Tuesday, March 15, 2016

About Taize, About the Album, About You, Little Sweetheart

Little sweetheart, we have a rough mix of the entire new album, Electric Hymnal. I'm still working on the final mixes but it's assembled. Soon, we'll send it up to Old Colony in Boston for mastering. Sean let me know today that he has time next week to work on the art. So, here we go. I wrote some liner notes for the record today. They talk about how it came to be, about what Taize is and most importantly, as ever, how it is so very much about you - my true love, my soulmate, my partner, my best friend, my everything. Here it is, little sweetheart:

About this record:
So… what do we have here? I feel like I should give a bit of background, a bit of context.

If you already know our band, you’ll probably know that we lost our female vocalist, my partner, my soulmate, the love of my life, Summer Serafin, after a tragic accident that took her life in March of 2011. Our records since then have and always will be largely of, for and about her. Literally, “of” because Summer’s vocals continue to grace each album, thanks to the plethora of material she recorded with me and that I keep on hand and cherish. In the aftermath in trying to find my way, Jason joined the band and together we picked up where Summer and I left off to create our first record post-tragedy for her, our double-record, Of Love and Loss in October 2012, following up with last year’s album, Angels - each named to Ground Control Magazine’s Critic’s Poll of Best Albums of the Year, in 2013 and 2015, respectively.

Writing and recording and releasing music in tribute to Summer has been enormously helpful to keeping me going and keeping me close to her. In the terrible void of her physical absence, music has helped keep me centered and mindful. Another thing that’s helped is what inspired this record that you now hold in your hands.

It’s a bit of a roundabout story but please bear with me because its very roundabout nature is what I think makes it so resonant - that way that seemingly disconnected things lead us to the thing we need.

While visiting Summer’s wonderful parents, Mike & Linda, in NorCal, I drove up on my own to the place we call The Angel. I go as often as I can when I’m out there and spend the day, stopping for hours to bring flowers and talk to my sweetheart there at the place where we honor and remember her and where I believe she alights to comfort us (because I know she’s not bound to that plot of land but is everywhere). As I left, the radio came on in the car and I heard a program called On Being, hosted by the very thoughtful Krista Tippet. President Obama, also a listener has described her show as “thoughtfully delving into the mysteries of human existence, embracing complexity and inviting people of ​every background to join her conversation about faith, ethics, and moral wisdom.” I became a devotee of her show and one day heard a program which found Ms. Tippet interviewing an author who spoke passionately about music and faith. It made such an impression on me, I sent the link to Summer’s mom.

A few weeks later I was walking around the Upper West Side and I came across a pretty little church, West End Collegiate, that had a banner outside announcing a book event for the same author, visiting from Colorado. I turned up that night and immediately felt I was in the right place. It wasn’t grand, it was comfy and welcoming. The pre-event music was music that Summer & I held dear - DCfC and Bon Iver and The National. Clearly, some of the assembled were the author’s crowd but plenty were just the community - kids running around underfoot, the young and the older, beret-sporting Upper West Side lefties. It felt very homey. It stuck with me. And I noticed after the event a sign for something else they did at West End weekly - a candlelight meditation service called “Taize” held on Wednesday nights. I told myself that I should check that out some time.

It took a while. But West End Collegiate was in my path returning from my regular Monday appointment with my grief counselor. I’d leave exhausted and in tears and happen past it again and again. Finally, I made my way up there one Wednesday night. Like the book event, Taize was held in the sanctuary. But the lights were low, the space mostly illuminated by scores of candles on and around the altar. A pianist and a guest musician sat to the right. It was a small gathering, not more than twenty. A handbill laid out the order of the service: over half a dozen songs - short, chant-like musical phrases, meant to be repetitive, often anthemic, some in Latin, others in English - alternating with spoken word passages both sacred and secular (a beautiful Sylvia Plath poem among them that first night), prayers, a benediction and at its center a 10-15 minute silent meditation when the lights, already dim, would be lowered yet further and those assembled invited to light a candle and say a silent prayer if they wished.

I still find it impossible to truly convey what a profound and mindful experience Taize is. Indeed, when I first met up with a colleague here in New York after I started attending he said to me “so, you’re going to church…” in the same sort of tone of voice one might reserve for a phrase more like “so, you’re blowing goats…”. There’s a very deep cultural distrust of the religious that we are entirely aware of. It’s a bit more palatable to people if you call it “spiritual” but we’re not under any illusions. That quote from Spinal Tap - “on what day did the Lord create Spinal Tap (insert: Bipolar Explorer) and could He not have rested on that day, too?” -  comes to mind. But if you’ve read this far, perhaps I can tell you more.

Taize has become an important part of my week and my life. I won’t say “recovery”. I don’t believe there is recovery from devastating loss, I don’t even recognize it as a goal. It’s supposed to be hard. It’s supposed to hurt. You just have to learn, at best, how to carry it and to carry and honor the lost beloved in your heart and memory, keep them close and, for me at least, have faith. I’ve learned a lot about Taize - it’s origins, tradition, how it’s practiced in far flung places. Taize itself is the name of the village in the south of France that birthed its practice. The monastic community there created the service as an inclusive all-faiths one nearly a century ago, with its simple chant-like hymns, reflective readings, silent meditation and prayers… and candles.

Once we set out on this project we had the great support of our friends at West End - Pastors Michael Bos and Jes Kast-Keat, Music Director extraordinaire Cynthia Powell - and wound up sitting for a interview with Yale’s Marissa Glynias, who’s writing a book/dissertation on Taize and who we quite possibly learned more from than we revealed ourselves. Marissa has attended Taize services in every corner of the country and abroad in her research and said they’re all quite different but have one thing very much in common - the candlelight.

While we can’t bring you that here, what we did set out to do was as faithfully as possibly bring the feel and flow of a Taize service to this record, filtered through the lens of our experience and expression. I told Marissa in her interview that it wasn’t any kind of conscious effort to impose a foreign signature on these traditional songs. To us, it’s a very organic thing. Moved by the experience and practice of Taize, this material got into our bloodstream and the way that it courses through our veins feels and sounds exactly like this. It inspires us and because it’s become so central to my life, I felt I needed to share it in the way I do the most important things - through making records.

West End prints this introduction in its bulletin at every Wednesday night Taize: “Inspired by the monastic Taize community in the south of France, these Wednesday evening services are a way to focus ourselves to contemplate the beauty and mystery of existence and to relieve the stresses of the day. In the peace-filled space of this sanctuary, in the glow of candlelight, they provide an uncomplicated framework for quiet meditation, reflection, readings and music”. We hope, in some way, to bring that to you, dear listener, in the same way it has been gifted to us.

With a quick final word to and about Ms. Powell, West End’s brilliant music director, a breathtakingly gifted organist, conductor of several of New York’s finest sacred music ensembles (and consequently knowing the scores of world-class musicians she brings to grace Taize as guests each week) and who assembles each week’s Taize service, selecting and compiling the material - thank you and we hope some of our more adventurous renderings of this material so dear to us as we know it is to you doesn’t leave you muttering “you have got to be fucking kidding me”. Thank you.

And, as ever - For Summer.

With love & faith,

Michael Serafin-Wells
April 2016
New York City

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