This “soundscape,” recorded one Sunday in April, 2017 during the Sunday morning church activities, captures that sound that had enveloped me as I walked in the door of Jennie Moore Memorial Presbyterian Church (Jennie Moore) for the first time… the sound of the “fellowship break.”
This is a traditional feature of a church gathering that is rarely discussed, one that is not included in the church order of service, is not the sermon, is unstructured and disorganized, but would change the total experience of a church gathering if the practice should be discontinued. It occurs as people gather before church, and often again at an appropriate time during the service when the Minister says, “Let us pass the peace.” It gives the people the opportunity to greet each other, shake hands, hug, talk and generally catch up on relevant happenings in each other’s lives… to “visit.”
As people enter the Jennie Moore Church sanctuary, there is a narrow area at the back in which to congregate, and people tend to move from there down the center aisle. The interior of the church is mostly wood, and the tall wall at the front behind the pulpit is striking, with vertical knotted wood panels, a large painting of Jesus praying, a cross and two patriotic flags. The acoustics for recording sound seem to be natural, the carpet on the floor and the wooden walls providing a nice balance between hard and soft surfaces.
The day I recorded this soundscape was the fourth day of particularly consistent and heavy rain, and the water in South Indian Creek (Rocky Fork State Park) which runs beside the church, was running high and was very loud. I began my recording standing beside the creek which is close to the left bank of the road opposite the church, and walked up the steps and into the church just as the bell rang to mark the end of a structured Sunday School class. Inside the church, people began to rise from their seats and mingle and greet each other. The sound on the recording for the next three minutes captures the sound of “fellowship,” people “visiting”… a general babble of voices, with all people talking in an unstructured way, simultaneously. A chord, played on the church piano, marks the end of the fellowship break, a signal to return to the structured part of the church service, and the people return to their seats.
I began the recording standing beside the creek, and walked inside the church as the church bell was ringing, still recording, carrying the recording device. I placed the device in two different positions on a pew in the church as people were mingling and talking in the aisles, the first position on an empty pew in the middle of the church to the right of the middle aisle(1.), the second position on a front pew on the left (2.) at 3:02 secs. Both the Samsung Tablet, and the fact that it was in recording-mode were unnoticed and unobtrusive. I had previously asked the permission of the Minister to record the sound of the Fellowship Break, and he was agreeable. As I had recorded approximately 12 minutes of people talking and mingling during the fellowship time, I needed to edit this down to approximately 3 – 4 minutes for the purposes of this project.
Diagram of positions of recording device inside the church:
The waveform shows the peaks and dips in the decibel scale, indicating variations in the level of the volume of the “sound” throughout the 3:21 minutes of the recording. The obvious peaks at beginning and end are the clearly distinguishable sounds of the creek, the bell and the piano. The main body of the recording ranges from the 30 second mark through to 3:12 minutes, and this contains the sound of the “babble of voices,” the waveform chart showing the variation in decibels as people moved closer to, or further from the position of the recording device, to meet and greet each other.
Why record a soundscape of a church “Fellowship break”? As students of Appalachian Studies, our desire is to bring Appalachia to the rest of the world by any means, therefore this “soundscape” project is one way for people to see, to hear and to know the region in an intimate way, either by hearing sounds which are familiar, and therefore realizing a connection with the region, or hearing sounds which are new, and therefore realizing another way to learn about the region.
The sound of people “visiting”, as captured in this recording at Jennie Moore Church, is most certainly a familiar sound in Appalachia, not only in a church gathering, but in many a social occasion associated with family or work. The importance and relevance of this “fellowship” time (where ordinary conversation without rules takes place) to the life and strength of a church community is significant. Ethnomusicologist, Jeff Titon, over a period of ten years, observed and recorded in detail the life of a church in rural Virginia, in particular that of the Pastor, Brother John Sherfey. Titon wrote in the prologue to his book, Powerhouse for God, “Here I was, a scholar studying religious language, concentrating on its use in worship, when I noticed that John’s language, in what seemed a very ordinary situation, had established and maintained (during our luncheon conversation) a kind of community among us.” (Titon. 1988. 4) He also wrote of a conversation he had with a mountain man called Howard Meadows, who commented, “Church on Sundays was the center of the community, where people visited with each other. In the cities it was every man for himself; no one had time to visit.” (Titon. 1988. 140) The Fellowship Break is an opportunity for “conversation” in its most common and ordinary sense, and this helps to establish a sense of community. In an article in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, the writers look at the Size, Conflict and Opportunities for Interaction in churches and maintain that, “congregations that allocate specific time for such fellowship activities may also send a message that they recognize the social and spiritual importance of fellowship, that is, that interpersonal bonds are a priority.” (Ellison et al. 2017. p4) They conclude that a smaller church community forms closer bonds and a stronger sense of community than a large church community. This project invites readers, therefore, to experience the “sound” of conversation in its most common and ordinary sense, in a small mountain church in Appalachia.
In his research, Titon studied the concept of “performance” in the use of language in a church setting. “The people who perform songs, prayers, sermons and testimonies intend something by those performances.”(Titon.1988.8) In contrast, the use of language in a “fellowship break” is not “performed” language. There is no set of rules, and that which is spoken by the people is not to be analyzed or interpreted. Here we are focused on a generalized “sound”… a babble of voices.
Is there a link between the sounds in a church gathering, and that church’s identity? The sound of singing and preaching in any church can give that church its identity. In fact, as Beverly Patterson wrote, when discussing the sound of singing in a Primitive Baptist Church, “To Elder Cook, it did not seem at all far-fetched to think that a church could throw its identity as Primitive Baptist into question by changing the sound of its singing.” (Patterson. 2001. 200.) Conversely, the sound of many people talking and fellowshipping is akin to white noise, and it also could be described as “soft focus” sound, a term borrowed from Rebecca Leydon. (Leydon.2001.96). Leydon used this term to describe the use of reverb in music, which can spread, diffuse, or blur clarity in a recording. My application of the term, “soft-focus sound,” in the case of this recording of the general babble of voices, refers to the fact that this sound is also spread out, or blurred, with no identifiable individual voices. The sound of these church folk, “visiting,” therefore, does not identify them as the Jennie Moore congregation, or as Presbyterian, and could have been captured in any church in the Appalachian mountains, on any Sunday morning.
Sociologist, Joseph Klett wrote, “No space is silent and no sound is perceived without a cultural frame.” (Klett. 2014. p147) In his writing he was referring to the scientific testing of an anechoic chamber, in which the interior walls were designed to absorb all sound, and create a “silent” environment. His reference gave meaning and import to his opinion that “no space is silent”, whereas it is the second part of his quote that caught my attention. “… no sound is perceived without a cultural frame.” This concept of a cultural frame is itself the framework for my own recording of the Fellowship Break. The family and the Church in a more intimate sense, and Appalachia in a wider sense are the framework for this sound-scape.
By Colleen Trenwith.
Ellison, Christopher G., Bryan C. Shepherd, Neal M. Krause, and Mark A. Chaves. “Size, Conflict, and Opportunities for Interaction: Congregational Effects on Members’ Anticipated Support and Negative Interaction.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 48, no. 1 (2009): 1-15. http://www.jstor.org.iris.etsu.edu:2048/stable/20486977.
Klett, Joseph. “Sound on Sound: Situating Interaction in Sonic Object Settings.” Sociological Theory 32, no. 2 (2014): 147-61. http://www.jstor.org.iris.etsu.edu:2048/stable/43186668.
Leydon, Rebecca. “The Soft-Focus Sound: Reverb as a Gendered Attribute in Mid-Century Mood Music.” Perspectives of New Music 39, no. 2 (2001): 96-107. http://www.jstor.org.iris.etsu.edu:2048/stable/833565.
Patterson, Beverley Bush. The Sound of the Dove. 1995. University of Illinois
Titon, Jeff Todd. Powerhouse for God. 1988. University of Texas Press.