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Serene Sounds In The City: How Ambient Music Is Bringing Angelenos Tranquility

Nailah Hunter plays a harp at the Storrier Stearns Japanese Garden. There's a mic in front of her and a the greenery from a bush is in blurred focus.
Nailah Hunter at the Storrier Stearns Japanese Garden
(Adam Pracher
/
Courtesy Floating)
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4:23
Music And Soundscapes Bring Tranquility to LA

On a gray weekday morning at the Vintage Synthesizer Museum in Highland Park, Lance Hill criss-crossed the space, carefully waking up his sound machines.

Dozens of classic synthesizers stacked floor to ceiling and hundreds of glossy white keys called out for a player. A rainbow of patch cables streamed in and out of bulky modular synths with blinking LEDs.

“We’ve made a vintage synthesizer soundbath,” Hill said after 10 minutes or so of tuning and tinkering with Moog, Korg, Roland and Yamaha synthesizers.

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There were no guests in the space, but once a month, dozens line the floor like indoor campers, with blankets and pillows, basking in the soundscapes Hill creates for them.

Hill said it’s fulfilling to see people leave the monthly sessions having experienced the power of this type of music.

“The therapeutic benefits of music are self-evident to me. This does clear my mind. It makes my life better,” Hill said.

Lance Hill plays a vintage synthesizer at the Vintage Synth Museum in Highland Park
Lance Hill at the Vintage Synth Museum
(Robert Garrova
/
LAist)

That was especially true in 2016, back when Hill was living in Oakland and was coping with the devastation of the Ghost Ship fire that took the lives of 36 people in his community of artists and musicians. That’s when Hill first began using his synths to make live soundbaths, where the electronic instruments arpeggiate and randomly interact with each other.

“Who knows why these two things just made this crescendo in here? It’s almost like we’re doing this with spirits... and that’s what I wanted to project upon it at the time,” Hill recalled.

Hill isn’t alone in his reverence for this kind of music experience. Ambient, atmospheric, sound bath, minimal, soundscape... whatever you want to call it, seemingly every week in L.A., you can find at least one of these contemplative sonic gatherings.

Many of them take place outdoors: from the hills of Malibu to Altadena to performances in Debs and Griffith Park.

Jeremiah Chiu performed a few months back in Elysian Park, with his modular synth setup on the grass beneath a tree.

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For Chiu, these performances in nature can feel like a bit of an antidote for the stress that living in L.A. can bring.

Jeremiah Chiu sits with his modular synthesizer, an electronic musical instrument with orange, blue and green patch cables running in and out of it.
Jeremiah Chiu
(Courtesy Elizabeth Weinberg)

“There’s no doubt that these shared experiences are also a balm for the time,” Chiu said. “They allow us to be together in a safe space, in an open community that feels very welcoming.”

Oleg Stavitsky, CEO of German-based company Endel, helped develop the Endel app, which uses heart rate, time of day and the weather to generate live soundscapes meant to help users focus and chill out.

Stavitsky said he sees a hunger for ambient soundscapes like never before.

“I think the reason this is happening is because of how crazy the world is, and it’s only getting crazier by the minute,” Stavitsky told LAist. “And sound is the easiest way to control your environment, it’s the most efficient way to change the way you feel.”

Inglewood-based musician Nailah Hunter uses harp, synths and other instruments to create soundscapes that swell and fade.

Where to Catch Ambient / Soundscape / Atmospheric Music in LA
    • Floating puts on a weekly outdoor arts series in and around LA. Check out their Instagram or website for upcoming schedule.
    • The Vintage Synth Museum hosts soundbaths monthly. The next one is Nov. 13. Check out their Instagram or website for upcoming schedule.
    • LA-based Leaving Records regularly hosts outdoor events. Check out their Instagram for more info.

She’s performed live several times in recent months as part of the outdoor arts series Floating.

“This music that I’m making is meant for calming and introspection, it doesn’t slap as hard inside, but then when you’re outside at one of those events, you’re actually seeing people laying down on their backs,” Hunter said.

Hunter said she’s perfectly fine if an audience member tells her she lulled them to sleep with her music.

“It’s exactly what I wanted,” she said. “To be in that ultimate stillness, that true peace that it brings.”

Members of the audience at a Floating event at Storrier Stearns Japanese Garden sit and recline on the floor as the sun shines through the trees overhead.
The audience at a Floating event at Storrier Stearns Japanese Garden
(Adam Pracher
/
Courtesy Floating)

Floating founder Brian Schopfel said the arts series originated in part because he felt like the in-person experience with sound had become too impersonal at big music festivals and some club shows where the focus is more on the next beer than the actual performance.

Since summer of 2021 when they put on their first show, Schopfel and Floating Creative Director Noah Klein have put on some 150 events in the series.

Later this month, Klein and Schopfel will bring Floating to the Vasquez Rocks in Agua Dulce.

A photo of musician Nailah Hunter. She sits amongst green and brown colored plants.
Nailah Hunter
(Courtesy Claudia Gödke)

“It’s the first time that there’s been music there since 1997,” Klein said. “We keep a really healthy list of environments that we would love to work with at some point and Vasquez Rocks has been very high on that list since the start,” he added.

Hunter, who’s slated to play the Vasquez Rocks event on Oct. 23, said it feels like she started to see more ambient music performances sprouting up during the recent political turmoil. And they’ve continued to flourish in L.A. as the pandemic pushed people out of booze soaked clubs and onto the grass.

“It attracts people that want to heal,” said Hunter. “It’s about dropping out of your daily life for the single purpose of experiencing this music.”

What questions do you have about mental health in SoCal?
One of my goals on the mental health beat is to make the seemingly intractable mental health care system more navigable.