Float away with... SYMBIOSIS


From the Independent, 15th January 1995:

Songs in the key of valium

The day is not far off when doctors will prescribe a course of music in preference to tranquillisers. Michael Church meets Clive Williamson, composer of choice at a surgery near you

Shakespeare bids us mistrust the man who has no music in him. "The motions of his spirit are dull as night, And his affections dark as Erebus". Music can send us into a solitary trance, or whip us into communal frenzy. Like alcohol, it removes our inhibitions; it binds us together. Expressing intense sadness, it can lift us out of sadness. It's extraordinarily potent stuff.

Whatever music actually is - and philosophers are still worrying away at the mystery - it's transmitted by means which are unmysteriously physical. It should be no surprise, therefore that its effects are also physical, and that animals respond to it too. One thinks of birds and hump-backed whales, of snake charming, and of the custom, observed by Thomas Hardy whereby farmers sang to their cows to get a better yield of milk. Orpheus with his lute charmed not only men and beasts, but also trees and rocks. Good vibes are no mere figure of speech. Nor are bad vibes.

While Caliban speaks of sounds and sweet airs that give delight "and hurt not", Stravinsky was made "bodily ill" by sounds that had been electronically stripped of their natural overtones. Music can provoke epileptic fits. If it's low enough and loud enough, it can kill.

But music can also heal, and the Greeks knew this too. Theophrastus, in the third century BC, noted the use of the flute-playing as a cure for sciatica; the Romans believed the flute could salve snake-bite. Current research linking music, mood-swings, and brain function suggests that such beliefs may not have been pure hokum.

Modern music therapists of ten use a variant on the American Indians "healing song", inducing their patients to sing their way back to health. They work with stammerers, they treat stroke patients, and they help people suffering from Parkinsonism. In his book Awakenings, Oliver Sacks records the response of patients with movement disorders caused by neurological disease. "The therapeutic power of music," he says, "may allow an ease of movement otherwise impossible."

But stress in all its forms is the music therapist's prime target, and relaxation the key weapon. The music-for-relaxation business has recently been joined by a player whose unorthodox background and radical approach sheds interesting light on this still uncharted terrain.

Clive Williamson, 2005Clive Williamson is a former BBC sound engineer who now produces his own brand of therapeutic music. He heads an instrumental trio called Symbiosis, whose relaxation album Touching the Clouds has just been taken up by doctors at Bart's who are researching music's capacity to relieve pain. In a recent study at Kingston University, in which 11 kinds of music were monitored for their relaxing effect, Symbiosis tied in first place with a piece by Vivaldi. Touching the Clouds - a title borrowed from an eighth-century Chinese poem - is a varied selection of pieces in which a flute, an acoustic guitar, a marimba, and a human voice (Williamson's) blend with sounds produced on an electronic keyboard. The effect is floating, spacey, and - as found when I gave it the couch test - agreeably narcotic.

Great music it's not, nor does it claim to be. A medieval astronomer would undoubtedly conclude that it was the music of the spheres. Williamson says the aim is not to take the listener over, but to help them "float free". "We don't see our music as mesmeric, like gamelan. We see it as a catalyst, non-intrusive sound."

Good vibes are no mere figure of speech.
The effect is floating, spacey,
and - as I found when I gave it the
couch-test - agreeably narcotic

Having grown up in the Sixties under the twin influences of cool jazz and Sibelius, Williamson spent the Seventies dabbling on the fringes of the rock business. His particular obsession was with ambient sound. He watched Brian Eno playing the same piece of music in a wide variety of locations, and noted the variations in how it sounded. He listened to the recordings Paul Horn made, playing his flute inside the Taj Mahal. "The dome made a natural 13-second reverb unit," says Williamson wide-eyed at the memory. He was inspired to get his own reverb unit.

"I built up a studio, and found ways of creating a collection of sounds which seemed a suitable palette to paint from musically. Experimenting with reverberation, I found I could create the illusion of any space I wanted." Space - or the illusion of it - seems for some reason to be a crucial element in the pleasure we get from listening to music. "The link between the production of sound and its reception by the ear is tremendously important, and absolutely governs the way you play." His constant aim was to generate sounds he "felt comfortable with".

Touching the Clouds - CD CoverBBC producers who knew what he was up to had periodically pressed his music into service - everything from ecology reports to the diaries of Anaïs Nin - but the turning-point came when he recorded an album with a couple of friends, and released it himself. Having kept his distance from the New Age brigade, he finally gave in and joined them. "They had similar problems to ours in getting their music aired."

Gradually health centres, dental surgeries, and therapists of all sorts began to use his tapes. He investigated other forms of sound therapy, and gleaned ideas. "I had the chance to try the vibro-acoustic bed, which is used to reduce the tension in spasticity. You feel the lowest frequencies in your heels and as the pitch rises you feel it progressively higher in your body. You can pin down, through your body's perception, where the frequencies are." As it happens, the percussionist Evelyn Glennie, who is profoundly deaf, talks of perceiving music in precisely these terms. She "listens" with the speakers pressed against her stomach or her neck.

There is something curiously modest about Williamson's crusade; emptying his music of anything unexpected, anything which smacks of logic or the will, any stress or urgency, creating a sound-world no more "interesting" than a lava lamp. But this is a game as old as the hills. Film composers are adept at it. There are jazz players, rock singers, and composers galore - though they might not thank you for saying so - who could fit the bill. Gorecki? Gavin Bryars? Michael Nyman would have to be excluded: he's boring enough, but communicates an unsleeping urgency. Supermarket muzak designed to stimulate the acquisitive urge, would likewise not qualify. Gregorian chant, on the other hand, would do fine.

"Classical music for relaxation" is already a record industry marketing concept. Williamson's long-term hope is that your average GP, when faced with a patient suffering from stress, may one day prescribe not pills but a relaxation tape. Well, quite: it could make him as rich as Croesus. But it's a thought worth thinking. Throw away that valium, and listen to some music instead. Or better still, make your own music. Join a choir, dig out that guitar, pick up a recorder. It won't do any harm.

'Touching the Clouds', 72 minute CD for £9.95. Also still available on original 90 minute cassette £5.95 or as a download from Symbiosis.

To contact Symbiosis: Telephone +44 (0)1803 293030, 14 Ash Hill Road, Torquay, Devon TQ1 3HZ, UK.

Reproduced by kind permission of Michael Church. © Michael Church, 1995.

Listen to the track used in the Kingston University test

Hear other tracks from Touching the Clouds: Nimbus; Lakeside; Der Wälder Nacht (Forested Night); Wrapped in Evening Mists

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Read: Touching the Clouds - Full Information - Review of Touching the Clouds - Research at Kingston University


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