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Better Living

Echoes in the Mojave

The power of sound.

Words by Camille Anais Semprez
Images courtesy of The Integratron

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Integratron dome at dusk photographed by Carl Rice.

Last Thursday, I lay in my bed, chin tilted forward towards my computer screen, a silhouette in irreverent but most contemporary geometry, and stared “up” at the wood-ribbed dome of the Integratron. This was my first sound bath. It did not involve getting wet nor squeezing into any tight spaces (like my first sweat lodge during my 9th summer somewhere in Montana), but I was surprised at how bodily the experience was. Imperceptible to the eye, yet all-enveloping, a soak in these frequencies quickly lulled me into pleasant sedation. Even through headphones, though of course, this is a recent adaptation of the experience for the restrictive times. The Integratron, for those unfamiliar, is a Mojave Desert structure with a rich history of summoning invisible forces. I spoke with one of its keepers, Joanne Karl, just a few days later about the strange and wonderful happenings there, past and present.

Interior dome of the Integratron structure photographed by @away2travel.

Interior dome of the Integratron structure photographed by @away2travel.

Joanne tells me how she and her sisters flew from New York City to Los Angeles, some 30 years ago, and made their way to Landers, California to visit the then-abandoned structure with nothing but a tip from a friend and some map coordinates. The Integratron, they would learn, was built by George Van Tussel, a former aviation engineer, in the 1950s. It’s said the unusual design was inspired by biblical tabernacles, the work of Nikola Tesla and a visit from a Venutian extra-terrestrial. The sisters who bought the structure a few decades later decided to open it up to the public in part because, in the “dial-up universe”, this felt like a way to quench their thirst for more information about its builder and his original plans. While Van Tussel may have relied on the generosity of spacemen, Joanne speaks of the “conspiracy of grace” to describe the way in which the Integratron’s rehabilitation was made possible through serendipitous circumstances and encounters.

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Left: Karl Sisters
Right: Archived image of the dome under construction.

In the late fifties into the 70s, “abductees'' would flock to the Integratron and the nearby Giant Rock for UFOs conventions led by Van Tussell. After Van Tussel’s death, those activities lost wind. The desert cathedral was put on the map again with TV hosts featuring it on their travel shows, including a visit from the incandescent Anthony Bourdain. What at first were tours, soon became experiential visits centered around the healing power of sound and the Integratron’s unique acoustics. With the help of another friend and sound researcher, the sisters purchased their first crystal bowls “in some Dungeons & Dragons type shop” back in the city. Joanne reports that the effects of the bowls' vibrations are observable and repeatable - “like dropping your neurons into a nice soapy hot bath”. A way for deep relaxation, that is beneficial in both big and small ways.

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Crystal sound bowls used during a sound healing. Image from @miyaelaine.

Sound is seen here as a holistic approach to relaxation and wellness. An ancient practice, from Tibetan singing bowls to didgeridoos, vibrations and sound have long been used to achieve transcendental states. Joanne tells me sound baths have helped some visitors reduce the daily anxieties, wean off social media, have more body awareness, even quit smoking. Much like music, the vibrations can be mood-enhancing, and the benefits enjoyed long after departing the desert realm. It is something to integrate into a wellness regiment, she suggests, equating it to “nutrition for your nervous system”.

 “A delicious soup of people” have come to visit the Integratron to observe and experience its particular soundscape. Before recently mandated closures, they were receiving a thousand visitors a week. Another chance encounter, this time between Joan’s sister and her neighbor Luke - a sound engineer who happened to be free after the cancelation of Coachella this past year – encouraged the keepers to export these happenings beyond the dome’s walls. Though Joanne assures me the experience is magnified within, Luke helped them individually mic each of the twelve crystal bowls – allowing them to hold outdoor (when weather permits) and online sound baths. Though they hope to open up to small private groups soon (“summer maybe, we don’t know, we never know”), the novelty of these different new offerings hasn’t slowed down reservations.

Van Tussell had had a vision of life-prolonging forces generated through the Integratron. In their own way, the sisters have inherited that mission. Their methods and resources are earthlier than their predecessor: beyond the sound, of course, I get the sense that community and warmth are key ingredients in the Integratron’s success. It’s a family-run business, with a new generation now leading ceremonies along with their mothers. It appears word of mouth and return-visitors have made the Integratron’s success possible, beyond what they had ever expected. “We couldn’t have wished for this” says Joanne, who calls me “my love” throughout our conversation, and yet she has the type of optimism that is contagious.  She describes the journey since finding the Integratron as a kind of magic, “like in the Wizard of Oz” (her favorite movie): things went from black and white to color, with these hues getting more vivid every day. Since our conversation, maintaining an open mind and an open heart are the take-aways that still ring in my ears. May “the conspiracy of grace” be as kind to us, loves.

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Entry into the Integratron structure before taking the ladder up into the sound dome. Image from @sonyacoke


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About Camille Anais Semprez

Camille is a French-American writer, creative producer, script consultant, and director. An unbaptized only child of "Bible Belt", she made her way back to Paris 15 years ago to study film theory at the Sorbonne and work as an agent/producer for short-format content. She has very recently moved into an adobe in New Mexico, which she affectionately calls her "mud palace", where she continues to work freelance.

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