13 September 2014

popping off to sleep

Over a year ago I started writing this post. I'm lazy, I suppose you could say, or I'm just not spending time the way I used to do so.

There was a time I'd sit up and type things like this when I wasn't sleeping (or couldn't). As I get older, though, I seem to want to get more sleep, and I've found a workable routine to get it (at least, for what I can control).

In short, I fall asleep to music*.

This is no ground-shaking revelation, I realize. Lots of people do it, and I really just felt like sharing how it works for me. In excruciating detail, so maybe if you need to fall asleep, read on.

When I get situated in bed, I put in one earbud, hit a button to get my mp3 player started, and usually I'll be asleep in twelve minutes or less.

I know it's twelve, because I almost never hear Lou Reed's "Perfect day", which kicks in just after Frente! finishes their rendition of "Let the sunshine in".

As an experiment I have embedded a video playlist of the tracks I use at the end of this post, but before that let me tell you a little more about them and how I settled on this (play)list. The idea is to provide me a consistent, repeatable thing to give my attention so that I am not otherwise distracted by stuff that isn't the same, night to night or room to room.

My requirements are somewhat specific. While in my youth I have at times fallen asleep at times to heavy metal (and once even Marilyn Manson's cover of "Sweet dreams", ironically – appropriately – enough), I find music that is too complicated (whether it be by samples or wild dynamic changes or other things) too distracting. Music that is too repetitive, on the other hand, isn't interesting enough and my mind can wander. So much for all of my Philip Glass and Brooklyn Bounce, I guess.

The sweet spot for music that is simple, but still interesting enough to keep me engaged as I nod off would seem to be pop songs, but not the mainstream, danceable autotuned garbage that no doubt fills the charts and radio stations I avoid**.

For a while I thought I'd found near perfection with the lighter songs of Paul Simon. In my opinion he is a great pop singer, possessing a simple, pure singing voice, with pleasant but fun songs to sing with it. For a while I used his Graceland to get to sleep, but as the weeks went on I found myself deleting one song after another, whether it was for the layered exotic instruments of "The boy in the bubble" or the distinctive percussion of "You can call me Al". I was particularly disappointed to let that one go, since I rather like that song, but hey, a guy's gotta sleep.

Last to go were the tracks he did with Ladysmith Black Mambazo, "Diamonds on the soles of her shoes" and "Homeless", which I had to remove since I really wanted to hear them, and apparently would stay awake to do so.

Now that I've not listened to it for long enough, I can level a few other complaints against the album. It's definitely a product of its time, with an often artificial sound from the synthesized instruments (and others that probably were the genuine article, but somehow post-produced into sounding so fake) that I just don't like that much. I think if I could find recordings of just him playing a guitar and singing by himself (or maybe with the African choir) that'd be just about perfect.

Older songs he recorded with Art Garfunkel didn't make my cut for how they were produced, I think. Or maybe they were too recognizable and catchy. Sadly it has been a long time since I made my selections that I've forgotten more specific reasons for what I don't use. The only other song I remember trying, and rejecting, was "The scar that never heals" by Jeremy Fisher, an artist I found on the old thesixtyone website (RIP). That song in particular sounds like something Simon might've put out if he were younger, and a bit edgier these days (I realize he's still making music, but falls into that indescribable trap all aging musicians seem to encounter, where their music gets slower and duller, somehow).

From thesixtyone (and for some reason, removed since) came something I'd otherwise not likely stumble across, "Fomba" by Modeste, one of a few musicians in the Malagasy genre. I looked up a translation of the lyrics once, but have long since forgotten what the song is about, but I think it's happy, since it's hard to get through the song without grinning a bit. I had it bookmarked on the site so I could cue it up when I wanted to brighten up my day, with just this singer and his guitar.

The beginning of my sleepytime playlist, though, is another song I probably wouldn't have encountered if not for the web, "Tomorrow" by Gianluca Bezzina from Malta. He was an entrant in the 2013 Eurovision song contest, an annual music contest the likes of which we just don't have here in the States, but is easy enough to find representative bits of it streaming here and there. "Tomorrow" may have gotten my attention for its insipid-sounding beginning rhyme (after the "oh oh"s) of "His name is Jeremy/Working in I.T..." but there's just something delightful about it that doesn't seem to overstay its welcome in just over three minutes for me, night after night.

I follow "Fomba" up with Frente's saccharine-sweet version of "Let the sunshine in", popularized first by Pebbles and Bam-Bam on The Flintstones and then covered among a bunch of cartoon themes and songs back when that was the cool, alternative thing to do in the mid 1990s. It's an old folk song and there may even be better versions of it for my purposes, but I've been fond of this one probably since the first time I heard it (having found the compilation in the discount bin at the used CD store).

Likewise I have long liked Lou Reed's "Perfect day", bringing back memories of watching Trainspotting in high school and playing the soundtrack CD over and over. I'm usually asleep by the time this comes on, though.

And I almost never hear Maxence Cyrin's piano take on The Pixies song "Where is my mind?", best known for finishing out the film Fight club, as well as its otherwise electronic soundtrack. Well, the Pixies version, that is. Maxence's was one I found on youtube among a few of his other impressive covers, and one that's probably the most innocuous-sounding. He does a version of Justice's "D.A.N.C.E." that is downright haunting.

Anyway, here's a playlist of the songs, in videos of varying quality that may or may not still exist when you read this.

And now, technical notes. I use a generic 256mb mp3 player I ordered from Hong Kong in the days before the iPod. It has an SD card slot, and I could easily put a lot more music on it, but its shuffle features aren't great, and it has no sleep timer. I have other devices that would work better to randomize a bunch of music, but the advantage of this one is its reasonable battery life, simplicity to get started in the dark (I just need to hit the same button three times to start it, and it shuts off a minute or two after finishing the last song), and easy to operate controls for volume adjustments.

I've manually tweaked the volume of each track to be fairly consistent, and tuned all of them way down such that I need to strain to hear them slightly. Without anything to back it up scientifically, I assume that needing to make the extra effort to hear the quiet music helps keep my brain on task for listening, and prevents me from getting bogged down thinking. I'm no insomniac, but I have a tendency to be unable to fall asleep if there's something on my mind. Overall, what I've been doing with the music has been working well for me.

Now if only I could get the kids to let me go to sleep, and stay asleep, consistently. That's not so easy to fix...

* I think my dad has been doing this for years, but what works for him and what works for me are a little different. I think he changes up what he hears much more often than I do, and sometimes mixes in some talking stuff. My playlist has been the same for apparently at least a year and a couple months, if what I put in the draft for this was accurate then...

** At least, I assume it is. To my knowledge I have yet to hear any songs by Justin Bieber, Taylor Swift, Rebecca Black, or Miley Cyrus, and I really don't want to learn otherwise.

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