Monday, April 18, 2011

Sound Sacralizes Space

Let us once again enlarge the discussion from music to sound, a move toward the soundscape that I have been led to make over and over again. As Theodore Roethke wrote, "I learn by going where I have to go." By now I hope the lesson is learned. At any rate, shifting attention from music to sound has been very helpful to me in thinking about the role of music--and sound--in sustaining life on planet Earth.

Sound sacralizes space through co-presence. That is, one senses the presence of something greater than oneself through sound. It is not only sound that does this; touch will do it as well. But sound is present from a distance and can be present virtually whereas touch cannot be.

Space, or place, may become sacralized visually as well as aurally. One experiences the sublime in the presence of Nature, the natural world, visually and aurally. When you close your eyes, the visual world disappears while the aural world remains. Open your eyes and the visual world reappears as it was. Sound, on the other hand, comes and goes. It is ephemeral. Its sudden appearance and disappearance does not depend on opening and closing one's ears; it is there and then not there. Sound's sacralization of space is sudden, dramatic.

Secular sounds sacralize place, memorialize people. The names of fiddle tunes--"The Brushy Fork of John's Creek" (memorializing the last battle in Pike Co., Kentucky, during the Civil War); "Bill Brown" (memorializing a peddler who was murdered); "They Swung John Brown from a Sour Apple Tree"--these are among tunes I play, and they invoke co-presence. Often an old-time string band fiddler will say the name of the person from whom he or she learned the tune, just before or after playing it, invoking the co-presence of the source musician.

Co-presence, a concept developed by the sociologist Shanyang Zhao, refers to "a sense of being with others," both physically (face-to-face) and virtually. The concept has been useful in exploring ways in which people feel connected on the Internet even though they are not physically present to one another. Here I want to extend co-presence to the sense that when sound sacralizes space one feels in the presence of something greater than oneself. There is a kind of virtuality in that the "greater than oneself" is felt but the presence does not take on a particular physical embodiment.

Back in 1971 the blues singer Leonard "Baby Doo" Caston reminisced to me about working as a sharecropper when he was a teenager. Out chopping (weeding) corn, he used to sing out a field holler, "the old cornfield blues without an instrument," and he remarked that the sound would carry far out there in the country soundscape. "Lazy" Bill Lucas, blues singer and pianist, was there too, and he responded that the woods were like an echo chamber, that those field hollers would carry for miles and that others would hear them and answer them with their own field hollers. Co-presence. The holler organizes the fields and woods aurally much as Wallace Stevens's jar organized the Tennessee wilderness visually ("Anecdote of the Jar" is the Stevens poem I'm referring to here.) In those days I was thinking about field hollers as a musical genre and precursor of the blues, but Baby Doo and Lazy Bill were trying to tell me about something else: the field holler as soundscape, sound sacralizing space. You can hear what they say and then hear Baby Doo sing a field holler on the CD set accompanying the book Worlds of Music.

Soundscape, a concept developed by R. Murray Schafer (his book, The Tuning of the World [1977] is definitive), refers to the acoustic environment. It is a back-formation from the word landscape. His work on soundscape included exercises for paying attention to sound (what he termed "ear-cleaning"). His work arose in the context of noise pollution; he was a historian of sound, and a social engineer interested in acoustic design in the service of more healthful soundscapes. In Schafer's view, soundscapes contained keynotes (background sounds, such as wind, insects, birds), signals (foreground sounds that are present to consciousness), and soundmarks (sounds unique to particular communities, which need protection). Endangered musical cultures possess soundmarks.

Schafer also coined the term schizophonia, referring to a feeling of unease with the doubleness of sound when the sound is separated from the source of its original production, as when one listens to a recording of a live performance. Schizophonia (a back-formation from schizophrenia) is also an instance of co-presence, and is experienced today without unease or confusion by many; but for Schafer it was a modern disease. It need not be; it also characterizes community on the Internet; that is, the kind of co-presence one feels when socially networked with others on listservs and other kinds of Internet communities, such as Facebook.

A realist, Schafer was not so much interested in sound as socially constructed, or the soundscapes of memory, as I am. Much of my ethnographic research in music has been research in sound. My Powerhouse for God project (documentary LP, 1983; book, 1988; documentary film, 1989 which is stream-able free on started with music but quickly moved to sound: the book's subtitle is "speech, chant, and song in an Appalachian Baptist church." Music was one thing, knowable; but the holy whine of the preacher's voice and the sung prayer was mysterious, as well it should have been, the peculiar sound marking (in the churchmembers' worldview) the presence of the divine and thereby sacralizing the sanctuary space of the church. That presence is a co-presence, not corporeal. The project I did with Rev. C.L. Franklin focused on his sung sermons ("whooping," as it is called in the Black churches), not on the magnificent gospel music, spirituals, or lined-out hymnody in the church--which, after all, was where his daughter Aretha made her bones, so it must have been wonderful--and it was. But I was drawn even more to the sound of the preaching, the moments when speech turned to chant and sound sacralized space and place.

It was in the 1990s when I visited the Old Regular Baptists in southeastern Kentucky that I encountered people who spoke explicitly of sound transforming and sacralizing space, whether singing in the coal mine or the sound of the singing coming down from the mountains or echoing outside the churches on a Sunday morning, heard by the children playing up and down the creek beds. Their words about sound may be heard on the first of the two CDs that Smithsonian Folkways released from my field tape recordings: Songs of the Old Regular Baptists. To close out the CD we chose to present excerpts from some of their statements about the singing, and many mentioned the sound and its "drawing power." Elwood Cornett, the moderator (head) of the Indian Bottom Association of Old Regular Baptists, said: "When I came into this life there was that sound. I hope that when I leave here, that I leave the same sound that I found when I came here." The Old Regular Baptists weren't thinking about their music as music; they were talking about the power of its sound to open a communication channel in the co-presence of the divine.

An acoustic ecology devoted to music and its role in sustaining life on planet Earth would do well to understand, before engaging in social engineering and managing soundscapes, how sound sacralizes space and place.

1 comment:

  1. rachel Reynolds LusterApril 19, 2011 at 11:29 AM

    Wonderful piece. So good to read your voice again!