This post, a creative reflection by Lucie Treacher, is the second in a one-week takeover (Nov 30 – Dec 5 2020) of The Polyphony by Threshold Worlds, an interdisciplinary project exploring the nexus between dreams, narrative and liminal cognition. The project is supported by the Institute of Advanced Studies and the Institute of Medical Humanities at Durham University. Before the project ends its first phase on December 9-10 with a conclusive workshop, team members were invited to write a short text exploring work-in-progress ideas generated within the past three months of interdisciplinary, cross-cultural and multimedia exchanges.
Songs are slippery. A song seems to contain a ‘world’ or an aura; it’s neat and compact in its 3-minute form, and yet it isn’t confined: its melody will come back to haunt you in the shower the next day.
In this way, dreams are similar to songs: they are brief, immersive, full of lyrical discontinuities and ‘catchy’ (find a way of coming back to us). I found myself thinking this while listening to Joni Mitchell’s Hejira, wondering if she is in fact recounting a dream: “I’m traveling in some vehicle/I’m sitting in some cafe/A defector from the petty wars/That shell shocked love away…I see something of myself in everyone/Just at this moment of the world/As snow gathers like bolts of lace/Waltzing on a ballroom girl”.
There is something of automatic writing in songs, the way words and melodies tumble out and flow from one image to the next, and with such conviction. Songs and dreams seem to pick threads from real life and spin them into inventive tapestries, crafted in organic, instinctive ways. Music has the advantage of simultaneous layering sounds to (re)create rich, evocative experiences. The way in which lyrics are often non-sensical because they are built to fit music, appears to be similar to how dreams create their own logic in order to take us to certain places. They both feel closer to ‘expressions’ than ‘stories’. Searching for chords when writing music reminds me of the way in which I try to remember my dreams: there is a lot of fumbling in the dark.
So which part of the dream is the song? The dream itself or its retelling, a kind of quirky curtain call? Or is sleeping in fact a kind of performance? And who is the dream written for? I wonder if in ancient times songs were used as a means of re-telling dreams. What if that function was slowly lost over time and they became purely modes of expression?
While sleeping, our ears are still present and listening selectively to the ‘waking world’, so there’s potentially something to be said about noises in our environment helping to inform the ‘music’ of our dreams. And from the other-side, we also reveal what is happening in our dreams through sound: somniloquy. Dion McGregor is the most extensive sleep talker ever recorded, and he created an album made entirely from his ‘sleep performances’ including a whole spectrum of vocalisations from singing to laughing to shouting. Waking and sleeping and its slippery threshold also seems to be analogous with speaking and singing, and the way in which we move between them (or become confused by which is which, as explored in Diana Deutsch’s Speech-to-Song Illusion).
As well as being sonically multi-layered, a song itself has a history. It is a palimpsest, which is written over and over, a process of writing over oneself. What I regret about digitally programming a lot of music is that I can no longer see its traces. Whereas when written on manuscript paper, a song becomes a precious mess of scribbles: hypnogogic images, streams of squiggles, dots and geometrical forms.
Here is a song which I have written during the Threshold Worlds project as part of a series of ‘sonic dreams’, as well as some corresponding images. What I’d like to do now is to create ways for people to fall out of these songs into other ones as they choose: to escape through emergency exits, to take u-turns, to create a more ‘lucid’ and less ‘linear’ sound experience.
Spindle takes its name from ‘Sleep Spindles’, a set of brain waves produced by the thalamus, which help us to sleep through things and to have bountiful dreams. I enjoy this idea of a spindle also being a tool for spinning fibres and making textiles.
The song is based on a dream I had about the moon falling out the sky and setting fire to my favourite forest. It explores our vulnerability as characters within dreams but also as subjects of dream research and neuroscience. I’ve explored this in timbre, using explosive, invasive, fizzing textures, which conjure internal currents or signals.
Jean-Luc Nancy in The Fall of Sleep talks about rocking as “an initial beat between something and nothing, between the world and the void, which also means between the world and itself”. The song has this lilting motion, which shifts between intimate and vast. This play of space is not just created in the polarised frequencies (high and low sounds), but the intervals of the chords themselves and how the melody meanders through the musical atmosphere. Sounds fumble and stumble sleepily between foreground and background, and eventually the ground gives way altogether.
Lucie Treacher is a performer and artist, and founder/director of the International Archive of Dreams in London. The archive, funded by Arts Council England, is the first research-led online archive of dreams where an interdisciplinary team of psychologists and visual designers are coding, representing and exploring dream-worlds.