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Worship Sound Spaces

PDF Worship Sound Spaces First published 2020

Book author
  1. Catherine Lavandier
  2. Christine Guillebaud
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Christine Guillebaud, a social anthropologist and an ethnomusicologist, is a Research Fellow at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS). She belongs to the Research Centre for Ethnomusicology (CREM-LESC), located at the University of Paris Nanterre. Her academic interests include anthropology of sound, sound studies and the study of urban ambiances. She is currently leading the MILSON research program (milson.fr), dedicated to the study of sound environments in their sociocultural context of production and perception. She has carried out long-term fieldworks in India and edited the volume Toward an Anthropology of Ambient Sound (Routledge, 2017). Previously, she has published numerous articles and edited volumes on musical creation, multimodality, cultural heritage, intellectual property and sound humour.

Catherine Lavandier holds a civil engineering diploma and is professor in building acoustics at the civil engineering department of the technological institute in the University of Cergy-Pontoise, France. Her academic interests include room acoustic quality with a psychophysical approach (her PhD focused on the acoustic indicators needed to characterize the acoustic quality of concert halls) and soundscape quality with an ecological approach. She is regularly involved in French national or European projects whose common aim is to link the physical world of acoustics to the sound perceptions or to the sound representations of people. She participated in the European research network COST TD0804 Soundscape of European Cities and Landscapes. Currently, she works on the audio-visual interactions for outdoor and indoor environments.

Religious listenings: a multidisciplinary approach
Christine Guillebaud and Catherine Lavandier

The construction or restoration of the built heritage is currently an interdisciplinary domain that draws on the input of architects, engineers, and historians. Especially where places of worship are concerned, they work towards sound ambiance quality, which depends on the contingencies imposed by the built environment but which also has to meet specific qualitative prescriptions that may be the result of centuries of architectural and theological theorization.

Religious buildings, indeed, have the vocation of sheltering visible or invisible divine entities, honouring or entering into communion with them, or manifesting their presence, depending on the rituals directed towards them. From a physical perspective, sound ambiances are produced and modified by a wide range of forms, materials, and surfaces chosen by those overseeing their construction. But they are also immaterial by nature and are part of the sensory experience that officiants and users create through them. This composite nature thus makes it necessary to bring in other, complementary disciplines such as acoustics and anthropology to help characterize the meanings of the world of sound related to religious experience. Regardless of this, most academic writing approaches the material and immaterial dimensions of worship spaces separately. This volume brings together architects, anthropologists, and acousticians in order to bridge this gap.

From acoustics to sound ecologies
The first psycho-acoustic approach to the built environment started in the 19th century with Fechner (1860), who worked on psycho-physics in an attempt to connect the physics of the outside world with the sensations felt by the receiver. It was further studied by Stevens (1957) in the middle of the 20th century, who applied this approach to acoustics by examining the sensation of loudness. In parallel with this, at the beginning of the 20th century, Wallace Clement Sabine in the United Kingdom worked on the effect of sound propagation in a room and proposed measuring the sensation of reverberance with the acoustic indicator of “reverberation time” (RT) (for a historical point of view, see Sabine 1922). The reverberation time is considered today as one of the main indicators for evaluating the quality of room
acoustics, and more specifically for the design, construction, and use of religious spaces (for a general overview, see Long 2006; Kleiner et al. 2010 for synagogues, churches, and mosques).

More recently, in the second part of the 20th century, Gibson (1979) and Gaver (1993) proposed focusing on the ecology of perception (rather than sound), seeking to understand how people interact with the physical world. In the same period in Vancouver, the field of acoustic ecology took off in the pioneering works of R. Murray Schafer (1977) and the “World Soundscape Project”, making of “soundscape” a key notion that is also still widely used in acoustic research on the sound environment, both indoors and outdoors. The combination of the two approaches, physical and perceptual, is often called the “soundscape approach”, and the definition of the “soundscape” was implemented in 2014 in an International Standard: “The soundscape is the acoustic environment as perceived or experienced and/ or understood by a person or people in a context” (ISO 12913–1, 2014). This definition, inspired by Barry Truax (1978), puts the emphasis on the relationship between people and the environment. However, although the term has become established for a wide variety of contexts, it is currently widely used by researchers to study the impact of sound on human beings not from a solely negative point of view (sound pollution) but also positively (resourcing spaces). Behind the term “soundscape”, we can see a hierarchization of environments as proposed by Schafer in the terms “lo-fi” (low fidelity soundscape) and “hi-fi” (high fidelity soundscape) or in the terms “unwanted sounds” and “wanted sounds” (Brown 2012). In the present work, when discussing worship spaces we will use the term “soundspace”1 to highlight the fact that the sound is spread over a space and generally experienced as an “autonomous” space, in terms of effects, of affect, and even of states of consciousness. Our use of the term “soundspace” implies no positive or negative evaluation: we are interested in the space to which participants sometimes attach extra-sonic and even extra-worldly dimensions that vary from one religious universe to another.

As an ecological approach had developed within the acoustic community, the same observation could be made for disciplines in the social sciences that have for a long time focused on the anthropology of belief, myth, and ritual theory. The history of sensibilities and the anthropology of the senses (Corbin 1994; Howes 1991; Classen 1993) include a significant number of studies dedicated to religious sensory perceptions (see Michaels and Wulf 2014). Most literature in ethnomusicology and the anthropology of sound to date describes the ritual actions taking place in places of worship. It thus often focuses on the production of music (vocal and instrumental music), performance, listening to recorded music, and the knowledge required of musicians. This has largely contributed to a cultural approach to sound and has laid the foundations of “cultural listening”, an approach investigating the experiential aspects of past and present life as related to sound. Studies have tended to focus almost exclusively on the musical repertoires played inside religious buildings.

This approach has consequently documented the theological conceptions associated with sound production in a comparative way (see Levine, Hobbs, Qureshi, Singh and Williams in Beck 2006) and the role played by music in liturgies that could be considered as so many “technologies of the sacred” (Engelhardt 2018). There has been a more recent emergence of the analysis of conceptions of soundspace through specialized research programs (Born 2013), but an account that combines this with a focus on architectural spaces is still rare (Cirillo and Martellotta 2007; Ergin 2008; Frishkopf and Spinetti 2018).

In particular, we can cite the path-breaking work of Steven Feld, who in the 1990s suggested that the term “ethnomusicology” be reformulated as “acoustemology,” a change in nomenclature that would involve understanding how each society and/or religious community constructs its “acoustic ecology.” (Feld, 1996). The researcher’s gaze and ear are thus gradually shifting from music practices to sound ecology, making it possible to appreciate the observed sound and religious experiences anew (see a review of these shifts published by Hackett 2012). The study of religious soundmarks in public space is also noteworthy. Church bells and the art of bells in general are the subject of a plethora of publications and periodicals. Since the earliest sampling of bells in 19th-century Europe, this science (campanology) has been enriched by work in history, musicology, acoustics, and ethnology. Specialized studies on the sound production of adhān calls to prayer and their perception in the Arab and Muslim world have also been produced (Eisenberg 2013, and in this volume; Kahn 2011), as well as on the conflictual debates dealing with their standardization (Farag 2009).
Finally, historians and anthropologists posit the importance of silence in the sensory field of the religious sphere – in the quest for inwardness and spiritual life (Corbin 2016); or seeing silentium within the framework of ritual perfection in Roman religion (Vincent 2017); or else following the traces of the inaudible in the ethnography of monastic life (Sbardella 2010) and Quaker religious activities (Massart-Vincent 2011). The quality of the silences sought and their connection with the architectural properties of par- ticular places is still, however, largely unexplored terrain (see Joanne in this volume).

The perceptual approach to sound in the precise case of the built environment, as has been said, largely developed in the long-established discipline of architectural acoustics (Beranek 1962; Barron 2010; Griesinger 2010; Lokki et al. 2016). Meanwhile, a cultural dimension has been detected in the domain of “aural architecture” (Blesser and Salter 2007). Here too, the study of the soundspace and its acoustic traits needs to be shifted into an approach based more on perception and its many social and cultural referents:

An aural architect, acting as both an artist and a social engineer, is therefore someone who selects specific aural attributes of a space based on what is desirable in a particular framework. With skill and knowledge, an aural architect can create a space that induces such feelings as exhilaration, contemplative tranquility, heightened arousal, or harmonious and mystical connection to the cosmos [. . .] encourages or discourages social cohesion among its inhabitants.

(Blesser and Salter 2007: 5)

From an analysis of the physical properties of sound (and the way in which space modifies its waves), the emphasis has moved to the way in which the listener perceives space. The art of building and renovating then consists in implementing a space in line with parameters predefined by certain indicators (reverberation time, intelligibility, and clarity), but also in line with aural attributes that need to be determined case by case, depending on each project as it is socially and culturally situated. Although recent studies of worship spaces do not designate themselves as research in “aural architecture”, they tend to systematically incorporate this twofold approach. This is true, for example, of the criteria used in acoustic design guidelines for mosques (Elkhateeb et al. 2016), or the evaluation method for acoustic comfort in a Goan church (Tavares et al. 2013).

These changes, from physics to sound ecologies, thus open connections with the study of ambiances. In France, the Centre for Research on Sound Space and the Urban Environment (Centre de recherche sur l’espace sonore et l’environnement urbain – CRESSON) chose sound ambiance studies as its specialty and has been working on this subject for 40 years. We must also point out that the study of architectural ambiances initially involved field sites which, to our knowledge, have never included worship spaces. Accordingly, the methodologies proven in urban settings (soundwalks, commented walks, reactivated listening, etc.) have only rarely been tried and tested in such spaces. A handful of researchers, however, from other disciplines, have carried out soundwalks in a Catholic cathedral and Buddhist temple in Seoul (Jeon et al. 2014), commented walks in the churches of Montreal (Laplace 2012, and in this volume), and in a local Hindu temple in India (Guillebaud in this volume). This leads to an important observation: a large proportion of the world, in all its cultural and religious diversity, remains to be studied with in-situ qualitative methods. This volume offers an approach that is sensitive to places of worship, and we hope that it will also provide an expanded empirical base for ambiance studies.

The present volume offers a nexus between describing the experience of sound and analyzing the engineering and acoustic principles that allow the sound to be created and experienced. It also embraces new research exploring the potential of auralization for scholarly work on worship places, and engaging with issues of virtual reconstruction and the representation of ancient religious knowledge. There are no volumes dedicated to the restoration/simulation of acoustic environments, but there are a few published articles, notable among them the evaluation of the acoustic parameters of
mosques and former Byzantine churches in Turkey under the CAHRISMA project (Conservation of the Acoustical Heritage by the Restoration and Identification of Sinan’s Mosques’ Acoustics) (Eldien and Al Qahtani 2012). Many comparable studies are being conducted in Europe and the Americas, but a font of untapped acoustic knowledge remains enshrined in the cultural monuments and worship spaces of other continents.
Generally speaking, the study of the sound ambiances of religious struc- tures, in all their cultural diversity, is still in an exploratory phase. We are convinced that a multi-disciplinary approach would even produce a renewed knowledge of these places. To our thinking, several common issues emerge (though this list is not exhaustive):
  • How do the acoustics of a place contribute to the spatiality of ritual actions?
  • How does sound condition particular ways of people assembling, being together or setting themselves apart inside the ritual space?
  • What forms of sound broadcasting are preferred in each religious world?
  • What do they tell us of the ways in which the divine is brought into presence, or the relations that practitioners maintain with deities?
  • What sound effects are sought or avoided (reverberation, echo, etc.), and in response to what requirements?
  • Lastly, how can they be measured and analyzed?
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