top of page

Spirit & Sound, Part 4: Sounding, Re-sounding, and the Antiphonal Shape of the World

I believe in the Holy Spirit . . . Together with the Father and the Son He is worshipped and glorified. —The Nicene Creed

On a recent Saturday morning, a text message popped up on the Rabbit Room Staff thread. Leslie Thompson, one of our staff members, was in Kentucky with her husband, hiking. She texted to tell us that as they drove to the trailhead that morning, they had passed a handmade sign fixed to a tree. It read: “Is He Worthy?” A hundred yards or so further along there was another tree, and another sign: “He is.”

I’m pretty confident that most Rabbit Room readers will recognize this reference to our own Andrew Peterson’s song, “Is He Worthy?” Part of the power of that song—and part of the fun of the signs that Leslie saw (like a series of liturgical Burma-Shave placards)—is the way the call propels us toward a response. Like an unresolved chord; like the story setting up a familiar joke until we are left dangling on the edge of the well-loved punchline; the initial statement generates its own gravitational field, drawing us on to the answering countersign.

“Is He Worthy” is an example of a very ancient musical form called antiphonal song, in which a leader and congregation (or a congregation divided into two groups, or perhaps two different choirs) engage in call and response. You can find examples in the Old Testament. Psalm 136, with its answering refrain of “His love endures forever” almost certainly would have been performed antiphonally. In Nehemiah 12, Nehemiah describes an antiphonal arrangement for the choral celebrations that marked the dedication of Jerusalem’s rebuilt wall. “I . . . assigned two large choirs to give thanks,” Nehemiah writes. (Neh. 12:31) One lucky group was assigned “to proceed on top of the wall to the right, toward the Dung Gate. Hoshaiah and half the leaders of Judah followed them.” (Neh. 12:31-32) “The second choir” Nehemiah records, “proceeded in the opposite direction. I followed them on top of the wall, together with half the people.” (12:38) (It’s notable, though unsurprising, that Nehemiah decided he would be singing in the “not-by-the-Dung-Gate” group.) The point is that this musical celebration was going to be not just a sounding of praises, but a re-sounding. The celebrants would be both performers and listeners. Each would call, and this call would elicit a response, which would draw forth its own response in return. This to-and-fro wasn’t just arranged for the sake of interesting acoustics. Rather, it reflects something of the architecture of worship itself.

In the last article in this series, we considered the part of the Nicene Creed which says that the Holy Spirit proceeds. The Spirit, as the Breath of God, is God in motion; carrying the life of God from God into creation. The next phrase in the creed however, tells us something of what that Breath is meant to do once it reaches creation: together with the Father and the Son [the Holy Spirit] is worshipped and glorified. The Breath of God proceeds into creation, and then, in a great antiphonal response, the worship of creation proceeds back toward God, carried on the same breath God has leant His creatures. But even though the call generates the response, this is not a mechanical reflex; this isn’t God tossing a tennis ball against the wall in order to play catch with Himself. Rather, it is precisely in this re-sounding that we find our own voice.

We can explore this idea a little more fully through one of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ best known poems—“As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flame.” (If you’ve never read it, you have my permission to go do so now. Really. Go ahead. I’ll wait here.)

Hopkins writes:

As tumbled over rim in roundy wells Stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s Bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name; Each mortal thing does one thing and the same: Deals out that being indoors each one dwells; —Gerard Manley Hopkins, “As Kingfishers Catch Fire”

In Hopkins’ poem the sound each thing makes in the course of its ordinary being in the world is in fact an announcement of its name. It is the means by which each stone, well, or bell bow gives voice to its deepest and truest self. In this way it “deals out that being indoors each one dwells.” Think for a moment about what Hopkins is describing. A stone rolls over the lip of a well and tumbles toward the bottom, clattering and bouncing off the sides along the way until with a final echoing sound it announces its arrival at the bottom. What do we hear? In all the percussions of the stone’s descent it “flings out broad its name.” So, we learn something of what the stone is made of: a heavy rock thuds its way down the shaft differently than a light one. We learn something of its shape: the roundness of the stone (or its flatness, or its edged serrations) makes itself heard along each point of its descent. We discover what the rock is made of—the clear ping of polished granite, or the whispering rattle of shale. We learn all of this even if we don’t know enough about geology or physics to articulate it in the proper terminology, which in a way just underlines the point. We don’t learn the stone’s scientific classification; we learn its voice. This is the sound of this rock along this trajectory through this space.

Sound only exists by re-sounding . . . Sound is not only a movement, but a movement that sets other things in motion. Steve Guthrie

But more than one name sounds out as the stone is “tumbled over rim.” Sure, we learn the shape and character of the tumbling stone, but no one ever just hears “a stone,” all on its own. As it falls we also learn the name of the “roundy well” into which it has tumbled; namely, at the very least, that it is a well, and that it’s a “roundy” one! (Because a round well of course sounds different than a square one; and the same stone falling into a puddle, or a creek, or a sewer drain, sounds different still.) So the stone’s declaration of its own name carries with it the name of all the stones that line the walls of the well (or the mud, or the concrete, or . . . ). It announces not only its own voice but that of the water that stands (or doesn’t stand) at its base. It articulates the particular shape and dimensions and density and humidity of the resonant air contained within the well. The sound of the stone is necessarily the sound of the stone in its environment. We hear not just the “voice of the stone” but the antiphony of the stone and all that surrounds it.

If the stone in our poem were a particularly proud and individualistic rock—if it were to insist that we hear its voice only; if it were to refuse absolutely that the walls, the floor, and the surrounding atmosphere of the well should add their own voices to its descent—then we would hear nothing at all. And conversely, if the walls of the well, and the water at its base turned out to be insufferable divas, forbidding any tumbling rock to sound in their space, then we would not hear their voices either.

Lest we think this is a particular quirk of stones and wells, it’s worth saying explicitly: this is always and everywhere the case. Sound only exists by re-sounding. There is no sound in a vacuum, because sound is not only a movement, but a movement that sets other things in motion. As the promotional posters for the movie Alien famously announced: “In space, no one can hear you scream.” Sounds are events in an environment, and nothing sounds apart from an environment. This also means that each voice, by its sounding, awakens (at least to some extent) all the voices within the horizon of its sounding. That’s a startling thought. Consider: in one sense, nothing is more intimately or closely related to you than your own voice. And yet, you have never heard your voice “only.” Your voice always carries with it the voice of the space around you. And this is true, not only physiologically, but culturally. “Your” voice is manifested through the accents and inflections of the time and place in which you were raised. (Even before they can say words, babies of Russian speakers (for instance) make different kinds of sounds than the babies of Spanish speakers!) Likewise, if you are speaking words, those words announce the distinctive elements of the language which you received from those who raised you. I belabor the point just because of how often (as a college professor) I hear young people being encouraged to “find their own voice.” And of course, that’s an important thing to do—as long as we remember that, even at the most literal level, “our own voice” is never just “our own voice”!

The sharing of others’ voices is not a limitation of my ability to express myself; it is its condition. Steve Guthrie

Individualist that I am, I might be tempted to think—like our imaginary egotistical stone—that my voice only truly sounds when all the other “re-sounding” voices around me have been silenced. But the acoustical reality of such an eventuality would not be a stunning solo, but silence. My voice can only sound through the resounding of the spaces and voices around me. And conversely (we could say), like the walls of Hopkins’ well that we “hear” as the stone tumbles along them, my voice is likewise when others re-sound through me. As I type these words, I pause, and clear my throat (mm-mm-mm-MMM). I do it at least a dozen times a day, but as I listen to it now, I realize, it is my mother’s throat-clearing-sound that I hear. I would know it anywhere. And this happens a lot. My son says something funny; I laugh, and shockingly—really, shockingly!—I hear my father’s laugh emerging from my throat. Where did that come from? I think. That was a “Dad Noise!” I speak, it turns out, in my parents’ voices; and my parents’ voices speak in me. This sharing of others’ voices is not a limitation of my ability to express myself; it is its condition. In the same way, when I express myself, I do not silence my parents, but voice them. Even now, some years after both of my parents have passed away, our antiphonal song continues, calling and responding to one another.

My conviction is that all of these instances of antiphony (ringing stones, re-sounding voices) are not just “illustrations” of a general truth. They are ways in which our world bears the stamp of the God who has made it. And in particular, they testify to the delightfully antiphonal character of the spiritual life. The Spirit does not only to cause God’s life to live in me, but also enables my answering response to God. The first gift brings about a second. Physiologically, the intake of breath—by necessity—gives also the answering exhalation. So God gives not only breath, we might say, but breathing. What is more, this answering response is not any less “my own,” not any less original, by virtue of being an answer. In fact, when I return the breath I have been given in praise and worship, then who I am in my distinctive individuality sounds out most clearly.

If our responding breath is like God’s (or we could say, if we really have learned the lesson of the tumbling stone in Hopkins’ poem), then our voices will not only sound, but will set off other resonances all around us. It’s a question worth asking ourselves: What sorts of re-sounding does my sounding make possible? Or: Can I exercise my voice in ways that very intentionally give rise to antiphonal responses from those around me? This is a different sort of vision of creativity, but one, I think, modeled on the activity of the “Creator Spirit.” The Holy Spirit not only creates, but creates the conditions for further creativity. The Breath of God both sounds and gives rise to countless answering echoes. The Holy Spirit, writes Etienne Vetö, “acts through others and makes them act.”

The Father breathes the Breath into the Son to make it his and allow him to breathe back; in the same way, it is breathed into us to become ours, so that we may “breathe back out” to others. Our way of “breathing out” is to love God and to love others, especially the poor and the needy. We “breathe out” by employing the gifts [of the Spirit] for others. —Etienne Vetö, The Breath of God: An Essay on the Holy Spirit in the Trinity

God gives life and breath in order to make us givers. “Those who want to save their life will lose it,” Jesus says, “and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Mtt. 16:25) In the same way, the life-giving breath we have received remains a life-giving breath when we offer it to God and others. In the same way, my voice is most truly mine when it both answers and calls to other voices—the voice of God first of all, and then that of my neighbor. Our sounding forth, whether metaphorical or literal—whether in our activity generally, or in our art- and music-making particularly—is most deeply “Spirit-ual” when the sounding of our breath doesn’t drown out these other voices, but causes them to sound.


bottom of page