Diablog: The Glass and Breath Machine

This chiming electronic music is pretty. But why do we have to listen to it every night at bedtime?

That's my new sleeping remedy.

Aw, c'mon. Why can't you just take pills like everyone else?

I do, but diminishing returns have set in, and I need an alternative to upping the dosage. Music, it turns out, is the one form of medication I haven't tried.

If I recall, insomnia is an old and implacable enemy of yours.

That would be putting it mildly. My case of insomnia started in the 1980s and built up slowly. At first, I could handle losing a night or two of sleep a week. But it became literally a life-threatening condition by 2000, when I was sleeping two or three hours every two or three nights. I felt like the walking dead. My mind was incredibly clear but my body always felt on the verge of collapse. Just getting up a flight of stairs would exhaust me.

You know, there are doctors who specialize in sleep disorders.

I went to one of them. He told me the underlying cause of my problem was anxiety. He started me on one of those serotonin reuptake inhibitors--excuse me for not mentioning the name, I don't want to endorse drugs in the blog.

You mean specific drugs.

Um, yes. Anyway, it worked. Within a week I was getting four hours a night. It seemed like a miracle, as though someone had cut the noose and freed me from the gallows. But there was a big downside.

Four hours weren't enough?

Even half a night of sleep was a big improvement, but the drug made me gain 40 pounds. No one warned me! That caused other problems, like gout. One morning I woke up to find my left foot had swelled up and turned purple. I went on various meds for that while hobbling around with a cane. Just as the left foot healed, the right foot swelled up. It was incredibly painful just to have a blanket resting on it in bed.

Sounds pretty miserable. Judging from your relatively unporky appearance, I suppose you're off the SSRI?

Yes, I switched meds, lost the weight, and now I take a combination of other things. One is an atypical antipsychotic--I'm proud of that, by the way, it's kind of like getting my sergeant's stripes. That ramped me up to six hours minimum a night. On a good night I even hit the eight-hour mark. I'm also taking a low dose of a sleeping pill and minute amounts of melatonin. This particular drug cocktail has worked for more than five years. Until recently.

Would higher dosages do the trick?

They would, and did, but I wasn't satisfied with that solution, because I knew it would be only a temporary one. And I didn't want to give my liver any more work to do. I began looking for an alternative, something that would let me stay with my existing meds and dosages.

And it's that midnight chiming. Cute little rig, I must say. What is that thing your iPod is plugged into?

That's the Altec Lansing inMotion. Of all the compact iPod-compatible devices I've reviewed, this is the one that's satisfied me the most. It folds up into a hardcover-size package. Hit a button and the iPod dock flips down. There's also an aux-in for my SanDisk and MSI players. The unit is rechargable, so I can place it atop my dresser, even without a nearby power outlet. That places it in the ideal position, firing toward the pillow. And the sound is pretty good for a compact system. Certainly good enough to deliver 30 to 40 minutes of electronic music at a volume low enough to avoid disturbing neighbors.

Who's ringing the electronic bells?

That's Robert Fripp, playing a guitar-activated synthesizer system he calls Soundscapes. I've seen him play it live, sitting on a stool next to a big box of rack-mounted digital processors. He builds up a tapestry of repeated sounds, then tosses off swoon-inducing guitar solos when the spirit moves him. The item in heaviest rotation is a free album-length download called Glass and Breath, basically a series of tones with long, beautiful spaces between them.

The spaces are more beautiful than the tones?

Well, that's how it seems to me.

I beg to differ. I like the tones. They really do sound transparent, like glass, and evanescent, like breath. Perhaps this is one of those Glass and Breath half-full, half-empty things.

Out of sheer gratitude, I also paid for a download of Evensong, recorded during Fripp's tour of Estonian churches.

You paid for a download? That doesn't happen every day.

Are you implying that I download illegally? How dare you. Ninety-nine percent of my library has been ripped from CDs and LPs I own.

All I'm saying is that the downloads you've paid for wouldn't take more than an afternoon to play back to back.

Well, all right. Anyway, having found Evensong equally comforting, I've picked up At the End of Time, a CD sampler of the 2006 Churchscapes tour. I'm also pleased that Fripp is beginning to release downloads of his earlier Frippertronics performances, an analog version of what he's doing now, involving a tape loop passed back and forth by two Revox reel-to-reel recorders.

I like the bloops and bleeps of Frippertronics, and especially the fuzztone guitar solos, but it surprises me that you can fall asleep to that. And some of the Soundscapes you play during the day are downright scary.

Not all of Fripp's work is conducive to sleep. The calmer performances are the ones that appeal to me. I've been trawling DGM Live looking for more of them. The site organizes its downloadables in a fairly unorthodox manner, by tour date, since most of them are recorded live. Free tracks appear once a week, so it's worth visiting at least that often. I plan to buy at least two more Soundscapes for my slumber library soon.

It's like an obsessive's radio station. All Fripp, all the time!

I'm also using Brian Eno's Discreet Music, Music for Airports, On Land, and the first of his duets with Fripp, No Pussyfooting. Most of them were ripped from LPs, complete with surface noise. I actually like that, though I can't explain why. I've got some other CDs that might work: gamelan, Tibetan bells, compilations of Mozart and Vivaldi adagios. I might try them eventually.

I'm just jerking your chain. If you're happy, I'm happy. Problem solved.

Better than that. In addition to blending powerfully with my meds, this music has actually improved my state of mind. I get into bed, run over the events of the day, process them, come to terms with them. My breathing gets slower and deeper, seemingly by itself, and then I feel something that must be peace before I finally drift off. The music goes on playing for several minutes after I've lost consciousness, and that's OK, because I trust it. At the most vulnerable time of day, when greeting sleep is literally a matter of survival for me, this music has reached into my life and healed me. For that, I am grateful.

Mark Fleischmann is the author of the annually updated book Practical Home Theater and tastemaster of Happy Pig's Hot 100 New York Restaurants.