Worlds of Sound
The power of soundscapes in memory, narrative, and practice.
We inhabit worlds of sound. Yet how often do we notice the sonic aspects of our lives? What might attending to these aspects reveal about who we are as human beings? How does hearing the world draw us out of ourselves, toward others, toward God? What is the theological significance of the soundscapes we inhabit?
I was led to these questions in two deeply formative ways: first, while encountering my own grief in the process of recording an album of ambient music; and second, while encountering the grief of others in pursuing a doctoral degree in religion at Duke University, a multi-year journey I completed in the fall of 2020. When I began my program six years ago, I thought I would be leaving behind a sonic world that had until then sustained me spiritually, existentially, and financially, one in which I worked as a freelance musician and music director of a Catholic parish. That path had seemed to come to its natural end, and, with my admission to Duke, a new path had opened.
But as I progressed in my studies, opportunities to make music continued to manifest themselves—most notably, an invitation to join the roster of the record label 12k. Founded over two decades ago by electronic musician Taylor Deupree, 12k has, over the course of its existence, released a steady stream of ambient music: quiet, introspective albums that collectively realize something of Brian Eno’s vision for the genre. “Ambient music is intended to induce calm and a space to think,” Eno wrote in the liner notes of Ambient 1: Music for Airports, now regarded as a classic of the genre. “Ambient music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting.”
For me, it’s this Janus-faced quality of ambient music—its synthesis of ignorability and interest—that makes it so alluring. Ambient music, when done well, has a delicate intricacy that commands attention at the same time that its modesty—its slow, contemplative quality—means that it always has the potential to slip into the background of the environment in which it is playing.
As I prepared to record for 12k, I did a deep dive into the label’s catalog, finding therein music capable of cultivating a space for reflection—and more importantly, for writing, as I was simultaneously working on my dissertation. Whether in the sonic landscapes of Federico Durand, the tape loops of Marcus Fischer, or the field recordings of Stephen Vitiello, I discovered music that created an environment for thought by becoming part of my environment. As it played through my speakers, the music wove into the sounds filtering through my window: squirrel movement, wind, rain, bird and insect song. It blended into the sounds of my home: steps along the stairs, muffled conversation from another room, the intermittent barking of my dog, the call of my children from downstairs. Rather than displacing the sounds of my world, it became its accompaniment.
As I turned to recording, I wondered: How might I arrive at this delicate synthesis of ignorability and interest? I play the pedal steel guitar, an instrument that, when approached in a particular way, produces a gauzy, evocative tone that sits somewhere between presence and absence. In the context of ambient music, where it still remains something of a unicorn, the pedal steel trades flashiness for texture, showmanship for depiction. The contrast is between a centrifugal and centripetal approach to the instrument, between turning outward to entertain one’s audience and turning inward to depict an interior world.
Don’t get me wrong: I love hearing a pedal steel soar atop a country ballad, but the album I recorded for 12k locates me somewhere within centripetal, inward territory. I found myself wanting to depict a place in my music—specifically, my memories of a place and the feelings attached to these memories. I found myself turning to the world of my childhood, attempting to shape my compositions in a way that might depict the feelings of early memory.
Why I wanted to approach the project in this way is something of a different story. When I started recording, I was in the fifth year of my doctoral program. My children were getting older, and my wife and I more tired, as I neared the finish line of my degree. And, on the other side of the country, my mother was contemplating discontinuing dialysis. About seven years earlier, my mother’s transplanted kidney had failed. Seven years of dialysis had left her body extremely frail. As a result, her death felt palpably close.
Recognizing that our true intentions are rarely clear to us, and yet knowing that we try to stitch ourselves into narratives that help us make sense of our lives, my turn to the world of my childhood now seems to have been a coping mechanism. Through the process of recording—the careful layering of tracks, the painstaking labour of mixing, the repeated listening to playbacks—I created soundscapes that helped me inhabit an earlier time, an earlier environment. It was a form of therapy, a practice with sound that returned me to myself, and which reminded me of who I am and where I come from, particularly as part of my life—my mother’s life—was ending. It was a work of remembering—of remembering the past and re-membering the brokenness of the present.
To where did the soundscapes, with their quiet introspection, help me return? To the neighbourhood in Rancho Peñasquitos, California, where I grew up, which had only two streets, both of which wound into cul-de-sacs between an interwoven set of barren, gentle hills. I remember my mother—my beautiful mother—who emigrated from Mexico to the United States to marry my father, telling me as a child that los peñasquitos means “the hills with white rocks on them.” I spent a lot of time on those hills, kicking through dust as I explored them, watching for rattlesnakes.
The soundscapes returned me to those hills where I grew up under the sun; to the ice plant in our front yard my sister and I would step on to crush out its juice; the red lava rock beneath the pine trees; the Santa Anas—hot, dry winds that would suddenly manifest, like an apparition, in our backyard; the arid hills without trees, only brush—chaparral and sage—that I constantly climbed. Recording helped me return to this particular landscape.
It also returned me to my first memories of the Eucharist—the fragile wafer I approached each Sunday in line with my parents and sister, the wafer which was also Christ’s body. There was a church at the bottom of our neighbourhood that we attended called Our Lady of Mount Carmel, where I received my first communion and first reconciliation. I used to think of that entire landscape—the neighbourhood, the church, the hills—as Mount Carmel. It was there, in that landscape, that I was first awakened to God, to a sense of God’s presence—there in the neighbourhood, the hills, and the Eucharist. In my mind, I lived at the base of Mount Carmel. And so, in an effort to stitch myself, with sound, back into that place of memory, where God seemed resonant and a landscape sacramental, I named the album Mount Carmel.
Having finished recording months earlier, I went to visit my mother in Seattle to say goodbye a few weeks before the album’s release. She stopped dialysis the day I arrived, passing away ten days later, on Easter Sunday.
Christian Wiman, in My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, writes that “existence is not a puzzle to be solved, but a narrative to be inherited and undergone and transformed person by person.” Decades ago, something of this insight animated a turn to narrative among Christian theologians that, for quite some time, held prominence at Duke Divinity School. Among its claims were the ideas that human experience is, most fundamentally, narrative in quality, and that divine revelation issues in narrative form. We are story-bound creatures, in other words, and God, in God’s condescension to humanity, binds himself to story. Or, put christologically, in taking on human flesh in the incarnation, Jesus also took on the narrative quality of human experience.
Alongside this turn to narrative, the category of practice also emerged as a key theme: certain kinds of practices, it was argued, help us to more fully inhabit God’s story, the tradition or community of which we are a part, and the stories of our own lives. These practices, because they contain goods internal to themselves, form us in virtue, and it is through the pursuit of virtue that one brings unity to the narrative of one’s life.
I am seeking to understand my own embodied practice as a musician in relationship to my lived experience as a story-bound creature and the abiding presence of grace.
Powerful insights, yes, but today virtue ethics often comes under fire for having an insufficiently broad conception of practice, and for advancing a vision of virtue straightjacketed by classist and racist norms. One of the happy accidents of preparing for my doctoral exams was returning to the work of Stanley Hauerwas, and finding him there pushing back against what I take to be a form of classism on the part of Alasdair MacIntyre. In After Virtue, MacIntyre claims that architecture is a practice, chock full of internal goods that form its practitioner, the architect, in virtue; but bricklaying, merely a skill, is not. Hauerwas, the son of a bricklayer, and a bricklayer himself, knew this to be profoundly wrong, and he knew this to be wrong in the way that one knows something with their body.
For Hauerwas, bricklaying, like architecture, is a craft. The practice of bricklaying—its gruelling physicality, the materiality of mortar and trowel, the social life of a bricklaying crew—constitutes a tradition that one learns through apprenticeship. As an artisanal craft, it serves as a prism through which Hauerwas understands the intellectual craft of theology. “If the work I have done in theology is of any use, it is because of what I learned on the job,” he writes of bricklaying in Hannah’s Child: A Theologian’s Memoir. Both theology and bricklaying are practices with goods internal to themselves; both are capable, in their own way, of unifying one’s life around what is good and true. And, for Hauerwas, why wouldn’t this be the case? This is what the story of his life revealed to him, a revelation he understands within a broader sense of God’s abiding presence, as he narrates in Hannah’s Child.
In reflecting on my experience of the recording process, and in upholding the modes of attention and assembly involved in constructing soundscapes, I suppose I am doing something of the same. I am seeking to understand my own embodied practice as a musician in relationship to my lived experience as a story-bound creature and the abiding presence of grace. But for me, this became apparent through the prism of grief. Rather than the measured practices of the virtue seekers, my practice seemed to have a sense of desperation about it.
In a time when the claims of virtue ethics can ring hollow—because of its echoes of tradition, hierarchy, and the status quo—perhaps it would be good to attend to practices that emerge from desperation, grief, and lament. Whether in the interior turmoil of our own lives, or the trauma and upheaval we witness in the lives of others, perhaps modes of attention that centre grief and loss can serve as a panacea to narrative theologies that are inward-focused, confident in their own version of the story, and resolute about the kinds of virtues required for flourishing within it. Perhaps we should be asking: What practices, and what expressions of craft, emerge from the site of a wound? And not simply our own wounds, but the wounds of others? As I discovered while completing my degree, the answer to this question would also emerge from within a world of sound.
In my dissertation, I took up the strange and difficult task of developing a Christian ethics of handgun ownership. And rather than in the abstract, I attempted to do so from the ground up, attentive to the ways guns are entangled in everyday life in the United States today. I used ethnography, an increasingly popular method that Christian theologians and ethicists are borrowing from cultural anthropology to advance theological and ethical reflection. Ethnography involves living with the “other,” learning about different ways of being in the world by apprenticing oneself to them. This meant that I spent time with handgun owners—evangelical Christian ones, to be precise—not simply interviewing them but doing what Clifford Geertz calls “deep hanging out.” I wanted to be fully immersed, so much so that I even bought a handgun myself, bringing it into my life and home.
After a year of fieldwork with Christian handgun owners, a pastor friend familiar with my project told me about the Religious Coalition for a Nonviolent Durham (RCND), an organization that hosts public vigils at the sites of firearm-caused death in Durham, North Carolina. I decided to attend one.
What practices, and what expressions of craft, emerge from the site of a wound? And not simply our own wounds, but the wounds of others?
In doing so, I found myself preoccupied by questions I had not asked since the beginning of my fieldwork: What should I wear? Will I stand out? Will my presence be tolerated? I had been tortured by these questions during my initial visits to gun shops and shooting ranges, but with time their intensity faded. As I prepared for the vigil, however, these questions rushed forcefully back into view, reminding me that I was, in a sense, beginning again, setting foot on new ethnographic shores.
My intensity of feeling likewise had something to do with the site itself. Unlike gun shops and shooting ranges, I was approaching the literal site of a wound. The vigil was being held for a young African American man who had been killed earlier in the year at the age of thirty-five. Further, it was being held on what would have been his thirty-sixth birthday, and in the neighbourhood in which he had been killed. I was preparing to inhabit a space that had been violently broken. What would it mean for me to do so? How would I, a stranger and outsider, inhabit this space sensitively, but also in a way that would enable me to advance my research? I did not know how to answer these questions, and I am not sure I can answer them now. All I knew was that this would require a kind of inhabitance different from that to which I had become accustomed thus far.
As I crossed into east Durham from its west side, it began to rain, and I wondered if I had an umbrella in the trunk. Exiting the freeway, I found myself in a neighbourhood in which I had never been before. Small, run-down, rectangular brick homes in tiny lots, one after another, lined the street. Turning a corner, I saw a cluster of umbrellas hovering above a line of cars parked along the side of the road. I parked and fished out an umbrella from my trunk, clear vinyl with pink polka dots. Perfect, just perfect, I thought. I opened the umbrella and walked toward the gathering, deciding at the last minute to leave my field notebook behind.
As I neared, I took in my surroundings further. A school of blue balloons floated above the mass of umbrellas. Nearly everyone walking toward the gathering was African American, and some appeared to be coming to the vigil from their own homes in the neighbourhood. Many of the attendees wore light blue shirts with the photo and name of the deceased. Others wore matching crimson-coloured shirts with the name of a local Baptist church. There were about seventy-five people present, seven or eight of whom appeared to be white, the rest African American. Everyone stood in damp dirt, in a set of concentric rings beneath a grove of trees, trying to avoid the rain. There were three rings total, a tightly formed inner ring that contained, I would later determine, family and friends of the deceased; then a looser ring of people; and a broadened-out ring of people standing outside of the grove. I decided to stand under a tree, somewhere between the second and third rings, somewhere between foreground and background, participant and observer.
The vigil began with a call to prayer. I bowed my head, closed my eyes, and listened, but I found myself unable to fully enter in. I was trying—perhaps too hard—to acclimate myself while also making mental notes about what I was hearing and observing. As the prayer progressed, I felt I had made the right decision in leaving my field notebook behind. But the vigil raised some uncomfortable questions: Did the absence of the field notebook alter how I stood in relation to my object of study—what academics would call my “subject position”? Was I still an ethnographer, in other words? Or had I morphed into something else? Perhaps I was present as a Christian and nothing more, one who was wrestling with the challenges and confusions of the issues I was studying, and who needed a place to listen, discern, and pray. Or maybe, as one who had brought a gun into his life, my subject position was closer to the gun owners I was studying—a thought that made me more than a little uncomfortable. Maybe I was acting as a proxy for them, joining the circle to discover what, if anything, could be done about the guns in their lives, as well as the gun in my life.
As the prayer ended, those wearing the crimson-coloured shirts began to sway and sing an a capella hymn in call and response. As I listened, concerns about my subject position—whether ethnographer, Christian, or handgun owner—dropped away. The impulse to capture and inscribe experience gave way to a desire to quietly listen—simply to inhabit the world of sound I found myself within. I was becoming what anthropologists Charles Briggs and Clara Mantini-Briggs, in Tell Me Why My Children Died: Rabies, Indigenous Knowledge, and Communicative Justice, term an “overhearer,” one who, in listening to a mourning community, finds themselves on the edge of “a conversation that is not for them.” But in overhearing these sung laments, in their shifting my attention from myself to the gathered, mourning community, and to the individual being memorialized, I became situated within an “affective and ethical soundscape” that began to make demands of me.
After the hymn, a female African American minister entered the space enclosed by the inner ring and read from Psalm 34: “The Lord is close to the broken-hearted,” she intoned, “and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” She gave a reflection on the deceased’s life, her voice firm and impassioned as she emphasized the importance of the community standing together, gathered in vigil. Persons in the inner ring wept while she spoke.
She then asked if anyone wanted to share a reflection about the deceased. An African American woman approached the centre and spoke about her experience of losing a child to gun violence and extended her love and support to the family of the deceased. “They say they know what you’re going through,” she said, “but they don’t know what you’re going through if they haven’t walked in our shoes.” She ended by approaching and embracing a family member of the deceased. Others spoke: a younger African American man from the neighbourhood voiced his admiration for the deceased; a representative of the Baptist church pledged the support of the church for the family and the neighbourhood; and a cousin of the deceased mourned and described how she saw him as her “little brother.”
After the minister’s reflection and the sharing of thoughts by family and community members, the director of the RCND, a young white man in jeans and a light green polo, came into the centre of the circle and read the “death resolution.” I would later learn this was done toward the conclusion of every vigil. The death resolution is a statement prepared by the RCND that is archived in the Coalition’s records and given to the family members of the deceased. The resolution honours and recognizes the life of the deceased and commits them to God.
The vigil ended with gatherers turning from the grove toward a space on the side of the road. As they did so, they released the balloons into the air, shouting “Happy birthday!” and cheering. I stood on the periphery, listening to this delicate and intricate lament, transfixed by the vigil’s work of memorialization, its effort to stitch the memory of the deceased, through practices of presence, prayer, and song, into a larger presence—the presence of the gathered community and God.
I felt chastened. In all of my attempts to understand the place of the gun in US American life—in my movement from gun shops to shooting ranges to churches with armed security—I had never entered this neighbourhood; I had never been to this liturgy. The vigil remained a brush harbour, a hidden place to me.
And yet, the vigil’s bounty of sound issued an invitation. It invited me to encounter my neighbour, and to see in him Christ crucified, and to feel the weight and burden of this recognition. Like my Mount Carmel, the vigil was a sacramental moment, a point of time resonant with God’s presence—and yet, rather than in a wafer, Christ appeared in the memorialization of this young black man.
We inhabit worlds of sound—some our own, some of others—and how we do so matters. To be a follower of Christ means we cannot simply reside within our own personal narratives, or in the soundscapes of memory or artistic invention. And yet we need these interior residences—I needed them—and their attendant practices of listening, re-membering, and prayer to grieve the losses, and weather the turmoil, of our lives. These practices of listening, re-membering, and prayer attune and open us to the laments we encounter in “overhearing” the mourning of others. We need practices that are both centripetal and centrifugal in orientation, those that enable us to stitch our own lives into God’s story as I experienced with music and sound, and those that enable us to gently inhabit the stories and soundscapes of the dispossessed, even if only in the background. In becoming reoriented by what we encounter there, these moments, our lives, and the lives of others are transfigured.