The Skin of Sound

Sri Bhairavi Devi attributed to Payag, ca. 1630

Sorry to ask you this (also because it is a cliche), but have a listen with your mind's ear: nails on a chalk board; losing control of your fork and knife on a plate. Ok now try this: a sharpened 2HB pencil writing on good paper with some tooth to it; a whispered conversation; keys clicking steadily on a keyboard; a thick needle puncturing felt. These are some of the sounds that float the ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response) folks to the moon. There's the other kind of frisson: a turn of phrase in music that reminds us that we are spirits wrapped in skin having a human experience. Some surefire reminders for me are Benjamin Britten's Cello Suites (72, 80, 87).

In an earlier post I wrote about my skincare routine. Lately I have been experimenting with how to use sound in a convenient way to promote skin comfort and better skin health.  I'm not talking about singing in the shower, although that is good too. 

The Feel of Sound

I always knew that touch and sound are related because my skin reacts to certain sounds and physical materials in the same way. Though people sometimes comment on the softness of my skin, the palms of hands and soles of my feet have felt parched and paper dry since I was a kid. My paternal grandmother had the same problem and my texture sensitivities come straight from her. On a good day, people like us can maybe look at velvet but we absolutely cannot touch. It thwarts our ability to grip onto things and feels exactly like nails on a cXXXXXXXXX.  After we wash and dry our hands we require moisturizer otherwise we are uncomfortable touching anything. My grandmother owned very few things, but I knew that she would always have hand cream.

In addition to recording and revealing history in the form of scars, wrinkles, sunburn, poison ivy rash, and bruises, skin reflects the health of the body and its reactions to the environment in real time. Sound travels as pressures in the air  like bubbles. On graphs this is represented as waves. As a part of the environment and like everything else that is tactile and/or otherwise sensible, sound can be stressful and damaging or restorative and beneficial to our health.  

Sound travels through the body far better than it can through air or water because it is mass and water. The work being done in the old tradition of singing bowls and the field neuroaccoustics uses vibrations at different frequencies to help heal the body at the cellular level. While we can hear the sound of the singing bowls and that is a pleasure, some techniques use sound waves that are almost or completely inaudible because of their low (or high) frequencies. 

Gong Baths and Singing Bowls

With the exception of a transformative gong bath that reverberated through my body (I had to restrain myself from grabbing my teacher by his lululemon lapels and demanding that he play forever more), and striking the occasional singing bowl, my experience with people who know what they are doing with sound in a targeted, restorative way is limited to reading, attending lectures and observing. This is partly because I never feel like volunteering to undergo this transformation with a roomful of strangers watching me. So I've watched other people receive the vibrations, while partially benefitting with my ears.  With singing bowls holding warm water placed on their bodies, these volunteers responded to different notes being struck. 'When the G# was played', one said, or another note, said another...she felt a release. I am dying to try this at home and move beyond occasionally playing crystal that I received from aunties at my wedding. One day I'm going to take the time and travel if I have to and find the right bowls. And then I will learn how to play away. 

For sure I enjoy listening to singing bowls as music and have the 500 Tibetan monks chanting OM MANI PADME HUM bookmarked on youtube on my phone. I also love listening to Tomoko Sauvage's work with waterbowls, (standard Balbec studio music)  which originates in the South Indian tradition of Jal Tarang.  Sometimes live music crosses the line. I attend my daughter's violin lessons with her and her teacher's sound rings so pure that every time she plays even one note, I can feel it. My older daughter studies classical Indian singing with Marina Ahmad, whose entrancing voice feels like luxury.  I wonder what it must feel like to be able to play or sing that way.  Because now what  I'm interested in beyond my love of hearing this music, is feeling and noticing the effects of sound in my body. I want to focus on sound also  as vibration and as a visual as well. We know for example that MP3s are compressed sound that lack the full richness of sound. While we can hear the content, so much has been removed that this format is inadequate for the purposes of delivering touch or healing with sound.

Sound but not Music

With respect to skincare, refreshment and relaxation are the goals. Excess cortisol stimulates acne production and ages the skin, and tension always shows up in facial muscles and practices your face into a certain form. There, relax your jaw and ease your brow. See? So here are the two things I like because I can do them by myself easily and everyday if I wish.

Diminish Stress by Humming-Bhramari Pranayama or Bee breath.

When I was a child I realized that if I hummed the lowest pitch that I could comfortably hum on a long exhale, somewhere between my throat and my navel, I could resonate my body in a very comforting way.  Over the years I would do it and forget about it until pressed to exhaustion. Then my body would remember it as a tool to drown out environmental noise, mental fog, and low energy thinking. I hum on the subway, in the car, or walking in the street so quietly that no one knows that I am resonating. I learned more about it as Bhramari or bee breath during a Pranayama class. The other day I held a tuner to my chest and found that I am humming somewhere between a C flat and a flat C. I have no idea what that note means in the context of my body or why it feels amazing to me as I vibrate my face, neck, and head. 

Bhramari is also good for insomnia, sinus headaches and helps activate the parasympathetic system, which is good. for. your. skin.  You are supposed to press the cartilage flaps on the side of your ear closed, but I don't always do this.

Binaural Beats

This is one of my favorite techniques for resetting. Since it is difficult for me to experience low frequency vibrations through sound application in a meaningful way, I use binaural beats through my headphones to entrain my brainwaves to theta for deep relaxation. I like the beats delivered straight, and don't like it when there is music composed around them because it usually sounds too new age-y for me and irritates me. I began using binaural beats when my girls were very little and I was sleep deprived.  20 minutes was enough to refresh me completely. The only thing that I would do differently is to listen to them more often, as in every day. 

I checked in with my husband's cousin Parry Ray, a singer and blogger in London (also a gifted physicist, although she doesn't speak or write of it much) to ask how she uses sound.  Here are some things she shared with me. 

"Singing begins with my vocal chords--the two flaps of muscle that open and close across the passage to the lungs and oscillate with a wave motion as air passes through during exhalation. When I practice and think about technique, I suppose I do consider air flow, pressure, and the vibrations of my vocal chords.  I have learned through my life to treat this tiny muscle with as much respect and care as I possibly can and of course look after my body to the best of my ability. After all, the rest of my vocal instrument consists of my throat, tongue, mouth, lips, and respiratory system"

"You asked me if I could sing my way out of an ailment and I think I can.  I can easily get rid of a headache when I start to practice and have also managed to diminish a stomach ache and keep a fever at bay. It is almost like a meditative thing. Producing sound qualities is a diversionary tool. I give myself up to the sound quality and colors and take time with it.  Breath flow is pivotal. Without breath, there is no sound."


To Clarify

Someone asked me if we apply prayers or sound to Balbec products. I know where this person was coming from because I've heard of people doing this. The answer is: I often use sound to get ready, to clear my energy and focus before working.  And it matters to me what kind of music or sound is playing in the studio.  But do we apply sound to our products to enhance some kind of therapeutic profile of our products? The answer is a very flat no. Sound travels, and its not my thing to imagine bottling it.  

A more compelling capture of sound is the above painting "Sri Bhairavi Devi".  This small painting in ink, watercolor, and gold on paper lives in the Islamic galleries at the Met and is one of my favorites in the museum.  It is 7.5" x 10.5" and depicts the fiery goddess Bhairavi with a chilled-out, short-haired bhang smoking Shiva in a cremation field. The  accompanying text tells of cosmic order restored despite the horrific scene, but I like to think that this is more specifically a depiction of a concert, with Bhairavi Devi performing and/or vibrating the ancient morning Raag Bhairavi.  Shiva, peaceful, engaged, slumping a little with arms folded seems so taken by the raga that he's nearly unrecognizable save for his halo, his skull necklace, his color, and his context.  The ca. 1630 painting was commissioned by Shah Jahan to offer as a gift. According to the text, Shah Jahan's grandfather Akbar commissioned many manuscripts of Hindu subjects, but this was more unusual in the later Mughal period. 

Maybe, but what could be more unifying than beautiful sound? This makes me think of Shabnam Virmani's documentary  Had Anhad (Bound, Boundless): Journeys with Ram and Kabir of the Kabir Project. At one point in the documentary a group of Pakistani musicians go to the airport in Pakistan to pick up a group of Indian musicians. On their way home a host musician says something like we've been waiting for you. What took you so long? The Indian musicians say, we've been trying to get here but it took a really long time to get a visa. To which the Pakistani musician replies: this is the same old issue between governments, we musicians never have these kinds of problems between us.  Exactly.  And so nearly 400 years later we still have the concert, the gift of Bhairavi inaudibly vibrating Raga Bhairavi in a field of destruction--thriving with a peaceful Shiva despite the conditions. 










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