November 8, 2013 6:31 pm

A natural dream team

‘Falling asleep at the concert hall has nothing to do with the quality of the art work’

I write these words in something of a stupor. It is lunchtime. I am dozy and disoriented. I’ve just seen the Urban Soul Orchestra playing at east London’s Wilton’s Music Hall. Unusually, my fellow audience members and I were sprawled on red velvet chaises-longues and plied with soporific infusions. It had the required effect, more or less. I don’t remember the concert very clearly but it seemed pleasant enough. I wasn’t taking notes. I was relaxing. At the behest of an insurance company, no less. You see, they really do want us to live longer and be happier.

It seems unanimously decreed that few of us get enough sleep to function properly. But the arts can play their part. Research commissioned by Direct Line shows that one in six of us needs to listen to music to fall asleep. So what could be more logical than to invite people to a concert specifically designed to help us shuffle into the twilit caves of Hypnos?

This was the UK’s first “sleeping gig”. I settled on the Direct Line branded cushions and drank from my Direct Line branded mug of tea. One day, historians of corporate culture will wonder how it all came to this.

I felt sorry for the Urban Soul Orchestra, which seemed to have the wrong name for the occasion, but I was also mightily impressed by the fact that the women members had taken the trouble to wear 4in heels, even though we were about to fall asleep on them, which must have been counterintuitive. Stephen Hussey, the ensemble’s leader, explained that they were going to start with a Coldplay song and then “take things down”, which sounded extremely promising.

I slipped on my mask and forced my eyes to close. The opening chords of “Viva la Vida” were picked out on the strings in a rather interesting arrangement. Too interesting to fall asleep to, to be perfectly honest. The Urban Soul Orchestra specialises in rearranging popular music for classical instruments. Its second song was by Snow Patrol, and its third was, according to a Direct Line Facebook poll, the piece of music most people fall asleep to, “Somebody That I Used to Know” by Gotye, possibly because it sounds like “Baa Baa Black Sheep”.

None of this coruscating musical analysis was helping me sleep. As we slipped into an Oasis song (!), I reflected on the irony of it all. There have been many times when an evening with the arts has made me fall asleep, even though I was trying my hardest to stay awake. When I was a student, I tried to impress my girlfriend by taking her to every late-night special at the local art house cinema (they were different times). There are huge clumps of Italian neorealism that I cannot be said, in all honesty, to have seen. I am an expert in the first 20 minutes of many of the early works of Ingmar Bergman but a little hazy about the details from then on.

Now this is important: falling asleep at the cinema or the concert hall has nothing to do with the quality of the art work. It can be the work that most profoundly takes us out of our everyday existence that most efficiently causes us to nod off. Leave me alone, protests our nervous system. I don’t want to be shaken from my assumptions about the world. I am not willing to concentrate on this extremely long take that captures the travails of peasant life in Azerbaijan. I am tired. It has been a long day. I don’t get enough sleep.

. . .

The Urban Soul Orchestra was grappling with Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry”. I tried to sing the lyrics in my head but could only remember random fragments. “Observing the hypocrites ... ” “We would cook cornmeal porridge ... ” And then, finally, “Everything’s going to be all right!” It felt joyful but it wasn’t helping me sleep.

Then, as promised, things came right down. A piece, which I later found out to be “Les Nuits” by Nightmares on Wax, made me extremely relaxed. This was a palpable doze.

It turned out to be the last song. We applauded, halfheartedly, but what do you expect? I nabbed Hussey before leaving. This was something of a trick, I said. You weren’t really playing songs to make us fall asleep, all those little pizzicato twists and turns were far too nimble. All you needed to do was play “Tubular Bells” in its entirety, or Californian minimalism’s greatest hits. “Or Mozart’s Eine kleine [Nachtmusik],” he added, and I could hear the screams of classical music lovers everywhere.

It is a tricky business, art and sleep. Art doesn’t have to unsettle. It is one of its perfectly respectable functions, to be able to soothe us from anxiety, to act as a balm rather than a battering ram. But only up to a point. You have to remain conscious to stay in the game. There is a difference between chill out and knock out.

As we filtered away, a Direct Line spokeswoman told me the company was anxious about the lack of free time we enjoyed (I resisted a cheap joke about filling in insurance claim forms) and that the “sleeping gig” had been part of a “Moving Forwards” series of events that also included the “admin-party” and the “cinigym”: you guessed it, the UK’s first combined cinema and gym. One bright day we will all watch Bergman films from a treadmill, and none of us will ever miss the endings. It’s progress, of sorts.

peter.aspden@ft.com, @peteraspden

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