SXSW: A conversation on silence

by Cassandra Lawrence

Reprinted from The Blue Yarn 

Spiritual retreats, or church conferences generally skew in two directions. A quiet week of conversation, reflection, and community-building anchored either by the sound of rustling trees or gentle waves. The second, cold hotels and conference centers packed with attendees, speakers, and lots of books for sale. Both tend to be, whether large or small, a gathering of like-minded Christians, who are generally reading the same books, websites, and using the same small group models. Erin O’Connor, a doctorate candidate at the University of Texas said, “Christianity has a tendency to reify the echo chamber.”

Into the Noise at South by Southwest (known as SXSW) was not that kind of retreat or church conference. A condensed version of global music culture, ranging from hip-hop to folk and bluegrass, the leaders and participants at Into the Noise attended one of the nosiest and diverse events of the year. Over 2,000 official bands and 100 venues were filled with more than 50,000 people from all over the world.

Many attendees at Into the Noise were from the organizers church, Mars Hill Bible Church (founded by Rob Bell). Others were friends of friends or found the group online, and a few local United Methodist pastors attended the gathering as well. The group had baristas, nurses, financial advisors, designers, musicians, worship leaders, and pastors.

Eric Kuiper, lead organizer of Into the Noise, explained what brought the group together. “(These are) people for whom music is one of the primary ways they make sense of the world. They encounter healing and disruption,” he said. “ (With Into the Noise) they are able to have a place to practice that together, or experience that together.”

The purpose for the event was to create a platform, a place for conversation to happen and to deepen the vocabulary around the experience of music, no matter the genre or the theological training of the participants.

Kuiper opened the gathering with a thought from theologian Paul Tillich: “Revelation is anything that disrupts, transforms or heals.” Kuiper invited the 20 attendees to experience the music as well as the chaos that is SXSW, telling them, “Let’s go in, let’s not go out. Let’s go in together.”

Melissa Wiginton spoke about her United Methodist denomination, saying if she could require every person in the conference to participate in something like Into the Noise, she would. “Knowing the world outside of the church building, outside of our denomination is important,” said Wiginton, Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary’s vice president for education beyond the walls. She quoted Jesus’ first spiritual discipline as “come and seek,” saying, “Come and find out what’s going on. Art opens you up to feel the human experience.”

The group gathered for 90 minutes each day to reflect on the previous 24 hours at SXSW. Into the Noise leaders shared reflections on creativity, silence and how to move beyond a simple reaction of whether they liked a band or not.

With the various noises flooding the senses at SXSW, on the third day, the group spoke about silence. They reflected on and discussed the white noise created by all the noise and the necessity for moments of rest in a song or set. The conversation covered the need for silence to reflect on their everyday lives, as much as music requires silence within it. Troy Hatfield, a leader with Into the Noise, pointed out that even Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony begins with an 8th rest.

On a mid-week evening in the midst of SXSW, a drunk-driving accident killed three people and injured 22 others. The following night, the accident was recognized with a moment of silence at the stroke of midnight. Stopping the noise and music for that one minute played heavily into conversations that followed. In the venue with Har Mar Superstar, the minute of silence was nearly complete when it was interrupted by a few people giggling and shouting. Afterward, Troy Bronsink, the third leader of Into the Noise, asked participants, “Is silence a sign of maturity or just a note we choose not to use?” While another participant enquired, “Whether silence or rest is transformational or not is to be discerned or determined (by the musician and the listener).”

Kuiper introduced the conversation at Into the Noise as an open space. “I don’t come in to control the conversation,” he said. “We’re here to interact with this place. [SXSW] begged for a conversation about silence.” The conversation about silence ranged from analyzing negative and positive space to asking how we use or avoid silence. The discussion bordered on the metaphysical, while other conversations happening between sets included talk about lyrics, venues, performance, technology, and the musicians’ roles as prophet and teacher.

Overall, Into the Noise helped to create a retreat and escape from everyday obligations for participants, while immersing them in the culture that directly affects people every day.

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Cassandra Lawrence is a journalist, researcher, artist, and cooking nerd. She covers the shifting landscape of American religious life, religious-spiritual expressions of violence and non-violence, interfaith engagement, and post-conflict development trends and challenges. Blogs regularly at Contemplating Space.