Switched On – Manu Delago: Circadian

reviewed by Ben Hogwood

What’s the story?

While Max Richter made one of the standout contemporary pieces of the last few years in his eight-hour epic Sleep of 2015, encouraging us to fall asleep while it was running, this new album is a response to a lack of quality shuteye. The author, Manu Delago, found he was struggling to get lasting sleep while touring in different climates and time zones, but also looked for inspiration in the brain’s creative thoughts experienced during REM.

Circadian explores this phenomenon, along with light and deep sleep, capped with an abrupt awakening. Delago wrote it while on the road with label-mate Björk, The Cinematic Orchestra, Olafur Arnalds and Anoushka Shankar – and the approach is very different to that of Richter, driven as it is by soft percussion.

What’s the music like?

The list of Delago’s fellow artists is instructive, as his own music draws from his creative experiences with them, but ensures an individual path is also forged.

This is one of the quietest albums I have heard in some time, partly because the principle instrument, the handpan, is so soothing. The title track establishes its bright yet mottled colours, pleasing to the ear as a muffled steelpan might be. Yet as the striking and vividly descriptive track The Silent Flight Of The Owl shows, it combines really well with wind instruments and particularly clarinet, whose soft tones create an eerie impression in the half light, together with what sounds like a didgeridoo in the middle foreground.

The colours of Uranus, again with clarinet, are a sleepy blue, while The Moment I’m Still Awake employs the fuzzy drone of the harmonium, as though there were a fan in the room.

All these recordings are heading for the centrepiece, the 21-minute track Delta Sleep (Live at 4:33am). This depiction of deep sleep was recorded in the middle of the night through to the early hours, the ensemble combining in a hypnotic whole, their sounds fusing into each other with clicks, bright shafts of light and hints of fitful dreaming.

From this emerges Draem and then Zeitgeber, where our subject sits bolt upright, the music building on a syncopated clarinet which has now acquired a rasp to its tone. Adding broken beats, Delago cuts loose for the first time on a track fizzing with the energy of a new day, even though you suspect a slump might be just around the corner!

Does it all work?

From that lengthy description you hopefully get an idea of how effective and descriptive this album is. It does help to know the story behind the music in advance before listening, and to have the right environment for your Circadian experience. Delago’s colours are lovely to the ear and the handpan has a soothing sound, the instrumental craft and blending with ensemble members clear for all to hear.

Is it recommended?

Yes. Circadian could itself work as a sleep aid, providing you bail out before the last track. Delago’s picture painting is exquisite at times, and the relative lack of movement early on is not a problem once the subject has been established. It is a unique approach to an aspect of life that troubles and fascinates us all.