Madison Blonquist and Faculty Mentor: Jeff Sheets, School of Communications
Sacred Sounds was an ORCA funded research project that resulted in an exhibit that ran from November 10, 2017 to January 3, 2018 in the Harold B. Lee Library. The overall goal was to curate an immersive, multimedia, musical experience that focused on the three Abrahamic religions and explored the ways in which music embodies and interacts with the Divine. I hoped to create, through the lens of music, a compelling experience for visitors to cultivate empathy among local Jewish, Christian, and Islamic communities.
The exhibit itself had five components: a self-guided audio tour featuring the sounds of prayer, worship, and devotion from the three Abrahamic religions; sacred texts on display courtesy of the BYU Special Collections; an interactive playlist; a custom made “prayer bench” and art installation by Brandon Boulton (MFA Student); six original documentary segments highlighting local congregations and interfaith choirs by Peter Totten (BFA Student). Each part of the exhibit served an integral purpose to the visitor experience. For example, listeners could enjoy a variety of musical samples from the Islamic “Call to Prayer” to the “Kyrie” from the Mass Ordinaire. Because the medium of music is time, it requires patience and gives listeners an opportunity to practice listening. Visitors begin their visit by practicing listening to music and, with the documentary segments, conclude by practicing listening to people. I felt that the documentary component, which showcased Imam Muhammed Mehtar of the Khadeeja Islamic Center and Cantor Wendy Bat-Sarah of the Kol Ami Jewish Congregation among others, communicated the relevance of the exhibit content by bringing in a local element. This was perhaps the most time consuming—and most important—aspect of the Sacred Sounds experience. Due to the multidisciplinary nature of the project, Sacred Sounds required collaboration across a variety of fields and departments. Additional support for selecting musical content was given by Dr. Jeremy Grimshaw of the School of Music, and interfaith coordination and consultation was given by Dr. Andrew Reed of the Department of Religion. The exhibit was made possible by the generous funding of the ORCA Foundation and the BYU Honors Program. Other contributors, such as Dr.Lloyd Miller, Cantor Wendy Bat-Sarah, Imam Muhammed Mehtar, Debra Bonner, Leland Spindler,
Jeanine Musarsa, Lucas Jones, and Jeff Sheets made invaluable contributions to the final product through their willing participation.
It was my hope that Sacred Sounds would facilitate open and respectful interfaith dialogues and pave the way for future organizations that would long outlast the duration of the exhibit. I am pleased to report that this is exactly what has occurred. I had an opportunity to participate in the Jewish-Mormon Dialogue Project, an initiative that until then had only included a select group of professors. While the community we interacted with was remote, it was a personally enriching experience that I would not have had otherwise. I was able to apply what I had learned from my mentors to the diverse parties involved with the Sacred Sounds interfaith initiative. As a result, relationships between BYU and local religious leaders have been strengthened. An interfaith panel discussion will take place on January 25, 2018 where members from a variety of religious and ethnic backgrounds will be given an opportunity to discuss the role of sound in worship and strategies for future interfaith discourse. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of all is the creation of the BYU Student Interfaith Club which will be official by Fall 2018.
Response & Discussion
This initiative has received nothing but positive feedback from the campus and local communities. Several have expressed the timeliness of this exhibit with concurrent events and have appreciated the opportunity to learn more about the shared commonalities, rather than our integral differences of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam., Around 100 people were in attendance at the exhibit opening on November 10, confirming both a need and an interest in the topics at hand. Since then, articles have been featured in print and online formats in The Daily Herald, The Universe, and the Deseret News. In addition to positive press, the College of Fine Arts and Communications has secured funding in order to make a video feature of myself and others who were involved in the creation of Sacred Sounds in order to encourage future experiential learning opportunities and the generous donations that make them possible.
This project has resulted in a community awareness of our religious diversity, a more educated audience and even a BYU Interfaith Student Club. As I worked to create an experience that changed people, I found myself constantly overwhelmed by the amount of support and enthusiasm from those I invited to participate. The effects of my research and its presentation will, as I hoped, long outlast the exhibit itself. While there is much work ahead of us in the field of interfaith relations, I am confident that the Sacred Sounds exhibition made—and will continue to make—a valuable contribution and inspire empathy among the three Abrahamic religions.