On a warm April night, I and 15 others gathered at the Three Jewels Yoga studio in Manhattan’s East Village to supposedly benefit from the therapeutic power of extensive sonic vibrations. We stood inside the space’s small hallway, lined with wooden shelves carrying yoga equipment and New Age books, and listened to sonic artist Maraliz Campos instruct us about the experience ahead. The front door was locked, she said, so we should leave our things in the hallway, take off our shoes, and try to detach from the outside world.
Most of those in attendance wore comfortable clothes like yoga pants or pajamas; others who were less prepared, like me, were in jeans. Inside the studio, we were told to grab blankets, mats, pillows, or whatever would make us most comfortable on the floor. I laid down my mats and sat down, as others stretched out on the floor, or assumed well-postured yoga positions. The space was filled to capacity, with mats only a few inches from those surrounding them. I crossed my legs in an attempt to imitate my more well-versed companions. I don’t do yoga, I don’t meditate, and I’m not really a fan of the current “wellness” craze, but I was at the studio that night to participate in a sound bath. It only seemed fair to follow everyone’s lead.
My initial curiosity about sound baths came after attending a listening session for Life Metal, the new album from avant-garde drone metal band Sunn O))). After actively listening to the album blasting from large stacks of amps inside a spacious Brooklyn warehouse, I felt euphoric. I’d experienced a similar feeling at live shows before, but not at the same level. The low tones and complementary heavy harmonies were a lot for my ears — I had to wear earplugs for the second time in my life — but after the session, my brain felt tweaked. I was calm, and much less anxious than usual. In a recent interview with Sunn O))), founder Stephen O’Malley said, “Maybe for some of our audience who aren’t so into the trends of wellness [a Sunn O))) show] is a sound bath.” Considering this effect, I registered for a sound bath with Campos, who I had seen on a list of inclusive sonic artists. She also wrote a short article about the benefits of low frequency sounds, which I found intriguing as a bass player.
Before the bath, I expected to enter the room, sit in a pleasant position, and have music played at me for almost two hours, not unlike a gig. That’s not how Campos does her workshops. Instead, there’s a participatory aspect devoid of hierarchy — Campos isn’t the performer, but a guide. To start, she directed us in breathing exercises for about 20 minutes before we were all instructed to come up to the front of the room and pour ourselves a cup of cacao, a sweet and bitter chocolate drink often used in New Age ceremonies and rituals. After some of us drank from our cups, we all lay down with our heads turned towards the front of the room.
Campos began by playing low ambient music through a looping pedal. She complimented the deep sounds by bouncing and sliding a mallet against a set of Himalayan Singing bowls, inverted bowls that originated in ancient China and are used in music therapy, yoga, and religious rituals. She also used her voice (she’s a classically trained singer and violinist), and a Shruti Box, an Indian instrument that resembles a droning accordion. Throughout the session, she gave us breathing directions that she also followed.
The waves of sound vibrated and bounced off the walls, creating what Frank Bosco, music therapist, professor, and founder-owner of Sound Health Studio, refers to as a “sonic massage” created by both low tones and “difference tones.” Difference tones are two pitches that may sound indistinct to the human ear but actually have a miniscule difference in cycles per second or hertz (a unit of measurement for frequency). The difference tones create a vibration or repetitive wah-wah effect that has been found by music therapists to soothe the body by providing a sonic massage.
“[At a heavy metal concert] the sound is going to come very direct like an arrow coming from the speakers to your ear,” Bosco told The Outline. “It's pushing everything, it's pushing that cause, that vibration, that wave. That wave comes down and hits you like a firehose, as opposed to a hose that mists out. The mist would be more like the sound bath effect where you have water bubbles bouncing off the walls and coming back. Essentially, the question is how direct is the experience of vibration. In a sound bath, you want that to be very direct, very pure.”
During the bath, Campos improvised by incorporating unexpected sounds that came from the surrounding New York cityscape. A man yelled out with excitement outside the studio window, and Campos asked us to think of a time when we felt joy similar to his. An ambulance’s siren shrieked, and she instructed us to imagine the high-pitched frequency accompanied by jazzy drums or a thumping bass to create a more enjoyable sound.
“I want a dynamic range of frequencies and I want to receive what's coming to me in life and my experience with the mindset of curating my response, not trying to control the uncontrollable,” Campos told The Outline the following day. “We use high-pitched sounds for a reason; to elicit fear, to elicit a stress response, for an ambulance, for a fire alarm, for us to get up off our asses and move because it's jarring, it makes us pay attention. If you think of these very lulling low frequencies that can soothe, that can be used for massage, that we use for different relaxing purposes, there's a reason for that as well. There's a space for all of that within the gradient of human experience.”
I was eventually lulled to sleep by the totality of the sound: the sound waves created by Campos’ instruments; her voice; the breathing of myself and the others in attendance. When I woke after about 15 minutes, the session was over, and I was calm and relaxed. I was more lucid, peaceful, and felt like I was floating on a cloud. I was convinced that I had received more than just a good experience, like a concert can provide.
Sound baths have been referred to as a healing practice in recent articles about their rising popularity in the West, but Campos refrained from using the word “healer” when it comes to her title or her workshops. “[Healer] suggests that I'm doing something to them and they don't have the capacity to do it themselves. It also implies that they will receive a specific outcome from that experience, which I cannot guarantee. If it were that easy — that I could say that this specific frequency every time is going to heal this,” she said, laughing, “then none of us would be sick.”
A sound bath isn’t like therapy, where a therapist will hopefully conduct more than one session suited for the person’s needs; one can’t receive that type of treatment in a class full of other people. It’s more like attending a yoga or exercise class. Still, “it's not that it's just an experience,” Campos said. “It's all informing how we interact with the world.” According to Campos, people that attend her workshops and sound baths are able to curate their own approaches to sound. “I use sound as a primary vehicle predominantly because it speaks to everyone,” she said. “We are vibrating instruments ourselves.”
Outside of her workshops and sound baths, Campos DJs at clubs and house parties, and doesn’t view her DJ sets as distinct from her other work. “I’m seeking out ways to refine my capacity to speak to whoever needs or wants to be spoken to through sound. It's so funny because sometimes at like four or five A.M. I have my crystal bowls — the Himalayan bowls, my looper, and I'm in the middle of a rave. It's kind of trippy, but why can't that be more widely seen or more accepted? These people who are never going to step into a studio, who are super high or drugged up or whatever, they might experience something in what I'm delivering that could change the course of their life. To me, that is meditation, that is connection, that is mindfulness.”
After the session, the normal New York chaos wasn’t such a big deal. I wasn’t as high-strung as I would have been before; the ambulances weren’t as jarring, the crowds weren’t over-stimulating. Even the next day, my brain felt like it had received a tune-up. During the bath, Campos had mentioned the idea of curating our constant sonic stimulation by creating “sound museums” unique to our preferences. The idea seemed incomprehensible at the time — how is it possible to curate something as uncontrollable as sound? But after the bath, walking down the busy city streets, I realized that all I really had to do was listen.