Navigating Wonderland With Jon Hopkins and Music for Psychedelic Therapy

Photo Credit: Steve Gullick 

Music can carry a psychedelic experience every which way.  It can evoke joy, heartbreak, or terror. It can cause you to dance, laugh, shake, or cry. It can bring you up into space or ground you back down to reality. It can open up the luminous rainbows of a commencing trip, or color the world with earthy greens and browns as you land down. 

When I first received a review copy of Music for Psychedelic Therapy, an album designed to accompany psychedelic journeys by acclaimed English electronic composer Jon Hopkins, I was seeking the latter: a way to land. It was September, and I was recovering from a seemingly never-ending iboga journey that began in January. 

After a transcendent flight through heaven back then, I’d fallen down the other side into a rabbit hole, conversing with invisible characters in my mind that spoke like Cheshire cats. For months, strange words and phrases, riddles and rhymes and paradoxes, were flooding into my brain from nowhere. I couldn’t find my way out of Wonderland. 

When people decide to listen to psychedelic-inspired music, Wonderland is often exactly where they want to go. Hopkins says his album — which was made without beats to create a unique piece of art — is intended to conjure metaphysical experiences. “I’d like to think it could induce a trance state,” he says. “It’s intended to guide you deeply into yourself so that you can get in there and resolve some things.” One listener told him that his nine-year-old son saw swirling colors as he heard it. Another said it helped her grieve and move past the death of her brother.

“There’s no situation I’ve encountered where music is more powerful than in the psychedelic space,” he adds. “It’s like you can create a whole universe.”

As I contemplated the power of music to induce altered mental states, a dilemma presented itself: to listen or not to listen? Listening, I knew, could take me deeper down the rabbit hole.

But as I lay on top of my white comforter, closed my eyes, and hit “play” on the first song “Welcome,” I was surprised to hear slow, graceful synths and calm waterfall sounds – not the kind of trippy tunes that show up when you search YouTube for mushroom-inspired music and the like. Next came pouring rain and chirping birds in the following three tracks — dubbed “Tayos Caves, Ecuador i,” “ii,” and “iii” — and strings full of angelic tremolo in “Love Flows Over Us in Prismatic Waves.”

The highlight of the album, though, was “Deep in the Glowing Heart,” which paints a portrait of heaven with an airy choir and mystical chimes laid over bustling orchestral sounds.

While I listened to these tracks, I had a feeling of being high up in a plane, the sun peaking in from the pillowy clouds through the windows. Yet even as I heard the simple sparkly piano in the appropriately titled “Ascending, Dawn Sky,” I had a comforting sense that I’d come back down shortly — and sure enough, it was followed by the high-pitched organs and deep soft hums of “Arriving.”

Part of the impetus for Hopkins to create the LP was to provide a continuous soundtrack to cover a whole psychedelic journey from beginning to end. “People have been building playlists for the time of the medicine — that’s six or seven hours, and that’s lots of energies coming into your experience,” he says. “I liked the idea of it being held in one specific album.”

To my relief, the album served not as a shovel that dug me down deeper into a rabbit hole, but a rope that gently descended until I could grab it, then helped lift me out.

The very last song, “Sit Around the Fire,” incorporates a talk by the late spiritual guru Ram Dass, whom Hopkins had met before he died. It’s the only track with words and serves as an “integration” piece for Hopkins, a way to make meaning of the rest of the album.

As Ram Dass repeated the phrase “quiet the mind, open the heart,” I wondered whether the iboga had been working on me in a roundabout way: it was adding noise to my mind to teach me how to quiet it, how to get back into my heart no matter what else was going on around it. And as I sat up and meditated to his talk about learning to love all beings, I realized that perhaps I’d ventured into Wonderland just to see how much beauty there was back home.

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HIGH NOTES: Listening to Dirtwire’s ‘Electric River’ on Mushrooms

Dirtwire photo by Mika Gurovich.

Over Thanksgiving break, I found myself with a friend in a San Francisco hotel room on a rainy day without any plans. I also found myself with a bag of cubensis mushrooms another friend of mine had just grown, as well as the Soundcloud link Dirtwire’s latest album, Electric River.

Dirtwire — consisting of trio Evan Fraser, David Satori, and Mark Reveley — describes itself as “an americana, bluegrass, blues, electronica, folk, world group from Oakland.” This album in particular was inspired by the band’s experimentation with psilocybin mushrooms. Its cover depicts Maria Sabina, a Mexican medicine woman who healed people using this increasingly popular psychedelic, and one of the tracks, “Sabina,” is even dedicated to her.

“We wanted to capture a name for that magic that is the psychedelic experience, and we decided on Electric River,” the band said in a press release. “We have been using psilocybin mushrooms as a tool to open ourselves to other dimensions of sounds and creativity since the first recording Dirtwire ever made. We feel it’s time to tell this story and are very excited to see that there is a change going on in the collective consciousness in terms of how we relate to plant medicine.”

My first impression of the album’s first song, “Talking Bird” featuring Mbilou and Aya, was that I thought I’d heard it before. What it reminded me of, I realized, was the Bwiti music from Gabon that’s used for iboga ceremonies. After looking further into it, I realized that’s because Mbilou — who’s playing the mongongo (“mouth bow”) — is part of the Bwiti tribe.

The next track, “Cannonball,” sounds like a completely different band (in part because it is just the usual Dirtwire members), giving off chill indie-rock vibes reminiscent of alt-J and incorporating harmonica, the one instrument that provides a constant thread throughout the album. In fact, each song sounds like it could be from a different artist, which is what makes the album appropriate for a mushroom trip. The music helped direct my friend and I through a variety of philosophical discussion topics, from the meaning of karma to the motivations of men’s rights activists to how goddamn pointless life feels sometimes.

Some of the songs have more obvious spiritual influences; “The Eagle and the Condor” ostensibly references an ancient Amazonian prophecy that society would split into two groups for 500 years starting in the 1490s, with the cerebral, masculine Eagles overpowering the intuitive, feminine Condors. The music sounds like two different energies in conversation, with voices warped as if blowing in the wind with these two birds.

The group’s blues influence is most evident in “Psyloon,” with its heavy harmonicas and irregular rhythms. String instruments feature heavily on this track, as well as “Ali,” while “Datura” paints a jungle scene with wind instruments. “Strength in One,” featuring Trevor Hall, is a catchy and inspirational track that conjures up Xavier Rudd, with lyrics like “if we gonna survive, better find a new way.”

The highlight of the album, though, is the hauntingly beautiful and hymn-like “Seem to Freeze” featuring Emma Lucia. It begins slow and gentle and then the rhythm picks up, building to a chorus you can’t help but sway to (especially if you’re on mushrooms). The mood of the trip hit its peak each time I heard Lucia’s breathy “ooh ay ay ay” and the enchanting chimes that follow.

Overall, Electric River represents all the beautiful and varied facets of psychedelic mushrooms, from their tribal origins to their vast modern musical influence. And best of all, that’s evident whether you yourself are tripping or not.

HIGH NOTES: Music Can Completely Alter the Course of a Trip

I’m in a living room overlooking the water in Vinkeveen, The Netherlands, surrounded by a dozen people tripping on ayahuasca, when the ceremony’s leader approaches my bed. “This song is for you,” she says. “I’m being guided to come to you.”

She sits down in front of me and looks into my eyes as Libby Roderick’s “How Could Anyone” plays:

How could anyone ever tell you
You were anything less than beautiful
How could anyone ever tell you
You were less than whole
How could anyone fail to notice
That your loving is a miracle
How deeply you’re connected to my soul

I’ve spent the past two ceremonies understanding the impact of my hypercritical parents’ words, and these are the exact words I need to counter them. Tears fill both our eyes as she says, “I’m crying for the same reason you are,” and we hug and cry and hug and cry.

Two months earlier, in the jungle of Yelapa, Mexico, I complain that I can’t feel the ayahuasca. “Focus on the chants,” the retreat’s leader advises. Three shamans chant strange sounds into the darkness as cartoons appear and disappear and warp and dance on the inside of my eyelids in tandem with the rhythm.

What the people in both The Netherlands and Mexico understood was that, whether through chants or pre-recorded songs, whether through tunes or lyrics, music can alter the course of a psychedelic journey.

The ancient tradition of chanting shamans exploits our brains’ affinity for repetition, says James Giordano, professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center. “A repetitive pattern can be grounding or evocative. Grounding can bring you to a continuous sort of neurological activity.”

The “inductive chant” in ayahuasca ceremonies intends to “put you in a trance-like, meditative state” to bring on the drug’s effects, while other chants may calm down a person in the midst of a difficult trip, he adds.

Music has the power to shape trips outside these ritualistic chants, and this isn’t specific to ayahuasca. “In aboriginal societies, music-making has often been closely linked to shamanic work: the medicine-man or priest is often also the musician,” says Mendel Kaelen, an Imperial College neuroscientist who studies therapeutic uses of music. “In our research, we have shown brain processes that music and psychedelics interact on to stimulate the imagination and intensify emotionality. In our therapeutic work, music is often described as a guide or even as a transportation vehicle that carries the listener to various places.”

This is why some designate “rescue songs” to play during bad trips, says Giordano. They find this helpful for the same reason a song we love might lift our spirits after a bad day. Whether it’s a tune we like, positive lyrics, or something we associate with pleasant memories, music alters our mood.

“Very often, you hear songs, and songs will stimulate your autobiographical memories: ‘Where was I when I heard this song? What does this song mean to me?’” says Giordano. The downside of this is that music you dislike or associate with bad memories can exacerbate a drug’s unpleasant effects.

Sometimes, the same music that uplifts you in your usual state of mind can also improve a trip. “There are a range of artists who have become excellent in creating music that help people feel calm, safe, and present in their body,” says Kaelen. “Ambient music was originally invented with this purpose in mind, but other styles – for example, calm neoclassical – can provide the same means.”

But this strategy can backfire if the music pushes down the emotions rising to the surface, rather than helping you work through them. If the song isn’t meaningful to you, it can detach you from your feelings.

“A common fallacy is to think that the best solution when someone is sad or fearful is to play happy, cheerful music,” says Kaelen. “In fact, this is likely to make it worse in most cases. At most, it may help temporarily avoid [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][the pain] but not provide a long-term solution.”

“The purpose in psychedelic therapy is to not move away from oneself but to come to greater understanding and compassion for oneself,” he explains. “Emotions carry meaning, and music can be an effective aid in tuning into these emotions constructively.”

Psychedelics can take us to places where distinctions of sight vs. sound, body vs. brain, and self vs. other vanish. I’d like to believe the folk wisdom that says even plants know this, and that ayahuasca itself guided the leader toward me during “How Could Anyone” on that magical winter night.[/fusion_builder_column][/fusion_builder_row][/fusion_builder_container]