Managing Editor’s note: This post is the first in a three-part Sounding Out! series on deafness, Sound Studies, and Deaf Studies during February 2012.–LMS
Growing up I attended many religious services. As an adult I attend church services less often, but it still stands out to me that sound is an essential part of the traditional Christian religious service. Participation depends upon listening, responding, and singing. If the service (or mass, as I knew it growing up in the Catholic faith) reminds us we are a community of people with common religious beliefs, our participation in the rituals is a manifestation—a ratification if you will—of our belonging to that community. (Last month David B. Greenberg talked in our podcast series about how sound—specifically listening to religious services while on the road—allows Christian truck drivers to feel like they are a part of a community of faith.) In addition to singing and responding, there are several sound metaphors that imbue the experience of being a churchgoer: the references to the Word of God, discussions of how God will listen to our prayers, the insistence that we need to listen to what God was trying to tell us, even a parent’s admonishment that one sit still and be quiet while the preacher talks…in sum, to be a practicing Christian requires a lot of listening.
However, in Deaf culture (defined by music researcher Alice Ann Darrow in her article “The Role of Music in Deaf Culture: Implications for Music Educators” as “composed primarily of congenitally deaf adults who communicate through sign language rather than speech” but is not limited to them) this takes another shape. When I visited the Deaf International Community Church, located in Olathe, Kansas, I realized that deafness complicates what it means to listen, especially in terms of religious services.
The Deaf International Community Church (DICC) has been holding services in Olathe since 2010, according to journalist Dawn Bormann from Olathe News. They emerged from a deaf ministry at a local Baptist church, but are nondenominational. At the moment the DICC holds services at the Center of Grace, a rented space. The services are open to the deaf, the hearing impaired, and those who hear; however, the services are geared toward the deaf community.
As I walked into the Center of Grace in late January, I was surprised to be welcomed by sound. I heard and saw people talking and signing—sometimes at once. Music played loudly from within the temple, and parishioners milled about. I was not sure if I should walk in and not talk to anyone or if I should just act casual. I suddenly felt very subconscious about my sense of hearing. I found an empty pew toward the back—after all, I would be taking notes and didn’t want to interrupt—and sat there, observing my surroundings. Shortly after, Pastor Debbie Buchholz, one of the spiritual leaders of the DICC, walked over to me and introduced herself, putting me at ease.
When the service started, the same woman who had just spoken to me stood in front of the congregation, signing her words. In front of the crowd a voice interpreter spoke for Pastor Debbie. The effect was unexpected: the hands gave life to words, to sounds, to language while the disembodied (from my angle) female voice translated into sound what Pastor Debbie signed to the crowd. It took me a while to get used to the new sound of the pastor. I had only spoken briefly to Pastor Debbie, yet it seemed surreal to hear another voice speaking for her.
I meditated upon the fact that language is conceived in terms of the arbitrary relationship between signs and sounds. A letter sounds a certain way. Put letters together and you put sounds together. Letters (and their sounds) make words (a compilation of sounds) that designate an object. In this sense, sound is closely connected to making sense of the world. Even though we can create sounds with objects, our bodies are constantly creating sounds as well. The sounds of words come from our lungs out through our mouths and to our ears as they designate people, places, things, and ideas.
At the DICC service, sound—something that we conceive of as naturally emanating from bodies—was disconnected from language. In the Deaf culture language is transformed into hand gestures. Swinging a finger, shaking a hand, pushing down a palm, these small gestures stand in for sound— or stand apart from sound. Even though for me, growing up Catholic, participation came in the guise of listening to the priest, singing along with the congregation, and repeating the prayers, here participation came through hands. They sang with their hands, they prayed through their hands. Being in the DICC service reminded me of how natural and normal we take sound to be. In that space, I was suddenly very conscious of the sound of my voice, and of sound’s relationship to language.
This brings me to PhD student and Sound Studies scholar Steph Ceraso’s HASTAC blog post on listening with your whole body. In her post she uses an interview with percussionist Evelyn Glennie as a way to reflect upon listening practices and the ability to listen with more than one’s ears. Evelyn Glennie, according to Ceraso, engages in a restrictive sound diet where she sometimes, voluntarily, eliminates sound from her environment in order to become more aware to sound. Ceraso’s words on multimodal listening resonate with me, and put my visit to the DICC in perspective. The DICC service showed how deafness can make sound studies scholars reflect upon the role of sound in our society—and more importantly, how we listen and communicate.
Also, Ceraso’s ideas about multimodal listening make me think about what other ways the deaf congregation at the church listens. If listening is a form of spiritual/religious participation, multimodal listening accounts for how the parishioners participate in the service. The body, including the eyes, become a gateway into absorbing the message (the Word of God) and in that way demonstrate alternate ways of listening.
For this spiritual community, the need to worship in their own language brings them together, but so does the Deaf culture. During the service they prayed together for an end to discrimination against deaf people and hoped that God would help those newly born in deafness. As I prayed with them, I realized that the congregation comes to DICC not just for religious guidance but also for affirmation of their humanity and their culture. The space of the church is a place to recharge spiritually but also become socially empowered.
Liana M. Silva is co-founder and Managing Editor of Sounding Out! She is also a PhD candidate at Binghamton University.
This podcast examines the prominent role of audio in the daily spiritual practice of Christian truck drivers. Using the lived examples of these drivers as an entry point, this segment explores the ways in which listening practices help to establish community and ground spirituality for individuals who spend long hours on the road.
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David B. Greenberg is a graduate of Oberlin College, where he studied religion, with an emphasis on Modern American Religious History. This podcast draws from his ethnographic research study, “Highway Religion: Truckstop Chapels, Evangelism, and Lived Religion on the Road.” David also performs and records as a singer-songwriter, and currently lives in New Jersey.
I grew up the Pentecostal Church of God in Christ in the Northeast. . .New Jersey, to be exact. And it was this particular religious and cultural world that gave me an appreciation for what music – and sound more generally – can do to move people, to have them inspired and changed. I’d like to expand on Regina Bradley’s recent post, OutKast and the Sounds of the Southern Black Church, and her theorizing of sound and space by remixing, spinning and scratching it, by grounding my reflection in a specific religious tradition in which I am most familiar. Thus, I want to use Black Pentecostalism in the United States and its performance of song and sound to better understand and critique the ideas of authenticity and voice we find in the performance of groups like OutKast.
Bradley’s piece traces Outkast’s borrowings from the Southern Black Church; I want to ask, what if borrowing from a common store is a way of theological life, not as theft, but as a means to producing a social world where sound and song are both gift and object of exchange? The concept of authenticity is a peculiar problem for music performance because implied within it are questions of who has the right to perform certain sounds and songs, or more pointedly, can any one group or even individual “own” a set of sounds and songs? I think that within the sound world of Black Pentecostalism (though not exclusively there) is the idea that music and sound exist in a public zone, a zone that is fugitive and insurrectionary. The public zone of music and sound experienced in Pentecostalism problematizes authenticity, ownership and the question of who can reproduce such musics.
The notion of the public zone helps us to understand the so-called authentic voice differently. Rather than it being the “ground zero” instance of purity or the discovery of some sort of truth or “essence,” I think of authentic voice as fundamentally a social experiment. The performance of song and sound from the public zone is a social experiment in that singing and sounding out are tentative, improvisational processes and they arise to the performance’s occasion. The social experient of utilizing song and sound produces inflection, accent, and most importantly, critical distance from other performances. Perhaps authenticity is not a reaching toward a foundational claim of origin/ality, but is a reaching outward, an extension, a centrifugal dance and play that seeks escape and refuge, creating sonic spaces in which one can inhabit that are, at the same time, the public zones in and through which contact occurs.
Consider, for example, the 1893 song “I Must Tell Jesus”
And the way in which Vernon Price approaches and touches on the traditional version of the song, especially by withdrawing from and touching off it.
Price’s play is most pronounced, I think, by the way she leaves the song undone, at a particular height, swell, spiritedness. Price left the song as it was – as a social experiment – available for others to enter into performance with her in the space of the refused lyrical end. Jesus can help us…Jesus (…) Refusing to sing the sounded word “alone” functions not merely as a placeholder, but as a reworking of the performance itself. In leaving the song undone, she leaves it critically open. At the end of Price’s incompletion, the organist’s chording changes tonal centers, from major mode to reflective minor with augmented and suspended chords or what Bradley might call, “takin’ em to chu[r]ch.”
But and also: Price could not contain the song to the lyrics. Words don’t go there. She screamed, she spoke in tongues, she used melisma, slurred speech, bent notes and exaggerated forms of vibrato. That is, the song itself functioned as a point of transition, as a vessel to be filled with voice as she was a vessel of outpouring. Giving, taking, in the same breath, the same sound. She did not, it seems to me, desire to sing the song “correctly” and her performance of authenticity was not about the reproducibility of the traditional or “original” version. Just as the organist changed tonal centers at the end of her undone performance, so too singing from this Black Pentecostal religious, cultural public zone shifts epistemological centers – knowledge – of what is and is not singing, acceptable, holy. Her sound broke down the structures that mark her notes as “bent” and her vibrato as “exaggerated.” A normative mode of “correct” or “proper” singing from within this public zone would be to stifle creativity, surprise, discovery.
As a vessel, we can think of sound, song and subject as conduits for the exchange of ecstasy and ecstatics. The sonic public zone becomes, for Vernon Price’s improvisation of “I Must Tell Jesus,” a point of departure, where the song and the sounds she makes in it socialize, network, change. Songs and sounds, from within this zone, are available for a public engagement; the song and singers are both capacities to be filled, emptied and filled again. And I think the theological imperative of modern Pentecostalism – that the Holy Spirit fills the individual is important for performance tradition [this difference is indexed by the divergent questions: “did you see so-and-so catch the spirit” versus “does so-and-so have the Holy Ghost” and “when did you get filled with the Holy Ghost?”]. One is filled with the capacity to be filled, with the fullness of the spirit that is made evident by giving it away through song.
As a vessel, we can think of sound, song and subject as conduits for the exchange of ecstasy and ecstatics. The sonic materiality of Price’s performance rubs up against and caresses, spins and spins off the performances that come previous to that moment in that church. This does not mean that she insouciantly called up the traditional in order to dismiss it. That would imply that Price was both lacking in attention and intentionality. What I think Price makes evident is how any performance of any song – the traditional “I Must Tell Jesus” included – occurs fundamentally within a social context. Any such performance – its “first” or the many that have come after it – are conduits, bridges. What we have then, by way of a sonic public zone, is a space that privileges the accrual of sound and song as a mode of sharing. The song was not created in order for Elisha Hoffman – writer of “I Must Tell Jesus” – to keep it. He got the song to share it and Price performed it to redouble such sharing. To be in a state of ecstasy is to be “beside oneself” and Price’s singing forced the song into ecstatic posture. Not only was she “beside herself” in praise to God, but she caused others to be beside as well, creating a new space for the beside of each self to celebrate and praise together.
Price riffed on the original, quickened herself to quicken others. She screamed because the heightened emotion moved her. And that heightened emotion moved others as well.