The Biblical Record: Converting Scripture into Sound

Alexander Scourby in Affair in Trinidad, Columbia Pictures, 1952. Wikimedia; American Bible Society, The Talking Bible, 5 vols, 1964.

‘Heard Through the Word’ (Romans 10.17)

In 1964, the American film, theatre, TV, and voice actor Alexander Scourby recorded all sixty-six books of the King James Version of the Bible. His reading was the first complete acoustic capture of the Scripture ever attempted. The recording was produced by the American Foundation for the Blind for their The Talking Book series, which aimed to give unsighted people access to important works of literature. The Talking Bible was released as five volumes of 10-inch, long-playing records, running at 16⅔ rpm. The sixty-seven records represent almost one hundred and seventy hours of spoken text. The endeavour was all the more astonishing for having been completed in just one month.

John Harvey performing ‘The Second Commandment’, University of Calgary, September 18, 2009

My interest in creating sound works based upon the spoken Scripture began in 2009.  In September of that year,  I was Visiting Artist and Scholar at the University of Calgary, Canada. At the close of a lecture entitled ‘An Anti-Icon: a protestant art now‘, I performed ‘The Second Commandment’. It was based on Exodus, Chapter 20 and verse 4, and played on electric guitar and effects-modulators. The composition included a tape-recorded text read by the maverick Calvinist minister A W Pink. For the next nine years, my practice-based research would be focussed on sonifying not only other biblical passages but also the aural culture of the Bible: preaching, praying, and hymn-singing. My aim has been to make sound compositions (some of which are musical while others, more abstract) derived from these sources. The works expound the spoken word of Scripture through the application of the same and, in so doing, illuminate the contexts within which it has been written and used.

Scourby’s recording and my sonic preoccupations came together in 2017, when I obtained a rare complete set of the original discs. The sound works that I’ve developed, based upon the source, cross-reference the Scripture with some of the principal political, social, and scientific events that took place during the month of the recording. These include nuclear tests; race riots; the signing of the Civil Rights Acts; and the launch of Ranger 7 probe, which took the first close-up pictures of the moon. In this way, a text that was written thousands of years ago, a technology of audio recording that is over one hundred and forty years old, a recording that was made over half-a-century ago, and a contemporary creative intervention in all three histories, interpenetrate. A suite of these interventions — which engages with the entirety of Scourby’s recording — was published by the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales as a CD release entitled The Biblical Record, in 2019. The compositions also engages with sonified writing through the process of recording the manual inscripturation of biblical texts. This can be heard in a piece based upon Habakkuk, Chapter 2, and verse 2, entitled ‘Write the Vision and Make it Plain Upon Tables’.

Union Square, San Francisco

While a sonic interpretation of the whole Bible is unprecedented, the adaptation of recordings of Bible reading and preaching has a long tradition in both music and sound art. For example, the American composer Steve Reich’s ‘Its Gonna Rain’, from 1964, is based on a tape recording of an African-American Pentecostal street preacher in Union Square, San Francisco. Taking the story of Noah’s flood as the text for his sermon, he warns the audience, with the earnest of an Old Testament prophet, about another apocalypse to come. Reich captured the event in 1963, the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The preacher’s frenetic hollering, heard as a series of parallel tape loops that are drifting in and out of synchronisation, creates a powerful sonic equivalence for the cataclysm and disintegration that one associates with end of all things. The music of Reich’s piece is an outcome of the recorded source (the preacher’s voice and ambient sounds) alone. (An extended discussion of Reich’s composition can be read in my blog: ‘”It’s Gonna Rain” (After a While)’).

In contrast, Brian Eno’s and David Byrne’s My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, released in 1981, uses samples of a preacher, an evangelist, and an exorcist in action, set within the framework of a rock-orientated instrumental idiom. The effect is a beguiling and, what Chris Dahlen has called, a ‘transgressive’ melange of the sacred and secular, seriousness and frivolity, and east and west. In this respect, the album anticipates our sonorous experience of religion in the world today.  In these two examples, as well as my own work, the sound composition serves as a metaphor that reflects (if fortuitously) broader social, cultural, and historical concerns.

Rembrandt, Moses Smashing the Tables of the Law, oil on canvas, 1659. Wikimedia

Sonic Theology

Not only has the Bible been converted into sound and transformed into challenging musical forms, its sonorities have also become the topic of academic research. During the past decade, the theology of sound ­– a new and pioneering field of study – has sought to explore the Scripture’s implied acoustic content. The Bible embodies an extraordinary range of sonic sources, types, contexts, and functions. These sounds are not incidental to its narratives; they make a distinctive contribution to the text’s vividness, particularity, strangeness, and transcendence, among other characteristics. Take, for example, the appallingly loud noises of thunder, earthquakes, and God’s voice that were present on Mount Sinai when Moses received the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19–24).

Or, at the opposite extreme, there is the ‘still, more voice’ (which the original Hebrew better renders: ‘the voice of silence’) of God, which Ezekiel heard. And, in between, there is, for instance: ‘what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder (Revelation 19.6); ‘the sound of a windblown leaf’ (Leviticus 26.36); and Isaiah’s sonically rich, precise, and evocative message of woe, delivered to the leaders of Ephraim and Judah: ‘You will speak from the ground; your speech will mumble out of the dust. Your voice will come ghostlike from the earth; out of the dust your speech will whisper’ (Isaiah 29.4).

The Bible is a record. And not in the historical sense only. Within the grooves of its pages are – encoded in description, simile, and metaphor – noises and voices that sit silently until they are read. The reader imaginatively embodies these acoustic signifiers with corresponding sounds drawn from their own world. Thus, they resound once more. Many of these sounds are timeless. (Storm and silence know no change.) In reviving their sonorities, the separation between the ancient writing and our experiences today is bridged. The Bible enters us just as we enter the Bible.

There is a league to be travelled by music, sound-art practice, theology, and biblical studies in the direction of an interrelated disciplinary account of the Scripture’s sounds. The endeavour is to make the sonic content as conspicuous as the narrative’s visual imagery has become. And, just as the imagery and visuality of the Bible has spawned a tradition of representation and scholarship in western art, those sounds can inspire an afterlife too.*

* For a further discussion of this topic, see my: ‘”The Hearing Ear and the Seeing Eye”: Transformative Listening to the Biblical Image’ in Shoena Beaumont and Madeleine Thiele (eds), Transforming Christian Thought in the Visual Arts: theology, aesthetics, and practice (London: Routledge, 2021).

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