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Sonic Explorations in the Study of Religion

Panel Chair: Rosalind I.J. Hackett | Friday, August 28, 9-11 a.m. | Venue

The modern-day study of religion has benefitted from a number of ‘turns’ each destined to provide new analytical purchase on the dynamics of religion. One area that remains neglected despite the uptick in material and multi-sensory studies of religion is that of sound. This panel features four scholars whose research is centered on the category of sound in all its performed, perceived, and imagined complexity. Drawing on their work on jazz improvisation in the United States, popular music in Brazil, the sonic agency of electronic music, or technologically mediated listening practices, they explore concepts deriving from the burgeoning multidisciplinary field of sound studies, such as soundscape, acousmatic listening, embodiment, sonification, improvisation, and reverberation. Taken together, they make the case that thinking with and through sound can advance new understandings of the making, experiencing, and transmission of the religious and spiritual in local and global contexts.

Jason Bivins

The Tao of Mad Phat: Jazz, Meditation, and Improvising on the Body

This paper will explore improvisation as a practice of religious self-cultivation, embodiment and transformation. Focused on jazz traditions, I attend specifically to the generation of "peak experiences" in collective improvisation, avowed by performers as moments when the human body becomes a "vessel" or a "receptacle" for divine energy and will. I analyze these experiences in three separate fashions: 1) as the posited outcomes of meditative practices, 2) states of egolessness, and 3) means of transforming or even ascending beyond the limits of the body. Analysis of these expressions reveals not only complex forms of religious embodiment in musical practice, but an opening to new considerations of religious presence, affect, and ritual. Musicians considered include: Dennis Gonzalez, Steve Lacy, Myra Melford, William Parker, and Ivo Perelman.

Martijn Oosterbaan

Sounding the Religious City

As a number of writers confirm sound and religion are often ignored in our conceptions of the modern urban fabric (Arkette 2004; Atkinson 2007; Lanz 2013). Though highlighting the idea of an ‘urban sonic ecology’ - ‘a permeable, modulating, fleeting and occasionally persistent soundscape within and across different social and physical sectors of the city’ – Atkinson, for instance, limits his analysis of sound in the city to work and leisure. This is remarkable because in many cities around the world conflicts about urban sounds are strongly related to religious experiences and boundaries. This paper on evangelical sonic interventions in Rio de Janeiro Brazil attempts to bring back sound and religion into our conceptualizations of contemporary societies by means of a postsecular critique. Ideally, such a critique lays bare some of the normative structures that tend to push sound and religion to the side and thus creates space for its presence.

Marian Caulfield

'Acousmatic listening': Philosophical Investigations of Sound and Technology within the Study of Religions

In this paper, I introduce potentially useful theoretical concepts to describe how sounds, received and interacted with in isolation i.e. iPods, video game playing, social media sharing, etc., whilst realizing a solitary, transcendental, ineffable way for the listener to 'be', can at the same time, support a 'virtual' social experience. I begin by investigating the term 'acousmatic listening'. Introduced by French composer and pioneer of musique concrète, Pierre Schaeffer, it describes an experience of hearing sounds with no visible causes. This, married with an exploration of Marx’s idea of ‘phantasmagoria’, described as the production of something reified and 'Godlike’ through forgotten or hidden technical processes, may offer interesting methodological pathways to explain the above dichotomy. With Bourdieu's ideas of 'epistemological rupture' applied to the study of sound in the study of religions, I propose possible methods of multidisciplinary investigation that may allow these ideas to be approached from several angles.

Rosalind I.J. Hackett

Making the Invisible Audible: The Sonic Mysticism of Ambient and Space Music

All sound is mediated, but the development of digital acoustic and auditory technologies over the last few decades has expanded the opportunities for sounding and listening practices exponentially. In this paper I argue that the genre of electroacoustic/electronic music, particularly of the ambient and ‘space’ varieties, is productive for understanding the agency of sound in shaping the experiences and practice of religion. The ethereal, immersive, and meditative soundscapes (cf. David Toop’s Ocean of Sound 1995), generated by groundbreaking radio programs such as Hearts of Space and supported by websites such as Sounds True, invite new understandings of spatiality and religious praxis (cf. Umberto Eco’s notion of the ‘open work’ [1989]) and a non-dichotomous interpretation of the material and the spiritual (Cobussen 2008). The ambiguity and ineffability of this electronic music are generative of what composer Kristina Wolfe terms ‘sonic mysticism’ (2014).


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