Ecologies of Resonance in Christian Musicking

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Mark Porter
AAR Religion, Culture, and History
  • Oxford: 
    Oxford University Press
    , November
     2020.
     188 pages.
     $99.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780197534106.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

This book confirms Mark Porter’s place as a leading thinker and theorist in the field of congregational music. Its publication reflects not only the continued growth of that field of study, but also its increasing turn to questions of theory and method in recent years. Monique Ingalls’s Singing the Congregation (Oxford University Press, 2018) was a landmark in this regard, while Studying Congregational Music: Key Issues, Methods, and Theoretical Perspectives (Routledge, 2021), edited by Andrew Mall, Jeffers Englelhardt, and Ingalls exemplifies something of the interdisciplinary richness and potential of the field. In Ecologies of Resonance in Christian Musicking, Porter builds a theoretical framework around three key terms in his title (ecologies, resonance, musicking) and explores it in relation to a bold selection of case studies ranging from desert monasticism to online prayer rooms.

It’s worth dwelling on the book’s title for a few moments. Its very construction makes it apparent that this is a highly theorized volume, and, indeed, among the most impressive aspects of Porter’s work is his ability to situate it in relation to the earlier work of a wide range of critical thinkers in musicology, sound studies, sociology, theology, and religious studies. His ability to hold these different perspectives in balance strengthens his own theorizing considerably. The three key terms of the title are crucial to understanding his approach: “ecologies” points to the obvious but easily overlooked interdependencies between musical practices in the context of Christian worship and a range of other factors, including technology, broader musical culture, wider ideas about ecclesiology, liturgy, evangelism, and more besides. “Resonance” examines the nature of these interconnections, placing particular emphasis the ways in which they can be responsive to each other, or exercise reciprocal influences. “Musicking,” meanwhile, draws on the influential work of Christopher Small (Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening, Wesleyan University Press, 1998), who sought to emphasise music as a process involving multiple relationships between different actors.

The implications of this are explored through several diverse case studies. The first considers the solitary chanting of the desert fathers, exploring how the sonic element of chanting resonates with the space of the monk’s cell, and their bodily existence to shape a life of prayer and fasting. The lack of documentary evidence of the musical repertoire, Porter argues,  is helpful in understanding the ways in which the practice of chanting contributes to the holistic reality of these distant individuals. By contrast, the chapter that follows explores the noisy social environment in which J. S. Bach’s cantatas and passions were originally performed, drawing heavily on the work of Tanya Kevorkian.

Here, Porter particularly challenges notions of appropriate ways of listening developed in relation to art music in the 19th century, and sometimes deemed applicable to sacred music such as Bach’s owing to its serious subject matter. Instead, the author argues that the noisy circumstances in which congregations in 18th-century Leipzig would have heard this music, affected by class and status, is important in understanding the ways in which it related to their experience of the Christian faith. Music can acquire meanings through being heard in such contexts, in terms of its resonance with other aspects of individual and communal life.

The later case studies will seem more familiar to students of congregational music, as they are focused on the ideas of authenticity and sacrament in relation to contemporary worship music, music in emerging churches, and music in online prayer rooms, focused particularly on the International House of Prayer, Kansas City. These latter two challenge and stretch the concept of resonance, especially in relation to the lack of emphasis on doctrinal conformity in emerging church contexts, and the one-way communication in livestreams from Kansas City to other prayer rooms. It’s a sign of Porter’s mature thinking that he is prepared to tackle these case studies and to admit that they do not follow the more obvious patterns of association in the earlier chapters. Instead, in the context of emerging churches, he posits that musical offers a space for resonances to be discerned, but does not privilege, or seek to demand or control their nature.

The broad range of case studies indicates something of the potential of the theory of resonance for the study of congregational music. More than just applying it to different musical or ecclesial contexts, however, it also invites reflection on the ways in which the study of congregational music interacts with other scholarly disciplines and emphases. Porter deliberately, and perhaps expectedly, eschews engagement with the precise lyrical and musical content of his case studies; this indeed directs attention to the wider purview associated with musicking, but there were brief hints, for example in the case studies on Bach and on emerging church, of how dialogue with textual and musical analyses might be fruitful. Porter’s work deserves to be taken seriously not only by students of congregational music, but also more widely by musicologists and scholars of the study of religion; if they do so, they will find much here that may persuade them to afford more attention to the vibrant, diverse and ever-changing world of congregational music than has previously been the case.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Martin V. Clarke is senior lecturer in music at The Open University.

Date of Review: 
May 30, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mark Porter studied at University College, Oxford, and King's College, London, before completing his doctorate in ethnomusicology at City University, London, in 2014. Following this, in 2015, he took up a postdoctoral position at Max-Weber-Kolleg, Universität Erfurt. His first monograph, Contemporary Worship Music and Everyday Musical Lives, was published 2017 and he is co-founder and programme chair of the biennial Christian Congregational Music: Local and Global Perspectives conference. His writing has appeared in the Church Music Quarterly, Ecclesial Practices, Liturgy, the Journal of Contemporary Religion and the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, among others. Mark is also an active church musician who has served as worship leader, director of music, organist and choir leader for a variety of churches in the UK and in Germany.

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