For the most part, Michael McDermott seemed to be taking advantage last week of the unseasonably warm March weather. He rode his bike to meet me at Mount Airy's High Point Café, where he was enjoying an iced coffee when I arrived. The one incongruous element was his decidedly chillier choice of reading material: On the table between us sat a paperback copy of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.
The actual title of that collection of texts, which traces the experience of the consciousness after death, is Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State. McDermott, who performs and records under the name Mikronesia, borrowed that title for his concert this weekend in Kensington, which is meant to accompany a less permanent limbo. Beginning around sunset, at 7 p.m. Saturday, he'll perform 12 hours of music for sleeping, concluding at sunrise the next morning.
McDermott discovered the Tibetan Book of the Dead through the work of John Lennon, who adapted lyrics for the Beatles' "Tomorrow Never Knows" from the book. "I always thought of it like the Book of Revelation," McDermott says. "Not necessarily a practical guide on how to live your life, but more of a fantastical journey full of psychedelic, crazy imagery."
Sleep music isn't a new interest for McDermott. In 2014, he released Quiescence, an eight-hour album meant to lull listeners to sleep and gradually wake them in the morning. He was inspired in part by previous attempts by minimalist composers like Terry Riley, who performed his own first sleep-music concert in 1967 at the Philadelphia College of Art (now the University of the Arts).
Liberation Through Hearing During the Intermediate State also ties into his growing interest in Buddhist meditation and in Deep Listening, a practice espoused by composer/improviser Pauline Oliveros that encourages a full awareness of the sounds of one's surroundings.
Thefidget space, where McDermott is artist-in-residence this season, has an array of couches and futons, though audience members are encouraged to bring their own sleeping bags. Entry will be allowed until midnight, at which point the doors will close, and McDermott hopes that everyone present will stay until morning. Artist Alex Bond will create visual atmospherics, and the Random Tea Room will offer a selection of dream-inducing teas like valerian and mugwort to help the process along.
Of course, the one person who will have to stay awake is McDermott. His use of synthesized drones and tape loops means that he doesn't have to stay active at the keyboard all night, but he'll judge the mood of the room like a DJ with sedatives.
"As at any show, I'll gauge the audience," he says. "If people are actually sleeping and very still, I'll keep the sound environment very sparse and natural. Especially in the middle of the night it will be more about curating the sound, making sure everything's at a good level, judging when to shift things if they need to be shifted. I hope to get into this meditative state where you're very relaxed but still have a sharp awareness in your core, where you notice everything but aren't jittery. But I'll probably be drinking coffee to stay awake."