Recently, I have worked in-depth with composer Vicki Pham and through our collective Sonant Bodies, exploring ideas related to transformative space & sound-as-ritual. Contextually speaking, we are both attracted to the ways in which ritual & spiritual practices can alter human consciousness. Indeed, we are fascinated by traditional and ancient cultures and their cultural & religious practices. Victoria is an archaeologist, so this fascination is naturally part of her vocation. It is certainly true that activated spaces such as the church, mosque, and temple, have an astounding, transformational effect on their participants. An effect facilitated, in part, by the idea of ritual.
A ritual comprises of several elements, such as specific people, specific places, process, and chronology. A ritual can contain symbolic and didactic properties that involves captivating the audience’s attention to a particular significant event to another. For example, a ‘formal mass’ involves a ‘procession with music’, the use of various rituals, and the manipulation of ‘holy relics'. 1 Additionally, rituals can involve sound, including elements such as singing, bells, ‘sacred instruments’, chanting, reciting, and musical devices such as drone, or heterophony.
What is it about the idea of a transformative music space that so intrigues me and many others I speak to, particularly those inclined towards a little quasi-mysticism? Could it be the fact I am somehow attempting to substitute my escapist impulses - formerly satiated by hedonism - and now in stoical sobriety, I am seeking a purer form of transcendence? Surely this is too reductionist and psychoanalytical a notion! Maybe I am looking to transform my aesthetic outlook? Am I wanting to be injected with new ideas or impressions through music, after feeling fatigued by the current circulation of stale middle-class discourse? Could it be that from my youth, I remember attending an old Catholic Church and witnessing the synthesis of sound, symbolism, ritual, architecture; consecrate in transforming what I had prior considered a rather drab, grey and underwhelming building, into something much other-than-itself? Something which for an ephemeral moment, became grand, illuminated, even eclipsing the sublime? Perhaps so.
Irony aside, I think that one’s yearning for personal transformation is perennial and, on some level, primordial. That is probably why some of us seek out transformative spaces. Human beings are often transfixed by the idea of transformation in some capacity; in the mainstream realm, look how many times Madonna has reinvented her image! Furthermore, one merely need contemplate the myriad of religious rituals performed throughout the world - designed to transform the psyches of the participants involved. We all feel a deep desire to reinvent, to be renewed/reborn/reformed; the old Phoenix from the flame and ash allegory. One way we can experience this is through immersion in transformative, performance spaces.
For many years, I tried to recapture the transcendent impression from the performance space of the church, but alas, it was often fleeting. As a teenager, I would attend heavy-metal concerts in an attempt to, once again, experience a sense of transformation via sound. Sometimes it would occur when I became sublimated into the community of bodies; all functioning as simultaneous conduits for masses of pummelling, dense sound; vibrating communities drawn together by their communal, physiological experience of the music. Through this, I would once again regain that transformational ecstasy. Later on, I would attend choral and symphonic concerts – some were more successful at ‘transforming’ the space than others. The grand, symphonic music of the reverberating concert-hall certainly elated the building and transformed the physical and social space in many ways. I thus became obsessed with any concert which featured performances dependent on spatiality in unique ways. I was even more enamored with the experience when the music was purveyed in harmony with the visual and architectural aspects of the performance space.
Non-organised and organised sound has the propensity to alter, construct, affirm, or undermine our phenomenological impressions of space, that is to say: the way in which our structures of consciousness construct our conceptions of space. For example, when one walks through a park, listening to say, Bach’s Six Cello Suites (or some other music of a similar aesthetic calibre) on their iPhone, one feels the park transform: the plants appear more fecundate and green. Indeed, the park seems to reflect our small hopes and sentiments. It appears as if the emotional content of the music projects outwards, transforming our impression of the surrounding space; all but altering the molecular structure of the environment. Moreover, when one hears an abrupt, violent scream while walking down the footpath, it can feel as if the very foundations of the street are trembling. The sounds produced by a phalanx of police or ambulance sirens can turn a delightful experience at a coffee-shop into one of agitation and anxiety. A more extreme example of this is the description given by an audience member who attended a forcefully staged concert performance of a Shostakovich Symphony by a starving orchestra at the height of WWII in Stalingrad:
"The chandeliers were sparkling. It was such a strange feeling. On the one hand, it couldn't be possible - the blockade, burials, deaths, starvation, and the Philharmonic Hall - it was just so incredible”. 2
This is certainly a testament to the sound’s propensity to transform even a harrowing performance space. From what we understand, this transformational effect is produced by a combination of many factors such as musical-memory and association; involuntary physiological & emotional responses; as well as other, more complex neurological processes.
It is thus the idea of sound-as-ritual with regard to the resonant body, that Victoria and I are addressing at our upcoming Sonant Bodies self-titled exhibition. For example, our work Campanile, plays with the idea of the sound-ritual, using found domestic objects which are attached to midi-programmed pendulums to meditatively strike resonant bowls. The idea behind this work is to design an autonomous ritual to transform the exhibition space through sound. This work is installed in a space bathed in programmed light as to signify ‘sacredness’ through colour - inspired by Le Monte Young and Marian Zazeela’s Dream-House. Ultimately, the works in our exhibition form part of a larger, guided ritual, where audience members are instructed to walk through a directed path and contemplate the carefully programmed sounds produced by the installations & video works.
Overall, this exhibition is one of experimentation for Sonant Bodies, and it is as much a research endeavor, as it is an aesthetic one. Ultimately, we hope our exhibition will induce a sense of transformation in the spaces the audience inhabits. An audacious claim indeed! For at the very least, we hope the audience will gain something special from the experience.
Sonant Bodies' self-titled exhibition will take place at MRAG from the 10th Feb until the 13th May. More information here. Photo: Sonant Bodies' 'Pendulum' - Sound-Installation (2016) by S. Jacobs
1 Spickard, J. V. (1991). Experiencing religious rituals: A Schutzian analysis of Navajo ceremonies. Sociology of Religion, 52(2), 191-204.
2 Caffrey, J. 2016. BBC News: Shostakovich's symphony played by a starving orchestra. [ONLINE] Available here. [Accessed 31 December 2017].