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Symbiosis: Perfecting the Art of Relaxation

Interview with John Hackett

Symbiosis: Perfecting the Art of Relaxation by Brian LeeMany musicians think that producing an album of relaxing music is just a matter of playing something slow and gentle on a synthesizer. They take the usual recipe of flutes, angels and bell sounds, avoiding anything too challenging and the result is often bland and at worst irritating. But since 1986 Symbiosis has been consciously perfecting the art of creating seamless relaxing music that does not intrude, whilst sustaining musical interest.

For example, if you use a slow movement from a Baroque concerto as background music when giving a massage, the piece may create a supportive and relaxing space but it will undoubtedly end before the massage does, leaving an awkward gap before the next track starts. Also the piece will carry emotional baggage with it. Albinoni’s famous Adagio, for example, is deliciously calm, but it is also sad to the point of being moving. Do you want that to be part of the session? Moreover, the Albinoni has been used as a film score, so listening to it may bring to mind unwelcome images such as Australian and New Zealand soldiers dying on the beaches of Gallipoli.

Since their first albums from 1988, Song of the Peach Tree Spring and Tears of the Moon, Symbiosis have been listening carefully to what therapists and holistic practitioners need from a piece of music. This led them to distinguish between and to focus the two types of music they were producing. On the one hand there are the pieces that create an instant atmosphere, the type of mood-inducing music that is perfect for visualisation and dreaming away on a virtual journey, the sort of sound pieces that film directors are looking for. On the other hand there is music that consciously and deliberately focuses on the art of relaxation in the context of a healing or therapeutic session.

Their work has a rare honesty that grows out of their wish to do nothing more than create music that complements the therapist’s work...

No tunes...

This type of music demands the ability to play very slow improvised pieces without identifiable tunes. As group leader and sound engineer Clive Williamson explained to me, tunes don’t help with the process of deep relaxation. A melody will inevitably have a pattern of tension and the expectation and ultimate delivery of resolution, which goes against the intention of being non intrusive and emotionally neutral. Rather, the members of Symbiosis improvise with sound; Clive creating ambient soundscapes which flautist John Hackett and guitarist Richard Bolton (photo below) populate with musical figures. The role of the musician is to stay in the background in an ego-less way, which is as difficult for musicians as for anyone.

Their album Touching the Clouds took two years of work. It has paid off. A study at Kingston University showed that listening to Touching the Clouds significantly reduced the heartbeat rate and therefore helped people to relax. These tests led to the use of Symbiosis’ music at St Bartholomew’s hospital in London as part of a study to see if relaxation tapes can be used with – or even instead of – conventional medication to treat some stress-related problems.

To balance their creation of relaxing music the band has also played live, in contrast to many studio-bound ‘New Age’ musicians. Playing in front of an audience has clarified what works musically since pure ambient music is too gentle for a live set. It led them to experiment along different paths resulting in two albums: the atmospheric Lake of Dreams; and Autumn Days, a musical world journey using Spanish guitars, bossa nova rhythms, flutes and other acoustic instruments from Africa, India and South America. Clive describes Autumn Days as being tuneful, energising and “perfect for the therapist to enjoy at the end of a hard day.”

Music for Spaces

The next step in their musical development was to produce music for the healing tape by Denise Linn, Angels! Angels! Angels! It was so well received that the music for Phoenix Rising followed, which concerns rising above limitations. Denise’s spoken meditation uses affirmations to encourage personal empowerment and a positive, healthy image of the self. Symbiosis was required to form musical images around the words, to create a background soundscape for the four meditations that appear on that album and also to create music to go into the spaces in the meditation where the listener is left on their own to process a particular point. This experience of ‘pouring music into these spaces’ as Clive put it, has deepened their awareness of the place of music in relaxation and healing. Six of the pieces from that album have been developed into the ‘Phoenix Suite’ on their subsequent album Amber and Jade. This includes the track which, of all their music, most approaches perfection: ‘The Beauty Within’.

Symbiosis are not trying to express great music out of personal suffering. Their aim is not to create a cosmetic spirituality with a show of synthesized angelic voices, as many so called ‘New Age’ albums do. In a genre that is often happy to package the same musical formula according to whatever image is fashionable, they bring a special consciousness and musicality. Their work has a rare honesty that grows out of their wish to do nothing more than create music that complements the therapist’s work.

What they have achieved on Amber and Jade is an album that sustains a wealth of musical invention whilst remaining calm, relaxing, emotionally neutral and non-intrusive. It works because their purpose and intent are clear.

By Brian Lee – many thanks to Brian for his permission to reproduce the above article, which first appeared in Issue 38 of Caduceus magazine. (Winter 1997/8)

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Also discover: Symbiosis' work with Denise Linn

Interview with flautist...
John Hackett

John Hackett and flute with special head-jointComposer and flautist John Hackett comes from both classical and rock backgrounds, working as soloist and orchestral player with classical ensembles, and with rock guitarist Steve Hackett. Playing with Symbiosis has been an interesting change for him:

'I have learned an enormous amount from working with the other musicians in Symbiosis,' John says. 'Coming from a mainly classical background myself, I was so impressed by the ability they all have to improvise and allow the music to find its own course. It's hard to pin a label on what we produce, which I think shows its originality. Elements of classical, folk, jazz and world music freely intermingle in a kaleidoscopic fusion of sound.'

'At the centre is Clive, who as well as being a talented multi-instrumentalist, is a genius with sound technology (he is one of the few people who know how to record a flute well!) He uses the recording studio as an instrument in its own right. Surely this must be the way forward. When we improvise as a group or in pairs, things seem to happen in a way that none of us would have predicted. Often we'll be listening back and I'll say, "Did I really play that?"

All the great composers such as Bach and Mozart were fabulous improvisers - it's a skill which is at the heart of creativity and is sadly neglected in conventional classical training. Even if someone is not attempting to improvise at a professional level, it can be a valuable way of expressing and dealing with emotion, and can therefore be very therapeutic for both performer and audience alike.'

John Hackett has recently worked with Symbiosis to help compose the ambient music for two albums of guided relaxations by U.S. therapist Denise Linn, titled Angels! Angels! Angels! and Phoenix Rising. He has published three books and CDs of original music written specially to help new flute-players to learn the instrument; released an album of original compositions for flute and piano titled Velvet Afternoon at the beginning of March, 2004; and more recently worked on Prelude to Summer – for Flute and Guitar , which features guest guitarists Chris Glassfield and Steve Hackett and was released at the end of 2008.

John plays flutes (and occasional guitar and keyboards!) on these albums by Symbiosis: (click on any cover to find out more and hear him play!)

Touching the CloudsAmber and JadeThe Comfort ZoneSea of LightSong of the Peach Tree Spring

Dancing in your DreamsAutumn DaysTears of the MoonLake of Dreams

or listen to John on these tracks from Touching the Clouds: Nimbus; Lakeside; and Wrapped in Evening Mists.

Discover John Hackett's solo albums 'Prelude to Summer' and 'Velvet Afternoon

John Hackett in the Anechoic Chamber

John playing flute in the Anechoic Chamber at Kingswood Warren for the BBC Radio series "The Science of Sound", 1990.

To contact John, e-mail: relax(at)symbiosis-music.com {replacing (at) with @ }

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Photos of John Hackett © Clive Williamson, 1990 & 2008.

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