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VINCE HILL: Recording Ripples Of Change

Interview | Artist By Debbie Poyser & Derek Johnson
Published May 1998

VINCE HILL: Recording Ripples Of Change

Most of us are aware that sticking on a favourite CD can cheer you up after a terrible day, but many baulk at the concept that music can actually help to heal your mind and body, despite the growing evidence to support this theory. Debbie Poyser & Derek Johnson investigate, and meet a man whose music is composed with the intention of making you feel a whole lot better...

If you're reading this magazine you already have a head start in knowing about the power of music. As a musician, you're almost certainly aware of the therapeutic effects of both creating it and listening to it. And even if they never think of music as being all that significant, countless millions of people acknowledge its importance every day, as they tune in to the pop charts on the radio, relax with some Mozart or Mendelssohn, crush into a loud and sweaty dance club, or just sing in the bath. These days it's largely a form of entertainment, and most of us are not aware that until medieval times music was composed and performed at least as often for its healing properties as for its entertainment value — some medieval physicians were actually required to study it during their medical training. Even now, in more 'primitive' cultures, music remains an essential part of healing rituals, and those who still practice music as medicine are aware of its profound effects on the physical body. Musical tones have been used to treat disorders such as rheumatism, and kidney and gallstones can be dispersed with sound alone. Music therapists have reported that when music with a pulse of 50‑80bpm is played to people, their heart rates and breathing cycles respond by moving towards synchronisation with the music, a process known as 'entrainment'. It's been observed that individuals with handicaps that normally cause them to experience great difficulty when performing sequential tasks can do these tasks much more easily when accompanied by music.

Music can also be used as a powerful tool in the treatment of depression and sleep disorders, and shows potential as a pain‑relieving agent — many dentists have realised that playing you soothing classical music while you're in the chair can not only help reduce your anxiety, but may also help you cope better with any pain.

You're probably unaware of all this background, but every time you've ever put on a record to cheer yourself up you've practised music therapy. And if you want to take it further, there are racks of specially‑recorded tapes and CDs amongst the healing crystals and limited‑edition sword and sorcery sculptures at your local hippy emporium. Needless to say, much of this material is little more than pleasant new‑age wallpaper — but some of it is based on genuine therapeutic principles and psychological and physiological research. Vincent Hill, who has just released a therapeutic CD called Ripples Of Change, on his own TAO‑MM (The Art Of Mental Massage) label, is a man who knows about both sides of the equation — the music and the therapy. The music came first.

In The Beginning

VINCE HILL: Recording Ripples Of Change

"I got started off when I was about 18, working in music stores, when synths were really beginning, pre‑MIDI, about 1976. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time, as things began to develop. In the main, it was marketing and as a product manager. I've always been involved in product analysis and design. I've worked for Rose‑Morris, Korg in Japan and then Akai, Siel and Elka. When Korg became bigger, I went to work for Korg in Japan as world marketing manager. There was then a period of freelance work as MIDI came on line, working with Akai's original S612 and S900, doing all the beta‑testing and sorting out their first sound libraries. I always did artist liaison as well, and endorsements. I enjoyed the work passionately."

But Vince's life took a different direction when he was diagnosed as suffering from a mouth tumour, which resulted in five years in and out of hospital. With such a serious illness, he found himself examining his future: "I had a choice in the early '80s, around the time I left Korg and went into hospital. It was the first time I'd been in hospital for that period of time and it was a big re‑evaluation of my life. I became a Samaritan — I'd always done youth work — and I had the option to either go into that counselling and psychotherapy field then, in the early '80s, or go back into business. But there was a mortgage, two kids... So I went back into business. I started Syndromic Music [one of the first retailers to understand the importance of MIDI and computers alongside more traditional studio technology] in about 1985, and the following year picked up the UK distribution of Hybrid Arts software. I enjoyed the technical hotlining, and the support. I saw myself as a kind of musical Samaritan! It always gave me great pleasure.

"Then, during the recession, I went bankrupt. When you go back to the late '80s and early '90s, a lot of people did go to the wall, basically because of the level of technology at the time. We were very reliant on an American manufacturer who decided to go into hard disk recording at a time, eight years ago, when it wasn't right."

The time was wrong for hard disk recording, but right for Vince to finally do what he had been drawn to all those years before: "I did about four years of part‑time training, and I'm now a qualified therapist. I practice for two days a week in London."

Vince's therapy training embraced a system called 'Psychosynthesis': "It's a kind of 'fourth force' therapy. It was developed in 1910 by the first guy to take psychoanalysis to Italy, Roberto Assagioli. It honours a person's holistic nature — not just their body or their mind, but also their feelings, spirituality and higher consciousness. If you don't allow somebody to have some sort of spiritual nature or soul — or whatever you want to call it — you're not seeing all of them. When people go into crisis, a lot of times they're having a spiritual crisis, a crisis of meaning in their life. It's not just about their personality, it's about something bigger than that. Psychosynthesis has roots in kaballa and buddhism; it uses gestalt, it uses imagery, and so on. You can find something in it that's unique for every individual."

Lost In Music

VINCE HILL: Recording Ripples Of Change

Having found, in Psychosynthesis, an "eclectic and inclusive" framework for his therapeutic practice, Vince began exploring how he could bring the other strand of his life — music — into his work: "I wanted to find something where I could continue to experiment, hence bringing in the music. I've always been interested in altered states of consciousness. How I got to those states is a different matter! I don't want to go into that too much, but like many people, I've experimented. One of the main ways of experimentation was flotation tank work, restricted environmental therapy. I did this for a number of years, and still do from time to time, because it allows you to really focus on problem‑solving, on healing your inner ailments. It always fascinated me to wonder, through focused meditation and float work, how you could achieve different levels of consciousness naturally, without having to take anything. So I kept looking at this and reading all about it.

"I began to feel that music could be used for the same purpose. I've listened to a lot of tapes over the years, tapes for self‑esteem and assertion and this kind of thing. They use quite nice background floaty music, and there's someone doing subliminal messages or just telling a story or whatever, which is quite nice. In many ways, they're good, and they can work, but somehow they never seem to have a lasting effect. They're sort of an instant fix — you get quite a good night's sleep, you're buzzy for a week, then somehow you've got to keep doing it or it just doesn't seem to get into the system. I wanted to find something that really worked, devise something that was incredibly restful. The whole idea of deep meditation and trance is that the body does slow down and it does begin to repair itself, just as in the last part of sleep in the night.

"I was beginning to link certain ideas together that allowed music to be used in a therapeutic way. I played the results of my experiments in a number of situations, with groups and individuals, and basically people became timeless — they lost half an hour of their lives — but they came out of it rested and relaxed, and so intrigued by what they had actually 'seen' inside. It was important for me to test it out in a number of group situations with much more experienced therapists and supervisors, so I've tested it in a bigger way with hundreds of people.

"I've used this material with many groups and individuals, but people can use it by themselves. I have a couple of sheets that I give out, with specific exercises that they can try. It's being used in experimental work with people who have suffered coronaries or high stress, and in psychiatric situations. A certain NHS trust wants to use it in cancer care. It might also give people in the latter situation a feeling of control — that they're actually doing something. I think that's really important. If you have a life‑threatening illness, you can begin to lose the will. Not the will to live, but just that day‑to‑day will of fun, and you look at dying rather than living. I don't know if it works, but I believe it could. I think the main thing is that it can't do any harm, and the worst it'll do is give someone a really good night's sleep."

The Principles

VINCE HILL: Recording Ripples Of Change

Vince's own information sheet about the Ripples Of Change project refers to the principles he used when constructing the music. The first principle relies on entrainment to bring down the heart and pulse rate of the listener. The tempo of the CD's three long tracks gradually reduces, eventually reaching around 50bpm. The final track on the CD, 'Ripples Of Change', has another trick up its sleeve too: "It was timed quite specifically; there's a variety of samples there, but the deep bass sample is a recording of a heartbeat. I can't reveal exactly what we did to it, but there was a lot of filtering of the sound, and it's timed throughout to actually slow down, very gradually, so that you're actually sync'ing the body to another rhythm. Ultimately most people go to around 50, possibly 48bpm."

The use of musical patterns was also important: "Part of music therapy is the idea of looking at how you can get the brain to be very familiar with a pattern, so that it begains to relax and the mind stops — not stops completely, but shuts off the constant voices, the constant 'working out'. The first two tracks are intended to get you relaxed — that's the general idea of using reducing tempo, and repetitive cycles, normally based on 19‑, 17‑ and 15‑bar structures, so that they never repeat in the same way. These are timed within the pulse of the heartbeat, and then sounds like Tibetan singing bowls come in at different places. These weren't timed as such — every time I kept listening to it I would find myself falling asleep, so bringing in those sounds was intended to keep the frequencies moving."

The final working principle for the CD was that of 'overload'. Vince explains: "The main idea is a standard technique in audio‑hypnotic therapy, called hypno‑peripheral assimilation, and it tells us that the brain can only take in nine messages, maximum, at any moment in time. After that, you get a sensory overload, so if you have, say, 13 to 15 different sounds or structures happening at any moment, the brain can't handle that and so basically begins to shut down — not on an auditory basis or a stimulation basis, but on a sort of bodily basis. You begin to lose sensation and the capacity to be rational.

"On some of the tapes that people have done using similar ideas, they use marked stories. You're told one story in one ear and one story in the other ear, and then they swap over in the stereo image. As the phrases swap over, the end of the last phrase and the beginning of the new one are marked. If you listen to the music your subconscious is still taking in the messages, and if you listen to one story you're still listening to the music and taking in the other story. It's quite clever: whatever you do consciously, in the end somehow the subconsious is still taking in all the messages. I wanted to do the same thing with music, but I didn't want to use any subliminals. It was purely about getting people to a place where they could breathe deeply.

"I suppose I believe quite fully in slipstreams of consciousness, altered states. You drink to get drunk, or you smoke a spliff and get stoned. Lots of people can't get drunk, or can't get stoned, but if they understand the slipstream that gets them to that feeling, they can achieve it the next time, and the next time. So the more you meditate, or the more you float, or whatever, the more those neural passageways connect, so you can get there quicker and without actually having to take anything. I believe people can get just as stoned by feeling and thinking about getting stoned — they don't have to take anything to do it. The level of consciousness, the ramp down there, still exists."

Creating a music therapy tool such as this, which deliberately sets out to evoke physical and psychological effects, necessitated more than just intuition: there was research to be done first. "I referred to many books on mind‑altering substances, many books on different states of trance, and some of the publications from within floating. With these esoteric things you can't necessarily prove that there's any substance to them, but the thing about floating is that because it's a standard environment every single time — though people do have different experiences — a lot of research has been done; people have been wired up to study the effects on the brain. So there were a couple of books, particularly a definitive book on floating, that offered ideas about not only how flotation could be used, but also on how the brain responds once you begin to shut down in a flotation tank. You lose consciousness in the sense of your awareness of the body and your thoughts. You have no auditory input, you have no visual input, so you're just left with — whatever is left!

"The actual research was a mixture of a lot of reading and a lot of playing. First, working with the guy who helped engineer and produce the CD, Chris Parsons, we produced a project called Heartbeat 1 and 2. These were hour‑long tapes for aromatherapists and body workers. You've got an hour session, so the music takes you down in 10 minutes, keeps you at a plateau while they're working on you, then brings you back up. It works in conjunction with the therapy. I produced many, many tapes, with different methods and ideas, before I thought 'this is the closest I've ever been able to get.'"

The Recording

The music that became the Ripples Of Change release was originally recorded using the Hybrid Arts SMPTETrack sequencing software, running on an Atari ST computer. As you'd expect from the former owner of Hybrid Arts UK, Vince was very familiar with this once‑leading program. "I liked the way Hybrid Arts worked. It was... horizontal. You didn't have to bother about setting up this or that — you just played. It was basically a tape recorder, but then you could edit afterwards."

The sound‑producing setup used in the initial recording was minimal, centred mainly around an Akai S3000 sampler, though Vince also used a Roland MKS80 analogue rack synth. "Mainly I like playing sampled sounds — on the last two tracks especially it was all about the range of natural sounds. I went through dozens and dozens of sample libraries choosing temple bells and singing bowls, kotos, whatever, firstly to get the kind of sounds that I like, and secondly because I think music is a jigsaw puzzle and it's lovely to be able to find a way of connecting the sounds — like drawing pictures. Then, when Chris Parsons and I went into the studio [Elms MIDI Studio in East London], we used the same structure and the same basic sampled sounds, but enhanced them with synth sounds. On track 1 we added an Emu piano module and Chris rearranged the strings so that there was double bass, cello, viola and violin, and I like the mood on that. And we used synths such as the Korg 03R/W, and an M1 sound for the guitar. There was very little in the way of external effects. Mostly we used the delays on the S3000, the Lexicon LXP1 and an Alesis Quadraverb. I think that only came into use for the wind chimes, to give some sparkle."

The CD features some nice ethnic samples that are pretty much unique to Vince: "I'm fortunate, having worked at Akai with their library, that I have a huge range of samples, and a lot that never went out into the market. I would say that the majority were Akai samples, though I did make some of my own. For example, on 'Ripples', about the fourth cycle in, there's a little children's lullaby, and that was from my children's hippopotamus toy, that plays a tune. It's a subliminal thing about childhood, because everyone hears that lullaby at some time in their childhood."

When the recordings were complete, a process which apparently took some 750 hours, spread over several months, the CD material was transferred to Digidesign's Pro Tools, at Platon Studios in Hadley Wood, for editing. Vince and his collaborators at this point were relatively inexperienced in using hard disk technology and decided to use Ripples Of Change "as a project to help us understand hard disk. We used Pro Tools, but because the tracks were so long we couldn't get large enough drives to fit them on. By the time you bounce a track and do an image track, you can use up 2 or 3Gb so quickly. How do you keep the tracks, how do you store them? We started off using the Jaz drive and the transfers were not good, but now Digidesign have a special driver for the Jaz and in the end I was quite happy with it. We spent a long time just learning the software, and it was being upgraded from time to time. We then put it into Masterlist. We needed to edit mainly to bring tracks in and fade them out in the best possible way. On the end of most of the tracks, the last two particularly, the thunder and lightning and the temple bells which are going off into the distance, and the same thing with the last of the church bells, you can hear the compressor opening and closing as it gets so quiet, and I know that if you put it onto a standard hi‑fi or even headphones you're not going to notice it, but when you're hearing it in close‑up monitoring, it's there and so we really wanted to try and tidy it the best we could. If I'm going to let something out I want it to be as good as it can be. It was an interesting exercise."

Into The Ether

Now that Ripples is complete and packaged, Vince is about to start the process of getting it to a wider audience, for use by other therapists, or just individuals in search of relaxation music. No formal distribution has yet been tied down, but Vince is looking at various marketing possibilities: "It's a mix of things at the moment. We've been doing direct sales to body therapists, and that's slowly beginning to be quite successful. Next we'll go to another set of aromatherapists and masseurs, it's being reviewed in Kindred Spirits [a prominent new age magazine], and I've been sending it to new age and ambient labels — not so much for them to take up, but mainly for distribution. I don't really want to be involved in the business part of it; the main thing was to do the best I could with the project, put it out into the ether and see what came back."

Further Reading

If you want to explore this field further you'll have to prepared for a certain amount of rather peripheral and non‑practical literature dealing with such things as auras, chakras and chanting. However, useful details can be gleaned even from this type of publication. The books listed below are some of the better ones we found on the subject of the healing uses of music, though the first one listed is less about making your own music than using existing music as therapy on yourself.

  • The Tao of Music: Using Music to Change your Life, by John M Ortiz (Newleaf/Gill & McMillan, 1997). ISBN 0 7171 2726 5.
  • Sounding the Inner Landscape: Music As Medicine, by Kay Gardner. (Element Books, 1997). ISBN 1 85230 973 3.
  • Music Physician for Times to Come, an anthology edited by Don Campbell (Quest Books 1991). ISBN 0 8356 0668 6.
  • Through Music to the Self, by Peter Michael Hamel (Element Books 1991). ISBN 1 85230 136 8.
  • Healing Sounds: The Power of Harmonics, by Jonathan Goldman (Element Books 1992). ISBN 1 85230 314 X.

Ripples of Change costs £14.99 including P&P and insurance (within the UK) from TAO‑MM Records, Bankhouse Farm, Lower Tadmarton, Banbury, Oxon OX15 5SS. Tel/Fax: 01295 780261.