The stated purpose of the ‘Cities and Memory’ project is to explore, “The relationships between sound and memory, and between places and their sounds”. Last year, we wrote about their ‘Dada sounds’ collection, celebrating the centenary of Cabaret Voltaire’s opening, and thus the beginning of the Dada movement. Here, contributors “remixed the world,” applying Dadaist cut-up techniques to field-recordings, forming a global interactive map. You could hear Dada interpretations of a Canadian football stadium, a Thailand airport, or the street outside Cabaret Voltaire itself.
Their latest collection, ‘Sacred Spaces’, examines “the crucial role sound has played in our spiritual and religious lives,” exploring the “sonic similarities between different religions, and different types of sacred space from across the world”. But what do these spaces have in common? A recurrent theme in places of worship is the sense of relative scale. Reverb and space are often manipulated to extremities. Think, for example, of Bach’s rich organ Masses echoing off the walls of Leipzig’s Thomaskirche. Or the seductive simplicity of a Tibetan gong, embodying the sonic philosophy that influenced the meditative drones of Eliane Radigue and many others. The spatial character of religious places take on a metaphorical meaning from the infinitely large to the infinitely small.
Religious acoustics also carry purpose. They are made and reproduced to facilitate a state of mind, one which elevates the pious and diminishes the trivial. In these places, life and death take precedence in one’s mind, if only for a short while. But not all religious music is sombre or serious. Take the joyous rupture of Hare Krisha or Gospel music. There is a lively ecstasy that can be accessed through religious song and dance, which can be traced all the way into the hedonistic excesses of modern nightclubs. Even Robert Hood, founding member of electronic pioneering collective Underground Resistance, has professed to “delivering God’s message through techno”.
Then there’s the alliances between the senses and spirituality. Vision gives a sense of distance; of things at a distance; of oneself against others. Eyes over-exaggerate this separation between oneself and an other, outer world. You’re here; it’s over there. But sound is imbued with memory and narrative depth. When listening to a space, it unfolds over time. Where vision gives simultaneity; sound gives sequence. This connection to temporarily gives music a special precedence in memory. So it makes sense for the ‘Cities and Memory’ project to take sound as its focus. Sound is, as Beethoven put it, “the mediator between the life of the senses and the life of the spirit.” Imagine a similar project in which contributors merely submitted photographs of religious places. What would be the point? The sense of the spiritual must be heard, not seen.
To pinpoint that which makes a space ‘religious’ or unique is largely a redundant exercise. ‘Sacred spaces’ is a broad church. Time would be better spent away from definitions and in the places themselves. This collection comprises field recordings from 48 sources, spanning 34 counties, making it the biggest in the project’s history. Artists processed these recordings to reimagine and recontextualise their sacred sources. Within the archive, you can find the church bells of Northern Italy, Turkish call to prayer and the bells of Burma. Find out more about the project and their religious archive here. And below, find a curated playlist of these ‘Sacred Spaces’ from Stuart Fowkes, creative director of Cities and Memory.