Worship Sound Spaces: Architecture, Acoustics, and Anthropology

Edited by Christine Guillebaud and
Catherine Lavandier
Routledge, New York, NY, (2020),
256 pp., Hardbound, 140 USD, ISBN 9780367234225

Worship Sound Spaces is a collection of 11 papers based on work conducted at a 2015 Conference into three sections: (1) Sonic architecture: acoustic intentions in worship buildings, (2) Experiencing the sacred through sound, and (3) Restoring the sound ambiance of the past. An introduction by the editors and an afterword by Jean-Paul Thibaud are also included.

Since this book is a collection of papers, the reviewer tried to summarize some general thoughts and impressions for each section rather than summarizing each of the papers. The titles do a good job of describing the general topic of each paper, but there is too much information to simply summarize them in a few sentences.

Introduction: Religious listings: a multidisciplinary approach, by Christine Guillebaud and Catherine Lavandier

Part 1: Sonic architecture: acoustic intentions in worship buildings

Paper 1: Characterizing the acoustics of places of worship; should we believe in acoustic indicators? by Marc Asselineau

Paper 2: Towards a history of architectural acoustics using archaeological evidence: research contributions to understanding the use of acoustic pots in the quest for sound quality in 11th to 17th-century churches in France, by Jean-Christophe Valière and Bénédicte Palazzo-Bertholon

Paper 3: Temple sound spaces and ancient Hindu ritual texts, by Gérard Colas. This paper provides a brief overview of the sound spaces within the Hindu temple.

The three papers in this section examine three different worship spaces from a room/environmental acoustics perspective. Key items include the metrics used to define spaces, what do we believe was the intention of acoustic pots placed in a liturgical space, what are their measured effects on the acoustics in the space, and the purpose and function of sound in Hindu Temples. In paper 3, I found it interesting as a noise control engineer that “temples are assessed according to the distance at which the sound of the conch is perceived” as well as other information presented.

Part II: Experiencing the sacred through sound

Paper 4: The worldmaking ways of church bells: three stories about the Cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris, by Gaspard Salatko

Paper 5: What should the reverberation inside a masjid be? A study exploring the demands of Imams, by Ahmed
Elkhateeb (defining reverberation times for the performer (Imam) as well as the worshipers; chant not sung —
presence of prayer rugs)

Paper 6: Soundwalks in a Shiva temple: a situated approach to the perceived ambiance, by Christine Guillebaud
(within and around the temple sound acts as a ritual action, timing, etc.)

Paper 7: Bells, auspiciousness and the god of music: reflections on sound in ritual spaces in Nepalese Hindu traditions

Paper 8: Resonant voices and spatial politics: an acoustemolog of citizenship in a Muslim neighborhood of the Kenyan coast, by Andrew Eisenberg

Having only studied and worked with catholic congregations in the US, I found these papers enlightening. Instead of working on separating the sound inside and outside of a worship space, in other cultures and traditions, there is distinct interaction. This can be highlighted with the sound around and within a Shiva temple, a highly complex acoustical space. Bells are not simply tools to call congregants to worship but can be ritually personified. The preferred reverberation time inside a masjid is much longer than I would have expected based on my experiences with various vocal performance spaces.

Part III: Restoring the sound ambiances of the past

Paper 9: The church beyond worship: experiencing monumental sound spaces in the Roman Catholic churches
of Montréal (Québec, Canada), by Josée Laplace

Paper 10: Sound heterotopia in the Cistercian monastery, by Pascal Joanne

Paper 11: The original acoustics of the 17th-century Mughal heritage of Burhanpur, India, by Amit J.Wahurwagh,
Akshay P. Patil and Alpana R. Dongre

Afterword: A world of attunements, by Jean-Paul Thibaud

The acoustic experience for worshippers in a space extends beyond listening to spoken or musical messages. Perhaps this is perceived by many people during the ongoing pandemic where typical worship may not be possible. Within the worship space, we interpret and react to the acoustics of the space on different levels with the added dimensions of quiet and reverberation creating an otherworldly image. Otherworldliness can be extended to the concept of heterotopia, from philosopher Michael Foucalt. Using Cisterian abbeys, two case studies are presented. Maintaining the original aesthetics of a space during restoration includes restoring the acoustics of the space. This can be a challenge with older spaces having undergone partial restoration. Simulation using period material properties and original geometry makes this possible.

I originally expected more of a textbook covering the acoustical design of various worship spaces. While the text does provide much information on types of worship spaces both common and not common in the United States, it also provides more. I do find myself thinking about sound in my environment, both during leisure and work, and how the role sound plays during these experiences. Hopefully, this review will intrigue some of you, who may have not considered purchasing this text, or two have not read much about soundscapes to give it a read or attend a soundscape session or two at an upcoming conference.

Charles Moritz, INCE.Bd.Cert.
Director of Product Development and
Research and Development
Cadillac Products Automative Company