Listening Back to the Recordings 


I argue that the process of recording the azhan – which includes the recording of street sounds, the introduction of loudspeaker amplification, and the recording of sounds made by the human recordist – changes the purpose and possibly the meaning of the call to prayer from a religious recitation into a sonic representation, made up of different sounds and noises, that can provide a window into a society. Even despite the initiative to unify the azhan in Abu Dhabi, the demographic makeup of the place becomes transmitted through the voices and ambiance that can be heard in the field recordings. 


In his essay “On Sonic Spaces” Paul Demarinis distinguishes early phonographers’ experiences of listening back to recordings on foil and wax cylinders as the origin of sound art, soundscape theory, sound sculpture, and sound design. He explains that when phonographers recorded one sound, three could be heard. The first was the sound itself, the second were the inadvertent sounds of the environment, and the third was the sound of the recorder (Demarinis 2011: 74). Exploring the noise in compositions was the entry into a deeper philosophical inquiry of what music is, what sound is, how they relate to one another, and the experience of hearing through composition (Kahn 2003: 77-90). 


Not only do recordings have the ability to capture an indiscriminate sonic snapshot of an environment, they also capture the ways a physical environment interacts with the sounds within it. Another way of saying this is that a recording is a story of the relationship between different elements told through the way sound reflects and refracts within an environment. When reciting the azhan, the muezzin utilizes his vocal chords, which vibrate to create resonant frequencies that are then amplified and heard over the loudspeakers. Those same resonances and vibrations, in the form of soundwaves, reflect and refract off of buildings, sidewalks, and the urban landscape. Frequencies resonating in large open fields sound quite different from those amplified in densely-packed spaces where buildings, people, and vegetation serve as reflective surfaces for the reverberating soundwaves. The recordings of the live azhan are therefore able to capture the resonances not only of the amplified azhan but of the sounds of everyday life: cars, people, wind, etc., as well as the vibrations, echoes, and reflections of the sound in its spatial context, which is also influenced by the positioning of the recordist and/or recording device. After all, when the azhan sounds in the Jebel Al Akhdar mountains of Oman, it does not sound the same as in Abu Dhabi city.

Azhan from a mosque in Jebel Al Akhdar, Oman 

Azhan, recorded in Abu Dhabi city

Numerous composers from the first half of the twentieth century – including Luigi Russolo, Edgard Varèse, and Henry Cowell – were in agreement that noise was an important element of a composition as well as an indicator of society. By listening to the recordings of the azhan, we are listening as much to the amplified recitation of the azhan, (already twice transformed in its essence, from live recitation, to recorded azhan transmitted over radio, and then again amplified locally at each mosque) as we are to the city, the people, and the environment of the place.