The experience of While You Sleep is total, inescapable. It is mesmerizing, perplexing, captivating and frustrating, just like a dream.

What happens when we sleep? Do we drop into a deep, dark sleep? Does the brain re-live the events, the anxieties and pleasures of the day? Do we remember the themes and pathways of our sleep?

Fair to say that every member of the audiences at this CIMF presentation could identify with at least some of the dimensions raised in the intermedia theatre work While You Sleep, a collaboration by interdisciplinary artist Sal Cooper and composer/sound artist Kate Neal. We all experience the disorderly process of sleep, the random disconnectiveness of the elements of our sleep, the frustration at not being able to summon clear recall of the elements of sleep. And do we ever get enough sleep?

Composer Kate Neal

While You Sleep explores these elements, and more, through an interrogation of the Fugue (literally, ‘fuga’ = flight). Even non-musicians can follow the orderly process of Bach’s monumental 48 Preludes and Fugues, “an expression of ordered precision and complexity,” as Cooper and Neal explain them. But few of us recognise the Fugue in its other guise: as “a [psychological] experience of indeterminate absence”.

At the heart of their work, Cooper and Neal examine “the inherent contradiction and tension” between these two polarities, exploring “the selective truth of memory, with the compelling possibilities of delusion”.

Cooper and Neal had worked on many projects before looking closely at the Fugue. This gave them a rich world of metaphors to explore and provided a starting point for two years of deep and rewarding research.

Exploring flight, escape, memory and dissociation, they characterize While You Sleep as “both contrapuntal experiment and escape from the present”. Embracing the elaborate complexity of the musical Fugue, their work weaves together a network of gesture, design, light and immersive visuals. Hand-drawn animation, live action, video and stop-motion are choreographed alongside five musicians onstage. Dr Thomas H. Ford, a socio-literary scholar based at LaTrobe University in Melbourne, has described the piece as “a work of dizzying complexity, [recalling] Georges Melies and William Kentridge”.  It presents disparate elements of a kind of surreal counterpoint of music, movement and image where, like the world down Lewis Carroll’s rabbit-hole, nothing is quite as it seems.

The audience enters a darkened hall. A camera becomes our guide, and escorts us down a stone passageway, its walls festooned in graffiti and shafts of light, birds, or other creepy images drafted from the Addams Family. At the end of this gloomy passage, a string quartet emerges playing fragments of indeterminate music.  Zachary Johnson and Isabel Hede are the violinists, with Phoebe Green (viola) and David Moran (cello).

Barefoot and without the cumbersome clutter of sheet music or music-stands, they have mastered an almost unimaginable task: they have memorized 50 minutes of music, relying almost entirely on the Penderecki-like percussive clatter and fragments of music produced on their instruments. Other moments recall two key influences on Kate Neal’s own music, the late Dutch composer Louis Andriessen and the Californian master John Adams. At times the strings are joined by a keyboard player, Jacob Abela, who plays what could or might not be elements of existing Fugues (few Bach-resonances there). At other times, he plays toy piano and moves across the stage. Throughout, the string players sit on office chairs and wheel around the stage in stylized choreography devised by dramaturg Jackson Castiglione.

The experience is total, inescapable. It is mesmerizing, perplexing, captivating and frustrating as the logical mind attempts to piece together a narrative or continuity from a disconnective frame of Lewis Carroll-like discontinuities. As in a sleep-dream-state, does this make sense? Is it meant to? Is an unravelling possible or even desirable? Should we not allow ourselves to be caught up in the magic and fun, the caprices and uncertainties of the hour?

This is a true collaboration of Cooper and Neal, creative spirits so attuned to each other, they seem to be able to complete each other’s thoughts and sentences.

(Afterthought: do the four string-players function as an on-going quartet unit? Do they have a name? Could they be the Sleep Quartet? (Between the Melbourne and Canberra performances, there has been a change of at least one player, the cellist.) CIMF 2022 conceals a sub-theme: the string quartet itself, highlighted by several breakfast-time appearances of Haydn, the father of the modern quartet. By my count, there are at least five quartets in the CIMF schedule: the New Zealand String Quartet, the Alma Moodie Quartet, the Orava and Flinders Quartets, and a quartet from the Australian Haydn Ensemble. CIMF Artistic Director Roland Peelman has habitually provided a platform for young and emerging quartets.)

While You Sleep originated in the Arts House in the North Melbourne Town Hall in November 2018, before the onslaught of COVID. It surfaced this week in Canberra’s much-loved Street Theatre in the heart of the campus of the Australian National University. The steeply raked main theatre of The Street can accommodate audiences of 245. The CIMF season opted for two performances on successive evenings; over-capacity audiences and enthusiastic ovations for both performances suggest that CIMF could have scheduled several additional performances. The presentation will next appear in mid-July at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts. (In addition to CIMF and The Street, the third co-presenter is Tura New Music, long-time platform for experimental and new music in the West.)

The unbridled success of While You Sleep– not just the ovations, but also the animated discussions, disputes and head-scratching it has induced – indicate the true success of a festival program. Not only does it pay due deference to the tried and true, it also introduces audiences to new and compelling experiences. Some they will embrace, others they will discard, but they will always remain memorable in some way or another.

Already, the Canberra International Music Festival has delivered in spades. And it still has eight days to go!

This article was written by Vincent Plush from Limelight Magazine.

Featured Image: While You Sleep at this year’s Canberra International Music Festival. Photo © Bryony Jackson.