Worden and MacMillan’s music will take you places

Music for Meditation Vol. 1

The Garden Club — Sunday. April 29 at 7 p.m.

Detail from the poster for the Music for Meditation Vol. 1 event.

A.J. Worden and Ian MacMillan are trying something different this Sunday, April 29. They will be presenting a two hour performance without beats, without melodies, without words. Using modular synthesizers and keyboards, they will create minimal ambient drone music in the new Garden Club space, upstairs at RADinc. The event, which begins at 7 p.m., is free.

Though meditation is in the title of the event, it is not associated with a particular tradition, such as Transcendental Meditation. It doesn’t even require listeners to meditate at all.

“It is not a group meditation. We expect that people will be having vastly different inner experiences simultaneously,” Worden and MacMillan said in an email. “There will be no leader, no spokesperson, no directions or instructions — just the two of us making sound.”

This is something new for Iowa City, though it represents the continuation of musical ideas from La Monte Young and Robert Rich: Creating a sonic environment lasting hours goes back to composer Young’s long concerts based on specific frequencies of sine waves; Rich’s sleep concerts are also precedents.

Planning for this concert grew out of a shared interest in the music of those artists. Worden and MacMillan said, “Their music was hypnotic, abstract, and often played in live settings for hours at a time.”

The use of music as a way to encourage reflection and meditation has an even longer tradition in religious practice. The chanting of Tibetan monks, the singing of religious music in Catholic convents and monasteries, the extended raga performances in Indian classical music, all seek to retune and redirect the listener’s — and the performer’s — mind into a calm meditative space.

Although the use of sound for religious practice has its root in doctrine and dogma, Worden and MacMillan have no specific belief to promote, except their belief as musicians in the effect that sound has on listeners.

“Music has the capability to transform people’s minds, to help them relax, to ‘take them places,’” they said.

A common idea in most meditative practices is to focus the mind on one thing — the breath, a spoken mantra, or a mental image — in order to find a mental space not concerned with the external world. This concert tests their idea that “ambient drones … may actually facilitate and support meditative states.”

They call this event an experiment, but it’s based on their own experience with sound as a meditative focus.

“Hearing even the slightest jump or jagged edge in the surrounding sound can snap you out of concentration and bring you back to where you were when you first began the session,” they said.


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But independent of the meditative aspects of this performance, this event promises to be a physical experience. Sustained drones interact with the air in the room and the people in it, setting up standing waves that reinforce and cancel each other. The people in the room vibrate along with the volume of air they’re breathing. Dwelling inside the sustained tone will have some effect, but it’s difficult to predict what that will be for any individual.

It goes without saying that music has a profound effect on people, emotionally and physically; otherwise they wouldn’t listen to it or attend concerts. If you ask anyone, they will say music makes them feel good, or feel different, or distracts them from their mundane surroundings. The ambient drones MacMillan and Worden will create this Sunday take away all the “jumps and edges” of traditional western music — melody, rhythm, words, the beginning and ending of songs — and enter the realm of pure experience.

“This really is an experiment of sorts, both for us and for anyone else who attends,” Worden and MacMillan said.

You may be transported into a different mental state, you may simply relax and and daydream or you may get insufferably bored and leave. But you can’t attend an event like this and not experience something different from your everyday life.

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