This wide-ranging and significant collection welcomes within its pages a diversity of material that both opens up new interdisciplinary perspectives and, at moments, skirts on the edges of coherence. Oxford University Press describes the volume as 'theoretically ambitious', and the introduction by the two co-editors certainly lives up to this depiction. Indeed, such a wide range of themes is included within this introductory section that it can take a little time to figure out which of these truly guide the collection as a whole. Within the space of twenty-five pages, the editors cover such themes as sacred metaphysics, sounding and resonance, histories and processes of transcendence, immanence and secularity, voice, ritual transition, postcolonialism, postsecularity, conversion, healing, soteriology, indigenization, inculturation, and globalization, among others. The same goes for the content of the chapters themselves, as the book often moves between diverse religious expressions and geographical locations faster than it is possible totally to orient oneself in any particular tradition.
What, then, is the focus? The key to the volume is in the editors' goal of rethinking the nature of transcendence through moments of musical–religious transition. The editors adhere firmly to sound's potential for transcendence, its potential to overcome human, temporal, and spatial limits. However, they question the way in which transcendence has become something of a comfort zone in musical scholarship, as well as its automatic invocation whenever sacred sound is in play. They take issue with the way in which transcendence can often be confined to the domain of religion and, at the same time, with its conception as a universal, undifferentiated idea. The chapters of the book represent, therefore, an attempt to foreground the 'unexceptional, ambiguous zone between religion and the secular where sacred musical practice happens' and to 'struggle explicitly with the epistemological limits of religious faith and spiritual experience' (p. 10). A focus on transition highlights the situatedness of practices, and the provisional quality of any particular set of relationships, while the constant movement through diverse chapters offers a similar dynamic.
A theoretically ambitious start is counterbalanced by the somewhat down-to-earth writing in some of the chapters. Having had the theory presented to us, it feels sometimes as if the reader is left to apply it to the ensuing ethnographic descriptions themselves. Indeed, some chapter authors seem to become hastily aware of this in their concluding paragraphs, quickly name-checking vital buzzwords to reference themes that have been absent from the discussion. This is particularly problematic in such a wide-ranging volume, as very few readers will be specialists in all the topics covered. As in most edited collections, the contributions are a little uneven, and I found the later chapters to be the stronger ones, and those written by the book's two editors in particular had theoretical depth and vision to match the introduction.
The book is divided into four sections: Liturgy, Performance, Healing; Culture, Identity, Society; Media and Technology, Transmission and Transformation; Europe, Secularity, Revival. It seems clear from the titles that what is outlined here is a broad counterpoint of different themes stemming from real-world situations and not a single, premeditated theoretical strait jacket: I would be keen to learn how the editors went about selecting the material which they decided to include. It is precisely this wide-ranging nature which gives the collection its value, resisting any attempt to pin down ideas within one particular religious tradition.
In the first section, 'Liturgy, Performance, Healing', we are presented with a range of rituals that, in different ways, straddle and problematize categorizations of sacred and secular performance. Four out of the five chapters which focus away from Christianity seem to have been positioned here to dissuade Western scholars from retreating into familiar academic theological traditions as a hermeneutic lens for interpreting the contents of the book. Richard Jankowsky's chapter on Tunisian Sṭambēī contains a fascinating discussion of the connections between spiritual entities, geopolitical histories, and...