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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
The Imam prays. A baby cries. This is the human in ceremony, the spontaneous in orchestration.
I made this audio clip from material I recorded at the Muslim celebration of Eid-Al-Fitr, the end of fasting for the month of Ramadan. It was my first time attending an Islamic service. As I observed, I noticed the children: They climbed in their parents’ laps, exchanged small gifts, ran around, and talked with each other. Having grown up in a religious tradition where children were tucked away in nurseries and church basements, this was a novel experience for me.
Recordings by J. Caroline Toy, Isaac Weiner, and Lauren Pond Audio editing by Lauren Pond Photographs by Lauren Pond and Isaac Weiner
Religion is often portrayed as a discrete entity – as something that’s confined within the four walls of a church, mosque, temple, synagogue, or the like. Our current work on the American Religious Sounds Project begins to challenge these assumptions. Through our field recordings and essays, we have started to explore how religious sound can seep out of its traditional confines and interact with the surrounding sonic environment – sometimes in a confrontational manner, and sometimes in a more symbiotic one. We’re examining how sound can serve as a point of contact between different faiths, between religious and secular spheres, and among religious followers themselves.
It has been particularly intriguing to listen for overlapping sounds during the holiday season, when many faith communities celebrate in the public sphere. The following audio clips and collages illustrate some of the sonic diversity and overlap of the holiday season in Columbus, Ohio.