From the visual to the sonic

As the ARSP multimedia content producer, I create audio clips, collages, and essays from recordings gathered by the project’s student and staff researchers. In my editing, I try to tease out specific themes (such as food and drink in religious practice, and the presence of religion during protests, to name a couple). I also call attention to unexpected sounds, such as the roar of a landing plane during a Serbian Orthodox chapel blessing, or the rumble of idling semi-tractor trailers just outside of a travel center chapel.

However, my focus on religious sound is relatively new. My background is primarily in documentary photography. Since 2010, I have specialized in documenting faith and religion, and have used my camera to explore both formal religious rituals and the intersection of belief with life and culture. Before the ARSP, I had experience working with audio, but I still thought of it mostly as an accompaniment to visual media.

When I joined the ARSP team in 2015, I primarily thought of myself as a photographer who happened to carry a recorder. Now, though, I often see myself as a recordist who happens to carry a camera. Making this transition from imagery to sound – from visual to sonic documentation – has been a challenging process at times, but one that I have ultimately embraced. Sound, I’ve learned, has a rich capacity to cultivate both intimacy and empathy.

In the autumn of 2015, before Donald Trump came on the scene, an anti-Islam protest took place outside of the Noor Islamic Cultural Center in Dublin, Ohio. Only one protester showed up, but she carried multiple Islamophobic picket signs and shouted hateful things at the dozens of NICC supporters who attended.

 

 

When I arrived, I carried both my camera and recorder, intending to document the protest in multiple media. When I was photographing the protester, I noticed that I felt nothing, other than vague annoyance. However, as soon as I put down the camera and started recording audio – as soon as I actually began listening to what she was saying – my anger and frustration mounted. Suddenly, I was in a position similar to that of the Muslims standing around me, confronted by the woman’s uninformed opinions and hateful rhetoric. I could feel myself wanting to interject, to counter the false narratives she was espousing.

After the protest, I realized how much my camera had served as a barrier for me that afternoon, a way to separate myself and disengage from the situation. At certain moments, I had put a piece of metal and glass between me and an upsetting reality. The act of photographing, while it can be incredibly intimate, often creates distance. Photos themselves can also have a similar distancing effect on viewers. As moments that have been distilled and flattened, they may lose their impact when viewed repeatedly over time.

But sound is different. It confronts both the recordist and listener, demanding attention and reaction. It can be jarring or harsh, soothing or buoyant. But most of all, it is encompassing: There are few ways to shield against it. That afternoon outside the mosque, through my ears, I found myself confronted by America’s rising tide of xenophobia and Islamophobia – with no escape.

Paying attention to sound has important implications for researching religious groups and practices. Sound opens up new opportunities to understand traditions and issues we may normally only read about or view in the past tense. It puts us in the midst of communities, rather than keeping us at a distance, and invites us to engage with them in new ways.

As a further example, I once documented Eckankar, a religious community whose members chant HU – which they say is an ancient, monosyllabic word for God – in order to raise their consciousness. When I attended an Eckankar event where members sang a group HU song, I was asked not to take pictures, and could only record audio. Doing so encouraged me to focus on the characteristics of the song – the way disparate voices seemed to combine into a singular, undulating melody that filled the room with some sort of electric current. I could again feel myself relating to members of the community, feeling the same kind of energy that they try to harness in their practices.

 

I likely will always think of myself as a photographer in some capacity, and I continue to take my camera with me during fieldwork assignments. However, I do so knowing that audio can provide a rich complement to my images, helping animate them and provide a new layer of engagement and understanding.

ARSP Spring Pilot Sites

On October 20, the ARSP leadership team gathered at OSU for an all-day brainstorming session with our three pilot site coordinators. In Spring 2018, our project will be incorporated into university courses led by Christopher Cantwell, at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and Rachel M. Lindsey, at Saint Louis University, as well as a similar research project led by Kathryn McClymond, at Georgia State University.

Over the course of the day we discussed numerous aspects of managing the project from audio recording and editing to tagging and uploading materials into our archive. We shared experiences of incorporating digital humanities projects into our courses and considered  ways to standardize our procedures across multiple institutions and teaching contexts. At the end of the day, two OSU undergraduate researchers joined us for a Q & A about their work on the project, and provided suggestions as well as advice for future student researchers.

Next spring we will share the syllabi from the pilot project courses and blog post updates from the researchers at the pilot sites.  We are very excited about the expansion of the ARSP through these pilot sites and look forward to watching it grow!

Rachel Lindsey, Kathryn McClymond, Isaac Weiner, Amy DeRogatis, Chris Cantwell, Lauren Pond.

Second ARSP Advisory Board Meeting

On September 14-16, 2017, we were delighted to host our second ARSP advisory board meeting in Columbus, Ohio. The Ohio State and Michigan State leadership teams met together with five members of our advisory board: Vicki Brennan, Associate Professor of Religion, University of Vermont; Pamela Klassen, Professor of Religion, University of Toronto; Laura Kwerel, Senior Producer, Interfaith Voices; Ely Lyonblum, ethnomusicologist and Research Grants Officer, Faculty of Music, University of Toronto; and Kristen Mapes, Digital Humanities Coordinator, Michigan State University. Over a day and a half of productive conversation, we received constructive feedback on mockups of the ARSP website, discussed the ARSP’s broader intellectual objectives, wrestled with some of its key ethical challenges, and plotted next steps for further development and expansion. We also enjoyed good food, good drink, and good company!

The meeting left us energized and motivated to get back to work with a renewed sense of mission and purpose. We are grateful to all of our advisory board members for their time, energy, and insight. We are also grateful to the Henry Luce Foundation, OSU’s Center for the Study of Religion, and OSU’s Research Commons for providing funding and material support to make this meeting possible. We look forward to sharing publicly some of the products of our conversation when the ARSP website launches in spring 2018!

The ATL Maps Project and the ARSP

ARSP Advisory Board member and project co-originator, Kathryn McClymond, has a wonderful blog post up about her work with the ATL Maps project, in which she reflects on the value of sound mapping for studying and teaching about Atlanta’s religious diversity. We are excited about bringing our projects together in the near future. Stay tuned!

Singing HU

By Lauren Pond

 

In 2015, when I initially got involved in the American Religious Sounds Project (then the Religious Soundmap Project), my very first assignment was to attend an Eckankar seminar in Dublin, Ohio. Eckankar centers on the idea that humans are connected to God through a divine spirit, which can be “heard as sound and seen as light.” One of the cornerstones of Eckankar is the HU song, a chant that adherents say allows them to raise their consciousness and become closer to the divine.

Upon coordinating my visit to the Eckankar seminar, I learned that although I could record a group HU song, I would not be permitted to take photographs. Granted, the ARSP focuses on sound, but with my background in documentary photography, I was accustomed to telling visual stories, and I had anticipated at least being able to take a few contextualizing photographs to accompany my recordings. I became somewhat concerned: How was I going to tell a compelling story about Eckankar without a visual element?

However, my fears began to dissipate when I put on my headphones and started to record. Despite the fact that the HU song was just that, a song, it had almost a three-dimensional quality to it. About 50 disparate voices, all chanting “HU” at their own pace, combined to form an encompassing, undulating melody. Most people closed their eyes as they chanted, and I later learned that some had visualized colors or peaceful scenes. I, too, felt my mind drifting.

There was no need to photograph people chanting HU, I realized, and to do so would probably be a disservice to Eckankar. Sound served to help the mind wander, both visually and spiritually. Attempting to represent HU through imagery would flatten this experience.

What can we learn about religion if we begin by listening to it? This is one of the guiding questions of the American Religious Sounds Project. It only took one assignment for me to realize the importance of taking a sonic approach, and how this might help us understand religion in a more nuanced manner.

Nectar of the Gods

By Lauren Pond

For many Americans, mead is simply “honey wine,” a specialty alcoholic beverage to order at a growing number of boutique bars that have popped up across the country. However, for adherents to a pagan faith known as Asatru, the drink holds deeper significance.

Asatru, which first emerged in the United States in the 1970s, centers on the religious beliefs and practices of pre-Christian northern Europe, as described in ancient literature, such as the Icelandic Sagas and Eddas. Adherents, who often refer to themselves as heathens (meaning “of the heath” or “of the land”), honor the deities of the Old Norse pantheon and endeavor to reconstruct ancient Germanic traditions.

Brewing and consuming mead is one such custom. References to mead and alcohol pepper Asatru’s folklore and literature; believed to have descended from the heavens as dew, it’s known in some circles as “nectar of the gods.” American heathens today incorporate this beverage in a variety of religious rituals and social activities.

But what more can we learn about mead by listening to its use among heathens? And what can these sounds teach us about American Asatru?

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Niche Evangelical Ministries

Recordings by Lauren Pond, Caroline Toy, and Isaac Weiner
Audio editing, photographs, and text by Lauren Pond

Truck stops, rodeos, and raceways are not exactly the kinds of places one expects to attend church. Yet, evangelical Christians have begun using these locations to offer exactly this, transforming them into centers of religious outreach for niche and often “unchurched” populations. The sounds of these highly specialized ministries illustrate how they often succeed: by enmeshing themselves in the culture the communities they are trying to reach, and by catering to their specific needs.

TRUCKER CHAPELS

 

For America’s truckers, who are tasked with transporting about 80 percent of the country’s freight annually, the challenges are many: Long periods of time away from family. Increasing expenses and regulations. Deteriorating infrastructure. Health concerns. The ineptitude of other drivers.

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Tsougrisma

Text by Amy DeRogatis
Recordings by Emma Pittsley
Photographs and Audio Editing by Lauren Pond

On Saturday, April 15,  the Michigan State ARSP research team attended the Holy Saturday Divine Liturgy service at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Lansing, Michigan. After the service, we joined congregants to help wrap red eggs for that evening’s celebration after the Paschal Vigil. During Thursday of Holy Week, congregation members had dropped off dozens of eggs that had been dyed bright red. These were ready to be wrapped in tulle on Saturday.

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Takin’ It to the Streets: Pilgrimage in East Lansing

By Amy DeRogatis



Last Sunday, April 2, 2017,  I participated in an interfaith pilgrimage through the streets of East Lansing. To prepare for the event, I spent a few days reading and thinking about pilgrimage.  Why do people take pilgrimages? What do they hope to accomplish? Where are they seeking to go? And, significantly for this project, what are the sounds that I might expect to hear while on a pilgrimage?

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Building Community Relationships

Text by Caroline Toy
Recordings, editing, and photographs by Lauren Pond

At many sites and events where ARSP researchers record, we try to make ourselves barely noticeable to the community. While we get permission to record and answer questions openly, it’s not unusual for us to document a service or festival understanding that our recordings are only an auditory snapshot, a single, ephemeral slice of religious life at a particular place and time.

In other cases, the opposite is true, and we set out to create a collage of such snapshots, stitched together by interviews with community members, the cycle of a sacred calendar, or narratives of change. These deeper relationships allow us to document how religious communities create and understand their place in their religious landscapes (local, historical, political, and the like). Many of the examples featured on this blog so far – such as the Nine Worlds Kindred community of Asatru practitioners, Wat Buddha Samakidham temple, and Three Cranes Grove of Druids (who sponsor the Krampus Parade in Columbus) – come from ongoing relationships with communities where we’ve recorded multiple times, interviewed clergy and practitioners, and tried to capture religious practices in multiple contexts.

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