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Interview: Immersion in Ritual Music New York


Musician and teacher Nicholas Zork; founder and executive director of Faith House Manhattan Samir Selmanovic; and Faith House Manhattan’s director of operations Frank Fredericks talk about their recent immersion weekend, its purpose and their dream for an Adventist immersion.

Question: In October you organized an event called Immersion: Ritual Music New York. What was it all about?

Nicholas Zork: This immersion invited participants — who are accustomed to leading congregational music in Christian worship — to be guests in relatively unfamiliar ritual contexts. 

Music is a great way to bridge the familiar and the unfamiliar — the accessible and the strange. It is polyvalent, enabling people to experience the same performance or recording in a myriad of ways. The ritual and social power of music is not in the fact that each member of a gathered community experiences a musical practice in precisely the same way but that they can each experience it in different ways at the same time. The social practices of music can, therefore, shape shared time among a diverse group of participants, including those who are experiencing a music ritual for the first time.

Question: This is not the first “immersion” experience you have organized. Can you tell us about other similar events Faith House Manhattan has put together?

Samir Selmanovic: We can design immersion events specially curated for a specific audience, tailored to their wants and needs. In the past we have had diverse immersion events, including:

  • 30 young adult leaders from Sweden for three days sent to us by their government
  • 20 new Episcopal missionaries
  • 30 5th graders who we introduced to paradox, body meditation, and tradition through visits to three different communities
  • A group from the flagship Quaker seminary for a two-week immersion (our longest yet), during which time they visited more than 20 places

One other kind of immersion that Faith House has “brokered” has been local. It is a Jewish (not interfaith) Passover Seder for an interfaith audience held in the largest progressive Roman Catholic church, St. Francis of Xavier in downtown Manhattan.  We had 40 people attend the first year, then 120 the next, and 250 the following year. We paused last year but are doing it again this year.  One of the 50 most influential Rabbis in the US, David Ingber, is one of our advisors, and he and his congregation lead that service.

Question: What about events for Adventists?

Samir Selmanovic: My personal dream is for us to one day design an awesometastic immersion experience for Seventh-day Adventists! We would be able to see how our belief treasures —  1) wholeness (human experience), 2) co-creation with God (advent), and 3) spirituality of time (Sabbath) — are being appreciated in the world. 

We will see how much we can learn from others, and then how much we can contribute.  And we can contribute a lot since we have been custodians of these beautiful life truths for a century. This is not the time to pull back and build walls, but to swing the doors at the boundaries of our Adventist community open so that these treasures can move in and out, both ways.

Question: Why immersion events?

Samir Selmanovic: Immersions are fun. But they also provide a powerful educational opportunity for interfaith engagement, dealing with diversity, and personal transformation. They accomplish what no books, speeches, or media ever can.  Experiences like this last for a lifetime and provide framework for other knowledge.

Immersions also deepen one’s own faith. Grappling with difference through encounters with real people and communities, participants have to examine their assumptions, feelings, and frameworks.  This in turn, refreshes and renews their own thought processes and daily practices.

Question: Who attended the Ritual Music New York weekend, and what did they think?

Frank Fredericks: We had two seminary students (one who leads worship) attend.  In a sense, they were looking at it from a perspective of how to building community through ritual music, likely informing their future work as religious leaders.  The other was a minister from North Carolina, who works with those with handicaps doing arts ministry.  

Question: I believe the experience included visits to three houses of worship, including a Sufi Zikr and A Jewish shabbat service. You also visited a hip hop improv show, a jazz concert and more. Why was such diversity so important to the “immersion”?

Nicholas Zork: This diversity is essential to the experience. The participants were musicians and facilitators of Christian worship rituals in one way or another. The common thread of music allowed participants to experience similarities between rituals that were — at least ostensibly — very different from their own weekly worship services. This experience of similarity amidst diversity creates the possibility of a more robust appreciation of the “other” from which we can learn. 

But it’s not just about seeing the “other” differently — and more favorably — by recognizing our similarities. We also hoped that through music ritual we might be confronted with the beauty of difference, and that this reality would alter the lens through which we see not only others, but ourselves.

Improv vocal jazz, and tap dancing, and a mindblowing view of Central Park at the Late Night Session at Dizzy’s Coca Cola, Jazz at Lincoln Center.

Question: How did you hope this immersion experience would help the participants in their work and lives?

Nicholas Zork: We hoped that experiencing these diverse music rituals as guests might change the way we practice the music rituals we host. Effective liturgical leadership is — among other things — the art of facilitating from a de-centered position. 

Sadly, the raised platforms, prominent pulpits, amplified mics and stage spotlights in many Christian worship services offer little opportunity for liturgical leaders to practice this de-centering. We hoped the de-centering experience of this immersion might allow helpful reflection to take place.

Question: Why is ritual important in music, do you believe?

Nicholas Zork: Music is a social practice. It only exists as something people create and/or receive. Without people, music is just vibrations in the air. I define ritual action (along with Catherine Bell and many recent ritual studies experts) as a way of doing something that sets it apart from its more ordinary counterparts. 

Music is always social. Exploring social practices of music in New York as “ritual music” emphasizes those practices that have a heightened sense of social function and significance for participants; and, of course, it makes comparisons with Christian worship more readily apparent.

The immersion participants begin experiencing the whirling with dervishes at a Sufi zikr in Tribeca.

Question: What are your musical backgrounds? Nick, you are a musician and worship leader. How important is music in your life?

Nicholas Zork: I lead congregational singing at an Adventist and an Episcopal congregation in Manhattan on a regular basis. I also perform in music venues and collaborate with other artists in writing, performing and recording for a variety of functions — liturgical, commercial, and social. 

My work as a musician has never been limited to communities of faith. The artificial barriers between “sacred” and “secular” music are not a lived reality for me. In truth, such divisions have more to do with corporate branding strategy than anything intrinsic in music or its social function. My social life, work and faith have all been musically shaped — and vice versa — for as long as I can remember.  

Question: What gave you the idea for this New York music immersion event?

Nicholas Zork: I have learned a great deal from the varied ritual music practices of my New York neighbors. I know the same is true of Samir and Frank. We wanted to share this experience with others, especially those who may have been formed in similar faith traditions. 

I was also sure it would be a blast. It’s nice when great educational opportunities coincide with how I’d like to spend my weekend anyway! 

Question: Was the weekend a success? How do you measure its success?

Nicholas Zork: My definition of a successful weekend is one in which participants are stretched beyond their comfort zones, learn and also have a lot of fun. Our feedback suggests that these things all happened. I’m grateful for that.

Question: Did you make money? Break even?

Frank Fredericks: Without including staff costs, we just barely broke even. But I think when we get more people it will become more sustainable.  We’ve had sustainable immersion before, but for us the vision was to build an amazing experience first, and then figure out how to make it financially viable second.  I think the quality of the experience this first group had reflects that value.

Immersion guests hear the opening prayers at Romemu, a Jewish Renewal congregation in the Upper East Side.

Question: Do you know of any similar events? What did you model your immersion on? Will you do another music immersion in the future?

Nicholas Zork: I don’t know of any events that introduce participants to such varied music and social experiences. 

We modeled the weekend in some ways on previous Faith House Manhattan immersion experiences but with a focus on music that included but went beyond faith communities. 

We’ll be offering another “Ritual Music in New York” immersion January 9-12. Registration is open. I’m looking forward to starting off the new year with another adventure.

Read quotes from the participants here, and find more information and register here.

Top image: Nicholas Zork, Amy Vaughan, Kyle Dever, and Eddie Cornejo outside the world-famous Blue Note Jazz Club.

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