March 4, 2014

Inner Grooves

A few years ago, I had an idea for a sound art project. Now, I should warn you that I’m neither an artist nor a sound engineer, but this one seemed (like so many other discarded ideas) like a good idea at the time.

It would be called “Albums I’ve Fallen Asleep To,” and it would consist of recordings of the inner tracks of great record albums. You know, that place in the vinyl record where the groove links back to itself and, if you grew up without a “fancy” turntable with an auto-return arm, the needle would just get stuck, going round and round until someone got up and gently returned it to its cradle.

I thought this would be a great project, of more conceptual than audible interest, but I thought it would make for interesting listening, nevertheless. CD’s, no matter how scrupulously re-mastered they might be, never reproduce the sound of the needle endlessly circling something we weren’t supposed to hear in the first place.  Or, if we did hear it (over and over and over and over), we certainly weren’t supposed to pay attention to it.


June 17, 2013

Recorded Prayer and the Work of Prayerful Audition

“Let us attend!” This is the familiar, urgent instruction directed to all those present in Orthodox Christian liturgy—a call to focus the mind, direct the heart, and attune the senses to what is coming. It is an instruction rooted in the dynamics of collective and individual prayer in the Orthodox Church where, as many scholars and practitioners emphasize, there is not a tradition of extemporaneous prayer. Ideally, one uses familiar formulae to ask for what one has already received—God’s mercy, for instance—or follows the prototype of Jesus Christ by praying the Lord’s Prayer.

When Orthodox Christians attend to prayer, they are often led by the voices of those reciting from a service or prayer book or singing specific hymns. Performance and memory come together in the texts of prayer to create effective continuity between praying and prayerful audition. In the Orthodox tradition, texts mediate between those who give voice to prayer in a pastoral role—clergy, readers, and singers—and those who attend to prayer as listeners. As these two images suggest, such mediation can extend beyond the time and place of services to recordings of prayer that circulate through physical media and online. Orthodox Christians encounter and interact with these media­­ as additional ways of attending to prayer through technologies of prayerful audition.

In recent conversations at an Orthodox seminary in the United States, one person likened this kind of attentive, efficacious listening to another technology of Orthodox prayer—the prayer rope (a knotted rope customarily used to count repetitions of the Jesus Prayer):

Just like in church, you’ll have the deacon or the choir leading you in prayer that you all know, and somehow in this way it’s awakening that in you, it’s almost strengthening it in you, so having such a prayer recorded is a goad for you to actually be doing it, almost like a prayer rope is reminding you that this is what you’re doing right now. It’s a very helpful thing. It’s a way to keep your feet on the pedals, and you know you’re riding the bike now.

Others spoke concretely about the context of these listening practices and their relation to prayer as mediated in Orthodox services:

If you are using a recording as a means of prayer then, like all prayer, it must have your undivided attention. Maybe if you know the route well, you can listen while driving, if driving isn’t going to require too much of your thought, and I know many families where, when they go to church on Sunday morning, one of the family members reads the Communion Prayers to the others in the car. So if you can do that, and you’re driving by yourself, so long as you are engaging the CD with your mind and heart to make the words that you’re hearing your own words, the way that you would when you listen to a reader reading the prayers in church, you’re making those words—even though they’re not physically coming out of your mouth—you’re making them your own words.

There is the potential in Orthodox Christianity to attend to prayer by recontextualizing recordings through the kind of intent listening to pastoral leading described above. Although these technologies of prayer might seem novel in the Orthodox tradition, many were quick to point to their connection to the theology of St. Paul in 1 Corinthians 12 where the body of Christ is composed of individual members, each sensorially attuned to the other so that when one suffers, all suffer, and when one is honored, all rejoice. Some members of the body give voice to prayer, while others make that voice their own through the work of prayerful audition.