IN THE WEEKS before I spoke with sound healer and meditation teacher Lavender Suarez, I’d been dealing with a new upstairs neighbor, or more specifically, the sound of a new upstairs neighbor: thunking, clunking, laughing, living. I couldn’t recall the former tenant — a techno producer! — being this noisy. Had being stuck at home 24/7 during the pandemic made me more sensitive to sounds or the absence of them? Perhaps I just needed to get used to another person’s energy.
But Suarez, who lives amid the “joyful and diverse sonic ecosystem” of Brooklyn, confirmed my hunch. “Over the past year, for many of us, our personal sonic landscapes have changed dramatically. People who lived in cities were maybe recognizing noise pollution for the first time in their lives.” Previously, Suarez lived in the Hudson Valley where she says, “I did get to a point that I was too understimulated by my sonic environment.” It was in Upstate New York that Suarez bridged college studies in art therapy and psychology with a burgeoning electronic music practice, studying with the late Pauline Oliveros, a composer and sonic transcendentalist of sorts, who encouraged listening as a form of meditation.
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What’s happening in my environment? What am I feeling from it?
“I was the kind of kid who was always in headphones listening to music, often, quite frankly, to block out my environment or retreat into my inner world.” Now that she’s 10 years into a listening practice, Suarez can enjoy the experience of being in any soundscape — whether it’s full of noises or relatively silent — and accept, even enjoy, its tonal and sonic qualities as they are. “There’s ‘stopping to smell the roses,’ and sometimes I just stop to listen to sounds, just to immerse myself in what I’m listening to. And I can ask, ‘What’s happening in my environment? What am I feeling from it?’”
It’s this questioning that Suarez facilitates through sound healing for clients as well as with public sound baths — live improvised concerts meant for healing. “Many of us have had the experience of going to a yoga studio or a spa for a massage and the wellness space treats sound as a secondary element to the healing process.” Using the vibrations of gongs, bells, and singing bowls to create different frequencies, pacing, and tonality, Suarez, who has been doing virtual sessions throughout the pandemic, crafts customized concerts for a range of wellness needs, from relaxation to creativity. Generally speaking, higher frequencies offer a more cerebral effect, whereas lower frequencies are more bodily. “Our reflections on sound change throughout our lives,” she says. “That’s what excites me about sound healing: music changes and our bodies change with it.”
This implied plasticity is why Suarez believes any sound can prompt reflection. It’s why the sound of a banging radiator might be comforting to urban apartment dwellers, or the unfamiliar footfall of a new upstairs neighbor totally jarring. “It’s very much about your personal physiology, your history, because listening taps into memories very deeply,” she says. “And there’s an element of empowerment through choosing what you want to hear, being connected to sound, and that can be very helpful to the creative process.”
It’s very much about your personal physiology, your history, because listening taps into memories very deeply.
Human beings have used sound to stimulate altered or reflective states for millennia, but as digital media platforms approximate more of our social spaces — and vie to keep us there — they’re designed to stimulate favorable moods. In her 2020 book “Transcendent Waves,” Suarez writes of “modern muzak,” those AI-generated productivity playlists with names like “Peaceful Hideaway” and “Focus Flow.” Suarez isn’t against playlisting — in her book she even suggests looping a single song if you notice that it helps you calm down or focus — but she does advocate for choice, especially because absolute silence is virtually unattainable. Yet the pursuit of it has become a kind of luxury item that can be purchased.
But even in a busy city, you can still decide what you want to hear. Suarez acknowledges that wearing headphones during a commute or in an office is often about protecting your energy, but suggests occasionally swapping them for earplugs, or going without them when on a jog. And as the world opens back up, she also recommends leveraging our changed sonic routines, taking audio recordings instead of (or in addition to) photos of a new environment. “Ask yourself, ‘What did this city sound like? What did this park sound like? How did I feel when I was there?’ You can keep these and try to replicate this in your city, or you can make a playlist out of it for when you need to channel that feeling.”
In her book “Transcendent Waves,” Lavender Suarez poses some questions to inspire a shift in how you hear:
1. What is a sound that you miss hearing that is no longer in your life?
2. What does your favorite museum or gallery sound like?
3. What sounds distract you regularly?
4. Are there any recurring sounds in your dreams?
5. Where can you go to find tranquility?
Anupa Mistry Writer
Anupa Mistry is a writer and producer from Toronto.
Robert Beatty Illustrator
Robert Beatty is an artist and musician based in Lexington, Kentucky.