SA11: The Ritual Issue

I am a soldier against chaos, but not by choice. Intellectually, I love the idea of entropy - all the energies of the world flying off in whatever direction strikes their fancy. My heart, however, is devoted to order. This is a friction I find myself treasuring in recent years. To add to the rub, I have spent a lot of quiet moments wondering about aspects of order and the, sometimes chaotic, ways in which they manifest in the lives of artistic individuals and culture in general. And in this, our eleventh issue of Sound American, I am using this line of inquiry to structure a set of conversations with, and writings by, a loose amalgam of thinkers and doers on the subject of order and one specific way in which it can manifest: the ritual.


The content of this issue is roughly broken out into two forms of ritual in which music or art can be engaged.


The first involves actions inherent in spiritual community or growth. As one would expect, I found the words ritual or rites used most commonly in the language of the church, synagogue, mosque, etc. Within this form there tends to be two broad ways in which music is used. The first is music created specifically for specialized ritual actions of religion, i.e. High Mass in the Catholic faith. The second is essentially a reverse of the first, meaning the music that was originally created for religious traditions being used as a central theme for secular variation, i.e. the use of Gregorian chant melodic material in certain variants of heavy metal.


The second form is the cultural or personal ritual. These modes can be more subtle and, in a way, more interesting to me as a musician. They are less rigidly articulated, and indicative of a societal moment in time. Some exist on a large scale, like the ritual of sport, and vary from culture to culture, while others may exist only with one person at a specific time, like the exercise plans or practice regimens. The different relationships to rites, repetition and, ultimately, order in these circumstances are the crux of my own line of questioning and therefore make up the bulk of this issue.


This less-than-chaotic approach to the topic is not reflected in the following issue, however, much to my great delight. Instead, as an editor, I put the above stated taxonomy of ritual forms into an ill-defined heap in the middle of my brain and allowed ideas to leach in out of the ether, as close as I can get to a kind of entropy. Finding people involved in the act of making music for religious ritual was central, of course, but there are contributors that work squarely in the worlds of cultural ritual as well. And, perhaps the most interesting are those whose work just has a feeling of ritual to it. The combination of these multiple viewpoints start to give a vague feeling of what ritual means to those who make: repetition, space, atmosphere, empathy.


The issue is broken out by format. Four interviews are featured in the initial release, including a delightfully sprawling conversation with saxophonist, composer, activist, and historian Matana Roberts on the tradition of storytelling, oral history, and the music of community action. Catherine Christer Hennix talks about her work that combines advanced mathematics with the musical forms found in Sufi Islamic tradition, and how she concentrates on the impact the sound can have on the experiencer. At opposite ends of the spectrum, Brian McWhorter and Cantor Josh Breitzer talk about their experiences with music as a tool in bringing communities together: McWhorter in his composition for a 10k road race and Breitzer within the complex and powerful tradition of nus’cha’ot in Judaism.


Sound American is proud to have new guest contributors for this issue as well. Scholar, choreographer, and performance artist Biba Bell uses the idea of ritual the starting point for an essay on space in modern performance. Burning Ambulance’s Phil Freeman gives an overview of ritual performance practice in some of the darker forms of metal music. And, in an epic display of grit and determination, trombonist and composer Chris McIntyre presents an aural exploration of ritualism in the Soho scene of the 1960s and 70s featuring interviews with Rhys Chatham, Charlemagne Palestine, Pauline Oliveros, Phill Niblock, and Jon Gibson!


Finally, the line of questioning moves to, what could be referred to as, the micro-level. In a continuing effort to breathe new life into the old format of the questionnaire, Sound American asks artists four questions about what their personal and artistic relationship is to the idea of ritual in practice.


In the coming months, SA will add new pages of content, as we did in the Christian Wolff issue, and go in-depth with Princeton musicologist Noriko Manabe on the use of music in the recent Japanese anti-nuclear protests, Fr. Jan Michael Joncas on the composition of new music for the Catholic liturgy, and Ryan Sawyer on the role of the DJ in the late night habits of New Yorkers.


It is my sincere hope that we can all gather enlightenment from this joyously chaotic set of thoughts about how we view ritual and what part it plays in our lives as musicians and music lovers. Is it merely repetition? Is it creating a space? Is it something larger than us, or is it an expression of our smallest quirks? Is it dangerous or a place of comfort? Questioning ritual in our lives and in the music we experience is a convoluted process, but one that can take us into a wonderfully messy spiral of thought about ourselves, art, and culture.