One night several years ago I woke up with a pounding heart, a dizzy head, and I was having trouble breathing. I was admitted to the ICU at Stanford Medical Center, where after a stay of several hours, and many tests, I was diagnosed with a type of arrhythmia called Supraventricular Tachycardia (SVT). Needless to say this was a shock, and when it happened a second, and then a third time, I became concerned about my long term health. It affected my daily life. Anytime I would feel a chest pain during the day, I’d wonder if it was something to do with my condition. I also found myself unwilling to go quite as hard on runs or bike rides, worried that I might trigger another episode.
About three years after being diagnosed, I happened to be talking to a homeopathic doctor, and I told him about my experience. He asked me a lot of questions and when he was done he told me “You don’t have SVT. You were having a panic attack.”
I was dumbfounded. I’d heard of panic attacks, but never paid the term much attention. I certainly didn’t assume it meant suffering through a frenzied assault of thoughts and feelings that could mean only one thing: you are about to die. What you feel when you realize you’ve misplaced your cellphone or keys in a crowded bar is what I might call a panic attack. What you feel when you believe you are going into cardiac arrest isn’t the same thing at all. It’s like telling your wife you’ve just been out for a “gentle run through the park” when in fact you and your mate Sébastien Foucan were risking life and limb engaging in extreme parkour across highrise rooftops.
But that’s the thing about labels. They can be deceiving.
After I left the doctor’s office, I spent several hours researching what a panic attack is, and how it feels. And what I read fitted perfectly with what I’d experienced. It can be one of the most terrifying experiences you’ll ever have. And it has nothing to do with misplacing your belongings in a bar.
The good news was that the doctor also explained to me how to maintain control next time I had an attack. Through mindful breathing I would be able to break the adrenal feedback loop that drives a panic attack. So when I felt the onset of another attack not long after I saw him, I followed my breathing practice, and sure enough I controlled the attack until it had abated.
Ten years later and I have never had another attack.
A couple of years ago, I took a course in sound for film. It was a fascinating experience. I took John Travolta and Uma Thurman and re-imagined them in Casablanca, and completed a final assignment to create an entire soundtrack for a sequence. Along the way, one of our assignments was to create a soundscape. Wikipedia defines a soundscape as: an audio recording or performance of sounds that create the sensation of experiencing a particular acoustic environment. I decided I wanted to sonify a panic attack. But I needed to go further than this definition by not only incorporating the sounds of the particular acoustic environment – voices, a heart beat, ambulance and hospital ambiance – but fear itself.
To do this I took an audio recording of a scream and time-stretched it out over three minutes. As part of our coursework, we’d been studying the blur between noise and music (organized sound), and here suddenly I experienced it for myself. It was amazing. What I initially thought of as a kind of “stretched and blurred noise” blossomed with repeated listening into a harmonious texture animated by shifting tones continuously moving in and out of different musical intervals. It was like staring at a photo for an hour and suddenly seeing some detail that had been there all along. Where there had been dissonance, now there was harmony.
The time-stretching created artifacts in the audio like a chorus effect, making the single voice sound more like a haunting choir in a kind of Ligeti fashion. The scream became the spine for the track, with all the other sounds of the acoustic environment arranged around it. And when it was done, I was pleased to find that the soundscape rendered for me a sense of what it was like during those terrifying moments.
Noise, sound, and music can all be limiting perspectives on what is, at its simplest, just changes in air pressure measured by our eardrums. My encounter with the homeopathic doctor freed me from the restraints of a limiting diagnosis. In the same way, creating this soundscape freed me from my previously limited definition of what music is, allowing me to explore entirely new approaches to composition.
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