Week 7: “Sleep” by Eric Whitacre


I first heard this song a couple of years ago at a choral concert close to where I live. I had never heard of the composer or the song, and I was blown away; it was one of those great and rare moments where the hair on the back of your neck stands so tall that it almost dislodges itself from its follicles. I challenge anyone to print off the lyrics, listen to the song, and think of a loved one who has recently died.  If you’re not a sobbing wreck by the end, you have no heart.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The dissonance. Eric Whitacre is what you might call a modern-choral-pop composer, and I mean that in the best possible way. While some modern composers seem to write with the dual purpose of making the music incredibly complex and entirely unlistenable, Whitacre picks his spots perfectly, using dissonance to make his cadences all the more satisfying.

2. The lyrics. Originally, Whitacre had wanted to use a Robert Frost poem, but copyright problems forced him to change course. The lyrics are by Charles Silvestri, and depending on which internet source you believe, they were either written for a young boy who couldn’t fall asleep, or for a soprano whose parents died within days of each other. Either way, they’re simple and evocative.

3. The end. If the choir performing it is skilled enough, the effect is perfect: this world fades away and silence creeps in.

Recommended listening activity:

Visiting a cemetery on a sunny day and finally being okay with it.

Buy it here.