Sound to let your mind and spirit drift

Harold DuckettArts 865, West Knox

The first thing that caught my attention was the picture of the four didjeridus, the exotic instrument partially made by termites burrowing through eucalyptus tree trunks in the Australian desert, first developed by the Yolngu, the indigenous Australian aboriginal peoples, by using smoldering sticks to burn a consistent opening the full length of the trunk.

The second thing was the name Kennedy OneSelf, the very interesting combination musician-spiritual healer who conducted a spiritual healing session at Shanti Yoga Haven in Bearden Saturday night.

Kennedy OneSelf arranges his Tibetan singing bowls before beginning his sound-healing meditation session. The Celtic bodhran drum is on a stand.

Certainly, everyone who connects to music knows that music has unique powers to communicate to the human spirit in ways that influence the body. Music therapy is now a widely recognized, degreed medical-music profession. The Knoxville Symphony’s Music and Wellness program, begun by former KSO music director Lucas Richman, provides live performances of music in healthcare settings that promote the healing process and benefit patients, visitors and healthcare staff – not to mention the benefit to the musicians themselves.

OneSelf describes himself as a college-dropout singer-songwriter. While in college in Flagstaff, Ariz., he discovered that a didgeridoo (the spelling commonly used in Europe and America) could be made from the large flower stalks of desert agave plants using the same techniques the Yolngu used, minus the head start from termites. The relatively soft core of the agave made burning through it and shaping a sound channel relatively easy.

As an instrument, the didgeridoo is in the class of instruments called aerophones, along with trumpets, trombones, tubas and the big alpenhorn, which is similar to the didgeridoo. They are played by pushing air through one’s lips, causing them to buzz. By varying the air pressure, the firmness or looseness of the lips, the size of the air chamber in the mouth, the size of the airway through the lips, using the tongue to shape the air flow and getting the diaphragm involved, a range of sounds can be produced by a didgeridoo, even though it does not have any valves or keys the way brass instruments do.

After dropping out of college to pursue his music full time, OneSelf initially supported himself as a street musician and playing small performance venues. After someone stole both of his guitars, he turned to agave didgeridoos as his instrument of choice. While perfecting his playing, which requires a special breathing technique musicians call “circular breathing,” a woman friend put the open end of his didgeridoo up against her chest. She was both delighted and startled by the way the vibration of the sound waves made her feel.

That sent OneSelf on a new path of exploring how his instrument could be used to promote serenity and healing. Before long he had organized his approach into what he calls Soul Medicine Vibrations, conducted through meditation and music-healing sessions. Along the way he acquired other instruments that have long been used around the world for spiritual and meditation practices, including Tibetan singing bowls, a Chinese guzheng, a collection of flutes – drone flute, Indian bansuri and Native American flute – and several different gongs; a bodhran, Celtic frame drum; a Shruti box, a kind of harmonium with limited pitch capabilities; a rav vast, a convex pan drum the opposite shape to a steel pan drum; a kalimba, small African thumb piano; and a collection of didgeridoos of widely different pitch ranges.

“Healing is wanting something to be different than it actually is,” said OneSelf as he began his session at Shanti’s studio after everyone found a comfortable place lying on the floor or sitting in chairs.

“Relax into the moment. Listen to these sounds and relax into them. Think about where the breath is.  Watch how it feels as you slowly breathe in and breathe out. Come to the sensation of being in this moment,” OneSelf said softly as he began to play his instruments.

He had tuned each of the string instruments to pitches that were slightly sharp, 443 hertz, which gives pitches a lightly brighter sound than the conventional Western music 440 hertz. He tuned his monochord, a flat instrument with 20-30 or more strings of the same length, which he built himself, to the same A pitch for two-thirds of the strings. The rest were tuned to slightly sharp D.

OneSelf’s collection of didgeridoos is in the foreground, a large bodhran drum on the left, monochord on the right, with Chinese guzheng beyond.

All of his instruments had been selected for their associated pitches instead of typical Western even temperament tuning. The majority of them were in the range of A and D, but there were also E, F sharp, G and B singing bowls, along with other pitches. His largest didgeridoo produced an amazingly low pitch at 27.5 hertz, equal to the lowest note on the bottom end of the piano, which is just about the human hearing threshold of 20 hertz. I followed the frequency ranges of the pitches with the surprisingly accurate frequency app on my iPhone, which I’ve checked against a professional Korg OT-120 Orchestral Tuner.

As OneSelf played single or combinations of instruments, sometimes with the drone of the Shruti box in the background, using his foot to operate the bellows and often also using his voice in soft humming sounds, the sound, at first, seemed to fill the entire room. Then as I settled deeper into it, the sound formed volumetric masses that rotated and changed shapes in space as different instruments entered and left.

It was, indeed, a transformative experience that at moments had the sense of floating inside the sound cloud, a weightless, bodiless sensation. When OneSelf added a shallow, sealed bead cylinder and slowly tilted it one way, then another, the steel beads created the sound of an ocean tide washing in and out, with the soft drone of the Shruti box, or the monochord, or the guzheng, maybe the low hum of a gong singing beneath, or tinkling chimes above it. At moments, gentle melody emerged as he played the small kalimba.

Then the sound stopped. Silence became a kind of shape of its own.

“Taking a moment just to notice the breath and notice the silence,” OneSelf almost whispered. “Noticing that if there is a sense of peace in us, not the presence of the sounds, but the sense of our own breath. Begin to make small movements with just your fingers, then your hands, slowly making the transition back.”

OneSelf is not a didjeridoo virtuoso, on the level of William Barton, the Aboriginal Australian for whom Australian composers Peter Sculthorpe and Matthew Hindson have written classical orchestral concertos. Nor on the level of Wu Man, the classically trained Chinese pipa and guzheng master who plays classical Chinese music, world music and jazz. His approach to all of his instruments is to create a sound space that speaks directly to the body and soul.

More about OneSelf, including his upcoming Didgeridoo Vibration Immersion May 3-5 near Asheville, N.C., where participants can learn to make and play their own agave didgeridoo, can be found at his website and by calling 828-365-8677. More about Shanti Yoga Haven can be found here or by calling 865-621-5301.

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