Religious Soundscapes in Cambridge

Published March 29, 2019 by Dr Abigail Wood

Dr Abigail Wood, Woolf Institute's Sir Mick and Lady Barbara Davis Visiting Fellow, reflects on religious soundscapes in Cambridge.

A hymn with choir and organ wafts through my window in central Cambridge as I sit reading on a Saturday afternoon.

A female undergraduate lets out an audible sigh of pride mixed with relief as she finishes reading a short passage from a Torah scroll in a side room at the synagogue on Thompson's lane.

I share a recording of the adhan (Muslim call to prayer) with a colleague: this is a common sound in Haifa but not in Cambridge.

Walking through central Cambridge: a violinist playing "Despacito", a street preacher, a folk band, two silent Jehovah's witnesses.

The clicking of the side door to the synagogue at 7:50am draws one of the men already participating in the prayer service to poke his head around the corner: is the newcomer a man who will complete the minyan [quorum of 10] required in order to continue with the prayers?

Walking home in drizzly darkness from the library I hear intricate bell ringing—with a slightly lumpy rhythm—in Market Square: a rehearsal of the English tradition of change ringing.

Silence, as a few hundred people stand in central Cambridge for an interfaith vigil in memory of the Muslim worshippers killed in the Christchurch attack.

Much has been written about the musical practices of diverse religious communities—but focusing on 'the music itself' often leads us to forget the much wider roles played by sound in everyday religious lives.The sounds of religious community mark seasons and times; they can indicate a proud, self-conscious continuation of tradition or mark a moment of change; they can surprise outsiders or supply precise information to insiders about the life of the community: who has just walked through the door, who has learned a new skill, who joins in and who is hesitant or confused. Sounds can sculpt shared moments or can emphasise enduring religious claims to physical and spiritual territory: while we might rarely step beyond the door of the religious places of others, sound travels through walls and can often penetrate public spaces, competing for our attention with the bustle of secular life.

Sonic difference has often articulated points of difference among Jews, Christians and Muslims. In recent years, media attention has focused on legal battles surrounding the Muslim call to prayer in non-Muslim countries: should religious sounds be exempt from city noise legislation? Such debates highlight the subjective nature of 'noise': while the adhan is often heard by outsiders as an intrusive sound, church bells are sometimes heard by the same listeners as 'natural' and desirable. Further, in European thought, 'noise' often indicates an ethical, not just aesthetic, judgment. Musicologist Ruth HaCohen has recently traced the association of Jews with 'noise' through Western-Christian culture from the Middle Ages to modernity. From Chaucer, Pepys and Shakespeare to nineteenth-century reports of visits to synagogues, an idealised harmony repeatedly figures as Christian, pure and godly, whereas the unharmonious and chattering noise of the Jews was held to reflect their outsider status and moral inferiority. In turn, Jewish and Islamic religious thought about sound and music reflects concern for the precision in the sounds uttered in prayer and textual study, combined with suspicion of the power of music to lead the heart astray.

In Cambridge, the Christian foundations of the university continue to infuse the public soundscape: bells reverberating through closed courtyards remind College communities today encompassing people of many and no faiths that chapels lie at their geographical and architectural heart, and the cavernous Reading Room of the University library retains a cathedral-like silence and hushed decorum reflecting the cultivation of cultural spaces as new kinds of cathedrals in the nineteenth century, if now punctuated by the clatter of laptop keys. Yet sounds of cultural and religious difference are also shaping Cambridge research today, including the Woolf Institute's 'Living in Harmony' project and Dr Matthew Machin-Autenrieth's 'Past and Present Musical Encounters across the Strait of Gibraltar' ERC-funded research group.

In the vibrant - and loud - Jewish tradition of Talmud study, the best chavruta (study partner) is one who challenges your thinking rather than echoing your own thoughts. Having spent the last ten years or so researching soundscapes in Israel, with a particular focus on the articulation of identity and inter-communal relations, the Visiting Fellowship at the Woolf Institute has given me a welcome opportunity to access a kaleidoscope of ideas and build new chavrutot, meeting and conversing with Cambridge colleagues working in similar fields. Browsing the University's unparalleled library holdings, hearing guest lectures on many topics at the Woolf Institute and further afield, and participating in seminars and reading groups has offered space for me to test and refine my own ideas among colleagues familiar with very different sonic and academic contexts. I am grateful to the Woolf Institute and its generous donors for the opportunity to spend a term in such a rich environment in which to research, discuss… and listen.

Dr Abigail Wood, Senior Lecturer in Music, University of Haifa and Sir Mick and Lady Barbara Davis Visiting Fellow at the Woolf Institute in 2019.

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