Paper: Ritual Sound Design

Ritual Sound Design

Abstract for a paper I gave recently at the Affect Project Conference, in Winnipeg, Canada. I investigate some of the ways that religious cultures around the world have exploited low-frequency vibration for its capacity to confound perception, filling bodies with nebulous energies and producing felt-but-unseen presences …

‘Engineering Numinous Affect: An Ethico-Acoustics of Ritual Sound Design’
ABSTRACT: Religious cultures around the world have long recognized the intrinsic peculiarity of bodily encounters with low-frequency sound.  Consider the prevalence of ritual bass-making devices (and structures) designed to hum the body, mystify the senses, and conjure visceral perceptions of invisible presence.  Beyond meaty vibration, this is sound as an incitement to the imagination.   It re-textures felt surroundings and turns the body into a string of questions: “What is that … what’s happening … how will I work with it …?” Brian Massumi would call this synaesthetic ontogenesis.  For Donald Tuzin, it was the audiogenesis of religious culture: sound, modulating affect, as a catalyst of belief.  This paper theorizes low-frequency sound as a non-representational strategy, deployed for its extra-musical (and largely non-cochlear) perceptual effects, in what could be termed “numinous sound design.”  The discussion combines a materialist approach with insights from anthropology, religious studies, musicology and acoustic science.  It takes, as its central example, the case of the pipe organ and the Church, examining the machine’s material contribution – alongside architectural, visual, and liturgical practices – to the sensory (re)generation of belief within a religious assemblage.  The guiding question is not so much what we make of low-frequency sound (how we “construct” or instrumentalize it), but what it makes of us: how does it undulate and unsettle; how does it incite; how does it modulate experience, drawing bodily thought into new equations with itself and its surroundings?