Dreaming of the Red Chamber

I woke up at 4:15 Mother’s Day morning, in the basement of the historic Brill Building off of Times Square. A singer in an evening gown was getting dance-chased by an invisible demon through a matrix of white curtains, some serving as screens for abstract video images. I was at Dream of the Red Chamber: a performance for a sleeping audience, a musical installation conceived by Jim Findlay and Jeff Jackson, featuring some songs of the Elysian Fields.

It runs from 5pm till midnight through Friday, with Saturday’s show going all night, till 6. Sleeping during the show is permissible, as the title suggests, and the installation includes cots with pillows for lying down and dozing while appreciating the music, and there’s the half the genius of it.

As Findlay told Huffpost: “The piece is structured so there is no beginning, middle or end. Things are structured…like they’re structured in our dreams, in a non-linear fashion.” As far as I’m concerned, that means there’s no narrative. Call me an obsessive, but even my dreams have beginnings, middles, and ends. Then again, as someone who likes to doze off watching Turner Classic Movies just for the pleasure of waking up to a random gunfight or love song, this show was made for me. You are given a leaflet to fold into a “dream box” upon entering, but I recommend showing up sufficiently late and loose that you don’t need any encouragement.

You could call it a deconstructionist operatic iteration of the holy sanctuaries we build out of our living rooms when we adjust the lights and stereophonics and put on our favorite sleep-friendly music: Thomas Tallis, Dark Side of the Moon, Coltrane & Hartman, or whatever you love to space out to. Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” were famously commissioned by a count with insomnia, who liked hearing a harpsichord wafting across his house while he lay in bed trying to rest. Dream of the Red Chamber takes these private moments and makes a public spectacle out of them. Listeners stroll past, and you the sleeping audience are part of the show.

"Where the hell am I?"

“Where the hell am I?”

Then there’s the site-specificity of this show, which gives that spectacle a delicious depth. You’re in the basement of the freakin’ Brill Building! One of the epicenters of American songwriting and music commerce, where the Muse meets Mammon. Bacharach, Leiber and Stoller, Phil Spector, Carole King and many more warriors of the great American cultural empire of the mid-20th Century, when they came home to the mother ship, came here.

And far below deck, this week only, the avant-garde has infiltrated with a free show, reminding us where all great melodies end up: echoing from the dark corners of our furniture, and dissipating between our house plants and our stacks of unread magazines, while the night traffic lights up our curtains. Times Square is our lava lamp.


  1. There’s some beautiful writing here. Thanks.

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