Max Richter, Amiri Baraka, Ayn Rand - Reflections on Sleep

I'll start here by offering up a quote from Ayn Rand.

She's an individual who's philosophy on 'productivity' I find a startlingly disconcerting....yet certainly (willingly or otherwise) one co-opted by many authors of 'aspirational' 20th century capitalism. The Rand narrative espouses individualism, competition and the free market economy - and along with this, corollary myths of 'efficiency' and radical individuation as indicators of social progress.

Rand was a prophet for the many powerbrokers of this this epoch, yet now appears specter-like and almost quaint in the light of Messrs Trump, Thatcher, Reagan and co... her writing is both pointed and defiant, and in an odd way almost refreshingly uncensored in its lack of sentimentality. Where contemporary US Republicans insist 'God' underwrites their economic mandate, Rand grimaces in disdain that her thesis should require divine approval.

Rand's work, Atlas Shrugged and personal philosophy of Objectivism form part of the unofficial cannon of neoliberalism.

Arguably, Rand was also a Rachmaninoff fan.... Trump, interestingly enough, also (with unexpected diversions into.....erm....Steve Reich?).

My philosophy, in essence, is the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.
— Ayn Rand


Roughly a year ago, I had the pleasure of attending composer Max Richter's "Sleep" concert at the Sydney Opera House. I first encountered the fellow Berliner and current darling of the contemporary-classical world through his work on Erased Tapes.

I was previously moved by his elegaic score for The Leftovers, rarely having encountered a more elegant meditation on the collective experience of grief in television format. Its still recommended viewing, and ridiculously on-point scoring / music supervision.

Richter went on to compose the wonderful title music for Charlie Brooker's dystopic Black Mirror series; a brutally mirthful, "Gilliam-eque" commentary on the cognitive dissonance inherent in late-stage capitalism's hyper-mediated multiverse.... Brooker's work reads like 12-guage discharge, smattering effigies of Murdoch's straw-men across the plastic storefront of fading McMedia.

Black Mirror renders in stark relief the disconnect between our need for grace, community and connection, and the terrifying void of the surveillance state, reality television, social media, online 'self-actualisation' and more. It's both harrowing and screamingly funny, and territory well canvassed in the past by Terry Gilliam.

Cult classic by all means. Terry Gilliam's epic sci-fi film. A bureaucrat in a retro-future world tries to correct an administrative error and himself becomes an enemy of the state.

But back to Sleep, and what made it so remarkable for me...

What, I believe, ties together both Black Mirror and The Leftovers (aside from Richter's involvement) is an attempt to dramatically engage with the ginding fatigue we experience as 'collateral damage' from the neoliberal condition.

What do we 'do' with loss, with the inexplicable, when the institutions of church, state and work-mythos are proved bunk? Where do we go? How do we deal....?

Perhaps our latter-day plagues find form as Depersonalisation, Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Chronic Fatigue, or just vanilla-flavored loneliness... hygeine neurosis, orthorexia, fixation, conspiracy theory, ADHD, over-medication, alcoholism, suicidal morbidity.

Most likely, a combination of the above. You get the idea. You understand because you feel it to. There's 'something in the way of things', as Amiri Baraka would say....

"...I can see something in the way of our selves
I can see something in the way of our selves
That's why I say the things I do, you know it
But it's something else to you
Like that job
This morning when you got there and it was quiet
And the machines were yearning soft behind you
Yearning for that nigga to come and give up his life
Standin' there bein' dissed and broke and troubled

My mistake is I kept sayin' "that was proof God didn't exist"
And you told me, "nah, it was proof that the devil do..."

- Amiri Baraka ("Something in the Way of Things (In Town)", exerpt)

This fatigue is informed by the concurrent disintegration of 'traditional' value systems (for better or worse) and slow nose-dive into a sort of 'post-moral' Randian universe. (*Ayn Rand's rejection of altruism and advocacy for radical market deregulation were major influences on many boomer entrepreneurs, including (apparently) the late Steve Jobs....*)

But i'm digressing, once more.

For my students reading, there's certainly some creative research I trust this post affords. Start with Any Rand, bounce to Amiri Baraka, and then grab a drink (but for the love of god, please don't make it Pabst Blue Ribbon. It has no flavor nor redeeming qualities).

Meet you back here in 15...? Watch this first, though...

Welcome back.

So, to Max's "Sleep'. A 31-part, 504 minute work (weighing in at around 8 hours of performance), Sleep was designed to be experienced as an exercise in hypnagogia, exploring the borderlands between the waking and sleeping states. Labelled as a 'lullaby', or a 'mediation' by reviewers, I contend that the performance was all this and more (and quite beautiful work by soprano Grace Davidson, in addition).

What really struck me, however, were some fundamental truths the work spoke to - the fact that the performance itself (from 11pm to roughly 730am in the morning) demanded a surrender into unknowing, forgetting, physical acquiescence, lack of cognitive proficiency, let alone efficiency

Sleep proffers counterpoint to say, for example, Facebook's "On This Day" audiovisual memeography. It engenders forgetting, rather than remembering. An exercise in deconstruction, release, in half-lit experience, smeared recollection and in what I'll call "sacred inefficiency".

Unless under the influence of stimulants (or jetlag), staying awake and attentive for the duration of the night's performance is rendered impossible, as is soundly sleeping through the work. I feel that, to 'try' to do either, would probably be missing Richter's point. 'Sleep' offers a place where 'mindfulness as hypervigillance' is beautifully unravelled.

"Sleep" offers a reminder that we require physiological rest - and that perhaps our arts experience / practice might help afford a quiet reminder of this, beyond a consumption based-model.

Nowhere to go.
No-one to be.
Nothing to be achieved.
Nothing to be acquired.

Nothing to remember.

I remember 'waking' at 730 in the morning, looking across Sydney Harbor, as winter rain fell in thick sheets.

What struck me as I looked around, was not so much the music, but the people who had been part of the experience. Disheveled, half-naked (well, I was) and curiously vulnerable, the experience for many had offered itself up a a requiem, meditation and perhaps reminder or some kind of rebirth amid the tumult. There were more than a few tears observable during the night - what strange magic was this?

Who are we when we 'stop' - really stop, perhaps even collectively.

What lies beneath our need to forget and to decouple (yet also far beyond mere amnesia, nihilism, indifference?) and how can we embrace it fully in wakefulness and in sleep....