Hammock’s Numinous Ministry of Presence

John J. Thompson

We are a wordy people, casting about for phrases and metaphors as we try to make sense of the big and small things in life. Sometimes, however, we should just shut up. The apostle Paul, when addressing the deeply troubled church in Corinth, said that he didn’t come proclaiming things about God with lofty words or advice, but instead came “in weakness with great fear and trembling.”

Words allow us the perception of dominion. If we can define a thing, a feeling, an emotion, then maybe we can possess it. This is not an inherently bad trait, mind you. Naming things has been part of our mandate since the Garden. But when naming tricks us into thinking we control things, we set ourselves up for disappointment. It’s a lie we tell ourselves well.

There are certain experiences in life that bring us past the usefulness of words. The ecstasy of new love, the terror of a hurricane, the loss of a loved one. These things wreck our vocabulary and devastate our reasoning. They push us into realms beyond our rational control. It is in these hinterlands, these vast fields of light and dark, that we find ourselves in the place David describes in Psalm 5: simply groaning. When members of our community go through these trials, we are called first to bear each other’s burdens, not simply to offer words of encouragement or sympathy. Chaplains often refer to this as a “ministry of presence.” We go into the place of pain and demonstrate our love and concern by simply being there. There is no doubt a lot of this is happening right now in Houston, Florida, and various tropical islands.

The ambient, “post-rock” duo Hammock has been crafting fascinating, sometimes obtuse, and mostly instrumental music for 14 years now. Co-creators Marc Byrd and Andrew Thompson, who began Hammock as an experimental side project, have quietly become two of the most respected practitioners of this kind of music. Sigur Rós’ Jónsi counts himself a fan and occasional collaborator, as are members of The Church and several other bands. Hammock’s songs have been placed in major films and television shows and have been gushed over by critics. But as impressive as their entire retinue has been, their latest, Mysterium, may be a new high water mark for Hammock, and the genre itself.

There is something profoundly comforting about the wordless presence of this particular requiem.

Hammock has long used evocative titles and impressionistic visual art to create an emotional theme for each of their projects. Mysterium is no exception. Song titles such as “Now and Not Yet,” “When the Body Breaks,” and “I Would Give My Breath Away” all reinforce the strongest and most palpable theme they have ever explored: death. Mysterium is, in fact, Hammock’s requiem. Inspired by the loss of Byrd’s nephew to an aggressive tumor, the songs explore the depths of pain, loss, helplessness, and eventual healing, all without uttering more than a few intelligible words. Like a wise chaplain comforting a victim of trauma, theirs is a ministry of presence, not of preaching. When words fail, Byrd and Thompson dive into the silence. They place their arms around the shoulders of the wounded and allow their tears to commingle.

As Hammock paints this sonic masterpiece, it is breathtaking to hear a new color being used. Although their characteristic guitar swells and effects are still prevalent, the songs on Mysterium are given extra humanity through the inclusion of a cathedral-esque choir and transcendent strings. The voices carry through virtual chambers, bouncing and reflecting in dazzling ways. It truly feels like a congregational gathering. As the loss is felt, the listener is surrounded by a sonic cloud of witnesses—an ethereal reminder that we are never less alone than when we are forced to feel the pain of loss in this broken world. It is the one thing we all share.

On a mostly non-verbal piece of art like this it’s amazing how powerfully a single-word song title like “Numinous” can shape the aesthetic impact of the work. The suggestion is that there is a strong religious or spiritual quality in the experience of death and the process of grieving. The veil between the spiritual and the physical is thin in the place of mourning. Empty religious platitudes crumble under the weight of the human condition anyway. It’s often better for us to simply bear one another’s burdens in sober silence. Despite this music’s lack of literal narrative, or maybe because of it, there is something profoundly comforting about the wordless presence of this particular requiem. The song titles provide just enough context for the spiritual and emotional essence of the conversation to take flight.

All of Hammock’s previous releases have grown on me after repeated listens. Mysterium, however, grabbed me from the first spin. The arching and elegiac melodies, the warm reverberations, and the drifting rhythms all come in for a well-shaped landing on the final track, “This Is Not Enough (Epilogue).” Truer words have never been groaned. No, this indeed is not enough. Thankfully, death never has the final word.

Topics: Music, Culture At Large, Arts & Leisure