I came across this piece because I joined a student choir here in Germany. The repertoire for this semester includes not only broadway musical excerpts from Rent and Les Miserables, but also works of contemporary composers like Morten Lauridsen, John Rutter and Eric Whitacre. Among them, so much has already been said about Rent and Les Miserables, but perhaps, for me the most brilliant piece of music in the repertoire was Sleep by Eric Whitacre. Here’s the video:

I don’t really know how to start this reaction to the song, but I guess, let me write down the lyrics so you can follow through as you listen to the music

-oOo-

Sleep
Music by Eric Whitacre
Lyrics by Charles Anthony Silvestri
(Originally based on Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”)

The evening hangs beneath the moon, a silver thread on darkened dune.
With closing eyes and resting head; I know that sleep is coming soon.

Upon my pillow, safe in bed, a thousand pictures fill my head, I cannot sleep , my mids aflight; and yet my limbs seems made of lead.

If there are noises in the night, a frightening shadow, Flickerering light;

Then I surrender unto sleep, where clouds of dream give second sight.
What dreams may come, both dark and deep, Of flying wings and soaring leap?

As I surrender unto sleep (dark and deep)
As I surrender unto sleep (dark and deep)
As I surrender unto sleep

Sleep

-oOo-

So reading through the lyrics, I don’t really find it very extra-ordinary. He had some good imagery. And as a chemist, I don’t get the use of lead. (Kill me now! LOL)

But as I listened to the piece, it came to me more and more as an expression of the state of falling asleep. In philosophy, I would have called what Eric Whitacre’s work achieved, a phenomenology.

In the first part, he describes the surroundings as well as what one does when he/she tries to fall asleep. But more than describe it in words, the consistent rhythm makes us feel that this is the part when we try calm down, “that sleep is coming soon”. But he mixes it with clashes and dissonance that it somehow keeps us from falling and relaxing to the rhythm that mostly comes when the harmony placed in a major chord.

“Upon my pillow” wakes us up again with the mezzo forte, as if you are starting to gain some relaxation and then something just bumps you up awake and it doesn’t stop there. He continuous on with more dissonance and minor chords that you feel more restless and want to continue on. It pushes the music forward, but at the same time, the lyrics tells us that “our limbs are made of lead” and has to resolve somewhere but not yet there.

And then comes the most disturbing part: the noises in the night that calls us back to reality and prompts us to be alert. A warning that perhaps something is not right. The falling and echoing of the lines from one part to another, the use of crescendo and decrescendo and the lingering note sang by the basses, feels like there’s an ambulance coming and going. In a way, it gives us this feeling to be vigilant, to not be drawn so easily by sleep.

Then the surrendering part starts and all the dissonant chords starts to resolve to major ones. This lifts the mood and allows us to start to relax. Just when we start to really drift to sleep “in clouds of dream”. This prepares us for the build up that comes in the next passages that starts with “What dreams may come”. It shows us that we’re in for an amazing ride, “of flying wings and soaring leap.”

And then, the music opens up, repeating on an important passage of surrendering to sleep. It gives a sense of just going with the flow. The forte doesn’t hit us too harshly because of the nice build up from the previous part. The music feels like waves as it hit us back and forth between the male and female parts, telling us to just surrender to sleep until the climactic “unto sleep”. Here the music allows us to finally feel at ease with surrendering and dies off immediately to a calm wave of notes.

Some people liken the piece to the process of dying where you are so uncertain and scared with closing your eyes and falling asleep. That is until, you realize that you just have to surrender to sleep and embrace the reality.

The ending, though, tells us there’s more to surrendering to sleep than being calm and peaceful. Although the music goes softer and softer like dying waves, the dissonance comes back, telling us that just like in real sleeping, we are never too far away from reality. It will always come ebbing back to us. I imagine it to be the steady rhythmic breathing of someone fully asleep. It gives us a hint that this state of being asleep is not being lifeless because there is still some uncertainty and clashes in the melody, there is still movement. Quite brilliant if you ask me!

I did not like the music when I heard it the first time, but when you sing it several times, and really think about it, it grows on you. Truly, Eric Whitacre is a gifted musician, who has not only showed proficient musical ability, but genuine creativity and artistry.