Can Music Transform the Mind? A Vast New Compilation Explores the State of the Art
Back in June, we highlighted healing ambient as one of the key genres of 2021. Little did we know that even as we were writing about this, a new compilation was being conceptualised which perfectly encapsulates the theme. @0, compiled by Coldcut and Mixmaster Morris, gathers together generations of musicians from across disciplines to deliver more three hours of music that certainly calms, relaxes and nourishes the senses. But more than that, it puts its money where its mouth is, with the entire label share of income going to mental health charities CALM (Campaign Against Living Miserably), MIND, and Black Minds Matter.
It’s an important statement of intent in a time when the “wellness” sphere is beset by glib hucksters. And yes, sure, it’s easy to laugh at suburban spas offering gong bath therapy to crystal-crazed antivaxxers, or to think chillout music just means the thousands upon thousands of hours of nature sounds, Tibetan bowls and slow piano arpeggios uploaded to the streaming services week in, week out in the name of “relaxation”. As @0 vividly illustrates, though, there is way more depth, variety and history to this music than cliché would allow. And maybe there is something to its healing powers beyond just providing an audio sleeping pill to the overworked and overstressed.
The idea that music can affect the body appears to be as old as the idea of music. From Vedic chants to shamanic practice in the Americas, musical healing rituals abide. In ancient Greece, Pythagorus, Plato and Aristotle connected music and harmony to both the movements of the heavens and the human body – ideas which were transmitted down European thought for millennia. But in the modern age, it was the birth of what would become the New Age movement – with mystics like George Gurdjieff, Rudolf Steiner and Helena Blavatsky – in the late 19th century that the creation of specifically therapeutic or meditational music was taken seriously in the West.
Minimalist and electronic composers like Pauline Oliveros and Terry Riley brought drone and meditational sound into the mass media age. All of this exploded worldwide in the ‘60s and ‘70s, as a combination of the hippie movement and readily available technology popularised and enabled the production of experimental sound. This was given a further boost in the late 1980s and into the 1990s as the chillout rooms of the rave era made spaces for expanded minds to experience abstract music for extended durations. But all this while, while beautiful music (and undoubtedly some profound experiences) were being made, it was accumulating a lot of hokey and extremely unscientific baggage.
In the 2000s, ambient and immersive music took something of a back seat culturally. Partly, it was written off in popular culture as part of the excesses of the ‘90s: beanbags and fractals all seemed like a bit of a joke to the generation that followed, and perhaps an embarrassing memory to the generation who’d indulged in them. But through the 2010s, and particularly in the last half decade, it has surged back. There are many threads winding together, here. There’s been a reassessment of the 90s by those discovering its music for the first time. Vinyl collectors have alighted on New Age music from the ‘60s through to the ‘80s as a goldmine. The internet has seeded a huge growth in interest in mysticism. The rise of “post-classical” music, and popular interest in immersive sound thanks to gaming, home cinema and post-MP3 audiophile listening has made long-duration immersive music relevant again. Perhaps most obvious, too, is the rise in the understanding of “self-care” in times of crisis.
This has been felt most acutely since COVID, and is something many musicians have discussed. The likes of Soft Pink Truth, Juliana Barwick, Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith, Elysia Crampton, Ana Roxane and Emily A. Sprague have made records related to healing and growth in the past two years; meanwhile, Richard Norris’ Music for Healing series, and a whole sequence of records by the normally intensely noisy Kevin Richard Martin were expressly made as personal therapy during COVID lockdown. One of this year’s very best albums is Sandbox, by Obay Alsharani, a beautiful sound world created as a personal sanctuary while the Syrian multimedia artist was stuck in a Swedish refugee centre 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
Some of these records are what you might call New Age in approach, but many are more pragmatic. That’s what’s different now: both scientific understanding of the nervous system and public discourse on mental health have hugely advanced since the last big waves of ambient and New Age music, and our experiments with sound as a mood-altering substance aren’t just being done by fringe oddballs. That’s not to say much of it isn’t deeply weird, or made purely for the sake of odd sound – plenty are, and the genre is all the better for it.
A compilation like @0 demonstrates the huge breadth of approaches to making music that makes you feel better. It takes in generations of sound makers, from veterans like Ryuichi Sakamoto and Suzanne Ciani, through names from the ‘90s like Mira Calix and Coldcut and Morris themselves, to young talents like Barwick and Alsharani. It is sometimes extremely compositional, sometimes entirely abstract; sometimes blissed out, sometimes intensely melancholic. There’s no one aesthetic, no central ethos or ideology to this, but it does feel like a collective endeavour to achieve real results. If those results were just to help people by fundraising, that would be enough, but in the act of listening, it really gives the impression that this music is moving towards a real functionality – not just the metaphysical “transcendence” or transformations of New Age endeavours of the past, but direct physiological and psychological benefits in the here and now.
Cover Credit: Hayley Louisa Brown
Writer | Joe Muggs
Joe Muggs is a writer, DJ and curator of many years standing, covering both mainstream and underground. His book 'Bass, Mids, Tops', covering decades of UK bass music, is out now via Strange Attractor / MIT Press, and you can subscribe to his newsletter at tinyletter.com/joemuggs.