Emily Sanzaro: ‘My sleep life and my dreams are a strong influence in my work’

For the past few weeks, Tasmania-based harpist Emily Sanzaro, has been engaged in a highly unusual project, that gives new meaning to the term ‘residency’: she spends four days a week in a gallery at the magnificent MONA, which is definitely one of the most important cultural establishments in the world. Visitors can see her composing for a few hours a day, they can attend her daily performance, and then, when they go home, they can go online and watch her sleep at night. Because it is not just her workstation that she moved into the gallery; there’s also a majestic canopy bed, where she spends the night, live streaming her sleep. Most nights, nothing happens. Some nights, she sleep-walks, talks for a little bit in her sleep, then back to slumber. In the morning, she shares her dreams with her followers, takes notes, and the whole experience informs the day’s compositions. The whole experiment is over on Monday 20 November, which makes today as good a time as any to ask a few questions — or just one, really.

Emily Sanzaro’s ‘Room of Dreams’ at MONA | Photo: Charlotte Vigneau

Why? Why on earth are you doing this?

That’s a really good question, haha. Lots of people have asked me. I have done residencies at MONa before, but only for short periods; I did two weeks last year and one week earlier this year. The idea of a residency at MONA is that it’s challenging and over a longer period, it gets hard; you run out of ideas and then what happens, when you are still making something but you’re not sure what you’re going to make?

You understand that when we say ‘residency’, we don’t actually mean sleeping there, right?

Exactly! The other times I was there before, I didn’t sleep there. The goal for any artist doing a residency is to be there, be in the situation, and just be composing while we’re there, present what we’ve made at the end of the day, and come in and do it again the next day. I got a whole lot out of that the last time except it was not long enough because of family commitments — I live in Launceston and I have young kids, so at the moment it is just not possible for me to be away for a long period of time, much as I would have loved to. Then MONA very kindly invited me to come back and they asked what’s the longest I could manage and I felt I could do six weeks. When that was all locked in, I started thinking about how each time I’d been creating in that space before, I felt at the end of the day that I didn’t want to leave, I felt really inspired by the space and just wanted to stay there and do more. So I just had this idea you know bubbling away in my mind: wouldn’t it be good just to stay? I decided to pitch it as an idea because I felt instinctively that it was something I wanted to do. My motivation for it is because I have a sleep disorder —  I’m a very active sleepwalker and sleep-talker. I don’t see it as a good thing, because usually, I have night terrors, I wake up screaming, I’m running through the house, catastrophic things are happening in my mind in my sleep and I have this really awful halfway point, where I’m waking up but I can’t get out of the dream; it’s like a hyper-reality. I find it kind of fascinating and I thought it would be interesting to understand it better and I felt that the residency was a really good opportunity to do that, to capture it on film and really see what I do and try to understand why I do it, with the ultimate goal of maybe trying to consciously interrupt it somehow, learn a skill where in my sleep, I can understand that it’s a dream and be able to interrupt the process and get out of it. Or at least write some creative work inspired by it and be able to compose music during the day inspired by my sleep life.

When I’ve composed in the past, my sleep life and my dreams have been a really strong influence, so I wanted to dive more into it.

What has been interesting so far, is that I haven’t done any sleepwalking and I’ve hardly done any sleep talking. The first weekend was completely terrifying and then I’ve started to feel comfortable and have had some of the best night’s sleep that I’ve had in ages and had some good dreams, so go figure!

You found the cure!

Maybe! Maybe I just need to live there forever, haha!

 How did you cope with this disorder in the past? How do you deal with it? 

Well, I don’t, really. It’s something that really affects my life. It affects my mood, I wake up feeling really tired and often just a bit distressed, or I feel confused about what’s actually happened. Sometimes I think someone has said or done something, but it hasn’t actually happened, I’ve dreamt it, but it feels so real that I just get confused. I rarely stay at friends’ houses, because it’s too embarrassing, when it happens. It’s not nice for them, waking up to the sound of me running through their house, or screaming, or yelling — and it does happen. I worry about it happening, and I the more I worry about it, the more likely it is to happen — but now I want it to happen in the museum, and it’s not happening.

So you’re embarrassed to stay at a friend’s house, but you’re open to staying at the museum and inviting people to watch?

I think it’s ultimately about facing fears. Up until now, I tried to shove it away and make it disappear, which doesn’t work, so I guess I’m just taking it to the other extreme. 

Emily Sanzaro’s ‘Room of Dreams’ at MONA | Photo: Charlotte Vigneau

What’s a normal day at the museum for you?

I’m making it fairly structured, because I really want to grab onto it and make the very most of the experience.  I’ve been waking up pretty early, because the museum comes to life from about 5.30 am — the cleaners are in, the lights come on at six, the vacuum cleaners are going, once that happens, there’s no sleeping. So I get up pretty early, I walk through the museum with my towel and my toiletry bag, I go to the shower which at the other end of the museum, they didn’t design the museum for overnight stay. I normally get off site for breakfast, so that I can breathe the air, and see the sky, because obviously where I am at MONA is underground. The museum opens to the public at 10am, but at 9.30, I go and spend 25 minutes at Obsidian. It’s a sound installation by Jonsi from Sigur Ros, it’s an immersive auditory experience and it’s really amazing. I go and sit there in that space for 25 minutes and then I go down into my area, my bedroom /creative space. I start composing until about 2.30 and then I stop, because there’s another musician up in the Nolan gallery who does a performance at 2.30 and I give them a little bit of space, so that my sound doesn’t bleed into theirs. Then at 3pm I do a performance for about 40 minutes and after that I spend a bit more time doing whatever I feel like, really. 

I really enjoy the composition time; the space is full of visitors and patrons coming and going, there are always people there. It’s been a really interesting process for me, because I usually work alone.

I’m not an orchestral harpist, I’m a solo practitioner, I do my own thing and that works really well for me. I’m used to offering my performance to the audience and I want something back, I want their interaction, I want to have them with me. That kind of connection helps me rise up and do more, but at MONA it feels completely different, because I’m making stuff.

That vulnerability, to be exploring ideas, writing things, composing things which may not be very good, while people are watching, is an interesting process.

During my first residency, I kept having this very strong urge to want to perform and give a product that I knew people would like, because they were there and I wanted to capture them, but this time I’ve moved past that. The next step is to be able to disregard the audience, to remove myself from them completely and turn inward.

What is the setting like?  

It’s quite a dark space — the museum is a great big cavernous area and my gallery is at the end of a long, narrow gallery, the sex and death gallery, to be precise. There’s quite a lot of really confronting artwork in that space, a lot of visitors find it quite challenging. 

Did you choose that space or was that assigned to you?

It is historically where the musicians-in-residence have been situated and it works quite well from a museum layout point of view. There’s a bar outside the door, and there are a whole lot of lounge chairs in there, so it’s a good place for patrons to be able to come and have a drink or coffee and listen. It just happens to be the space that contains the walk through the sex and death gallery. 

So people walk through that, and they are confronted with things they cannot deal with, they need to have a drink and take a moment to relax, and suddenly they are in your room; they see the bed, the harp, what else?

Yes, there is the bed, the harp, my violin and my sound gear: my pedals and my loop station and my microphone; I got my little musical area. There’s also a desk with my computer on it and some bookshelves with bits and pieces.

There’s also a black wall next to my bed, which I’m using as a documentation space, I write on it. Of all the things in this process, I feel that this is actually the art for me, like that will be the finished work at the end. My idea was to write my dreams up there, but it has ended up being a place where I am reflecting and writing what I’m feeling, my revelations, my findings, and my feelings.

It has given me a really strong sense of drive and direction for the things that I’m composing and I’m finding it really valuable and really powerful.  I can’t wait to see what it’s going to be at the end. I think I’ll struggle to leave it behind, I want to bring it home with me, because it’s so personal; there’s a whole lot of stuff behind each word. 

What is the main revelation that you had?

That’s a really good question. I think the main revelation is about dealing with fear. I look at my sleep problem, and why I have it and it turns out I’m actually really quite afraid of the dark and afraid of being alone, and I’m having to face those things fairly starkly by sleeping alone in the museum in the dark gallery. I’m coming to realise that there is actually no physical threat, the only thing that I have to fear are the thoughts in my head. That’s been quite a revelation, realising that it’s actually me. In terms of composition, I’m thinking who is it for? Is it for the audience, or is it actually for me? I am a lot more inspired when I’m thinking less about giving a product to the listener and more about pouring myself into what I’m making. That feels quite powerful.

Isn’t this the case every time you compose?

It’s something I’m still learning. I came to the harp pretty late, I started when I was 27 — before that I was working as an occupational therapist, that was my career. I played the violin, did some theory and played piano as a child, but I never felt any real connection or passion for those instruments.  I did orchestral playing, I took exams, all that stuff, but I never loved it.  

When I started playing harp, it just changed my life completely and I’ve been very fortunate to have a great set of circumstances here in Tassie and to have been given some really incredible opportunities, particularly through MONA and its festivals.

One particular person that comes to mind is Brian Ritchie — he’s been an incredible advocate and encouraged me to go to the Australian Art Orchestra music intensive a few years back and just to develop my direction, because I’m not a traditional harpist and the instrument is so steeped in tradition and technique. I actually don’t really know the rules, so I’ve been really free to go in my own very experimental direction and I just love it .

In the past few years, I’ve come across quite a few harpists doing amazing things with the harp, in jazz and creative music. The harp is also still mostly played by women, so this is like a female-led movement of exploration of the instrument; it’s very interesting.

Yes, it’s really exciting. The harp is definitely going through a renaissance with the use of pedals and electronics and improvising, people are branching out. Some of these things are new discoveries to me, because I’m just heading off in my own little way. I’m finding these ways of making sound; I use a mallet on the strings, I sing into it, I hit it with things, there are so many different techniques. It’s such a versatile instrument and it lends itself to almost any genre.

What kind of feedback have you had from the audience so far?

It’s been good. People are moved by the wall of words, they want to know mor about that; a lot of people have also shared personal stories with me. I welcome that, I talk a lot with the audience and share my feelings and stories; I explain why I’ve written something and I’ll ask them to share what they think about it, it’s kind of raw, and vulnerable

How do you protect yourself?

I don’t. I’m willing to be real, I’m okay with people seeing it as it is, in all its warts and all.

This is another part of this whole sleep thing: a lot of people can’t understand how I could be watched while I’m sleeping, but at the end of the day I’m just a human.

We all sleep, we all go to bed at night and sleep in a bed.  I’m there, in my comfy pyjamas, what’s to see? It’s pretty boring, really. 

Surely, you are aware of the voyeuristic aspect. 

Yes, and it makes me feel a little uncomfortable, when I start to think who’s watching and why are they watching. I did receive a couple of quite uncomfortable messages from a follower on Instagram that I didn’t like and I asked him to stop which he didn’t and I blocked them in the end; that was really unpleasant. Then there were some patrons in the gallery at one of my concerts who had too much to drink and I could hear what they were saying, they were making comments about the bed. I was annoyed and I addressed it in the concert. I addressed my feelings of vulnerability around being watched and what people are saying or assuming about it, and then I dedicated a song to those people — ‘Creep’ by Radiohead. This felt really good.

Emily Sanzaro’s Room of Dreams is taking place at MONA until Monday 20 November.

Watch the live stream here.