Things Heard and Left Unheard

There have been several stories lately, in print and on the radio, about the importance of touch. One scientist arguing, successfully in my opinion, that touch is the most important of all senses. Touching a newborn stimulates their intellectual and social development, the sense of touch saves us from burning ourselves or freezing to death. Touch is a powerful communication tool – from the first handshake to the loving embrace.

I hadn’t really thought about any of this before, and until hearing these stories, I would have said that hearing is our most important sense. We gather so much information by listening, and experience so much joy. Giggling, rustling leaves, footsteps, birdsong, conversation.  I think these are the things that connect us to the world.  Fortunately there isn’t a need to prioritize our senses and I can still try to convince you, if needed, that sound is sometimes under-appreciated.

In The New Yorker this week there is an article about the importance of sound, and the new ways of manipulating it to improve listening experiences in restaurants, concert halls…and maybe even churches. Who hasn’t endured an evening of shouting over the surrounding clamor at a restaurant or a party? Who has ever felt that they’ve been simply an auditor/spectator at a church service or a concert, rather than a fully immersed participant in the sound of those experiences? I’ve said it again and again – listening is as important a form of participation as anything else I can think of. You know this already from conversations in which listening is far more important than talking.

Over the years so much has already been done at St. Alban’s – carpet taken out, a new sound system installed and tweaked – but it’s only made me hope for something more. We can listen to perfectly engineered music at the click of a mouse, and whether we realize it or not, we all yearn for that more perfect listening experience in live performance as well. It has been a dream of mine for some time to explore the possibilities of creating a more satisfying aural experience – as part of a larger and more complete worship experience – here at St. Alban’s. Whether through new technologies, or old-fashioned moving of the furniture, wouldn’t it be amazing to have sound able to create the same connection with God as the light pouring through the church’s glorious stained-glass windows? Well, I hope that sometimes the music in church does help you connect more fully to God, but I’m greedily wanting that to happen for everyone, all the time.

In The New Yorker’s article, author Alex Ross talks to one sound engineer in California who has been manipulating sound and space for 50 years. He likens his work to the “Photoshopping of an image, with undesirable elements removed.” He told Ross, “We couldn’t do this until we had a really high-powered computer. It’s calculating twenty thousand echoes a second, and that information has to stay in the memory for four or five seconds—a huge amount of data. Only a few years ago could we pull off the sacred-space setting, which is the most complex of all.” Sacred space…the most complex of all.

My colleagues have often noted that the problems of doing church in the 21st century are very similar to those facing arts institutions. Alex Ross writes: “like many American orchestras, the San Francisco Symphony is seeking to diversify its offerings and capture the attention of a younger audience. With SoundBox, it has hit on a winning formula; the first three editions of the series, which began last December, have sold out quickly.” Read the article and learn how and why sound has contributed to this success. The New Yorker-Wizards of Sound.

It’s just one part of the whole picture, of course. But then, as individuals we’re just one small part of the body of Christ. If our goal is a complete worship experience which leads towards a complete body of Christ, then the path towards that goal is an infinite number of small decisions and actions. Is anyone listening?


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3 Responses to Things Heard and Left Unheard

  1. I always wanted to know about the holy sensual–little carnal –side of the true life in Christ. I believe it exists, although some Churches seek to obliterate it, and it is there that I base my holiness. Because it is the Body, in the whole sense, which in Christ, senses good and evil long before the mind.

  2. Christian says:

    I am listening. Ironically, your writings of these Daily Cups has brought great meaning (i.e. understanding) to many of your performances in church.

  3. Laura I. says:

    I’m intrigued by what a “sacred space setting” might be. I imagine it’s intended to involve a purity of sound. But in the Cathedral’s Center for Prayer & Pilgrimage we maintain a “sacred space” that’s filled with deep silence, allowing a visitor to hear God in an interior “sound of silence”. (A high-tech metaphor is those amazing Bose noise-cancelling headphones that buffered much of the tension for me in a recent trip that involved 52 hours on airplanes!) I think that cultivating interior silence, too, helps sharpen the ear for those rustling leaves, slight changes of pitch in a friend’s speech, creaking of an aging house, each note of music . . . . Thanks for your reflections, Sonya!

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