrounding walls and high ceiling. The gravity was extremely low, and with each jump I was sent soaring into the air for 20 seconds at a time, stopping briefly in a moment of climactic stillness as I reached my peak before gliding gently down again.

I experienced this dream while listening to Robert Rich’s Somnium: a seven-hour work designed specifically to influence the visuals induced during pre-REM hypnagogic stages of sleep. Synthesisers heave in and out in slow-motion tidal surges, seeping through the sounds of natural landscapes like a strange luminous vapour; everything is soft, and as the volume rises and falls over the most gentle of dynamic gradients, I feel myself swaying pendulum-like over the boundary of consciousness, with my imagination stirred and sloshing into the shapes of my mental imagery.

I was 16 at the time of this dream, and just beginning to probe the stranger aspects of the sonic unknown. My imagination was arguably at its most fertile and visually dependent; I met new sounds with an absolute naivety, and instead of subconsciously framing them in similar aural experiences, I was lead to some very strange and often abstract visual reference points instead. But something about this record was particularly potent, and where some sounds are very modest in their infiltration of my state of sleep – hanging in the background unnoticed, loitering behind the dream like a sort of muzak – Somnium’s act of dream incorporation oozed into every dream pore, influencing my landscape and even my speed of movement.

Another notable instance happened more recently, while listening to Eliane Radigue’s Adnos trilogy (in fact, I am constantly having wondrous experiences thanks to Radigue’s music). Rather than populate my mind with a plethora of strange imagery a la Somnium, Adnos seems to either bring solitary objects to the fore – simple shapes on a spotless white canvas – or eradicate my sensory awareness completely. I am carried to a very different edge of consciousness: rather than have me teeter between reality and vibrant hallucination, I reside on the very brink of the universe, staring into the yawning mouth of the void, tethered to the precipice by a mid-frequency hum that wraps itself around my ribcage; it’s a very meditative unhinging from perceptual reality, pulling down day-to-day notions of consciousness to leave just the base constant of simply being.

Predominantly, these experiences occur when sound hovers between stasis and minimal activity; Steve Roach utilises the description of “sonic incense” when talking about his own creations (which tend to be cyclical whirlpools of soft electronics), and I think this term captures the manner in which the sound moulds to the shape the existing landscape while subtly altering its hue. Adnos becomes my new silence, bleeding out into my surrounding space and simultaneously altering its dimensions – the vibrations unsettle my own sense of stasis but only just, and it’s through this subtle friction between my homely reality and the unknown that I become teased into the hypnagogic. I find that my dreams are most potently induced by sound that not only diffuses into the surrounding air, but also exhibits a certain empathy and alignment with my own body; slow or absent rhythm that either mimics my sleeping heart rate or acknowledges my state of semi-shutdown, and low/mid-frequencies that both elicit an organic warmth (which, for some reason, feels as though it could sonically equate to the natural temperature of the human body) and run directly through my skeleton via sonic bone conduction.

But where sound is predominantly required to tiptoe in order to not unsettle my precarious balancing act on the consciousness boundary, I am occasionally latched to it more firmly, allowing more aggressive sonic entities to work with more coarse and tempestuous imagery. I remember struggling with early morning starts for college when I was 17, and took to cramming Merzbow’s Pulse Demon in my ears as soon as my alarm went off to ensure I didn’t drift off to sleep again. For those unfamiliar, it’s one of the more eruptive and harsh moments of his back catalogue, consisting of all of the aggression and abrupt transitions that should probably prevent any return to slumber – nonetheless my efforts didn’t always work, and I often found myself in the midst of some nasty, throbbing hurricanes and thick blizzards of ice and glass. Apparently Merzbow’s aggressive, high frequency static finds its visual kinship in my subconscious with turbulent, exaggerated weather systems.

As a music writer of seven years, my connection between sound and mental imagery is so often overridden; the sound is no longer an alien entity that only my imagination can articulate, but a Frankenstein’s monster comprised of previously reviewed records; a constellation of past experience rather than a curious and indefinable new shape. These experiences on the edge of sleep allow me to bypass rationale and appeal directly to the imagination again, reconnecting me to that curious probe into the unknown I experienced back in my teens – sound as a “something else”, either invoking an alternate form of consciousness or rendering the whole idea of consciousness completely irrelevant.