For over a year, electronic music producers Quentin Notte and William Herman have been experimenting with sound design and compositional techniques with the ambitious goal of redefining what meditation music is. Soundworks is to them a new kind of collaborative musical project that finds its inspiration in their passion for analog sound synthesis, their musical roots in house and techno, as well as their own meditation practice.
I asked them about their musical upbringing, how they came to meditation music, and what their production process has been like so far; here is what they had to say.
William: I grew up in the countryside in the South of England, in Kent. We lived next to a huge forest and I remember going there almost daily as a kid. I would just sit there, doing nothing. I would listen attentively to all the sounds I could hear: wind through trees, birds chirping, bark cracking, and I remember being fascinated by the beauty and complexity of the sonic environment. As a kid I also would make noises with my lips all the time: humming, smacking, popping. I drove my parents insane, but they eventually understood what it was about and let me pursue this strange form of addiction (laughs).
Quentin: My first musical memory is in our apartment in Brussels as a kid. I must have been five years old. I found a vinyl of the Rite of Spring by Stravinsky whose cover image was a bizarre drawing of a deer-headed man in a forest at night. The image was unlike anything I had seen before and it fascinated me. My dad played the record for me and I was immediately enthralled by the mystery and dramatic power of the piece, and I would ask him to play it over and over again. I heard later on what happened when it was first played to an audience in the early XXth century in Paris, and, although I could not quite make sense of the sacking of the concert hall, I understood how powerful our response to music could be
Quentin: When I got into techno years ago, first as a listener, then as a producer, I felt a clear link with meditation. It’s arguably the genre of electronic music that has the most sophisticated sound design, and it relies much on hypnosis, driven by devices such as repetition and polyrhythms. Soundworks is not techno, but like techno artists we strive to design interesting, novel sounds that can get you to that place. Also, as a music lover, I really don’t connect with much of the meditation music out there, and felt that we could make music that’s both musically interesting and useful in a meditation context.
William: Yeah, in some ways techno is completely opposite to meditation if you think of the intensity of the kick, the loud drums and the fast groove. In other ways it's very similar: a lot of people are completely silent while they are dancing. They are fully in the moment, they chat occasionally with their friends but they are mostly silent, in movement.
Quentin: I was always fascinated by spectral music and in particular that of Gyorgy Ligeti. Spectral music frees itself from the quick tonal changes of melody for something that’s more like constantly evolving sonic matter. On the side of contemporaries, I think Rrose’s work is captivating. He finds inspiration in psychoacoustics, and his music, while not suitable for the faint of ears, has the power to trigger odd shifts in one’s state of consciousness, even cathartic responses.
William: I think one of my biggest influences is Jan Jelinek. He is a composer who uses mainly modular synthesizers, and he also works with Japanese acoustic artists. His sound is very much a world of its own and once you get it, you get completely addicted, as it completely takes you away from reality. Terry Riley is also a huge inspiration for me. He is a minimalist composer from the sixties, now a very old, beautiful man with a long beard. He, Brian Eno and Steve Reich, created the minimalist movement, repetitive music without beat, but with melody and rhythm. This is music you cannot enjoy if you skip through it, you have to listen all the way to understand it.
Quentin: I think there are different modes of listening. A Bach cantata requires a very active listening. It involves all your attention, it’s a kind of brain massage. On the other hand there is Erik Satie’s ‘musique d’ameublement’, which I would compare to a body massage, something that’s acting more unconsciously, is much slower and does not have the mathematical complexity. By the way I’m not talking about Muzak here, which, although it was proven to decrease criminality when played on a sketchy street corner, is a mediocre, commercial version of low listening level music. To me both listening levels are interesting, and I think meditation music can belong to both categories. In low listening mode, meditation music is a support to mindfulness meditation focused not on sound, but on bodily sensations.
William: I think it’s to definitely start by not listening to anything. It may sound paradoxical, but listening starts with finding comfort in silence. We are often scared of silence. We watch shows all day, we have YouTube, podcasts, radio, etc. just to avoid silence. And it’s a noisy world out there, constantly trying to get our attention. In silence we can see more clearly, which really is the point of meditation. Some of Soundwork’s tracks are just one step away from silence. It’s not music, just one or a few frequencies and soft textures. Those sounds can act as a gateway towards and from silence.
Quentin: The definition is still work-in-progress to me but one difference with other music is that in our view meditation music evolves without narrating. Most of the music we hear around us is made out of contrasts in energy and emotion that, one way or another, tell a story. I think meditation music evokes a state of mind instead. It does evolve, as nothing in life is static, it undergoes a soft metamorphosis, but there’s a cyclicality where it goes back to where it started. As a musical form it says “everything is transient, but there is nowhere to go”.
William: Yes I think there is something about continuous evolution, rather than music broken down into main verse, chorus, etc. Imagine a 20-minute meditation with these constant transitions and energy shifts, it would be very tiresome and difficult to be mindful listening to that. Another dimension of that is you can’t skip through the track and select this part rather than that part. Much like in Terry Riley’s music, you have to go through this work step by step: enter the doors, close the doors behind, move towards the first room, then the next room, etc. The music gets you in that state step by step, very progressively. You have to attune your mind to it slowly for it to acquire any kind of significance.
William: I don’t think they are in contradiction with each other, I find sound to be a great guide into silence. Jumping from the sonic intensity of everyday life straight into silence can be intimidating. Sound also provides a continuous sonic background, where your above neighbor dropping something to the floor or an ambulance passing by is not as disruptive to your practice.
Quentin: I agree on sound being a wonderful guide into silence. Some of the main benefits of meditation come from the focus on the body - breath and other sensations - so I by no means intend to drop silent meditation from my practice. A great way of practicing is to meditate on sound for ten minutes, then continue in silence for the next ten. That’s really the sweet spot to me.
Quentin: Yes I think our cognitive relationship with sound is very powerful, so more things can happen when we’re meditating on sound rather than silence. Sound naturally brings about emotions, memories, or even visual images. No part of the brain exists in isolation and sound more than any other sense, is very powerful at triggering reactions from other parts of the brain, or synesthesia. Some say music is inherently psychedelic.
William: We quickly realized, as we were making the sounds, that what we were coming up with - because we love sound design and making strange, otherworldly sounds - wasn’t all relaxing. Some tracks were intense, but for some reason had the power to shift your state of consciousness, or trigger a long lost memory or emotion. We realized that we had to expand what meditation music actually means, to include more than just relaxing tracks. We came up with multiple modalities, such as visualization or catharsis. We are working on developing those modalities and coursework to guide Soundworks users step-by-step. Some of this stuff is meant for quite advanced listeners and we don’t want anyone to have a bad experience (laughs).
Quentin: There’s a quote by Robert Zatorre, an authority in the neurology of music that says that “the continued interactions of musicians and scientists will be important, as the study of music and neuroscience is mutually revealing.” Music is a very complicated matter neurologically, so you can’t just decide to design a track purely using the science, musical intuition and meditation experience help as much, or more. Plus everybody’s brain is different, we all respond differently to music. But one choice we made is to work at 96bpm on all our tracks, and that’s simply because that’s a multiple of 12, and 12bpm is the average frequency of an adult’s breathing. We also sometimes make choices around specific frequencies when we use beating in the low end (20 - 100 Hz) that correspond to natural periodicity of neural activity, the famous alpha, beta and gamma bands. One thing we surely don’t use is all the esoteric riff raff around sound healing where apparently 432 Hz allows you to cleanse your DNA (laughs).
William: Or enhancing self-love at 528 Hz. Yes and I think mostly we use our musical intuition in designing sounds that we think people can connect when they meditate. A good way of doing that is putting yourself in a meditative state in the studio, once you are done building the instrumentation, which is a more tedious and analytic part of the process. You can then record an arrangement live in a tactile way, on your synthesizers and controllers, where you are moving sounds around according to what feels appropriate as you are meditating. This requires more practice both as a meditator and an electronic musician, but it yields some of the best results. And then of course there is the usual that you need to do when you make electronic music, equalize and spread frequencies properly along the spectrum, eliminate bothersome resonant frequencies etc.
Quentin: One of the reasons we started Soundworks is we strongly believe that humans should continue to make music for humans. Music is a means of communication, exchange and mutual discovery. When I see some products out there that use machine learning to come up with the right soundscape for you at any point of the day, I think it’s an interesting experiment, but ultimately I don’t want to end up in an echo chamber, where all I hear is myself, as understood and curated by an AI. If it’s connected to Alexa of Google Home and it’s using the data it collects about me to sell me stuff, then I find that ethically dubious and completely at odds with its health benefit premise. I’m curious to hear what people think about that. An AI may come up with the perfect piece of music for me, but if it is not reflective of a point of view, a musical language, I think it’s a bit pointless. If an AI ever develops a point of view, then yes, but that’s not for tomorrow morning and it’s an entirely separate conversation (laughs).
William: And one of the most important points of our philosophy is that meditation, just like listening, is about observation. Some sounds we design are soothing, some others are challenging. The point is to observe what they bring up. I want to challenge our audience as if they were artists and creatives themselves, learning about sound, training their ear.
William: I’d like it to help people to be more in tune with their sense of hearing. I’d love for them to develop an more acute attention to the sonic dimension of the world around them, to delight in hearing a bird singing, the particular resonance of a low frequency in the subway, whatever it is. I’d also love for them to go beyond the stereotypes they may have about meditation and meditation music.
Quentin: I’d love for Soundworks to be an easier gateway to meditation and help more people meditate. I’d also love for people to understand meditation better, using the language of science rather than that of old spiritual traditions.