The Japanese practise of Shinrin-Yoku (Forest Bathing) has helped to define what humans have innately known for millennia: Being in nature, enveloped by the sounds, smells and sights of trees, birds and bees is a potent elixir for our health and cleanser for our souls. Japanese scientist Dr Qing Li has pioneered research into the understanding of just why being in a forest is so good for us, and over the course of four decades of investigation, has amassed a weight of evidence that points to how the forest contributes to the lowering of stress hormones such as cortisol (Antonelli et al, 2019), balancing of NK cell levels (natural killer cells), lowering blood pressure and activating the parasympathetic nervous system (Peterfalvi et al, 2018). To use another Japanese term, the forest helps us find our Yūgen (幽玄) — the profound combination of the beauty and mystery of the world that is often too deep for words.
Forests became an important part of my daily routine during the pandemic. Being ‘locked-down’ meant that the onset of claustrophobia was always just around the corner, and living in the middle of London meant my soundscape is dominated by traffic, sirens, construction and other unwanted noise. Luckily, I have several large parks nearby and during one of my morning walks I managed to stumble across a Forest that was far less busy than some of the other green spaces across the city. Merely 30 meters from the main pathways, entering into this dense part of urban woodland immediately transported me into a different realm, away from the overbearing noise of the city.
I incorporated a trip to this forest as regularly as I could, sometimes bringing my field recorder, other times using it as a setting for my meditation practice. As the seasons changed, I recorded how the sounds changed with it — as birds migrated and animals went into hibernation, as ice melted into babbling streams, and as the wind blew through the trees melting into the sound of a train passing by in the distance. The forest became my safe space, a cocoon away from an outside world that seemed to be falling apart. I’ve long been inspired by the writings of the late R. Murray Shafer (1933–2021) who’s had a long career documenting the World’s ‘Soundscape’ (a term that he coined). Whilst often sensationalist with his conclusions (‘the world is headed for universal deafness’), his research does challenge one to reconsider post-industrial revolution noisescapes and their detrimental impacts on public health. Shafer advocates for the ‘recovery of positive silence’ via the intentional cultivation of ‘the soniferous garden’ — man made spaces that are sympathetic to the natural environment and give space for ‘mental and spiritual recomposure’ akin to the time required for sleep in order to ‘renew life energies’.
Shafer, Qing-Li and my daily forest trips became my inspiration for The Soniferous Forest installation. The installation is housed in the ‘Immersive Room’ at Browns onBrook St in London and runs from Jan 10th to March 31st 2022. Visitors are immersed in the sights, smells and sounds of an artificial indoor forest, with field recordings from forests around London across multiple loudspeakers, powered by Bang & Olufsen. There are two upright comfortable seats available with Bang & Olufsen headphones playing a 15 min Sound Composition that was specially composed for the experience. This central headphone experience combines natural sounds with musical elements and sound therapy techniques to take listeners on an immersive journey into their consciousness: their “15 minutes of Sonic Escapism’’. The composition is mixed in Dolby Atmos for maximum spatial effect and visitors are encouraged to close their eyes and consciously listen for the duration in order to gain maximum benefits, as I explain below.
After a long career as a musician and DJ, and academic education in the psychology of music, I trained in Sound Therapy, learning how to play ‘healing instruments’ such as the Gong and Himalayan Singing Bowls. A Sound Therapist will use instruments such as these to create frequencies of sound that affect the listener in a variety of ways. Sound has a unique power in its ability to activate a multitude of areas of our brain and nervous system, and if harnessed in the correct way, can be hugely powerful for listener health and well-being, transporting them into a state of ‘Flow’. ‘Flow’ is a term coined by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who spent his career researching how this phenomenological state can be better understood. For Csikszentmihalyi, Flow represents an optimal state of being, of true human happiness and is something that we all have capacity to experience no matter what our financial or social standing is.
Fundamentally, happiness cannot be achieved by completing one’s goals, but instead by being ‘in the moment’, immersed in an activity that one has trained in and that is continually challenged by. In doing so one can harness the ‘psychic energy’ that is needed to attend to the task in that present moment. Some of us have the ability to experience this often — those with an ‘auto-telic’ personality, where they are more readily able to live in the moment and not be so stressed by outside forces. Sports stars or musicians report achieving this state when at the height of their performance or when scoring a goal, others may experience it when public speaking or even more menial activities such as gardening. With enough training and the right setting, we all have the chance to experience Flow throughout our lives.
During my music career I experienced this Flow state many times — the notion of time would be lost, the distance between myself, the crowd and the music merged into one, the dance floor as one connected mass of psychic energy where I was not consciously aware of my motor actions. Being in that moment, at times, was a transcendent, almost psychedelic experience. One may experience the dissolution of the ego, loss of the sense of time, the ability to gain objective perspective away from everyday, conscious thought, greater clarity and inner calm.
The Soniferous Forest is an exploration into the power of sound as a means for psychic transportation. It begins with an audio forest bath or Shinrin-Yoku experience and moves into a transcendent sound bath that uses technique from Sound Therapy and Music Composition to delve deep into consciousness, before bringing one back to earth in a hopefully happier, more restful state. If it has been successful, a state of flow can be unlocked where time dissolves, the ego fades, heart rate and stress levels are reduced and the subconscious mind is opened. Colours, visions and distant memories may come to the fore, in a blurred dream-like state, and one will hopefully leave the experiencing feeling refreshed.
A key part to experiencing The Soniferous Forest is how one chooses to listen to it. To assist, we created “Swell: A Listening Practise” a guide for listening that accompanies the experience. In it, we document seven ways to practise conscious listening.
Our Listening Practice is inspired in part by Pauline Oliveros’ practice of ‘Deep Listening’ in which she offers a similar framework for listening: where one must attempt to focus attention on the sound objects throughout the experience, being conscious of one’s thoughts and the sounds around us. When one loses focus and mind starts to wander, one can use the sound as objects to regain attention and in doing so become more immersed in the sounds of that present moment. It differentiates between the involuntary nature of hearing and the voluntary, selective nature of listening, and in doing so cultivates a heightened awareness of the sonic environment, both external and internal.
No matter what way you end up listening, the beauty of any soundscape or piece of music is that it can affect you on many different levels. So, whether you manage to spend 15 mins exploring your subconscious, or merely use the time to feel relaxed with eyes not fixated on your mobile screen, I hope the experience is a positive one.
The Soniferous Forest Installation:
‘Immersive Room’ at Browns, Brook St, London.
Jan 10th — March 31st 2022