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Mitch Nur
from: Mitch Nur

Considerations in Presenting 'Ambient Mode' Sound Therapy, Part One

Now I will do nothing but listen . . .
I hear all sounds running together, combined, fused or following,
Sounds of the city and sounds out of the city, sounds of the day and night
. . . Walt Whitman, Song of Myself

Over the past decade, many Sound Therapists and a growing number of Music Therapists are relying on Ambient Mode as a platform for therapeutic application. The use of Himalayan Singing Bowls, Didgeridoo, Gongs, Shruti Box and Harmonium, and to some extent crystal singing bowls are receiving wide attention by Sound and Music Therapists. The term 'Ambient Music' was first cast by musician, producer, Brian Eno in 1978 describing his Music for Airports recording. Within the liner notes he defines Ambient Music:

1). Ambient Music focuses on texture of sound as the primary compositional attention.
2). Ambient Music makes use of electronics to create acoustic spaces that do not exist in nature.
3). Ambient Music allows for the listener to be immersed in sonic worlds.
4). Ambient Music enhances environmental acoustic and atmospheric idiosyncrasies.
5). Ambient Music contains mood and emotion.
6). Ambient Music is intended to create a space for thinking and calm.
7). Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it music be as ignorable as it is interesting

Dr. Michael Viega, Assistant Professor of Music Therapy at the State University of New York, New Paltz recently offered insights to Eno's definition. "Music itself cannot be both ambient (ambience being defined as what is surrounding the foreground) and salient, as it is always in the background/foreground relationship to the listener."[1] And further," The question arises, can one enter into pervasive ambience, in which what is salient is the ambience itself and thus the foreground/background relationship is dissolved?"[2] Luke Jaaniste offers an explanation "The ambient mode involves engaging with our surrounding as an ambient pervasive all-around field, without anything being prioritized into foreground and background. Without the salience of the foreground, what would need to become salient is the pervasive ambience itself."[3] This brings to mind what many Sound Therapists offer as Ambient mode - a soundscape. Composer R. Murray Schafer coined this term and defined it as "the sonic environment. Technically, any portion of the sonic environment regarded as a field of study. The term may refer to actual environments, or to abstract constructions such as musical compositions and tape montages, particularly when considered as an environment."[4] Schafer felt that the client and the therapist in Sound Therapy, entering into the Ambient Mode, allows for engagement at many levels of health and music at once in a holistic manner.[5]

This brings us to an interesting perspective, one of which is the Sound Therapist as a sound designer to direct an experience within a therapeutic relationship, and two, what form of discipline or protocols should be considered empowering this methodology?  Nearly three decades ago I developed a protocol for a sonic environment to aid students working with shamanic journeying. This came about through my field studies in the Himalayas observing the shamans there, and comparing it to the growing popularity brought about by Carlos Castaneda, and later by Michael Harner and Brent Secunda. Many students were engaging drum journeys in combination with exercises engaging spirit totems, lower worlds, under the blanket rituals and so forth. What I concurred, was that some students were successful at these exercises, and some were not. For those that were unsuccessful, things like rejection and failure surfaced within their experiences, so I set about developing a program that was more inclusive, and did not rely on setting boundaries within specific indigenous conventions. I called this the Black Class, which the student engaged blindfolded, and could sit or lay down. The protocol for the sonic environment involved acousmatic theory involving indigenous sound tools used in ritual and ceremony, combined with 'drone' instruments, and the instructions for the person participating was simple 'mindfulness' guidelines. What I found was that students who encountered great difficulty journeying, could now engage this exercise with overwhelming success.

Prior to developing the Black Class, I had already spent over a decade working on specific protocols using Himalayan Singing Bows and Gongs in a therapeutic relationship. This was a merger of psychology and psychoacoustics that had a broad range of working with everything from stress related issues to embracing a better relationship with Self. As more and more people began to embrace meditation, yoga, self awareness and other self assessment discoveries, a new type of music therapy emerged within the growing populations engaging these studies, called sound healing. As we have witnessed through the popularity of singing bowls, gongs, and even kirtan, the interest in sonic environments or group sound experiences has almost become mainstream. But under careful evaluation of all the styles of presenting Ambient Mode Sound Therapy the practitioners themselves in some cases, are not even aware that they are doing this. For example, look at all the different techniques employed by practitioners using just gongs within the yoga community alone; and the same can be said for those within that same community applying singing bowls. I am not suggesting that some are right and others wrong, I am simply noting that using these obvious polyphonic instruments who lend themselves well to Ambient Mode, so many different styles of presentation exist, running from those looking to create a soundscape to those simply striking them randomly. Attending a Music Therapy conference in India last year, one of the speakers presented a short discussion about the healing effects of the didgeridoo within aboriginal societies. What I found in listening to them talk, was that they had no idea what they were speaking about, and had simply overlaid their opinion of western uses of the didgeridoo onto the very culture that originated the instrument. Under my cross examination, they had no knowledge of the 'Songman' in the aboriginal healing rites, the actual person conducting the healing, they were under the illusion that the didgeridoo player was doing all the work. And this argument can also be made about many other sound tools used for the purpose of creating Ambient Mode, where the person using the instrument has no idea how the instrument is used within the culture it came from. Is there a rule that says that all sound tools must be played or used a certain way? Of course not, but knowing about this information completes a process of understanding, and deepens the experience for the person using it, and for those just listening.

I feel that the term 'sound designer' is a good starting point for those that wish to create 'soundscapes' or Ambient Mode, because this application is used therapeutically on others. Any trained Music Therapist can tell you about releasing past trauma in others through music; which is why psychology is part of their university studies. For myself, my educational background is in psychology, and tension and release methods are used many times as part of my Sound Therapy protocol. I mention this because 75% of the time, I am solicited through email by sound healers who had a 'rough outing' with a client, and they require advice. I am continuously amazed that almost in all cases, the sound therapist did not recognize that trauma was releasing, and in response, treated it with more sound, instead of stopping and reevaluating, or addressing the conflict through dialog. Just because you have employed a gentle and soothing soundscape, does not guarantee that things will run smoothly. What I find in most of these cases, is that the sound session was not 'designed', but simply a haphazard attempt at doing the highest good. This can even surface in the yoga community with sound, when shaking is observed as kriya, rather than a case of a emotional release, and by the time it is accurately assessed as not being a kriya, the damage has already been done. I suggest that for those using Ambient Mode in the yoga community to research studies on kriya by psychologists to gather additional information, studies have been done differentiating between kriya and what is not technically kriya. My recommendation to those wishing to employ Ambient Mode as a sound treatment, give serious consideration at becoming a developer or composer. Important elements to consider is flow, dynamics, rhythm that incorporates passionate and spirited fluctuations, dimensionality, tonal overlays that are not forced, blooming harmonics, interlinking bridges, and silence for example.  Think this through to correct or reevaluate the methodology behind your effort. Generally the soundscape is about creating a 'story' with sound, so appraise your storytelling ability and analyze how your story is unfolding, eliminate the loose ends, and reflect upon the type of story you are telling, the beginning and ending are important details.

End of Part One

[1] Viega, M. (2014), Listening in the Ambient Mode: Implications for Music Therapy Practice and Theory,  Voices - Vol.14, #2
[2] Viega, M. (2014), Listening in the Ambient Mode: Implications for Music Therapy Practice and Theory,  Voices - Vol.14, #2
[3] Jaaniste, L. (2007). Approaching the ambient: Creative practice and the ambient mode of being. (Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation) Queensland University of Technology, Queensland, Australia.
[4] Schafer, R. M. (1977/1994). The Soundscape: our sonic environment and the tuning of the world. Rochester, VT: Destiny Books
[5] Viega, M. (2014), Listening in the Ambient Mode: Implications for Music Therapy Practice and Theory,  Voices - Vol.14, #2

©2015 Mitch Nur, PhD

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