“Was there a bowl on my head at one point?” I ask El Larson.
“I put one really close to your throat,” she answers. “I was holding one over your throat and then, at the end, I walked around with one of them. How do you feel?”
“Good,” I answer before putting on my glasses. Larson suggests I drink some water, as one would after a massage.
I'm sitting on the floor of Larson's small studio inside her home in the Pasadena foothills. My previously blindfolded eyes are gradually adjusting to the late morning light of a typically bright California summer day. For the past 40 minutes, Larson has been demonstrating her sound-bath techniques on me. It starts with the chimes of a bell and moves into an improvised score that Larson created with a selection of Himalayan singing bowls and modular synths. I couldn't see anything, so I listened carefully to echoes and drones and felt the reverberations of the instruments running through my body.
Larson is a sound practitioner and recording artist who swathes listeners with vibrations. She creates sound baths, experiences where the singing bowls are used to envelope a room with resonant sound, for individuals and groups. Sound baths often are associated with meditative practices and thought to have healing properties. The best-known place to get one in Southern California is the Integratron out in the desert town of Landers, near Joshua Tree, but numerous sound-bath practitioners operate throughout Los Angeles as well.
As Larson demonstrated her skills on me, I zoomed in on the sounds and let my imagination run wild. There was a moment, when the rumbling came close to my ear, when I thought of a swarm of bees and flashed back to a bee scene in one of Matthew Barney's Cremaster Cycle films. Maybe that's not what you're supposed to do in one of these sessions, but I can't get away from sound as art, not just as a form of therapy.
Later on, I listen to my audio recording of my session with Larson and note the differences between what I heard in the moment and what I hear on the playback. On my laptop, Larson's work sounds like the eerie score of a film — minimal and, at times, a bit reminiscent of John Carpenter. It's good to play in the background when I'm focused on meeting a deadline. In the room with Larson, though, it felt like the sound was seeping through my skin, hitting everything from my toes to the bones in my face. It was similar to the difference between listening to techno on my phone versus inside a club with a killer sound system. Through my earbuds, it's good music to keep up momentum, but it doesn't force me to move the way it does when the bass is rushing from the soles of my feet up through my legs.
The first time I met Larson, she had brought her bowls to the Getty for an event coinciding with the “Cave Temples of Dunhuang” exhibition. The night before our interview, she accompanied performance artist Millie Brown with gong and bowls at a BMW showroom in Beverly Hills. On Sept. 16, she will release Contemplations, a collection of ambient music, under the artist name heare, which is also the name of her yoga and sound-bath business.
“People ask what my music sounds like,” she says. “I like to make bowel-clearing drones and fairy music.”
As shorthand, people often refer to the kind of instruments Larson uses as Tibetan bowls, but she explains that Himalayan bowls is a more accurate term. Her personal collection comes from Bhutan, Nepal and Tibet, and she estimates that they're at least a century old. She tells me that she used one of the smaller bowls on my throat, as well as a bell. She used a Make Noise synth module known as the Telharmonic to play a drone and another module to play a melody. However, the instruments she uses and the tones she brings into the sound bath vary according to the situation. She has to read the room, take her cues from the listener's body language and consider things like the time of day as she conjures up noises. If that sounds a lot like DJing, well, it is.
Larson actually started out as a DJ and went by the stage name Elizabitch when she played in Minneapolis. Then she moved to London for two years, where she worked behind-the-scenes at famed club/label Fabric and DJed at other parties and bars. (“I never played at Fabric,” she says. “That would be super glamorous to say that I did, but I didn't.”) Eventually, she headed to Southern California, first San Diego and then L.A.
Right around the time she moved to Los Angeles, Larson traveled to India and had a sound revelation. She visited some Buddhist caves with small sleeping areas carved into the bottom of them. When she was there, her tour guide suggested that she say something. “I was bathed in sound,” she recalls.
She returned from the trip with a passion for re-creating that aural moment. When she settled into a Koreatown apartment, she tried to build her sound system to emulate the caves. She put together a surround-sound system with a subwoofer and a ButtKicker amp to bump up the low end.
In L.A., Larson taught yoga, but business slowed after the economy crashed, so she got a job in branding. A few years later, she decided she had enough of the branding world and decided to combine her love of sound with her interest in yoga and Buddhism by studying Himalayan bowls with an instructor in Encinitas.
As we talk, Larson and I get on the subject of sound systems. She's the sort of person who would rearrange other people's speakers to improve their at-home listening experience. That's what she's doing in the sound baths, too. It's not about the volume but the sensation that the sounds elicit when they hit you.
“People think that louder is better,” she says. “More experiential is better.”
Liz Ohanesian writes about DJ culture, electronic music and other subjects for L.A. Weekly. Her work also has appeared in Playboy, Noisey, Village Voice and a number of other publications. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook.