OSU’s Urban Arts Space Explores the Sounds of Religious Practice

The audio exhibition, part of Ohio State’s American Religious Sounds Project, includes recorded chanting, singing, prayer, drumming and other sounds.

Richard Ades
Religious Soundscapes co-curators Lauren Pond (left), Isaac Weiner and Alison Furlong in the exhibition at Ohio State University’s Urban Arts Space

What does religion sound like? To this writer, raised Presbyterian, it sounds like “The Doxology”—the weekly hymn of praise that added a burst of passion to the otherwise low-key services I attended as a child.

But religion has many sounds, reflecting its multitude of forms and the circumstances of its practice. That’s the point of Religious Soundscapes, an audio exhibition installed through mid-July at Ohio State’s Urban Arts Space, located Downtown in the former Lazarus building. The show is an outgrowth of the American Religious Sounds Project, which OSU comparative studies professor Isaac Weiner launched in collaboration with Michigan State professor Amy DeRogatis in 2014.

When they first started working on the project, Weiner says, “people assumed that when we said ‘sounds of religion,’ what we meant was really music or formal liturgy.” However, the project also includes sounds connected to religious practices conducted in other places, including the home, the outdoors and, following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, online. Indeed, the OSU exhibition is largely divided not by faith but by the locations in which the sound clips were recorded.

A man blowing a shofar during a Jewish Rosh Hashanah ceremony in Bexley

At the show’s May 24 opening reception, it instantly became clear that such a gathering was not the best way to appreciate an audio exhibition, as the attendees’ voices echoed against the walls and made it difficult to hear many of the recorded sounds. One exception was a relatively isolated installation that allows visitors to experience a local Wiccan coven’s rhythmic chanting in “surround sound.” Maybe that’s why it was a favorite of several visitors, including two women who offered comments on their way out the door. “I was surprised that it made me feel as emotional as it did,” said one. “After I sat there for a little while, it resonated with me.”

The Wiccan installation was produced by two of the project’s four co-curators, Lauren Pond and Alison Furlong. “I visited [coven members] and recorded them doing a group chant called the ‘cone of power,’ which is a ritual that’s done to raise energy for magical purposes,” Pond explains. She adds that it’s one of her favorite pieces in the show because of the relationships she developed with coven members over the years.

A Diwali celebration at the Bharatiya Hindu Temple in Powell

For even more personal reasons, Weiner says his favorite piece is a recording of his young children repeating the “Sh’ma,” a Jewish prayer traditionally recited before bedtime and after waking in the morning. To Weiner, the piece illustrates the fact that “religion is not just something formally done in institutions, but [is] very intimate and domestic and done in the home as a daily ritual of life.”

Though it reflects many spiritual practices and sometimes reveals their commonalities, Weiner says Religious Soundscapes also explores the differences that sometimes cause friction. Weiner addressed that issue in an earlier book, 2013’s “Religion Out Loud.” “I think what we’re really trying to do is think about, ‘How does our understanding of religion shift,” he says, “when we begin by listening?’” 

Religious Soundscapes continues through July 16 at the Urban Arts Space, 50 W. Town St., uas.osu.edu.

This story is from the July 2022 issue of Columbus Monthly.