What makes a work of art truly transcendent? Is it an exhibition of mastery, or an abundance of mystery? Is it the presence of genius, or the aura of the transpersonal brought about by the artist’s transparency?
And what does it really mean to teach? Is the great teacher filled with wisdom and the skills of communication, or are they empty but for intention? How would you compare the representation of the moon by a painter’s hand to a still pond’s reflection?
In the year 2021 at the Fair Market venue in Austin, Texas, and on the autumnal equinox, I attended An Equinox Immersion in Sound hosted by Aubrey Marcus featuring a ceremonial concert performance with musical producers East Forest and Jon Hopkins. In 2019, East Forest released the highly lauded Music for Mushrooms album, a five hour sonic journey crafted to accompany, support, and accentuate a psilocybin mushroom journey. At this equinox event, Jon Hopkins was debuting his own psychedelic-assisted album, Music for Psychedelic Therapy.
It must be said that the title of Jon’s new album is, at first glance, presumptive and banal. And yet, dear reader, as I will do my best to convey, it is the perfect title. Just think of Leonardo da Vinci deciding to name the Mona Lisa Person. And yet, perhaps, a better title would simply be Psychedelic Therapy, because this experience is not so simple as to be called music—nor can it even be called art. It is something much, much more.
The Fair Market venue was idyllically crafted for a sonic ceremony such as this. The stage was small and central in a large flat room, surrounded by concentric circles of electric candles and yoga mats for the attendees. After Aubrey led a beautiful intention setting and breathwork exercise, the stage was taken by East Forest.
Being new to East Forest’s music, my first impression was “Man, this guy really loves Ram Dass.” Nearly every song included prodigious Ram Dass samples, paired with beautiful vocal and keyboard loops, field recordings of crickets and coyotes, and many other luscious, harmonic sounds. Think “Sigur Dass.”
It is not exactly right to call East Forest’s work music, or at least, it certainly isn’t just that. He bookended his set with the accoutrements of ceremony and satsang. Sharing of gratitude. Intention setting. Sharing of spiritual principles. Explication on the deeper meaning of the equinox. A partner wandering amidst the audience with chimes and scents. And through the course of his performance, a unifying thread of Ram Dass’ teachings and insights, masterfully woven into his multi-layered sonic tapestries.
Let’s take a moment here to talk about Ram Dass, and East Forest’s sampling. As my brothers and sisters and otherkins who love electronic music surely know, roughly 8 in 10 electronic music tracks released in the last ten years include Alan Watts samples. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but this is not that. It is not some spiritual fluff inserted right before the drop.
My impression was that East Forest’s music was crafted around Ram Dass’ message, which shares equal if not greater footing in the grander scheme. Ram Dass, the child of the 1930’s, colleague of Leary and Metzner. Ram Dass, who chose the earnest pursuit of the Oneness of psychedelics, while Leary pursued the Revolution and Metzner the Science. Ram Dass, who shed his Richard Alpert identity and joined the lineage of the great Indian guru Neem Karoli Baba and the ancient practices of bhakti yoga and seva.
In Buddhism and Jainism, the Sanskrit word dharma refers to the sacred teachings of Buddha (the enlightened one) and the Jinas (the enlightened ones), respectively. East Forest is as much a ceremonial leader and spiritual teacher (or spiritual teaching amplifier) as he is a musician. And so his performance of sharing his dharma with our eclectic sangha was rightly suited to this ceremonial concert performance, and the perfect preamble to the reality-shattering experience that would come next.
The Tao te Ching is the essential text of Taoism, and is held in sacred esteem by many Eastern philosophical and religious traditions. The first line of this exquisitely deep and perplexing text is translated roughly as “The Way that can be spoken of is not the eternal Way.” Or, as one of the great lovers of this text Terence McKenna once said: “There is a transcendental dimension beyond language… It’s just hard as hell to talk about!”
Why do I bring this up? Dear reader, do not doubt me, for this concept is essential in understanding and not at all comprehending the futile exercise I am about to partake in. Hang on…
At the conclusion of a short intermission after East Forest’s set, on the autumnal equinox of the year 2021, the participants gathered at the Fair Market venue in east Austin were shepherded back into the main hall and directed back to their comfy yoga mats. Some laid down, some sat upright in lotus positions, some stretched, some burnt sage, and as the next hour unfolded, some—including myself—softly wept.
Lying there, with eyes closed, the music began.
A tone. Then water. Not just any water. Great cacophonous rushing, swirling, splashing, flowing water. I’d never heard anything like it before. I was IN the water, and the water was my universe. I would later learn that this audiophile-quality water sound was captured from a pilgrimage to Cueva de los Tayos (Cave of the Oilbirds) in Ecuador, as were the other field recordings of nature used in the album. On this equinox evening, the sounds of a cave within a rainforest just south of our planet’s equator in the country of Ecuador filled my ears and my awareness until I was completely submerged. The journey had begun.
Dear reader, from here you must accept my sincere apologies. It would be too long and too wrong of me to describe what happened next as a play-by-play. You must experience it for yourself. Instead I will do my best to throw words into the void, and paint as honest a picture as I can of the gestalt of this sonic masterpiece and the impression that it left on me. Like a classical psychedelic experience, it left me both speechless and gushing with poetry. It has evoked and revealed so much to me. And typically, I’m sure to go on feeble descriptive rants about it for a long time to everyone I know, like a fresh initiate after their first night in the maloka.
After the water came the Earth. Caves. Mountains. And later, Space, or the inner Earth. Infused throughout were the undulating sounds of Nature. Elements and insects. Vastness beyond comprehension. It was a journey in the truest sense, woven with the brush of pure emotion that is sound. Oh, the sound! A thousand layers of tones, echoes, waves, and self-transformations. An almost absurd level of audio fidelity and intricacy. It was obliterating and empowering. The abyss and the featherbed. A glittering mirror. A gentle tsunami.
It was alive. It was surging. Tectonic shifts, intimidating and then gentle, nurturing and safe. It was being held by the mountain, the endless forest, the cave, the riverbed, and the galaxy, while they hid nothing about their vastness and intricacy. It was the transcendental object at the end of time concrescing the arpeggios of the hero’s journey into an hour of sound. It was the soundtrack to apotheosis.
And, my God, the perfection. The fidelity. Not just in sound, but in Truth. It did not depict or reflect the transcendent experience, it was itself transcendence manifested as vibration. An artifact. A future fossil. Universal. Beyond language. Beyond even representation. Something beyond art, beyond gesture. Not a facsimile of a thing, nor an ode to a thing, but the thing itself.
It was not psychedelic. It was not even psychedelic music. It was a psychedelic substance, subtle and aural rather than gross. It was the condensed drama and triumph of the human condition, and the lattice of panpsychism on which it all appears. It was the surging, visceral, awesome power of life itself.
It was a story, in the way that a lunar eclipse is a story. The force behind it is Nature, not Jon Hopkins—though he should be lauded as the finest human instrument for this task, who through a period of uncanny openness has allowed something far greater than himself, far greater than creativity, far greater than even art, to birth through his fingers and ears. He has brought an incredible gift to mankind. He has found a new species of medicinal plant, and a rare psychedelic one at that. He is as Albert Hofmann, and has just synthesized LSD, lucid sonic dreaming.
Attending this event at essentially baseline consciousness (plus the natural elevation of shared ceremonial intention), I found that I had great agency within this transcendent space. With focus, I could hone into the sounds and feel the immediacy of the entire universe collapsing into the felt Now. Then, with a thought, I could step back and take in the surroundings of the sonic space. Like a professional psychonaut interior designer, I inspected the walls, the floors, the tapestries, the everflowing everpulsing refractions. I have a critical eye and ear, and it was perfect. It was truly it: the fractal structure, the force of Nature, the harmonics, the twists, the turns, the birth canals, the breakthroughs, the helpers, it was all there. No effervescent sparkle or transdimensional shift was out of place. It was like I was coming home to every psychedelic experience I’ve had in my life. This was truly it. I surrendered, and wept.
At the end, after a moment of homecoming too profound to describe, something changed. All of a sudden, Ram Dass was back. We had made it to the final track in the album, Sit Around The Fire, featuring East Forest. The transcendent and universal journey of sound had landed back into the denser realms of language. At first, I found it jarring. I wanted to go back! But I let Ram Dass’ words and the soft sonic tapestry that these two producers wove bring me back to baseline. It’s a lovely track, but it is not in the same category or even universe as what came before. It is the integration circle after the ceremony, and while it can’t be said to be part of the peak experience, it holds an important place.
After the final notes faded into silence and the awestruck attendees came back to default reality, a short question and answer session began between Aubrey, Jon and East Forest. I was surprised to learn it was ketamine Jon used as his portal to refine this masterwork. Ketamine, which I have historically judged, and never used, helped craft the penultimate sonic medicine journey. I can only conclude that the varieties of psychedelic experience are like color-tinted glasses of the same inner landscape. They all refract different patterns and grant unique hues, but the place is the same, for it is the seat of the Self.
I was also so pleased to see that as Jon was describing his experience of creating the album, he was sweet and humble, without ego. Of course he was. Nectar does not come from a stone. He spoke of the birth of this cathedral of sound in a flabbergasted way— it was something that came through, all he had to do was show up, open up, get out of the way, and round the edges. Of course he was like that. How else could Nature move through anyone that tried to improve a lotus flower, or embellish a mountain peak? Bravo to you Jon, bravo, channel of all channels.
So what is it, this creation that was more impactful than my first and only 5-MeO-DMT experience? Music for Psychedelic Therapy is not so simple as a piece of music or a work of art. It is a standing wave of life force that captures the mythopoetic reality of human existence in the three-dimensional cones of sound waves. It may be a reinvention of the lost ancient art of sound healing. Of one thing I am sure: It is not a description of a thing, it is the thing itself. It is the Way.
After the question and answer session was over and we all emerged from our yoga mat portals, I had a chance to be introduced to Jon. I said to him “Do you know what you’ve done?” He laughed.
For those who wish to experience this album on your own, I will leave you with a simple pentatonic set of flight instructions. Approach with reverence, and surrender. Do not operate vehicles or heavy machinery while listening. Set intentions and create an experience of ceremony around this masterpiece. Make it as loud as is comfortable, and on the highest quality sound system or headphones you have available. Connect with your body and let this sonic medicine, this transcendent tonal tonic, enter, engulf, and embrace you.