It took a South African free jazz musician, Zim Ngqawana (1959–2011), otherwise known as Zimology, to reset my sensorium. Despite my interest in various musics, like many Westerners, I was on visual autopilot. In contrast, Zim navigated the world through his sonic perceptions and productions. Like a nganga, or shamanic healer, he lived life in the breach, challenging apartheid, racism, political corruption, marching bands, and straight-ahead jazz, with the unforgettable sound of his horn. I never really understood that wonderfully southern African polythetic concept of ngoma (drum, dance, music, healing) until I met Zim. Following his premature death in May 2011, I vowed to become a more sonically aware scholar of religion. Regrettably, this radical soul is not around to hear about my peregrinations into various sound worlds and sound studies that treat sound and hearing as central, if not elemental. In what follows, I offer reflections on sonic turns and returns in our hypertechnologized world, notably as they pertain to new ways of framing and experiencing the spiritual. Following Veit Erlmann’s influential work on “hearing cultures,” I ask how listening and associated sonic practices have come to play a role in the way people in modernizing and globalizing societies deal with themselves as (religious/spiritual) subjects in embodied, sensory, and especially auditory ways. The wide-ranging examples adumbrated below might even suggest that, in response to the framing of this series, sound and hearing may even be the default for many in their perceptions and experiences of all that there is . . .
Despite the boom in sound studies and the groundbreaking work of anthropologist Steven Feld on acoustic ecology since the 1970s, the extramusical, sonic dimensions of religion are somewhat belatedly attracting the attention of scholars of religion and culture. It is not as if the world’s religious and wisdom traditions have not factored sound into their cosmogonies and cosmologies, as exemplified by Hinduism with its concept of Nada Brahma, that the whole universe was generated by sound, notably the primordial sound of Aum. Divine or ancestral utterances, or songs, as in the case of the ancient Sumerians or Australian aborigines with their “songlines,” are believed to have activated creation. Both the Hebrew Bible and Qur’an emphasize that God created everything by speaking. The great Sufi mystic and musician Hazrat Inayat Khan, still popular with many jazz artists, wrote in his book Music of Life that “my sole origin is sound” and “the mystery of sound is mysticism; the harmony of life is religion.”
Many ancient practices of drumming and chanting, and the use of time-honored instruments such as didgeridoos and singing bowls, have been revived by modern forms of sound therapy. Sound healers and sound-healing resources abound, ranging from the acoustic to the vibroacoustic, via your local drumming circle or a click away on a website or in a YouTube video. Who knew that from your laptop or smartphone you could enter the Temple of Sacred Sound and practice spiritual attunement while on the go? Some healers and musicians develop market niches with their output, specializations, sonic aesthetic, or claims to pure or primal sound. Others provide life narratives on their discovery of sound as a pathway to spirituality or suggest pilgrimages to holy places with acoustic mysteries. Nature sounds are captured, or technologically emulated, to aid sleep (white, pink, blue, or brown noise, take your pick), memory, stress reduction, and healing from trauma and surgery.
Soundscape research and recordings can put you in touch with the sounds of sand, rainforests, oceans, and ice. In Hear Where We Are, acoustician and naturalist Michael Stocker contends that humans and other hearing animals use sound to establish acoustical relationships with their surroundings. The haunting sounds of humpback and blue whales were first captured by naval sonar equipment in the late 1960s and turned into an award-winning album, Songs of the Humpback Whale, by bio-acoustician Roger Payne. This “aural event” sparked legislation on global bans on commercial whaling and ongoing human fascination with whale vocalizations and echolocation. Carmen Braden specializes in the cryophonics (ice sounds) of the Canadian sub-Arctic and re-performs these natural sounds, which she describes as “a spiritual bridge between living and elemental forces,” in her own music compositions. Following in the footsteps of Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer, who established the World Soundscape Project at Simon Fraser University during the 1970s, successive composers and sound artists, such as Hildegard Westerkamp, promote soundwalks to resensitize the aural faculties of noise-aggressed urban dwellers by attentive listening to the environment. British sound and environmental installation artist Mileece turns the sounds of plants into music, gaining international acclaim for her aesthetic sonification and “promoting ecology through technology and the arts.”
“Aural gems” and “quirky acoustics” are the stock in trade of physicist and acoustic engineer Trevor Cox, whose book on sound and website on sonic wonders have struck a chord with broader audiences. There is also David Hendy’s Noise: A Human History of Sound and Listening, the companion to the not-to-be-missed BBC radio series that explores the role of sound and listening in the past 100,000 years of human history. A Sonic Dictionary is in the making for those seeking hard-to-come-by samples of audio culture. Leigh Eric Schmidt has demonstrated the potential of the burgeoning field of aural history for scholars of religion with his landmark book, Hearing Things: Religion, Illusion, and the American Enlightenment.
For those intrigued by the sound effects of ancient ritual sites, advances in digital technologies continue to enhance our understanding of the sonic properties of places such as Stonehenge and Mayan temples. Specialists in archaeoacoustics study how these natural and/or constructed spaces propagate infrasound, for example, or transform a human sound into a nonhuman sound as at Chichen Itza, generating “supernatural” effects for the listeners. Current research using modern acoustic measurement techniques can demonstrate resonances between Palaeolithic cave art and acoustic responses, as well at many other rock art sites. Exciting research using auralization, or the creation of audible acoustic sound-fields from computer-generated data, has unlocked some of the acoustic and aesthetic secrets of Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, for example.
In their aptly titled book, Spaces Speak, Are You Listening? Barry Blesser and Linda-Ruth Salter make a convincing case for understanding the aural architecture of various physical environments, including religious spaces. For example, they suggest that church music and liturgy, such as Gregorian chant, with its simpler monophonic and unaccompanied music, developed as a more aurally effective response to the long reverberations occasioned by the increasing grandeur of evolving religious structures. Theological meaning was eventually attributed to the reverberation and sense of sound arriving from all directions. In her study of the soundscape of sixteenth-century Istanbul mosques, art historian Nina Ergin claims that Ottoman architects used acoustic technology and design to optimize the sensual, especially the acoustic, experience of the performance space. Ergin vividly describes the mosque as a “finely tuned acoustic instrument, meant to sound the word of God in the form of melodic Qur`an recitation to the believers.”
Rather than rocks, oceans, caves, and edifices, some are drawn to the sounds, or the absence of sounds, in outer space to connect with creation. The Music of the Spheres, or Musica universalis, a concept originally developed by Pythagoras in ancient Greece, and then refined by Johannes Kepler in the seventeenth century, that the movements of the spheres or heavenly bodies produced an (inaudible) ethereal harmony, has found a new focus thanks to sonification. Sonification refers to the use of non-speech audio to convey information. This sonic mapping has been making the headlines over the last few years in articles such as “Listen to what space sounds like: an eerie chorus of ‘alien birds’,” “Dark Energy Confirmed: How ancient sound waves shaped the entire universe,” or “Sound: The Music of the Universe.” This is due to increasing knowledge about cosmic phenomena such as the cosmic microwave background radiation that permeates the entire universe and recently observed gravitational waves. In both cases (electromagnetic and gravitational), audible representations are created through improved technology. Add to this efforts by the scientific community to increase public outreach, as these two engaging TED talks, “A history of the universe in sound” and “The sound the universe makes,” attest. Space physicists, filmmakers, and musicians, such as Terry Riley and the Kronos Quartet, and Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, now collaborate. As Hart enthusiastically explains, “The moment of creation, beginning of time and space, when the blank page of the universe exploded and it created the stars, the planets, black holes, pulsars, supernovas, this was the beginning of time and space, and then us. And then we are still now toying with this rhythmic stimuli [sic] that was created 13.7 billion years ago.”
There is no shortage of musical compositions with “space,” “cosmos,” or “cosmic” in the title. The popular syndicated radio program Hearts of Space, begun by Stephen Hill in 1973 in the Bay Area, has created its own niche of ambient, electronic, world, new age, classical, and experimental music. They claim to “celebrate the values of calm, concentration, and quality with space-creating sounds from around the world and across the centuries.” Listeners are referred to as “space fans” and the show slogan is “slow music for fast times.” Explaining further on their website, they state that “[u]nlike conventional background music, spacemusic does not depend on simple nostalgia (in the words of Brian Eno) ‘to induce calm and a space to think.’ Rather, it builds expansive sound images from refined timbres and offers subtle psychological resonances.”
In his acclaimed 1995 book, Ocean of Sound: Aether Talk, Ambient Sound and Imaginary Worlds, music critic and musician David Toop provides a breathtaking history of ambient sound, suggesting that in “the fin de siècle mind, immateriality, spirituality and electronics are synonomous.” This is grist for my academic mill. The world of immersive, electronic, experimental, and minimalist music, with its themes of escape and transcendence, as well as immanence and transformation, constitutes, in my estimation, an underresearched form of what some have termed the “secular sacred,” “implicit religion,” or “post-secular religion.” Auditory culture professor Marcel Cobussen explores the “threshholds” and liminal regions of what he terms “New Spiritual Music” (ranging from Arvo Pärt and drone to improvised and electronic dance music) in his book Thresholds: Rethinking Spirituality Through Music. He prefers the anti-essentialist term “para-spirituality” because it captures how listening to this type of music can induce, but not contain or delimit, feelings of otherness. A prime example would be Laraaji’s repetitive and meditative new age music that is intended to invoke “the infinite now.”
More spiritually implicit calls for “sonic sensibility” come from sound arts specialist Salomé Voegelin, whose suggestive book titles, Listening to Noise and Silence and Sonic Possible Worlds, make the case for how “focused listening” may show us the world in its invisibility and produce new ideas about how things could be. The rich array of sound art installations and publications popping up around the world points to some type of auditory revival in the arts. The Zen-inspired “deep listening” and “listening activism” so powerfully advocated by the late world-renowned composer Pauline Oliveros is at the heart of the acclaimed Big Ears Festival in Knoxville, Tennessee, with its innovative, cross-genre program. In sum, ongoing inquiry into the spiritual turn in late modernity needs to go “looking” for the sound(s) of the sacred or, even better, beliefs and practices relating to sound as sacred, in all sorts of unheard of places.