The remarkable Monks of the Desert, who spend their daily hours praying for peace, working and studying in silence, have entered the realm of major label music production with their Sony MASTERWORKS debut album Blessings, Peace and Harmony available April 24, 2012.
The Monks of The Desert observe a strict daily prayer schedule called Divine Office, or Opus Dei, which takes place 7 times during the day and once at night, starting at 4:00am and ending at 7:30pm. When not praying or studying, the monks run a multitude of self-sustaining businesses including light manufacturing, brewing beer (Monk's Ale & Monk's Wit), an on-site "hotel" and community thrift store in Santa Fe and a separate retail store specializing in hand-crafted religious items, books, music, and folk art.
The Monastery of Christ in the Desert is located completely "off-the-grid" in the stunning Chama Canyon wilderness in northwestern New Mexico, about 75 miles north of Santa Fe and 53 miles south of Chama. The solar-powered facility is surrounded by miles of government-protected wilderness, thus assuring and promoting solitude and quiet for the religious life experienced by men from several nations.
Blessings, Peace and Harmonycompiles selections from the Monks' four independent recordings of Gregorian chant, and also features four new chants recorded expressly for this new collection. Named after Pope Gregory I, Gregorian chant involves the early Christian liturgical music that originated in medieval times and forms the roots of Western classical music. Consisting solely of melody, the chants are sung unaccompanied and generally by small choral groups--and through the ages have continuously supplied listeners of all circumstances with a soothing sense of solace.
"The kind of singing that we do calms the spirit and helps us live in peace with our world and with one another," says Abbot Philip Lawrence, a scholar of chant who also leads the Monastery of Christ In The Desert - home to an American order of Benedictine monks from Abiquiu, New Mexico. "Chanting has some strange effect on the brain waves according to various studies," continues Abbot Philip, but this effect is certainly not the Monks of the Desert's objective; rather their goal, and that of Gregorian chant, notes Abbot Philip, is "to focus on the words rather than the challenge of voice production or sight reading. It is always our hope that our singing will bring others to peace, inner tranquility and an appreciation of beauty. These values can help create a world in which peace and tranquility prevail."
Blessings, Peace and Harmony, was designed to deliver a solid overall background of Gregorian chant. Approximately two-thirds of the music comes from the Catholic Mass, and is sung in Latin. The rest consists of various antiphons, or responsorial call-and-response choral formats, used either for devotional purposes or as Marian Antiphons (antiphons that are sung in honor of the Virgin Mary) used at the end of Compline (the final church service of the day) in the Divine Office (the day's fixed-hour prayers). The Divine Office in this collection is chanted in English. Also included in the Monks' album are two Mass Ordinaries (chants that are performed regularly) as well as one piece from each part of the Catholic Church's liturgical year.
"We added five chants sung in honor of the Mother of Jesus--Marian Antiphons--and five Alleluias because of their beauty," says the Abbott, "These Marian chants were placed at the beginning and the Alleluias at the end."
The Monks of the Desert chose the particular repertoire on Blessings, Peace and Harmony because they reflect aspects of monastic life throughout the year.
"The Marian Antiphons, for instance, are always used at the end of the day," explains Abbot Philip. "The Alleluia repertoire in Gregorian chant contains some of the most magnificent examples of chant [and] the Alleluias that we chose primarily relate to Saint Benedict, the founder of monastic life in the West. One medieval sequence which we sing with two solo voices amidst the choir is the 'Ave mundi spes Maria,' [which] would have been sung at Mass but is now a devotional chant to Mary." The most wonderful aspect of Gregorian chant in a monastic community, concludes Abbot Philip, "is its ability to allow for everyone to sing and yet also provide opportunities for monks who really love music to become more or less specialists. Most of the great monastic choirs have relied on a relatively small number of wonderful voices which are able to sustain the whole choir. Thus, the whole might easily sound better than the individual voices." Such is indeed the case with the Monks of the Desert and their transcendental Blessings, Peace and Harmony, which brings out the beauty of the human voice in the most divine context.