Wednesday, July 21, 2010

In review--Nighty-Night

Dr. Jeffrey Thompson
Rainforest & Ocean Waves
With Alpha Brainwave Pulses
The Relaxation Company/Sounds True

Brainwave Suite
The Relaxation Company/Sounds True

My stress levels have been shooting through the roof lately. I have been suffering from insomnia, too many worrisome thoughts floating around in my head and a pinched nerve in my lower back. So this feels like the perfect time to experiment with relaxation recordings. Besides, high stress levels can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, suppressed immune system, aches, pains, and depression. The relaxation route seems a better way to go.

Granted I laughed at relaxation tapes while I was a rocker in my 20s, but now hitting middle age, I want to see what’s available because I believe that psycho-acoustically designed recordings provide a better remedy for relaxation and sleep than sleeping pills and more fun than counting sheep. I still prefer acoustic recordings with sound healing tools, instrumental overtones (Marjorie de Muynck’s recordings), nature sounds, and classical music performed by chamber players (Joshua Leeds and Dr. Andrew Weill). Yes, pure acoustic sounds like our ancestors intended.

Before I get to Dr. Jeffrey Thompson’s groundbreaking brainwave recordings, I want to cite that while synthesizers relax many listeners, they have the opposite effect on me. Sometimes I feel like someone has plugged me into an electrical socket when I hear them. I don’t know why I have an aversion to synthesizers, but I have my theories.

I feel that there is a parallel between my intolerance to certain foods and my intolerance to electronic music. Both intolerances come from over processing, in the case of food, I developed an allergy to corn because it was in everything and my body had enough of it. In the case of music, programmed music has appeared in almost every style of music, even traditional music. Mostly what I’ve heard recently with traditional music is the synthesizers used sparingly, but in the realm of pop music which is ubiquitous in stores, car traffic, and public places, we get the musical equivalent of American cheese in plastic wrap! And this over processed pop is as far from wholesome music as American cheese is from cheddar made from free-range cows fed on grass and organic feed.

Since getting my first computer in 1999, I’ve also been exposed to more EMFs (electromagnetic fields) than ever before given the enormous amount of time I spend in front of a computer screen. I don’t own or use a cell phone, and never use a microwaves oven, I haven’t had a medical x-ray in years, but living in an urban environment with all this new technology invading my life, if not my body, I’m exposed to more EMFs than ever before and it’s taking its toll on my overly sensitive body.

So with no disrespect to Dr. Jeffrey Thompson who has grasped onto a fabulous practice of combining brainwave pulses and sound design to take a brain through different stages, alpha, theta, delta, etc…I wish he hadn’t included synthesizers on his recordings. This setup no doubt has worked for millions of people in 26 countries, but I might just be the one exception in that synthesizers have the opposite effect on me even with the brainwave pulses, the binaural recordings, and whale songs swimming through my ears. However, I think this technology combined with sound design played on acoustic instruments, wind chimes, sound healing tools and nature sounds would be ideal.

All is not lost. The double-CD set with the Rainforest and Ocean Waves with Alpha Brainwave Pulses contain only natural sounds on 3-D binaural recordings. You slip the headphones on and viola you find yourself in the midst of the Brazilian rainforest or sitting on the shoreline of a beach in Maine. And as mentioned earlier, the alpha brainwave pulses naturally entrain the brain to a relaxed, but not sleepy mode. You can go about your business with these sounds playing in the background or you can engage with the sounds by practicing visualization. Yoga and meditation are also recommended in the liner notes.

These recordings feel non-invasive and I have found them deeply relaxing. In fact, as I type this review, I’m listening to the Ocean Waves CD. The liner notes mention the technology used to produce these CDs. “To recreate this sense of 3-D realism (try listening to the CDs on headphones), binaural recording utilizes a latex dummy head containing two special microphones mounted at the position of the inner ears. When sound waves are recorded through the microphones in the dummy’s ears, they have been shaped just as they would have if you had been there yourself.”

Rainforest has more high tones so I found it less relaxing than the ocean waves CD. Remember high tones charge the nervous system bringing alertness. Listening to that CD on headphones makes sense or listening to it on a high tech stereo system, otherwise you will miss hearing the low tones and you might find yourself focusing on a screechy rainforest bird. I wasn’t able to concentrate on my work while listening to the CD, but I enjoyed listening to it on headphones and zoning out.

Now let’s get to the Brainwave Suite which includes 4 recordings featuring a combination of lush ambient sounds (synthesizer), strings (synthesizer), whale songs, sound healing tools, birds chirping, gurgling creeks, and ocean waves combined with brainwave pulses to the tune of alpha, alpha-theta, theta and delta. Again, I’m impressed with the technology and knowledge of brainwaves along with sleep patterns provided by Dr. Thompson, but I experienced mixed results with these recordings. I even found some of the sound designs too melancholic and in some cases spooky.

My favorite CD by far is the Awakened Mind. Mostly featuring nature sounds combined with alpha-theta brainwave pulses, I actually have found multiple uses for this CD from a sleep aid to enhancing my meditation practice. In fact, it livened up my meditation practice and I would like to try practicing yoga with this CD in the background. The first track feels like taking a walk in a wooded area and strolling alongside a creek or perhaps that’s a torrential downpour, the most relaxing one I’ve ever heard. The second track also features water and noises of a temperate forest with a raven croaking in the background. I could easily see a health practitioner playing this in the waiting room of their clinic.

Insight and Intuition is my least favorite of the CDs. I found the sound design of track one melancholic hanging out in a minor key with too much dissonance played on a synthesizer—might as well have been nails on a chalkboard. I enjoyed the first few minutes of the track which featured nature sounds, but once the synthesizer came in, I hit the stop button.

The second track improves somewhat again with nature sounds, chimes that sound like far off church bells, but that dissonant synthesizer playing in the background turned me off. My intuition led me to press the stop button. I’d be better off finding my inspiration from my favorite world music or classical recordings performed in major keys and enhanced by warm-sounding acoustic instruments and vocals. True I wouldn’t have the helpful brainwave pulses to keep my brain on track, but at least I wouldn’t feel tense.

The second track of Relaxation and Meditation also left me feeling overly tense. We start off with chirping birds and nature sounds which I enjoy on track one. This first track even possesses some playful passages played on chimes. A hint of a melody repeats itself and flute-like arpeggios give the design a circus-like feel. However, track 2 returns to that moody synthesizer which just leaves me feeling melancholic. I asked myself, “How is this relaxing?”

Most important I seek a musical sleep aid which I had hoped to find on Sleep & Rejuvenation. And yes, I did fall asleep listening to this recording, even when I was woken up by an obnoxious neighbor at midnight. The first track with chirping birds, flowing streams, Tibetan bowls and synthesizer again fell into a minor key. In fact, this track reminds me of Space Odyssey 2001. There’s this feeling of falling through space. Do you recall that scene in the Kubrick film when one of the astronauts is literally left dangling in space? That's what I felt like, dangling between sleep and wakefulness; and drowning in synthesized drones.

I enjoy track 2 with its whale songs, ocean waves, and primordial sounds and in fact, this is the track that sings me to sleep. I end this review with the idea that I doubt there is a one-size-fits-all relaxation CD available. Our nervous systems, sensibilities, and experiences, not to mention, our stress levels are individual. People who suffer from environmental illnesses might find that they are extra sensitive to electronic music and prefer acoustic sounds instead. Dr. Thompson has over 25 years experience designing audio relaxation and sleep aids that work for millions of people around the world. I give you my honest assessment based on my experiences.

I don’t own a state-of-the-art-stereo or lightweight headphones, (just clunky uncomfortable headphones), which are requirements for getting the most from these recordings. Certainly I would recommend giving the CDs a try and if you have success with them, all the better. If Dr. Thompson has some purely acoustic recordings to enhance my overly busy mind, I would be interested in giving them a listen, but please, no more programmed music, just real flutes, real guitar, real strings played by real musicians who play lullabies for the 21st century—I’m trying to sleep.,

Sunday, July 18, 2010

In review--Bosnian Love Songs

Amira & Merima Kljuco
World Village

I’ve not heard much Bosnian music except for perhaps the Balkan repertoire covered by Greek vocalist-interpreter Savina Yannatou. Bosnian vocalist Amira (Medunjanin) and her musical partner, accordionist Merima Kljuco show us the lushness of two instruments combined and all the various harmonics and nuances coaxed from a human voice box and a squeezebox. The liner notes tell us that the songs performed by this duo have been passed down from one Bosnian generation to the next, but on Zumra have been transformed into more contemporary-sounding traditional fare in the skillful hands of these musicians. I’m not at liberty to make any comparisons since I’ve not heard the original songs.

What I will say is that after several listens of this miraculous recording, my heart has risen and fallen along with Amira’s vocals and felt tension building and releasing along with Kljuco’s accordion. Both musicians have great command over their respective instruments and together the musical experience feels alchemical, as if these songs couldn’t take flight without the musicians’ interpretation and performance. I wouldn’t call their approach subtle because it’s too impassioned for that, but rich nuances could be lost in the din of a room if the listener doesn’t pay close attention. And why wouldn’t a listener pay close attention? The range of emotions presented in these songs alone should perk up ears and open hearts.

The bulk of the songs feel melancholic, but in a Greek sort of way, or something you would expect from Balkan and Eastern European music. Again, Amira reminds me of Yannatou in that both vocalists have amazingly gorgeous voices that can tackle any type of traditional European song. I, myself am a vocalist so I appreciate listening to vocalists that truly get their material and give their all to it. While Amira isn’t performing Greek songs, she and her musical partner end the recording with a spirited Sephardic piece Jo Hanino, Tu Hanina sung in Ladino (Spanish Jewish dialect) that contrasts nicely with the most melancholic songs on the album, track 5, Mehmeda Majka Budila.

I would be surprised if Zumra doesn’t receive rave reviews from the music press. And I would be surprised if this album isn't featured on NPR All Things Considered. Certainly it is one of the most compelling albums I’ve heard this year and when musicians put this much of themselves into the material, you just want to embrace and thank them.