Based between Berlin and San Francisco, Soundworks’ history is deeply rooted in the clubbing scene: the team is made up of techno producers, performers, and―interestingly―neuroscientists, all united by a fierce belief that “the quality of our attention underpins our very notion of reality and influences every aspect of how we think, feel and communicate.”
But what is the connection between electronic music and meditation? Soundworks founder Quentin Notte explains that for his team and many app users, electronic music culture plays a central role in the journey towards personal self-discovery, connection to a community, and well-being. In particular, ambient performances they attended—some by artists they then invited to participate in Soundworks—felt deeply communal and meditative. With a new audio-focused meditation app, Soundworks opened a space of contemplative immersion in sound that, they felt, deserved to be amplified in contemporary culture, where the massive inflow of visual media, constant notifications and distractions, and an increasing sense of disconnection from each other have become the norm.
The Soundworks app includes a new daily sound every day as well as courses, extended sessions, and conversations. Courses touch upon scientific, artistic, or philosophical themes with a contemplative spirit. In conversations, they involve artists, scientists, or thinkers to discuss meditation, science, music, and health. Past contributors include techno producer Seth Horvitz, a.k.a. Rrose, with whom they developed an exclusive experimental listening course released last October, Grand River, and Richard Chartier, who they involved as part of their event at MUTEK Montreal last September, and most recently. Vril, who designed an extended composition inspired by subconscious memory formation and retrieval processes in the brain. Soundworks also partnered with the Spatial Sound Institute (SSI) and 4DSOUND to bring meditative pieces from the SSI’s catalog to the app this February.
To get to know more about this small team of artists, designers, technologists, and scientists, the app’s founder Quentin Notte offers a deeper insight into the genesis of the project, the renewed role of listening, mindful listening practices, and their future projects.
Let’s talk a bit about the genesis of the Soundworks project. You mentioned that your team has emerged from the alternative and techno music scenes. Can you tell us more about how it all began?
I think I can say it really began at two alternative techno events we attended in 2019: No Way Back in Detroit and Sustain-Release in Upstate New York. Both curated excellent lineups on their respective ambient stages and a lot of care was put on creating intimate spaces where one could come and have a pure experience of listening. A few of the performances, including by artists Rrose and Antenes, were mesmerizing and deeply introspective experiences, in which we felt completely immersed in the fabric of sound. It opened a sort of experiential plane of calm and discovery, where time stretched out and the usual sense of urge and directionality had vanished. Great experimental ambient, with its emphasis on highly crafted sound design, has this unique ability to expand your notion of what is sonically possible and, as a result, to kind of shock you into pure presence as a listener.
How did all these experiences inform and shape Soundworks?
While there are many ways to experience sound communally―whether it is at a forward-thinking club, a concert, or a festival―it felt like a digital space to cultivate and expand our ability to listen mindfully was missing. In particular, we wanted to pursue a specific kind of sonic aesthetic that goes beyond the clichés associated with meditation music, and really push the boundaries. We wanted to be science-oriented but fully artist-centric, as we believe music is a human creative endeavor that our current robots and algorithms deeply suck at. And more than just selecting or creating sounds with artists, we wanted to ask ourselves fundamental questions with a like-minded community: what does it mean to listen? How does our auditory mind works? How can listening influence our health and well-being? So the medium of an app, however imperfect, felt like it was the most appropriate. It is readily available in everyone’s pocket, but it also allows us to guide our users through various thematic planes or levels of experience. It also lets our community easily provide feedback and influence the direction of the app and its content.
Living in an era of ever-increasing information competition digitally, where do you see the role of sound nowadays?
It feels like there is so much noise around us, both visually and sonically, and it invades our physical as much as our digital spaces. It’s a race to the bottom: everyone has an incentive to be louder and louder, while as a society we all pay the price for this saturation of our attentional resources. Virtually everyone suffers from varying degrees of attention deficiency and anxiety at this point, and there is a growing scientific body of knowledge that suggests our media diets are indeed making us sick. To me, there is an even more immediate argument to make: this barrage of voices competing for our attention makes life extremely boring.
Compare the communal sonic immersion you can have at Berghain to flipping through your IG feed. Being fully present to your experience, in a club or at home, is just unambiguously more fun, more rewarding and it’s bound to make you happier. There are many ways to develop a more mindful presence in our lives, many methods, teachers, apps, and whatnot. For those of us who have a particularly strong auditory sensitivity and an intimate and creative relationship with the music they love, sound should play a central role. Mindfulness does not have to be only about sitting cross-legged and focusing on your breath. Going to the club or to a concert, listening to the soundscape of a forest on weekends, or listening mindfully to music can all be mindfulness-based practices.
How does Soundworks tackle this issue?
Our mission is ultimately to help people reconnect with and sharpen their listening sense, and use it as a gateway to mindfulness in their everyday lives. We think of Soundworks as a resource for our users to engage in a process of self-discovery around sound and to develop a sustained mindful listening practice.
One of our central efforts has been to develop a rigorous methodology to meditate on sound, which is now laid out step by step with practical exercises in the three Fundamentals courses we propose in the app. We designed our most popular feature, the Daily Sound, as an opinionated ephemeral experience, where listeners can avoid choice paralysis and are invited instead to focus on observing what comes up as they are listening. Our commitment to nuance is also visual: we deliberately chose to eliminate all clutter and give the app a simple, minimalistic design.
What are your thoughts and vision with Soundworks on the impact of mindful listening practices on our health and well-being?
Mindful listening is a specific type of mindfulness-based practice, and a consensus has emerged in the scientific world around a string of benefits for mindfulness: increased mental clarity, attention, and focus, but it can also have positive effects on anxiety, sleep, creativity, even leadership. I think there is a particular dimension to listening that makes it a rare and necessary skill in today’s world where dialog has become increasingly difficult. By becoming better interpersonal listeners, we become better friends, better partners, better family members. And I’m convinced that communicating more compassionately and intelligently at a societal level can only help us in solving the growing social, political, and environmental challenges we are facing.
You’ve collaborated with Rrose, Grand River, and Richard Chartier among others. Can you tell more about the way you work with artists to create original meditative sound compositions?
It varies for each of our projects, but we usually start with a theme. For instance, our MUTEK event was focused on the neuroscience of attention and the course we developed with Rrose was about psychoacoustics. We then establish a creative brief that can be loose or specific, depending on the artist―some artists like clear goals, others prefer to keep their creative process more open-ended. Over time, we’ve also developed internal guidelines around tonal balance, modulations, timing and arrangement, spatiality, stereo field, instrumentation, textures, etc. that we have found work well for mindful listening. Those are inspired by principles connected with the neuroscience of attention and perception, but in the end, the artist always has the last word. We spend a lot of time listening to and meditating on the pieces, and we then usually need one or two rounds of feedback with the artist to converge towards the final result. On the partnership side, given we’re artist-centric, it was essential for us to address the growing sense of unease around artist rights and the ridiculously low royalty rates of streaming platforms. So half of our subscription income goes straight to the artists, the other half we use to develop and curate the platform and its content.
German techno artist, Vril crafted Memory, a contemplative musical journey for your app that’s coming out this month. Can you tell us more about this particular project?
I’ve known Ulli for a while and he has been very supportive of the Soundworks project, so I am grateful we were able to create something new together. Like many techno artists, ambient experimentation is an important part of his creative process and musical output. There is something in his music that feels at the same time distant and intimate, at the edge of consciousness. He is masterful at creating subtle tonal cues hidden under dense, almost sandy textures. It feels like the music allegorically draws a tenuous thread to an emotional memory through the veil of time. We started from this idea and he developed the piece from there.
You had an event at MUTEK Montreal last September with Richard Chartier and Grand River. How do these app-dedicated compositions translate into an event?
MUTEK’s mission to promote digital creativity and its visionary curation made it a natural partner for us. The idea of the event was to bring together artists and neuroscientists to discuss the neural mechanisms of attention and explore the question of what sonic compositions are best suited for the practice of mindful listening. We asked Grand River and Richard Chartier to experiment and create a ten-minute mindful listening experience based on that neuroscientific brief in their respective musical aesthetic. Richard’s sound composition made use of spatial cues, pulsation, and texture, while Grand River’s had an intimate, nostalgic, and analog feel. It was amazing to see these two great artists come up with wildly different―yet perfectly on point―interventions based on the same brief.
This February, you also partnered with the SSI and 4DSOUND to bring some of the pieces of your catalog to the app. Tell us more about this collaboration and how you plan to develop this project?
The mission of 4DSOUND and the Spatial Sound Institute is also hugely aligned with that of Soundworks. Since its opening in 2015, the SSI has been inviting artists to explore the medium of spatial sound and create pieces in their 4DSOUND studio in Budapest. Over the years, they have accumulated a pretty amazing catalog of works that can only be performed in that space, so the idea of our collaboration was to make them more widely available through the app. We had to solve a number of technical challenges to turn these 64-channel audio recordings into conventional stereo without losing the spatial resolution of the pieces. I think the result is there and these experiences are special and unique, which is what we strive for on every project we work on.
Finally, what can we expect from Soundworks in the future?
I can’t say too much as I want to keep it a surprise! (laughs) We are working on new Extended Sessions (our long-form meditative journeys) with artists we are very excited to present in Soundworks. We’re also developing new Daily Sounds, new courses including a listening course for artists and a course on auditory perception, and new exciting conversations.
Check out the Soundworks app.