Halloween Otoacoustic Emissions at St. Augustine's Church in Tempe

Otoacoustic Emissions at St. Augustine's Church in Tempe Monday, October 31, 2011

According to the Billboard Contemporary Christian Music charts, "Courageous," by the Georgia-based band Casting Crowns, is the most popular Christian song in America. The song is a lot of things: vaguely arena rock, pitched somewhere between Coldplay and Nickelback (without the quirk of the former and the boneheadedness of the latter), and is an anthem for returning to family values and being "courageous" in the face of the world's woes.

But last night at St. Augustine's in the Parish Hall, a very different kind of spiritual music was explored. The Otoacoustic Emissions performance, led by Jacob Adler, was far from anthemic: a slow-building drone, aided by bells, violin, bassoon, and the voices of about 20 humans hooded in black robes and crouched around a small cluster of candles. It was lyric-less and impossible to define on theological grounds. For 90 minutes, a handful of parishioners sat in the pews, some cradling their heads, some with closed eyes, listening to music that demanded attention and contemplation.

Last night's performance was hardly "for everyone." A group of 20-somethings in front of me slinked out about an hour in; an elderly couple to my right only lasted about 15 minutes.

Not that you could blame them. The performance had more in common with a Sunn O))) show. Both the Otoacoustic Emission and Sunn O))) have roots in the work of American composer Lamonte Young, and both play with the ideas of sacred music. Whereas Sunn goes for darkness and Satanic imagery (sometimes, at least -- Monoliths and Dimensions moved with Miles Davis free-jazz force toward the lighter side of the spectrum), the performers last night wailed and sustained under a giant cross, the light of the candles they huddled around illuminating the sloping ceiling of the hall.

"The inspiration for this musical experience has earlier roots in the just-intonated drone music of Lamonte Young," Adler told Up on the Sun two weeks ago. "When I was living in Amsterdam from 2006-2008, I organized several performances of Young's Composition 1960 #7 which consists of two pitches a perfect fifth apart. These performances took place in huge, beautiful cathedrals in Amsterdam including the Krijtberg and the Oude Kerk -- I accompanied various ensembles on multiple organs and amplified laptops."

It was Halloween, and I spotted at least one dude in a skeleton mask, but the performance was less about spookiness and more about mystery, in a classical sense. There were moments where I found my mind wandering toward the mundane, and then there were moments I couldn't think of anything but the sheer volume in the room. As the black-clad performers exited the stage in a slow procession, I thought about the power mystery has in spiritual music. Believers and non-believers alike stayed behind, listening to the pre-recorded drone lope that opened the night.

I exited and headed for my car, while a handful of folks chatted and smoked outside. We look to Halloween for a thrills and scares -- but what it truly breaks down to is a sense of mystery, of acknowledging forces outside ourselves. Music that speaks toward that sense of ultimate "unknowing" can be scary, immense, and beautiful. It will probably never top the CCM charts, but I don't think Lamonte Young, Sunn O))), or Adler mind that at all.

Last Night: Otoacoustic Emmission at St. Augustine's Church in Tempe

Better Than: Sunday school or Jars of Clay mixtapes.

Spotted under the Hood: Chad Sundin (who I sure hope makes some more music as The Via Maris soon).

What?: The dude in the assembly rocking a tie-dyed shirt while everyone else was draped in black. Bold move, my friend. Bold move.

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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.

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