Great music it’s not, nor does it claim to be. A medieval astronomer would undoubtedly conclude that it was the music of the spheres. Williamson says the aim is not to take the listener over, but to help them “float free”. “We don’t see our music as mesmeric, like gamelan. We see it as a catalyst, non-intrusive sound.”
Having grown up in the Sixties under the twin influences of cool jazz and Sibelius, Williamson spent the Seventies dabbling on the fringes of the rock business. His particular obsession was with ambient sound. He watched Brian Eno playing the same piece of music in a wide variety of locations, and noted the variations in how it sounded. He listened to the recordings Paul Horn made, playing his flute inside the Taj Mahal. “The dome made a natural 13-second reverb unit,” says Williamson wide-eyed at the memory. He was inspired to get his own reverb unit.
“I built up a studio, and found ways of creating a collection of sounds which seemed a suitable palette to paint from musically. Experimenting with reverberation, I found I could create the illusion of any space I wanted.” Space – or the illusion of it – seems for some reason to be a crucial element in the pleasure we get from listening to music. “The link between the production of sound and its reception by the ear is tremendously important, and absolutely governs the way you play.” His constant aim was to generate sounds he “felt comfortable with”.
BBC producers who knew what he was up to had periodically pressed his music into service – everything from ecology reports to the diaries of Anaïs Nin – but the turning-point came when he recorded an album with a couple of friends, and released it himself. Having kept his distance from the New Age brigade, he finally gave in and joined them. “They had similar problems to ours in getting their music aired.”
Gradually health centres, dental surgeries, and therapists of all sorts began to use his tapes. He investigated other forms of sound therapy, and gleaned ideas. “I had the chance to try the vibro-acoustic bed, which is used to reduce the tension in spasticity. You feel the lowest frequencies in your heels and as the pitch rises you feel it progressively higher in your body. You can pin down, through your body’s perception, where the frequencies are.” As it happens, the percussionist Evelyn Glennie, who is profoundly deaf, talks of perceiving music in precisely these terms. She “listens” with the speakers pressed against her stomach or her neck.
There is something curiously modest about Williamson’s crusade; emptying his music of anything unexpected, anything which smacks of logic or the will, any stress or urgency, creating a sound-world no more “interesting” than a lava lamp. But this is a game as old as the hills. Film composers are adept at it. There are jazz players, rock singers, and composers galore – though they might not thank you for saying so – who could fit the bill. Gorecki? Gavin Bryars? Michael Nyman would have to be excluded: he’s boring enough, but communicates an unsleeping urgency. Supermarket muzak designed to stimulate the acquisitive urge, would likewise not qualify. Gregorian chant, on the other hand, would do fine.
“Classical music for relaxation” is already a record industry marketing concept. Williamson’s long-term hope is that your average GP, when faced with a patient suffering from stress, may one day prescribe not pills but a relaxation tape. Well, quite: it could make him as rich as Croesus. But it’s a thought worth thinking. Throw away that valium, and listen to some music instead. Or better still, make your own music. Join a choir, dig out that guitar, pick up a recorder. It won’t do any harm.
Reproduced by kind permission of Michael Church. © Michael Church, 1995.
Originally published in the Independent newspaper, 15th January 1995