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We stayed in bed all night, on stage, for SXSW’s 8-hour concert

Eric Webb

I slept with a lot of people Monday night.

Every year, I moan about how I stay out all night during South by Southwest, covering shows that end at 2 a.m. and writing reviews until 4 a.m. But as it turns out, I have been a dirty, rotten liar these past few years. The North American premiere of composer Max Richter’s Guinness World Record-setting “Sleep” promised literally what I’ve been talking about figuratively — an all-nighter.

The premise of the festival’s opening night concert, which should join the annals of SXSW stunt fame next to that infamous giant Doritos machine from which Lady Gaga emerged in 2014:

  1. Go to Bass Concert Hall.
  2. Get into one of the Beautyrest beds that has been arranged onstage around a performance platform.
  3. Sleep, or meditate, or do whatever brand of existence suits you while gorgeous, ambient-leaning music is performed for 8 hours straight, all for your pillow-bound benefit.

For some reason, I was very excited to go to an 8-hour, overnight concert. I think it was the bed that sealed it.

When I queued up outside Bass, SXSW staff made their way down the line to make sure everyone knew what they were getting into. Two people near me in line, in fact, did not know what they were getting into. Others were so aware of the conceit of “Sleep” that they showed up in onesie pajamas.

When I entered the concert hall, I was surprised to see that 150 beds were actually lined up around the same stage on which I’ve seen more than a few Broadway musical. Shell-shaped white lights, not yet illuminated, surrounded the perimeter of the performance platform in the middle, with an 8 a.m. wake-up call displayed on their face. Sounds of street traffic, the kind that have put me to sleep when I’ve slept on my friends’ couch in Brooklyn, floated through the space.

“The piece really has no rules,” Richter said, as part of brief remarks before the show began.

A shirtless pillow fight had erupted on the other side of the stage a bit before this. Richter, whose work has appeared in “The Leftovers” and “Black Mirror,” knows what’s up.

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I wanted to stay up all night and document my descent into madness, hour by hour. Would I still be able to feel my extremities at 2 a.m.? Would I have gone full Christian-Bale-in-“The Machinist” by 3 a.m.? Would it be distracting when I unwrapped a protein bar at 4 a.m.?

Richter had other plans for my REM cycle, however.

“Here comes ‘Sleep,'” he said, “and we’ll see you on the other side.”

12:13 a.m.: As the show began, Richter’s fingers danced across the piano keys in a melancholy 1-2 step, the peace punctured every six notes by a cascading pulse of bass. The pink lights hanging from the rafters dried out my eyes and my lips the longer I sat on my bed. I did not anticipate feeling like a rotisserie chicken for this experience.

12:22 a.m.: Most people who started out sitting realized they were in beds and either laid down or reclined. Strings began to swell and gently race. Those hot pink lights began to dim. I might have skin after all this is over, I thought. The first person began to snore. Weak, man.

12:42 a.m.: You know that thing where you can’t sleep, and you look at the clock thinking it’s been at least two hours, and you realize that it’s only been a few minutes since you last looked? Very that. I put my head on my pillow, since it’s hard to sit up straight in a bed for 30 minutes. I heard my second snorer.

12:52 a.m.: A lady began singing. I am watching a lot of “Teen Wolf” lately, so I knew she was a banshee and death was imminent. I hoped it came for the shirtless pillow fighters first.

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2:35 a.m.: No.

Richter had ensorcelled me into slumber with his ambient soundscapes and lush string arrangements. Waking up from some kind of dream that I immediately could not remember, I saw that almost everyone around me had fallen prey to the same fate. Richter was alone on his laptops, and the sound in the room had fully transitioned into a surreal, otherworldly plane. I pledged to stay awake.

4:24 a.m.: Dang it all to heck.

4:53 a.m.: I thought to myself, in a note on my phone that later looked much more incoherent than it seemed when I wrote it, that this experience felt like the movie “Flatliners.” That made sense at the time, when I was in a colony of bed-drones.

6:10 a.m.: Every time I drifted to sleep and fell back into consciousness, I was slightly disturbed that I could not remember my dreams. I did realize, however, that trying to stay awake was never really the point of “Sleep.” It’s designed to relax, to lull, to carry you across the divide between waking and slumber like the mythical ferryman Charon, shepherding souls down across the River Styx. I had read a critic call the movie “Annihilation” a “spiritual prompt.” In my half-lucid haze, this seems to better fit the bill. I also think a lot about Greek mythology and Natalie Portman movies when I’m delirious?

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7:14 a.m.: I woke up, this time for keeps. Richter’s graceful, methodical piano march had circled back to its starting point in the last hour, alongside that clockwork bass. The ambient tones against which I’d struggled to keep my head above water, the string quintet that had enchanted me out of my waking mind like five Pied Pipers: It was all a tide you really couldn’t beat back. And perhaps you shouldn’t have tried.

I noticed more snoring than there was the first hour. One man was meditating. I clocked a few empty beds.

8 a.m.: Those shell-shaped lights had come on, and the woman with the haunting voice was back. By 8:13 a.m., the performance came to an end, and as if it was planned — maybe it was — someone’s iPhone alarm chirped. Everyone sat in dead silence until Richter turned around from his piano bench to a standing ovation. We clapped the performers all the way out the door.

I though I would feel like hammered garbage after an all-night concert. When I walked out into the chilly daylight on the University of Texas campus, I felt calm and rested. More so than normal, in fact. Now, how am I gonna get Max Richter to come to my studio apartment every night?