Roundup: Acoustic ecology, trees in religion, the Pharaoh Sisters, and more

Below you will find a mix of annotated links to songs, interviews, articles, and art showings of interest: “The Sound of Silence” on classical guitar; an acoustic ecologist whose job is to record nature’s music; giving up books for Lent; two interfaith art exhibitions (Faces of Prayer in Vienna and To Bough and To Bend in Los Angeles); and two new folk music albums (Old Wow by Sam Lee and Civil Dawn by the Pharaoh Sisters).

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MUSIC VIDEO: “The Sound of Silence” (arr. Lawson, Trueman): Classical guitarist Miloš Karadaglić collaborated with members of the string orchestra 12 Ensemble on this instrumental rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.” [HT: Philip Chircop]

This is the title track of Karadaglić’s fifth album, Sound of Silence, released last fall. To watch him perform the piece in London’s Air Studios, as filmed by Classic FM in October for Live Music Month 2019, click here.

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PODCAST EPISODE: “Silence and the Presence of Everything,” On Being interview with Gordon Hempton: “Acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton collects sounds from around the world. He’s recorded inside Sitka spruce logs in the Pacific Northwest, thunder in the Kalahari Desert, and dawn breaking across six continents. An attentive listener, he says silence is an endangered species on the verge of extinction. He defines real quiet as presence—not an absence of sound but an absence of noise.”

Such a unique vocation—listening to places, preserving natural soundscapes. “I hear music coming from the land,” Hempton says. “Some of the most sublime symphonies have been hidden away in something as simple as a driftwood log.” Among his other favorite “musics” are “grass wind” (“the tone, the pitch, of the wind is a function of the length of . . . the blade of grass”) and sounds from “the most musical beach in the world,” Rialto Beach.

Earth is a solar-powered jukebox. . . . We can go to the equator, listen to the Amazon, where we have maximum sunlight, maximum solar energy. The solar panels, the leaves, are harvesting that and cycling it into the bioacoustic system. And, to my ears, that’s a little too intense. That’s a little bit too much action.

Then we can jump up into Central America, and we can still feel and hear the intense solar energy, but it’s beginning to wane.

And we notice a really big difference when we start getting into the temperate latitudes, of which I particularly enjoy recording in because it’s not just about the sound, but it’s about something that I call the “poetics” of space. . . .

“Silence is really wonderful, isn’t it?” he beams. “Even when we just let it exist, it feeds our soul.”

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ESSAY: Last year Leah Slawson gave up books for Lent. When I first read that headline, I balked. Books are so life-giving to me! But as I read on, I came to understand Slawson’s reasoning (with which I can identify), and, while I’m not fasting from reading, I admire her choice. “I put a high value on reading, but I am keenly aware that I can use it as an escape from thinking my own thoughts or from noticing my feelings. . . . Reading, for me, is a distraction from the hard work of writing, and since it is so worthy of an activity, I feel justified and redeemed. I even read and study as a way to fool myself into thinking I am practicing faith; when really, I am just reading about someone else’s spiritual practice.” [HT: Rachel A. Dawson]

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EXHIBITIONS

Faces in Prayer: Photography by Katharina Heigl, Weltmuseum Wien, Vienna, December 5, 2019–March 24, 2020: A series of thirty-one intimate black-and-white photographs showing people of different faiths in prayer. To capture these shots, photographer Katharina Heigl visited churches, temples, mosques, synagogues, and other places of worship in Austria and Israel, but, important to the display, there are no labels to tell you who is praying to which god(s). That’s because Heigl wishes to emphasize the universality of the human impulse to communicate with the Divine. There are signs, however, that reproduce quotes from anonymous sources, printed in German, English, Hebrew, and Arabic, such as “Prayer is like an oasis of calm inside me. Like a tree giving me shade.” [HT: ArtWay]

Faces in Prayer
Exhibition view of “Faces in Prayer: Photography by Katharina Heigl” (2019–20) at the Weltmuseum Wien, Vienna
Heigl, Katharina_Faces in Prayer
Photograph by Katharina Heigl, from the “Faces in Prayer” series

To Bough and To Bend, Bridge Projects, Los Angeles, March 11–April 25, 2020: Officially launched last October, Bridge Projects is an LA exhibition space with public programs connecting art history, spirituality, living religious traditions, and contemporary art practices. Their second exhibition, To Bough and To Bend, opens Wednesday, with thirty-two participating artists.

“The Tree of Life is found in both the beginning of the Jewish Tanakh and in the last book of the Christian Scriptures. The Bodhi Tree is said to be the site of Siddhārtha Gautama’s awakening as the Buddha. Ancient Chinook prayers address God as the ‘Maker of Trees.’ As the novelist Richard Powers said, trees are rightly called ‘architecture of imagination.’ Their shade and branches have been sites of contemplation, suffering, and imagining our renewal.

“Today, trees still speak: blunt stumps communicate deforestation and charred limbs speak of Los Angeles fires started by our own hands—or our negligence. New discoveries of communicating root systems speak to a tangled web of connections just below the surface of the visible world, just as LA’s iconic—and imported—palms evoke a colonial past. In To Bough and To Bend, artists explore these ecological issues and look to both religious and contemporary art practices that help us listen to these old friends, so that we might relearn to ‘walk slowly and bow often’ and find our way back into the living world we share.”

Shochat, Tal_Lessons in Time 3
Tal Shochat (Israeli, 1974–), Lessons in Time 3 (Yellow Apple Tree), 2016. C-prints, mounted and framed, 39 1/4 × 44 in. each. Photo courtesy of the artist and Meislin Projects.

The opening celebration on March 14 will consist of a communal poetry reading followed by a Tu B’Shevat (New Year of the Trees) ritual presentation by community organizer Michal David. Other events are: “Called to Shine: Trees in Myth, Symbol, and Art”; a live interview with artist Lucas Reiner on his Trees as Stations of the Cross project; a talk on indigenous trees of Southern California, given by a member of the Tongva tribe; a discussion of art’s role in nature preservation; a lecture by Dr. Kimberly Ball on Yggdrasil, the tree of life in Norse mythology; “Paradise and Agony in the Garden: Sacred Trees in Italian Renaissance Art”; Dr. Duncan Ryūken Williams on the intersections of Buddhism and ecology; a bonsai demonstration; and a poetry reading and song performance by Iranian-born writer Sholeh Wolpé.

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NEW ALBUMS: Both these were released in January.

Old Wow by Sam Lee: An avid collector and reinterpreter of traditional songs, Britfolk artist Sam Lee is acclaimed for “breaking the boundaries between folk and contemporary music and the assumed place and way folksong is heard . . . not only inviting in a new listenership but also interrogating what the messages in these old songs hold for us today.” He studied under the Scottish storyteller and ballad singer Stanley Robertson (1940–2009) and, in addition to singing, plays the Jew’s harp and the Indian shruti box. Other instruments in his unique fusion include the klezmeresque cello, tabla, Japanese koto, ukulele, violins, and percussion.

Below are two music videos from his latest album, Old Wow. The first is “Lay This Body Down,” a song about death; in the choreographed video, Lee is tugged and caressed by a gaggle of deceased souls, who at the end enfold him in the ground. “The Moon Shines Bright,” on the other hand, which features Elizabeth Fraser, is about life: its call (fitting for Lent) is to “Rise, arise, wake thee, arise / Life, she is calling thee / For it might be the mothering of your sweet soul / If you open your eyes and see.” I’ve heard many different iterations of this song, which usually appears on Advent/Christmas albums with verses about the Nativity, Crucifixion, etc., but this adaptation was gifted to Lee by an elderly Gypsy woman named Freda Black and is absent of overt Christological references.

Another highlight: “Soul Cake,” a song I know from Peter, Paul, and Mary’s 1963 “A’ Soalin’.” It refers to a medieval Hallowmas tradition.

Civil Dawn by the Pharaoh Sisters: The Pharaoh Sisters is a folk outfit from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, whose debut album has arrived! Influenced by the mountain, old-time, and gospel traditions, the band consists of Austin Pfeiffer on acoustic guitar and lead vocals, Jared Meyer on acoustic guitar and backing vocals, Kevin Beck on lap steel guitar, and John Daniel Ray on upright bass. “Their music blends the cowboy sensibilities of Western-native frontman and lyricist Austin Pfeiffer with the Appalachian traditions of dark imagery and poignant guitars from their current home in the foothills of the Blue Ridge.”

 

The biblical narrative is deeply embedded in the album, with many sideways references to specific scriptures. Topography is used symbolically throughout—fissures, canyons, mountains—and helps establish the central metaphor of Jesus as a pioneer, opening up a new frontier for us, leading us through the wilderness into the land of promise.

The album’s title, Civil Dawn, is a scientific term referring to when the center of the sun is 6 degrees below the horizon in the morning—in other words, the moment before the sun rises. The first song, which muses on the paradoxical character of Jesus, ends with a yearning for “Healing wings / Righteous sun,” a subtle nod to Malachi 4:2. That leads into “Awake, my soul, to the sun,” a prayer that we would incline ourselves toward the Light that’s already shining. As the journey continues, there’s darkness, dryness, a feeling of lostness and thirst. But we are not abandoned by our co-traveler, who is our light, our rest and refreshment, our way-maker. The last song, “Homecoming,” celebrates the “pioneer man with sun-scorched hands” who “guides on a trail he’s blazed”—an evocative image, which makes me think of Christ’s glorious wounds (in many traditional religious paintings, the nail prints emit light), but also, in light of the whole record, Isaiah 58:11: “The LORD will guide you always; he will satisfy your needs in a sun-scorched land and will strengthen your frame. You will be like a well-watered garden, like a spring whose waters never fail.”

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