The American Religious Sounds Project has launched its official website! Check it out at religioussounds.osu.edu. The ARSP blog will continue as part of the new website at religioussounds.osu.edu/blog. Thanks for following our work!
By Lauren Pond
ARSP Multimedia Producer
The American Religious Sounds Project asks a series of fundamental questions, among them: What does religion sound like? Where can we go to hear it? How might we understand religious diversity differently if we begin by listening for it?
Although I have been producing audio for the ARSP since 2016, for much of my career, I have been accustomed to asking a seemingly different set of questions. As a documentary photographer who specializes in religion, I often ask: What does religion look like? Where can we see it? How might photographs help us understand religion differently? With these questions in mind, for more than a decade, I have used my camera to create nuanced portrayals of religious communities across the country.
This winter, I was honored to be named the first Artist in Residence for Saint Louis University’s Lived Religion in the Digital Age (LRDA) initiative. The LRDA seeks to explore, through the senses, how religion is experienced within the complex realities of modern life. In late January and again in early March, I traveled to St. Louis, Missouri, to photograph religion in the city and speak about my work. My photographs will be exhibited publicly in St. Louis this spring and autumn.
The LRDA has been a valuable opportunity for me to build my portfolio, connect with communities and scholars, and reflect on my visual craft. But it also helped me realize how much my photography and ARSP audio work overlap – and how the questions shaping them aren’t as different as I might once have imagined. When I photograph, just as when I produce audio, I hope to complicate existing narratives about what religion is and where it resides. I illustrate how religion often spills outside of institutional boundaries, and, on the other hand, how what’s outside sometimes seeps in. Using my camera, I explore how religion intersects with its social, cultural, and physical surroundings in sometimes symbiotic, sometimes antagonistic, but always revealing ways.
St. Louis, like much of the Midwest, proved a rich place to explore these ideas.
Shortly after my fellowship began, I found religion waiting for me in the lobby of my hotel. Christian evangelists Jeff Mullen his wife, Pam, were reading their Bibles in the breakfast bar and offering prayers for passing guests. Jeff has been known to evangelize at Walmart and other venues where he thinks people need to hear the Word of God. I sat down to speak with Jeff and Pam for a few minutes, and the conversation quickly turned to my own religious background and whether or not I had been saved. “I want to see you in heaven,” Jeff said, pointing at me.
A couple of days later, inside the Mystic Valley metaphysical store in a nearby strip mall, Adam Beaubois, a former Catholic-turned Tarot reader and spiritual counselor, gave me a reading. He helps people tune into their higher selves, he said, using his cards as a divinatory tool and form of “spiritual surgery.”
Elsewhere in St. Louis and its environs, I frequently found religion in conversation with its structural and environmental surroundings. For instance, on the socioeconomically struggling north side of St. Louis, an abandoned, gothic-style church sat covered in graffiti; several of its stained glass windows had been shattered, too, revealing the stark fragility of a seemingly fortified institution.
Inside the tropical “Climatron” of the Missouri Botanical Garden, the Sacred Bodhi Tree – associated with Buddha – rose to welcome me and other visitors, the hazy humidity lending it an ethereal quality.
And about 40 minutes away, at the Black Madonna Shrine and Grottoes in Pacific, Missouri, a manger scene – commemorating the birth of Jesus in the desert – was ironically encased in ice.
But my most nuanced work came from my budding relationships with local communities, whose members graciously invited me to join them for formal and informal gatherings. There, I had the privilege of experiencing some of the social and cultural currents running through religious traditions.
Among others, I visited the local ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) community, which occupies a temple near the St. Louis University campus. ISKCON devotees, more colloquially known as Hare Krishnas, see the Hindu deity Krishna as the supreme God and honor him regularly, including through rituals like the following, where Maithila das makes an early-morning offering to a Tulsi plant, or Holy Basil – an embodiment of love and devotion to Krishna, he explained.
ISKCON devotees are best known for their chanting, music, and dance. Repeating Krishna’s name, they believe, will elevate their spirit and consciousness toward the purity of Krishna himself. The St. Louis ISKCON community holds regular kirtans, or chanting sessions, that attract Hindus and devotees alike – and, as I learned, these often take place at people’s homes and apartment complexes, making the experience more intimate and accessible, even to me as an outsider. I attended a four-hour kirtan at an apartment complex on the outskirts of the city, which was followed by a convivial Indian meal.
I have also been building relationships with eastern and oriental Orthodox Christian parishes in St. Louis, including the Holy Trinity Serbian Orthodox Church and the St. Mary and St. Gebriel Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church. As is common in Christian orthodoxy, during services at both of these churches, religious practice visibly and audibly overlaps with ethnic heritage. For instance, at St. Mary and St. Gebriel’s, parishioners danced while playing the kebero, a double-headed conical hand drum commonly used in eastern Africa. During an annual celebration for Saint Sava, the patron saint of Serbs, at the Holy Trinity church, Fr. Kristc blessed a loaf of Slava Kolach, a ceremonial Serbian bread.
Outside of the Orthodox services, I shared meals with parishioners and was even invited to attend a family gathering: the baptism of baby Nathan in the St. Mary and St. Gebriel church basement. In those intimate moments in the wee hours of Sunday morning, I experienced both a religious custom and quiet tenderness between mother and child. For me, it was a reminder of the fundamental humanness that cuts across religion’s many demarcations and boundaries – and of what drew me to document this topic in the first place. A reminder of what’s truly visible (and audible) if we take the time to look, and to listen.
The ARSP team recently traveled to Denver, Colorado, for the American Academy of Religion (AAR) Annual Meeting, held this year at the Colorado Convention Center. Each November, the AAR conference brings together thousands of scholars, journalists, artists, publishers, and others from across the nation for several days of panel discussions, exhibits, and events.
ARSP co-PIs Amy DeRogatis and Isaac Weiner presented in a Wildcard Session on “Teaching Local Religion with Digital Humanities: Objects, Methods, Pedagogies.” Reflecting on their experience integrating the ARSP into the classroom, they discussed how participating in the project has introduced undergraduate students to key practical, theoretical, and ethical questions in the study of religion. Their presentation drew on insights they elaborate further in a recently published article, “Turning students into scholars: Using digital methods to teach the critical study of religion.” ARSP pilot site coordinators Christopher Cantwell and Rachel M. Lindsey also participated on the panel.
ARSP Graduate Project Manager Caroline Toy, whose dissertation research focuses on fan cultures and religion, participated in a panel titled “Fictional Religion and Fan Fiction in Science Fiction and Fantasy.” Her paper was titled ” ‘Faith in the Legend, Even If It’s Fiction’: Emergences of Religiosity in Doctor Who Fan Commentary.” She also attended a variety of panels on religion and popular culture and American religion, as well as presentations by her colleagues.
As part of the AAR Arts Series, throughout the conference, ARSP multimedia producer Lauren Pond exhibited prints from her recent photography book, Test of Faith: Signs, Serpents, Salvation, which won the prestigious 2016 Duke Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography. Test of Faith provides a deeply nuanced portrayal of Pentecostal serpent handlers – specifically, the life, death, and legacy of Pastor Mack Wolford, and Lauren’s relationship with his family. At the conclusion of the exhibit, Lauren gave a talk about the project, how it has transformed her as a photographer, and how it has inspired her current work in audio. She also enjoyed attending panel sessions about religion and visual culture, as well as meeting other scholars who share her interests.
By Rachel McBride Lindsey
Saint Louis University
What do we gain as researchers by listening for religion in the city? This was one of the questions I posed to students in my second-year elective course, “Arch City Religion: Religious Life and Practice in St. Louis,” last spring. Like many of us who teach religion in American history, I had long incorporated music, audio clips of sermons, podcasts, and other forms of recorded sound into course content. The previous year, when teaching this course, I had come across some material relating to my university’s early adoption of “the radiophone” in the early 1920s as a civic and theological instrument and had contextualized that material with studies of religious sound by Isaac Weiner and Lerone Martin, among others. This year, with the considerable advantage of working with the American Religious Sounds Project, I was eager to seize the opportunity to build audio storytelling into the course design. Several weeks into the semester students got their hands on the Zoom audio recorders that would transform them from users into producers. In addition to identifying and analyzing sound as a largely unscrutinized register of religious life and practice, we were now jumping through the looking glass. Instead of using content that had been created by others, we now had to decide, before we clicked any buttons, what religion is and how best to translate lived aural experiences into meaningful archival products.
My research and teaching often center visual and material cultures of religion. Over the last several semesters I had begun to incorporate sound studies more directly into my classes, largely inspired by the work of the ARSP and its previous iterations. When the opportunity came to develop a more rigorous pedagogy of sound in my classes, I seized it, not only as another critical register for the study of religion but also, and more immediately, because there is perhaps nothing more emblematic of urban life than sound. Translating ARSP objectives into the pedagogical architecture of my second-year elective, one of the course objectives was to develop a critical awareness of creative and ambient sound in observations and analyses of religion in St. Louis. Alongside studies of urban religion that work to differentiate “religion in the city” from “religion of the city,” which lead to explorations of religious diversity and the role of religion in public life, we read about sound as a historically contested marker of religious practice. We learned about histories of recorded sound that have shaped the modern religious landscape. And we listened. We listened to podcasts, radio broadcasts, and the streets of St. Louis. And this time, before we listened to much audio content, we focused our attention on how we hear. Whether residents of the city or rural commuters, we each began to interrogate how sounds shape our ideas of the city and our responses to specific urban experiences.
On that first day in February when students finally got their hands on the Zoom recorders, they broke off into small teams and scattered across campus. On this day, their assignment was to listen. That’s it. Take the recorder, your headphones, your instruction manual, figure out how this thing works, and pay attention to what you hear—not, necessarily, to what is being said, but to what you hear. After a few hiccups, each group found a place to practice. At the end of the class period, the groups came back to debrief their experiences. The campus recreation center, a Starbucks, study spaces, the library, the West Pine Mall (a former city street transformed into a pedestrian thoroughfare that cuts through the heart of campus), each of these places had become sites of intentional listening. After a bit of prodding, students started to reflect aloud. Several students commented that they felt different in these familiar spaces, that the recorder had somehow altered their relationship with spaces that they pass through every day. Others noted that it took them longer to prepare the recorder for use—right setting, right volume, right position—than they had anticipated. One comment from that first practice session was echoed by several other students—“I heard better than I do with my own ears.” This student may not in fact have heard better, but she recognized that she listened differently, that she was attentive to the minute sounds of campus life that she often tunes out, through the deliberate act of recording ambient sound. This student may not remember when the first mosque was built in St. Louis or why I made her read about the Veiled Prophet or even, mercy, how the early history of Catholic immigration has shaped the city we know today. She has probably sold back all of the books she read in the class and archived or tossed the essays she wrote. But I have a hunch that she will remember for many years that time in college when she learned to listen, really listen, to the world around her.
Like the sounds of campus life, the sounds of religion in the city can be striking both in their novelty and in their newly recognized familiarity. Building on their initial observations and practices, Arch City Religion students went on to create a range of audio storytelling projects, from podcast reviews of Matthew J. Cressler’s Authentically Black and Truly Catholic, to semester projects exploring the religious history of coffee in St. Loui, to an audio postcard of the Bible Garden at the Missouri Botanical Garden:
Some of them are excellent and some need more work. But even the rougher products demonstrate a new method of engaging religion that is difficult to unhear. Attending to religious life and practice through sound works to bring the subject of study—”religion”—into focus as it is lived in the messy realities of a culturally, politically, racially, and economically diverse city. My approach to these outcomes is to teach students to use digital tools not as biological proxies that document specific events but as instruments that train us to attune to the cultural work of our bodies and senses.
Similar to other urban centers throughout the country, the city of St. Louis has a checkered history of defining religious sounds as public noise, from church bells in the 1910s to Muslim calls to prayer in the 2000s. Attending to the soundscapes of the city’s religious life—the bells of St. Ambrose in the Italian Catholic neighborhood of “The Hill,” drummers at the Festival of Nations in Tower Grove Park, the clink of coffee cups settling into their saucers at Crave Coffee House, excited footsteps of hundreds of Hindu faithful carrying their deities on chariots through the streets of west St. Louis County, the fullness of quiet reflection in Buddhist monasteries, Catholic convents, and municipal gardens—teach us not only to think about religion in new, potentially revealing ways, but also to hear each other through the sounds of our neighbors’ lives. It is probably a lot to ask of a college elective, but I am hopeful that our study of sound, guided by the ARSP, helps us to listen to each other better. Sure, there were scheduling mishaps, communication gaps, technology fails, and a low drum beat of controlled chaos as we learned how to hear the city through new techniques of scrutiny and analysis. Despite the challenges, though, I remain hopeful that this semester will be remembered less as a cautionary tale and more as a raspy first word, even a prefatory throat clearing, in the origin stories of many students who learned to hear better than they thought they could with their own ears.
Drummers at the Festival of Nations:
Official announcement by the Michigan State University College of Arts & Letters:
A joint, multidisciplinary project between Michigan State University and The Ohio State University that examines sounds of religion throughout the United States, and which first began in 2015, recently received a three-year, $750,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation to support expansion of the project. The grant was approved in conjunction with a request for proposals issued by the Luce Foundation’s Theology Program.
The American Religious Sounds Project (ARSP) is a multiyear, collaborative initiative led by Amy DeRogatis, Professor of Religion and American Culture in the Department of Religious Studies at Michigan State University, and Isaac Weiner, Associate Professor of Comparative Studies and Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Religion at The Ohio State University.
With the aim of generating innovative scholarship, the ARSP challenges scholars and others to consider how they might understand American religious diversity in new and complex ways by listening to its sounds.
“The need for understanding religious pluralism has arguably never been greater. Given the remarkable diversity of American religious life and the increasing polarization of our politics, building a civic culture that is inclusive and valuing of all peoples constitutes one of the most pressing challenges we face today,” DeRogatis said. “The ARSP aims to bring together, educate, and engage multiple constituencies around issues of religious diversity in ways that are accessible, compelling, and intellectually rigorous.”
The ARSP originated as the “Religious Soundmap Project of the Global Midwest” with support provided by the Humanities Without Walls consortium in 2015. A year later, the project received a two-year, $200,000 grant from the Henry Luce Foundation.
During these initial phases of the project, a digital audio archive was created, which consists of hundreds of recordings of formal and informal sounds of religious institutions, including prayer, chanting, and hymns. For these recordings, the research team cast its net widely and visited churches, synagogues, mosques, temples, homes, workplaces, interfaith chapels, coffee houses, race tracks, public parks, political rallies, arts festivals, and even college football games.
This growing audio archive documents the practices of a wide range of religious communities, including Christian and non-Christian traditions, across a broad selection of sites.
To make these recordings accessible to the public, a website is being developed and will launch later this fall that will invite users to explore the ARSP audio archive, discover connections among recordings, plot them on a map according to the geographical location where they were produced, and listen to short, edited clips. The website also will include a digital gallery with multimedia exhibits on selected themes, sounds, and communities, featuring images, explanatory texts, and interpretive audio collages and essays.
“The targeted audience for the American Religious Sounds Project moves beyond scholars of American religion. We hope that our platform provides a curated space for the exchange of ideas about religion, space, sound, and time across disciplines and communities,” Weiner said. “By creating an innovative and interactive platform, we aim to encourage further collaboration among potential users and inspire new approaches to religion and sound through engagement with our digitized materials.”
Isaac Weiner, Associate Professor of Comparative Studies and Associate Director of the Center for the Study of Religion at The Ohio State University, and Amy DeRogatis, Professor of Religion and American Culture at Michigan State University.
The latest Luce Foundation grant will support the next phase of the project, which will focus on four areas of development and expansion:
Up to this point, the ARSP has focused on local communities in central Michigan and central Ohio. The ARSP will now work to expand the geographic scope of its audio archive by reaching out to community partners and scholars at other academic institutions to contribute to the archive.
The ARSP will offer mini-grants to support innovative scholarship and community engagement projects on sound and American religions. In addition, the ARSP website will offer a forum to provide scholars with the opportunity to share emerging work about sound and through sound.
Digital and Archive Development
At present, the ARSP website features only short, edited clips, produced from longer recordings. The digital and archive development team will work to make the full ARSP archive publicly accessible to allow for exploration of the archive alongside curated multimedia gallery exhibits. The team also will transfer the audio archive from The Ohio State University to Michigan State University.
Committed to advancing the public understanding of religion through community engagement and public outreach, the ARSP will sponsor training workshops, provide recording equipment, and offer technical support, so religious communities can document their own practices and traditions and for others to tell their own stories about religion and sound. The research team also plans to partner with museums to create a traveling exhibition using sound as a way of teaching about religious diversity within the United States.
“We have set ambitious goals for this three-year grant,” DeRogatis said. “By promoting new scholarly research, building new digital platforms, and fostering new forms of collaboration, this field-shaping initiative stands ready to advance the public understanding of religion in the United States.”
The ARSP research team includes both undergraduate and graduate student researchers. DeRogatis and Weiner also have incorporated the project into their classrooms. Last spring, they published an article in the journal Religion, titled Turning students into scholars: using digital methods to teach the critical study of religion, where they discuss two courses they taught in conjunction with the Religious Soundmap Project of the Global Midwest.
At the end of the three-year grant cycle, or in spring 2021, a conference will be held to bring all participants together to present their research, network with future collaborators, and share ideas for the future of the American Religious Sounds Project. In addition, the ARSP’s leadership structure will be reorganized to strengthen its collaboration with other institutions and to ensure the project’s long-term growth and sustainability.
DeRogatis and Weiner have presented the ARSP at national and international academic conferences including the 2018 Digital Humanities Conference in Mexico City. And earlier this month, they discussed their approach to sound and religion during the opening event at the Art Institute of Chicago for the art exhibit “Prayer” by South African sound artist James Webb.
By Christopher D. Cantwell and Catherine Abbott
Kenwood Boulevard runs through the heart of Milwaukee’s Upper East Side neighborhood. Though the street now forms the southern boundary of the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s main campus, Kenwood’s wide birth and landscaped dividers are reflective of the boulevard’s earlier life as a thoroughfare through the one of the city’s most fashionable residential districts. Also indicative of the neighborhood’s history are the stories of the places of worship that line the street. Walking west from Lake Michigan where Kenwood terminates, one passes a Christian Science Reading Room that now houses the Chinese Christian Church of Milwaukee; the former home of Congregation Emanu-El B’ne Jeshurun that now belongs to the University’s Peck School of Arts; the gothic home of Kenwood Methodist Episcopal Church, where Wisconsin’s first ordained Native American woman preaches; and the former home of a Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod Church that now houses the Islamic Society of Milwaukee’s University Center. And all in just three blocks.
The remarkable diversity of this stretch of Milwaukee was the inspiration for a new project run out the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s history department called Gathering Places: Religion and Community in Milwaukee. Under the directorship of faculty member Christopher D. Cantwell, the project has teams of graduate students partner with places of worship across Milwaukee to document their history. Throughout the Spring 2018 semester, students consulted public records, conducted research in denominational archives, scoured old sanctuaries for materials, and interviewed current and former members of a congregation in an attempt to reconstruct a place of worship’s history and ongoing activities. All of this material will then be published online on a map-based interface in order to build a living archive of Milwaukee’s religious diversity.
In addition to exploring the history of Milwaukee’s churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples, however, Gathering Places will also now document the sounds of the city’s religious life as a pilot site partner with the American Religious Sounds Project. Our partnership with the ARSP has been incredibly beneficial. The ARSP’s focus on religion’s sonic dimensions has not only changed the kinds of material our project takes in, but has also complicated our conception of what, exactly, religion is. Catherine Abbott recently encountered this phenomenon as one of Gathering Places’ student researchers. Charged with writing the history of Plymouth Church, a progressive United Church of Christ congregation, Abbott and her research partner initially expected that documenting the community’s commitment to social justice would be easily accessed through the printed word and the church’s material culture. Like many liberal, mainline congregations, Plymouth’s sign prominently displays an LGBTQ flag and its sermons and bulletins are replete with announcements about opportunities for social activism like a rally in support of undocumented immigrants and refugees.
But a field recording collected on April 29, 2018 complicated our perhaps stereotypical understanding of progressive religion. Like many congregations, Plymouth publishes its sermons on its websites. But in an interesting twist, Plymouth’s pastor Andrew Warner also publishes the texts of his sermons online. If someone were to study Plymouth solely based on the texts of these sermons, they would be able to construct an entirely predictable portrait of a mainline congregation that is committed to liberal politics. The April 29 sermon on the ways we perceive the person of Jesus, for example, makes an explicit reference to supporting refugees in America. But in our recording of the service what came across as the sermon’s highlight was an off-the-cuff remark made at the beginning of the service. While illustrating how Christians tend to romanticize Jesus’s love through hymns like “He Walks with Me in the Garden,” Pastor Warner paused after reading the line “And the joy we share as we tarry there / None other has ever known” and remarked, “Actually, I’ve known men arrested for that in the park.” The congregation laughed at the line, and then the minister continued. The rest of the sermon focused on how an expansive conception of Christ’s love should compel Christians to identify with those in need. As we suspected, standard mainline, liberal Protestant fare.
But in processing our recording in the days and weeks after the service, we kept coming back to this moment of laughter. It became clear to us that this spontaneous moment also had as much meaning as the broader message of the sermon itself. It revealed both the congregation’s familiarity with the hymn as well as the its understanding of the practice of “cruising” for sexual encounters in public parks, which gay man often did in times when knowledge of their sexuality brought discrimination. It also made clear that the community found the pastor’s remark to be humorous and not shocking or sacrilegious. Why the community found the joke to be humorous is a matter in need of greater scrutiny. Does it signal the community’s belief that they had grown beyond a supposedly retrograde religious sensuality? Or is it a demonstration of the congregation’s diversity or cultural sophistication? The answers of such questions hopefully will emerge when we put this laughter in conversation with other sources from the church’s history. But it is important to note that none of this information would be available to scholars studying only the sermon’s printed version. Nor would even an official recording of pastor Warner’s sermon have picked up this information as the minister’s microphone would have lost the sounds of the crowd. But by listening to the audience listening to a sermon, our field recording revealed a great deal about the culture of that community.
We at the Gathering Places team are grateful to be partnering with the American Religious Sounds Project. The ARSP’s call to take sound seriously, to ask what religion in America sounds like, has already transformed how we study religion in Milwaukee. We hope it promotes an even greater commitment to listen to the sounds around us.
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.
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.
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.
Recordings, photographs, and text by Lauren Pond and Isaac Weiner
Audio editing by Lauren Pond
One recurring motif to which the ARSP team has been attuned is how different sounds–including those deemed religious and those deemed secular–intersect and overlap in particular social contexts. We are interested in what it sounds like when religion spills outside of the institutional boundaries meant to contain it and, conversely, how the ambient sonic qualities of a given social situation shape the experience of religious life. In these moments, sound becomes a point of contact, mediating interactions among diverse religious communities, between religion and its broader social environment, and between human practice and the natural world. The following clips offer a few examples of what we have found.
1. Isha prayer at the Noor Islamic Cultural Center
Located just outside of Columbus proper, the Noor Islamic Cultural Center is one of Central Ohio’s largest mosques. On the day of the 2016 Presidential Election, the NICC served as one of the region’s largest polling sites. Likely for political and safety reasons, it abstained from projecting the Islamic call to prayer throughout the day, but resumed doing so for the last prayer of the evening, the Isha prayer, which took place shortly after the polls had closed. At the time this recording was made, it was pouring rain. The combination of the precipitation and the prayer made for a mournful-sounding recording — which, in retrospect, seems suggestive of the election outcome and the xenophobia and Islamophobia that have flourished since then.