Category Archives: ritual

The Original Echo Chamber

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“A temple is a landscape of the soul. When you walk into a cathedral, you walk into a world of spiritual images. It is the mother womb of your spiritual life—mother church.” These words from mythologist Joseph Campbell touch on the primitive spatial and acoustic appeal of Medieval and Renaissance cathedrals. Campbell connects the sensation to that of pictograph-adorned Paleolithic caves, which were also likely used for mystical and spiritual ceremonies. The melodic conventions and vocal techniques adapted to these acoustically active stone-walled spaces—epitomized by the straight, drawn-out, and separated tones of Latin ecclesiastical chant—exploit the echo chamber effect, creating an all-encompassing sonic and physical experience. As I explain in an earlier blog post, these ethereal sounds became synonymous with the cosmic voice.

The impression of safety and repose these spaces provide is captured in Campbell’s phrase, “the mother womb.” This image can be taken a step further. The sonically induced, archaic feelings take us back to the literal womb: the original acoustic envelope where direct and indirect sounds are experienced as an undifferentiated gestalt. Psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu describes it as a “sonorous bath”: a lulling sense of weightlessness, rebirth, and being transported.

The ear awakens during the fourth month of fetal development. By week twenty-five, the cochlea—the ear’s frequency analyzer—reaches adult size. From that point forward, the fetus receives, processes, and responds to a growing array of amalgamated sounds, including pressure variations in the bodily walls, two cycles of heartbeats (the mother’s and her own), and acoustic input from outside the womb. The unfiltered sounds are presumably analogous to those heard in a reverberating space, such as a cave or cathedral.

Only in early childhood does the ear begin to categorize different sounds. Following R. Murray Schafer’s concept of the “soundscape,” or the combination of acoustic signals heard in an immersive environment, normally functioning ears automatically distinguish between background and foreground signals, both natural and human-made. This behavior, which combines innate capacity and cultural conditioning, is not present in the echoing womb. The lively reverberations, so closely associated with sacred spaces, recall that original echo chamber. Indeed, conceptions of God (or gods) as compassionate, protecting, loving, comforting, and so forth may even be rooted in this simulated return to the womb.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

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Ancient Echoes

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

In her book, Sacred Space, Sacred Sound: The Acoustic Mysteries of Holy Places, music therapist Susan Elizabeth Hale attempts a sonic link between our ancient cave-dwelling ancestors and modern spiritual aesthetics: “Canyons, caves, and rock amphitheaters were sought out and sanctified for the purpose of amplifying prayers. Later, sacred architecture was created to house our song-prayers so that Spirit could hear us and reverberate us into stillness—into a living silence where we could listen more closely to the pulse of life.” An acoustic leap from Paleolithic caves to acoustically vibrant cathedrals might seem a speculative stretch. However, according to University of Paris archaeoacoustician Iegor Reznikoff, pictographs occur in reverberant parts of a cave, and red dots were often used to mark off resonant spots too difficult to paint. This suggests that ritual chant played a role in cave paintings.

Reznikoff’s acoustic discoveries add potential clarity to ongoing debates about the purpose of Paleolithic pictographs. The images—made by hand prints, daubed fur, or sprayed pigment from the mouth or a bone tube—typically portray game animals. This holds true wherever the paintings are found (Europe, Africa, Mexico, Australia, and Southeast Asia), implying a universality of impulse and function. Some see them as inventories of animals killed, or records of animal migrations. Others contend they were used as hunting magic, perhaps to “catch” an animal’s spirit in order to make the hunt easier, or to increase the abundance of animals encountered. David Lewis-Williams, founder and past director of the Rock Art Research Institute, imagines shamans retreating into the darkness of the caves, entering a trance state, and painting their visions.

Each of these theories addresses the uniqueness of art-adorned caves, which have no signs of ongoing habitation, and are often too remote to access for everyday usage. They were special places set aside for a special purpose. Their acoustic richness best complies with a shamanistic ritual involving painting and chant. Dance might also be added to the mix, as a few images include stylized females or animalesque “sorcerers” engaged in transformational dance. Reznikoff explains in a 2012 paper, “On the Sound Related to Painted Caves and Rocks”: “When the cave has been vocally explored and the best resonant places discovered, then, in such resonant locations, provided there is a panel or panels that are suitable for painting or that can be prepared for painting by scraping, it would be natural, indeed, to paint pictures of animals. A ritual dedicated to the animal is best performed in such a place, since a ritual is always done with chant, sounds, and possibly dances, if the space is large enough. This is why the paintings are mostly located in resonant places.”

These findings support a twofold ethnomusicological observation: all known cultures have vocal music, and all cultures associate singing and chanting with the supernatural. Human beings not only possess reasoning capacity (Homo Sapiens), but also an instinct for music (Homo Musicus) and a yearning for transcendence (Homo Religiosus). Since the dawn of humanity, people have sought contact with energies greater than themselves through music-infused rituals. More often than not, these rituals have taken place in especially resonant settings, where voices are amplified and echo back—a mysterious reverberation analogous to the voice of the cosmos.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Different Sounds

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“The anthropologist has become so familiar with the diversity of ways in which different peoples behave in similar situations that he is not apt to be surprised by even the most exotic customs.” Thus begins Horace Miner’s satirical 1956 essay, “Body Ritual Among the Nacirema,” which details a culture rife with magic, superstitions, and exotic routines. Their foundational belief is that the human body is ugly and prone to disease. Extreme measures are taken to ameliorate this natural state. Bathing and excretory acts are performed in household shrines adorned with hanging chests filled with elixirs and charms. Men scrape and lacerate the surface of their faces with sharp instruments. Teeth are ritualistically cleansed with a bundles of hog hairs lathered with magical powders. Bewitched people hire witch-doctors to exorcise demons from their heads.

At some point, the reader realizes that Nacerima is American spelled backwards. The shrine is a bathroom, the hanging chest is a medicine cabinet, the face-scraping is a shave, the mouth-cleaner is a toothbrush, the witch-doctor is a therapist. Miner’s subtle wit sensitizes us to our own ethnocentricity. “Primitiveness” is less a matter of the practices themselves than our assumptions about them. Outsider interpretations often conflict with insider understandings.

The wider our view of humanity becomes, the more we recognize its sundry shapes and forms. Music was once widely conceived as a “universal language” in the literal sense: the same sounds touch the same emotions and mean the same things the world over. Nineteenth-century Euro-American musicologists perpetuated this assumption, even as fieldwork mounted showing drastic variations between social structures, spoken languages, dress, food, and belief systems of far-flung cultures.

Berthold Seemann, a German botanist, was among the first to criticize this ignorant stance. His remarks, delivered at the 1870 meeting of the Anthropological Society of London, are noteworthy both for their clarity and their honesty. He doubted whether Western European nations, connected by frequent cultural exchange, possessed music that could be interpreted the same way across borders. As his observation extended eastward, conventional associations were turned on their head: songs of joy were sung in modes closely resembling the minor. Looking further east, music became increasingly less intelligible. With considerable self-awareness, he confessed that the songs of “the great Mongolian races,” while surely pleasant for them, were “positively painful” to his ears.

Ethnomusicology, the study of music in cultural context, traces its lineage to Seemann and other late-nineteenth-century mold-breakers. As ethnomusicology has evolved, so has its nomenclature. Distinctions between primitive and advanced, esoteric and exoteric have fallen out of favor. Researchers strive to appreciate music on its own terms, and rely upon insider knowledge. Yet, as much as the scholar tries to step back, the discipline—like all others—requires theory, method, and interpretation. As such, the Nacirema remains a cautionary tale.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Gestural Aesthetics

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

“Gestures should be minimized during training in order to heighten awareness of interior, involuntary muscular movement.” Thus reads the entry on “Gesture” in Cornelius L. Reid’s A Dictionary of Vocal Terminology. As a Western vocal pedagogue, Reid was ever concerned with the aesthetic standards and norms of European classical music. His recommendation is in keeping with a long-held view that music should speak for itself. An early example comes from Franchinus Gaffurius’ Practica musicae (1496). The chapter on “How a Singer Ought to Behave When He Performs” warns that an “extravagant and indecorous movement of the head or hands reveals an unsound mind in a singer.”

These rules of conduct have been reiterated in various ways within the “proper” world of European classical music. However, they do not apply to the opera subgenre, where theatrics are essential, or to many music-cultures outside the classical sphere. A global view of gestural aesthetics would place subdued movement alongside two other options: ritualized gesture and free bodily expression.

The union of gesture and melody is normative in many cultures. Melodic knowledge is embodied in gesture, such that one reinforces the other. For instance, Hindustani Khyal singers incorporate stereotyped and quasi-spontaneous hand motions resembling the tracing lines in space. Mothers in rural Uganda sing and sway ritualistically during pregnancy. In these and other public and private settings, vocal action is “co-performed” with bodily action. It would be improper and unnatural to sing the repertoire without the accompanying physical display.

In the less regulated arenas of popular music, there is an array of genre/style-specific singing movements, both spontaneous and choreographed. These include rock and roll gesticulations, punk aggression, pop diva arm flails, funk dancing, and many others. Audiences expect such exhibitions, which provide a visual analog to the audible content. The absence of visceral antics would be perceived as inauthentic.

The three gestural options—minimal, ritual, and freewheeling—engage musical expression in different ways. For the classical purist, expression is housed in the music alone; unimpeded inward focus is central to a song’s interpretation. In settings where gestures are traditionalized, song and movement act as mutually reinforcing modes of expression. In the heterogeneous realm of popular music, movements are employed to complement and enhance musical expressiveness. The contrasting conventions also imply differing ideas of what constitutes music—specifically, music as sound, sound plus choreography, or sound plus free (or seemingly free) bodily expression. What is crucial in all cases is that the performance conforms to expectations.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Numinous Noises

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Theologians often treat music as a potent tool for fostering sacred awareness. Music’s ethereal abstractness suggests a reality that is beyond the ability of words to describe. Of the resources available to humanity, musical sounds are the closest representation of the divine. To quote Joseph Addison, they are “all of heav’n we have below.” Yet, theologians are quick to remind us that music and theology are not the same. The absorbing impact and amorphous beyondness of music might hint at God’s immanence and transcendence, but this effect is, at best, a useful metaphor.

This cautious approach is conspicuously absent in The Idea of the Holy (1917), Rudolf Otto’s influential treatise on the phenomenology of religion. Giving preference to experience over analysis, Otto claims that supernatural encounters—or numinous experiences—are real events that stand apart from ordinary occurrences. Rationalizations and approximations are used to describe the ineffable event, sometimes giving rise to myths, rituals, and dogma. The experiential moment—the thing itself—becomes religion.

Oddly, Otto assesses the musical experience in an identical way. Music is first received as an all-consuming, supra-rational force. Only subsequently is it understood in emotional or other humanizing terms. In contrast to the visual arts, music is not representational or expressive of anything specific in the physical world. Rather, it is “wholly other”—the same phrase Otto applies to spiritual communion.

Moreover, Otto believes that numinous experiences, while separated from day-to-day activities, are not unreachable or even uncommon. All human beings have access to episodes of transcendence. Thus, the regularity with which music brings about spiritual sensations is not a trivialization of the numinous, but confirmation of its accessibility.

The blending of musical and spiritual language in Otto’s treatise has its climax in the following passage: “Such is the effect of Music in the highest degree, for Music stands too high for any understanding to reach, and an all-mastering efficacy goes forth from it, of which, however, no man is able to give an account.” Replace “Music” with “God” and the point becomes clear. (The capitalization of “Music” further sharpens the effect.)

In a recent article, religious studies scholar Christopher I. Lehrich contends that Otto’s treatment of music in The Idea of the Holy allows for a “disconcerting” reformulation: “Suppose that, instead of writing a book about numinous experience, Otto had chosen to write one about musical experience.” Beyond merely discarding the theologian’s preference to mark distinctions between music and theology, Otto essentially groups them together. Music is not simply a means for coming into holiness. Music is Holy.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Hearing the Sacred

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

The term “sacred music” has fallen out of fashion somewhat in recent years. As a label for music used in devotional settings, it is synonymous with liturgical music, ritual music, and pastoral music. However, because “sacred” is an adjective, the term has been criticized as an attempt to distinguish some quality of the music itself. We cannot substantiate any claim of inherent sanctity, since the dividing line between secular and sacred music has never been strong and is increasingly blurred. Another problem is that when the term is expanded to performers, we get the boastful designation “sacred musician,” which may or may not accurately reflect the way a musician lives his/her life or views him/herself.

The issue lies in how “sacred” is understood. If we assume that it modifies the word next to it, then it is a misnomer. But if we see it more as a verb—something that the music does—then sacred is perfectly accurate. As difficult as it is to determine what (if anything) is holy about any sound, it is plain that sacred music is defined by its function.

A few examples from Jewish life illustrate the point. The core musical elements of the High Holy Days (called Mi-Sinai tunes, meaning “from Mount Sinai”) are derived in part from ballads and street songs of medieval Germany. A large portion of Sephardic synagogue music is essentially the same as Ottoman high court music. It is a Hassidic custom to transform popular songs into worship melodies by replacing the lyrics with nonsense syllable like “yai dai dai.” Twentieth-century America witnessed the emergence of liturgical music written in the style of 1960s protest songs; and a number of services have been composed in jazz, country, and other ostensibly “secular” idioms.

The list could go on, but the message is clear: sacred has little to do with the music itself, and everything to do with its purpose. This puts considerations like congregational preference and comfort level at the forefront. In order for the music to work (and thus be called sacred), it must be conducive and not disruptive to the worship experience. If it is sufficiently well liked and shown to succeed on a regular basis, it may earn a spot among the conventional favorites. Indeed, it is easy to forget that even the most popular and frequently sung synagogue melodies had premiere performances, and had to pass through several stages from novel to accepted to standard.

So, what is “sacred” in sacred music? The answer to this question is that it is the wrong question. Sacredness is not found in pitches, rhythms, intervals, or phrases, but in themes, intentions, and performance settings. All sorts of styles have been used in this capacity, and their suitability for worship is, in the end, a matter of taste. It is not necessary (or really possible) to apply objective measurements to sacred music. What is important is that the music helps cultivate a prayerful mood, no matter what it sounds like.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.

Art and Apartness

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Art is a sacred endeavor. Not in a theological or ideological sense—which is clouded by intellectualism and socio-religious determinations—but in the purer and more experiential sense of apartness. The primary aim and impetus of art is connection with the “beyond-the-ordinary”: a sensation of transcending the confines and occurrences of the mundane world. The artist who labors undisturbed in the creative process occupies a separate and all-consuming sphere of consciousness.

This explains the casual observation that artists are rarely drawn to the usual aspects of religious life: regulated rituals, group affiliation and formalistic prayers. Without having statistics to support this perception, it nevertheless seems that utterly artistic people—those who exist in an almost perpetual state of inward reflection and inspired invention—live the ideals that religion strives to impart through texts and structured practices. The artist is intimately familiar with transformation and elevation, making religion’s attempt to manufacture these qualities superfluous or even disruptive.

This does not mean that artists cannot be religious in the normative sense. The same variations of religiosity and non-religiosity are found among artists and the general population. Obviously, too, numerous artworks have been created for and commissioned by religious institutions, and many performing artists (mainly musicians) find steady employment in houses of worship. Even so, artists need not rely on public rituals or religious calendars to tell them how or when to encounter otherness.

From a humanistic perspective, religion, in all its forms and modes of engagement, is but a particularistic means toward a universal goal. The aspiration for transcendence is present within every human being. It is built into our biology. The fact that religions emerged at all in the course of human evolution is proof of this inborn longing of our species. Those who do not find sacred peaks in the everyday often turn to religious events (or pseudo-religious events, such as sports or concerts) in order to be pushed into that experience.

William Sharlin, a cantor-composer who found ecstasy alone at the piano and transmitted ecstasy through liturgical singing, included this remark in a lecture on the topic of art and the sacred: “The non-artist at best may strive for the occasional moment of transcendence and therefore may need the help of worship to separate himself from the ordinary.” Not so the artist.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.