Perchance to dream

Can music really improve the quality of your slumber? Hermione Eyre puts it to the test at a sonic s

Most composers do not take kindly to audiences nodding off during their concerts. But Sky Orchestra, an experimental music project, actively encourages it. Indeed, the orchestra will play only to people who are asleep, or on the edge of sleep. In June, it gave a public concert at dawn in Stratford-upon-Avon, sending musical hot-air balloons over the sleeping city. It will do the same for Middlesbrough in September.

But what are the benefits of somnolent cultural consumption? The inspiration for Sky Orchestra came in Tunisia in 2002, when the project's founder, Luke Jerram, was awakened at dawn by the muezzin and "a perceptual map of the town opened up in his head". Hoping to replicate his epiphany, I found myself on an inflatable rubber mattress in a dormitory with 60 strangers, taking part in a mad midsummer experiment organised by Sky Orchestra and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

"Little is known about how we incorporate music into our dreams," said Jerram. "So we're going to play you music through the night and then send off your descriptions of your dreams to the University of the West of England for analysis." "But not personal analysis," chipped in Chris Alford, a sleep scientist from the uni versity: "abstract analysis into REM patterns." He meant to reassure us, but some volunteers looked almost disappointed. Together with their sleeping bags, most had brought along an unconscious they were happy to have plumbed.

The site for this sound experiment was Compton Verney, a stately-pile-turned-art-gallery in Warwickshire that has been many things to many people: home to medieval barons, showcase for Capability Brown, garrison for Second World War soldiers. But never before had it hosted a mass sonic sleepover. It made a perfect setting; Peter Hall filmed his big-screen version of A Midsummer Night's Dream here in 1968, so we volunteers explored the twilit grounds, and then gathered inside to watch Hall's film of Puck (a boyish Ian Holm) and Titania (Judi Dench, painted green) capering about the very same darkening groves. The experience was dreamy even before we went to sleep.

The practical briefing was surreal, too. Heavy snorers would be asked to move to another room. Those finding it difficult to sleep would do better not to explore the stately home, as the room that houses the Canalettos is heavily alarmed. And all our sleep experiences would be of interest - even flimsy abstract images glimpsed on the edge of sleep, which were "hypnagogic visions", and therefore worth remembering. Finally, the organisers asked us to sleep well and to have interesting dreams. ("No pressure, then!" remarked one volunteer.)

Night had fallen by now, and our sleeping bags were territorially laid out on the mattresses. Even though all the volunteers were adults, the prospect of sleeping in a great dormitory still created a certain excitement. "What if the house is haunted?" gasped one. "I forgot my toothbrush!" said another. We were plied with Ovaltine and encouraged "to wind down".

Sky Orchestra's composer, Dan Jones, explained the technical know-how behind his musical selection. "The sounds will come at 90-minute intervals, so they coincide with your REM patterns," he said. "And as with the best sort of film music, they won't dictate your emotions, but will simply heighten them."

He also hinted that the music would be pleasant, as the orchestra's work has a therapeutic purpose. "Sixty-five per cent of dreams are anxiety-based," declares the Sky Orchestra manifesto. "Can we change that percentage for the better?" Jones's music included "a sitar lullaby, inspired by Titania's 'Indian Boy'. Then horses' hooves, a running brook, forest noises, people talking, and the lullaby in reverse: the 'wake-aby'."

Finally arranged on my rubber mattress, I drifted off, thinking of Shakespeare's "Philomel, with melody/Sing in our sweet lullaby . . ./Beetles black, approach not near;/Worm nor snail, do no offence . . ."

The next thing I knew, the shutters of the great hall at Compton Verney were being pulled open. Dismay and sunlight hit me at once as I realised I hadn't had a single dream - not even a hypnagogic vision. Others, however, were agog with their night-time adventures.

"I dreamed Harriet Walter was giving me an acting lesson." "I dreamed I saw a foaming grey horse." "I dreamed I did everything I have to do today. Now I have to do it all again."

Incredibly, Sky Orchestra's aims to make our dreams more benign seemed to have worked. One actor explained how he had dreamed that Patrick Marber was going to splash acid in his face, but the acid turned out to be just ordinary water. "There you go," said Jones excitedly. "I turned that acid to water by playing you the noise of a running stream." Alford was more circumspect. "We need nightmares to help prepare us for bad experiences," he said. "This isn't about eradicating them. But it could be useful, for some post-traumatic stress conditions, to be able to temper them."

There's method in the madness, after all.

Sky Orchestra will launch the new public square in Middlesbrough in September. For further information, see http://lukejerram.com

This article first appeared in the 24 July 2006 issue of the New Statesman, War - Who can stop it now?