Nicole Merritt, director of programming at National Sawdust, is quick to acknowledge the elephant in the room: Wellness is having “a moment.”
As of late 2018, the wellness industry (the fact that there is enough to constitute an “industry” should give you a sense of how prevalent wellness is these days) was, according to the Global Wellness Institute, valued at $4.2 trillion, representing a 12.8 percent growth over the last two years. In fact, we’ve entered a point in the trendline when we’ve gone from saturation to not entirely unfounded backlash. Headlines in The New York Times urge readers to “Smash the Wellness Industry,” and ask the question “Has SoHo Become One Big Wellness Pop-Up?”
For Merritt, these are all important considerations—and were an important part of shaping Powerful Sounds, a new National Sawdust series that combines the organization’s commitment to musical discovery with the idea that sound can be restorative, even healing.
“When you’re not feeling well, you are in your most desperate place,” Merritt explains. “And when people are telling you to heal yourself with your mind and all of this other input that you get – which is always well-intentioned – [you’re in] an easy position to be taken advantage of.” Curating such a series, then, also means sorting through an abundance of sound practitioners – an umbrella term for those that work at the cross-section of sound and healing – and finding those who aren’t taking advantage of an audience, or of the wellness “moment.”
This isn’t exactly virgin territory. In the middle of the last century, John Cage was living in SoHo – not too far away from today’s Narnia of wellness pop-ups – discovering Zen Buddhism and pondering his role as a composer. After a poorly received world premiere in 1944, he began to question using music merely as a tool for self-expression, rationalizing that, if all composers were writing music as a means of self-expression, then they were “in a Tower of Babel situation because no one was understanding anybody else.… I determined to stop writing music until I found a better reason than ‘self-expression’ for doing it.” This would lead to (among other works) 4’33”—a composition that is perhaps the antithesis of self-expression, and a practice of sitting with the sounds that constantly populate our atmosphere, and are often ignored.
Merritt notes that art in general, and music in particular, are powerful tools for allowing people to express themselves—music especially, as it’s an art form that can be practiced without words. But for her, “the driver behind the work that I do in this field” is that “traditionally and culturally, music has always been a way to bring people together for various reasons.”
In keeping with this lineage from Cage and, one generation later, Deep Listening pioneer Pauline Oliveros, Powerful Sounds launched this month with a set by Laraaji. A musician, mystic, and laughter meditation practitioner, Laraaji first came to prominence nearly 40 years ago when he collaborated with Brian Eno on the 1980 album Ambient 3: Day of Radiance. His music, much like his laugh, is infectious, inviting – if not outright demanding – the nervous system to calm down for a bit. In letting down our armor, then, might we step into a sound world that is continually happening whether or not we’re actively aware of it, and engage with that sound on a deeper, personal level?
For Merritt, the road to launching Powerful Sounds began on a personal level: Within a month of joining National Sawdust in 2017, the curator and classically-trained singer was diagnosed with cancer. Owing to her roots as a musician, she became drawn to music and art therapy as part of her larger treatment plan. “I started diving into different ways sound and music can align the body and mind and spirit,” she recalls, landing in particular on binaural beats: a practice of hearing two tones at slightly different frequencies, one in each ear. Achieving a similar chills-in-a-good-way effect as thwacking a tuning fork and listening to the result, binaural beats have been shown in small studies to be linked with reduced stress and improved sleep.
She also took sound baths which, in a city like New York, are susceptible to street noise or the sounds of footsteps in another room. Most practitioners encourage their clients or audiences to allow all sounds in, whether desirable or undesirable.
“Sound had an unquestionably incredible power,” Merritt said of those sessions. “But I haven’t gotten to experience this in a place where it’s actually having the effect I want it to have.”
Merritt is healthy now. And when she came back to National Sawdust, another major event helped to shape what would become Powerful Sounds: installation of the Meyer Sound Constellation acoustic system, which includes over 100 speakers in the walls and ceiling of the space, which artists can manipulate to achieve unique soundscapes. In addition to the Constellation, Sawdust also boasts an acoustic door that can seal the room off as a recording studio, which enables Powerful Sounds to isolate the work of guest artists and sound designers within the room.
The stars, so to speak, seemed to align between artists Sawdust already had on its roster, the features of the space, and the place that wellness had and continues to have in our overly-stressed zeitgeist. “It was sort of obvious we should be doing something in this vein,” Merritt says, “but actually create a really deep, meaningful, impactful experience with artists who have been working in this medium very authentically over time.” The dynamics offered by the Constellation offer visiting artists the opportunity to turn Sawdust into a cathedral, or to create a work that uses the room as, in her words, “the fifth Beatle.” It can support the work, or become a part of the work; either way, it’s a more symbiotic relationship between sound and space that speaks to how Sawdust engages with the world around it.
And, at the end of yet another year highlighted by increasing polarization and burnout, Powerful Sounds also speaks to National Sawdust’s role in shaping the act of listening as not only an artistic experience, but also a social one. This also means that, while the next events in the series – a pair of sound baths led by Sara Auster on November 9 – will be both a concert of sorts and a meditation of sorts, approaching them as an audience member should be no different than any other performance on Sawdust’s calendar.
The same goes for the final installment in this round of Powerful Sounds: an evening with Ecstatic Dance on November 30, which will be even more participatory. Born in Hawaii out of a combination of DJ culture and the concept of conscious dance (a sort of ballroom Burning Man), Ecstatic Dance blends electronic music with freeform movement. Intention is kept on the dance floor through an environment without talking, shoes, or alcohol. Merritt explains of the inclusion: “It recognizes that sound and movement is another combination that can be therapeutic for the body and the mind.”
Curating a new program means there’s a lot of uncertainty—but also a lot of room to explore with these initial forays. “My hope is just that people come into the room and connect,” adds Merritt, who is more excited to see what unfolds than concerned with having all of the answers at the onset. “I hope they walk away with the sense that there is a power in sound, and it has more of an application than just something that you throw on to relax or something that is played a party. It has the ability to connect to something bigger to yourself than yourself, and it has the ability to do even more profound work within yourself, if you’re interested in exploring that arena.”
Powerful Sounds continues with two sound bath sessions led by Sara Auster, on Nov. 9 at 5 and 8pm; nationalsawdust.org
Olivia Giovetti has written for the Washington Post, Lit Hub, Electric Literature, The Millions, NPR, and VAN. She’s formerly served on staff at Time Out New York and WNYC, and her writing has also been heard onstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of the Next Wave Festival.