Three Musics…Three Worlds: Religion and affective atmosphere in three West London faith spaces

I had a wonderful time presenting at my first Landscape Surgery seminar on Tuesday 8th January 2016. I introduced my first year PhD research into sacred sounds and presented findings of my autumn 2015 ethnographic fieldwork with three faith communities: the Sri Kanaga Thurkkai Amman Hindu Temple, Ealing Christian Centre and St Thomas the Apostle Anglican Church. I spoke of my work as an ethnographically centred research project that contributes to the study of creativity, material culture and space in Ealing as part of the AHRC funded Making Suburban Faith team. I outlined my developing research questions that concern themes of the performativity of faith, the body and the senses and the construction of emotion and affect.

I explained to the group that affect and emotion are terms that have arisen much during my first year of research. Music is an undoubtedly emotive and affective art form and so I have become more and more interested in how emotions and affect are produced and understood within the musical celebrations of faith communities.

A Sunday musical “celebration” service at Ealing Christian Centre, December 2015

I pre-circulated Ben Anderson’s 2009 paper ‘Affective atmospheres’, as I believe his related concepts and focus upon the term atmosphere provides an interesting route into my developing ideas, particularly with regard to the atmospheres created by faith spaces and through sacred sounds. I read to the group the 1856 Karl Marx quote Anderson outlines in the beginning of his paper, it reads:

“the atmosphere in which we live, weighs upon every one with a 20,000 pound force, but do you feel it?”

Anderson suggests that Marx’s quote discloses the ambivalent meaning and nature of the term “atmosphere”. On the one hand, an atmosphere is a real material phenomenon that physically “weighs” or “presses” upon people, things and areas. Yet atmospheres also affect in an ambiguous and often “unsayable” way. I also presented Anderson’s key concept of “intensive spatialities” as a method to explore how music affects the intensity of religious services and celebrations.


Lord Ganesh shrine, Shri Kanaga Thurkkai Amman Temple, December 2015
In order to illustrate the ways in which an affective atmosphere can be created, felt and produced in various ways through sound, I presented three central pieces of music from each community to the group. I played a snippet of the “Porti” chant from the Hindu temple, “Softly” by Will Todd which I sang at St Thomas’ as part of the Nine Lessons & Carols Christmas Choir and “Joy to the World” which is sung at the Ealing Christian Centre. I explained how an affective atmosphere is created in each space through various means of repetition, language and breathe.

For example, the Tamil word “Porti”, meaning praise, is repeated at the end of each line of a 108-line chant, the first page of which is below:

“Porti” 108 line Chant, Shri Kanaga Thurkkai Amman Temple

Hindu devotees at the Shri Kanaga Thurkkai Amman Temple consider this repetition the necessary spiritual medium through which Goddess Thurkkai Amman’s cosmic energy, or “shakti”, becomes activated through the recitation of each line. I noted how Hindu devotional songs place much significance on the Tamil language as containing affective power and the importance of the repetition of sounds such as “porti” and “om” in creating a divine affective atmosphere.

I contrasted this with “Joy the World” sung at Ealing Christian Centre which focuses much less on language and words and so more on rhythm, “feeling” and the emotive, performative way songs are sung. For example, a whole verse of “Joy to the World” was left out so that a more seamless feel and focus upon the rhythm was ensured.

By contrast, the deliberate focus and application of “breathe” emerged as an important method in which to create a certain atmosphere of “softness” during rehearsals for the Will Todd carol “Softly” for St Thomas’ Christmas concert. Ironically, during my time rehearsing this song, “softly” became the hardest word to sing!! So it was interesting and helpful to present the contrasting findings of my research at these faith communities as it made me think through more closely the meanings and terms I had been working with.

“Softly” by Will Todd
Finally, in relation to this I posed a query to the group regarding my thus far application of the terms “affect” and “atmosphere”, inspired by Anderson, to the musical celebrations of the three faith communities. I noted how I had found that each community had their own particular set of words or terms to describe the specific atmosphere that music and sound conjured in their world. I asked the group how translatable the term affect was, and importantly how could I approach and explore further conceptual ties that link each space.

I received really helpful comments from the group and though I was a little nervous at first, I quickly felt relaxed in what was a friendly and encouraging atmosphere…

Thank you to Surgeons for their kind and helpful comments, encouraging manner and patience!!
Natalie Hyacinth
Doctoral Researcher
AHRC Project: Making Suburban Faith

One thought on “Three Musics…Three Worlds: Religion and affective atmosphere in three West London faith spaces

  1. […] Natalie Hyacinth presented Three Musics…Three Worlds: Religion and affective atmosphere in three West London faith spaces… […]

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