Features I by I 22.01.17

Electronic meditation: How synth drones and deep listening can alleviate stress

Heare, aka Pasadena-based El Larson, runs unique sound meditation sessions from her home using singing bowls and modular synthesizers. Claire Lobenfeld is surprised to find that, for those of us who take sound seriously, this form of meditation might just work.

Heavy bass has always been a source of stress release for me. The right MikeQ set — perhaps with a little bit of Kevin “JZ” Prodigy MCing — will save me for a handful of days, but it only allows me to “let go” for a night. There are yoga studios that will offer music-related classes, but hitting downward facing dog at a Beyoncé yoga happy hour sounds more hokey than helpful, to me. Sound meditation, in which you are engulfed in sound as a means to find peace or relax, appears equally as distracting and, to be real, possibly like someone is going to try and sell me a crystal after the fact.

But there are sound meditation practitioners who are innovating, using synthesizers to help create a sound bath. One of those is El Larson, aka Heare, who does private sessions in her home in Pasadena. What sets Larson apart from the new age-y side of the eastern wellness business is how rooted her work is in her experience at the club. A veteran of Fabric — she worked at the legendary club’s label starting with its inaugural release — she has a history of DJing and composing her own music. And with all this comes a propensity for codifying sound. “I’m the person who would re-arrange people’s speakers in their houses if they weren’t placed right, just kind of being aware of sound and space and the interaction of sound and spaces,” she says.

When I arrive at her beautifully landscaped, ranch-style home, it is uncharacteristically rainy for Southern California (although, ask anyone who lives here: 2017 has pretty much been entirely grey), but it’s the kind of weather that encourages you to think internally. In the small office where she will guide me through the sound meditation, or sound bath, she has set up blankets on the floor with pillows for my head and my knees. Himalayan song bowls are placed in a circle around where I will be lying.

Larson tells me that the bowls emit droney harmonics when they are hit and an even dronier sound when the mallet is rubbed around the inner sides of the bowl. The body reacts more positively to harmonics, she explains, than it does when it’s just confronted with one note. “They are pretty transporting and amazing.” I am positive that no matter how many bowls she makes sing, either next to my body, or placed on my body, I will not be able to let go of the junk in my head and actually allow the sounds she’s making calmingly engulf my body and my mind.

Before we begin, she has me close my eyes and take deep breaths through my nose and out of my mouth. I am supposed to focus on the sounds outside, then the sounds that are further away. One of the people Larson is inspired by is the late deep listening pioneer Pauline Oliveros, so frequency and ambience is essential to making the sound bath work.

“I obsessively read about the benefits of sound for healing applications”

I lie down in the prepared space with two extra blankets placed over my body and a scented pillow over my eyes. She builds a base drone with some of the bowls. It is hard not to think about how I should not be thinking in that moment. The combination of singing bowl drones and another layer of ambient sound created by a Eurorack modular synthesizer accomplishes the goal Larson and I have set for the session: increased confidence with the result of peace, not necessarily empowerment. It sounds insane to me before we begin, but as the sound becomes bigger and I submit more to being a part of it, my connection to the drones allows me to make better connections to how I can conquer the things that are bothering me. At one point, Larson notices that I am biting down on my lips and tells me that it’s okay to laugh, that many people do. But I am not laughing, I am actually crying — not because I am sad, but because I feel like I have found answers. It is not the first time synth music has done this for me, but it’s the most visceral experience I’ve had with electronics ever in my life.

Larson’s path to sound meditation also started in the club. She began her interest in eastern wellness when she started practicing yoga to balance her work at Fabric. Before leaving London, where she had been living and working on a visa after college, there was a six-month respite in India. “It’s the stereotypical story: white girl goes to caves in India and has an experience that changes her life,” she says. “I went to these Buddhist caves and this guide, he was like, ‘Chant, say a word’. [We were] at the the bottom of these monastic caves, it’s where the monks would travel and sleep and study and meditate while they were traveling. So I chanted and I was just bathed in the sound of my own voice and it was really amazing. From then on, I obsessively read about the benefits of sound and the properties of sound for healing applications.”

When she returned to the States and set up in Los Angeles’ Koreatown, she built her simulated cave in her apartment. “I tried to replicate this sound cave in my apartment with a platform and subwoofers and transducers – a whole surround sound system in this little alcove,” she says. “It was pretty fun, but it didn’t really seem like a viable direction [for a job] for me at the time. It’s a very small market and a lot of it is new age-y and a lot of it is just really ungrounded.”

“If you want to make something, you have to make it yourself”

For someone like me, Larson’s space is easy to feel comfortable in. Aside from the singing bowls set up for meditation, the room is filled with records, books and a plaque commemorating her work at Fabric. There is also the modular synth. I ask why this piece of equipment, something that requires so much work, instead of something more simple. “For me, it’s just the perfect way to create because you’re creating sound from the ground up and working with oscillators and you have to control it, so you’re patching everything together,” she says. “If you want to make something, you have to make it yourself. Also, there’s this huge element of unpredictability – this morning I turned it on and I was like, ‘Oh shit, it didn’t sound like that last night, but whatever’. There’s this much part of letting go and seeing what the instrument is gonna do and how you’re going to work with that.”

Some of the benefits of sound meditation include increased clarity and decreased anxiety. It is also supposed to improve your ability to feel empathy. A few hours after my session, I still feel weightless. The things I was transfixed enough to feel comfortable about letting go seem to have lifted a physical weight off of my body. But a few hours after that, things start to feel, well, normal again. The little irritations of the present begin to resettle, but I feel more equipped to deal with it – like the wealth of my patience I once threw out to make room for anger and stress has space to return because I submitted to a coterie of drone.

I am grateful for this calm I’ve been able to keep, but I am more amazed by how easily sound meditation can be tailored to a practitioner’s personal interests. In the future, Larson wants to use the modular synth as a more pronounced part of her practice. “I pretty much use it in group sessions as background ambience while I’m doing bowls on other people,” she says, “but I’m working on how to do it more directed on people and I’m probably going to be building a sound massage table that’s got speakers and transducers in it.”

Nights where you’re looking for clarity on the dancefloor, it’s when you physically feel the music in your body that often ends up giving you the organic high that can last until the next day. “It’s great to hear the sound,” Larson says. “But it’s better to feel it.”

For more information, visit Larson’s website here.



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