Die Alone

If you follow this blog you know I have a tradition of writing depressing birthday songs. And depressing Christmas songs. Come to think of it, I write all sorts of depressing songs.

We’re all going to die alone. Happy birthday!

Since I turned 50 this week, I thought I was due for a big shot of musical existentialism, so I wrote this ode to mortality, “Die Alone.”

One of the things I’ve learned as a songwriter is that a sad song doesn’t necessarily benefit from sad music. Sometimes that just makes it mopey. I decided to break into an upbeat soul groove on this to pull it out of a morass of self-indulgent pity. Serendipitously, as I was working on the recording, I was also at a conference with the inimitable Urban Doxology singers, so I took them out in a back hallway and had them sing the “Hallelujahs” into my laptop. They are joined by the also inimitable Latifah Phillips. Stephen Roach laid down some sweet keys on the a piano in a mostly empty conference room. This was a low tech, high skill affair.

So find a friend, make yourself comfortable, and get ready to Die Alone.

We’re all going to die alone; hallelujah!
Been that way since we were born; hallelujah!
Everyone’s hoping for a home; hallelujah!
Someone they can call their own; hallelujah!

Everybody’s looking for a friend; hallelujah!
But we’re terrified to let them in; hallelujah!
If they knew what’s in your heart and head; hallelujah!
They’d leave you on your own again; hallelujah!

All our lives are spent chasing the wind
But it’s the wind that catches us in the end.
Bones and memories turn to dust.
And another generation only coughs.

Is that enough?

Spend our days wondering what we did; hallelujah!
To deserve all this; hallelujah!
But we’ve spent our years collecting sins; hallelujah!
Maybe that’s why it’s come to this; hallelujah!

We all know that we’re going to die; hallelujah!
We just don’t know how or when; hallelujah!

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Psalm 121: Lift Your Eyes Up to the Mountains!

As you know, my dear listeners, I scour the globe for songs that might find a home in your congregation. Sometimes they come from the globe that is my head. Other times they come from far-flung lands on the globe underneath my feet. In the case of this setting of Psalm 121, it hails from Korea.

I learned this song from two Korean friends who were studying at Calvin Seminary. This is the second in a big pile of lovely songs that we sang through a few years back. What I love about these songs is that they are simple, heartfelt, and based on scripture. It fits well with a Korean spirituality that is so full of prayer and devotion. The song is by Seong Sil Chung. (If you know him, please introduce me!) I translated the text using the videos below, notes from friends, and Psalm 121 itself. There are two arrangements: the first is a piano accompaniment with guitar chords (capo 4), the second is a simple four part arrangement like you’d find in hymnals.

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One Generation with liturgical dance

We Will Extol You, God and King from Church of the Servant on Vimeo.

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Benediction (The Last Word)

How does Sunday morning’s worship relate to Monday morning’s work? That’s the question on BiFrost/Cardiphonia’s mind, one that was the impetus for a song contest. And if it’s on the mind of song contest judges, then it’s on my mind, as well.

The song’s genesis began with some phrases scratched on the back of a church bulletin. The phrase that stuck was “from the postlude to the prelude.” (That’s also the title of a book about church music administration by Randall Bradley.) From there I started to flesh out the kinds of things that could, indeed should, be understood as part of a worshipful life. Some of these seem clear: a playground feels like part of God’s world. But what about a prison?

My first draft received a two thumbs down evaluation from my son, Theo. He felt that the melody was too bouncy and trite and that the lyrics were just a big list of things that rhymed. Ouch. So I did a complete rewrite. I’m more pleased with this version. It’s in 3/4 meter, rather than 4/4 with a backbeat. That gives it a more stately feel. And the melodic contours have a more classic Celtic feel now. The lyrics were trimmed down substantially and I broke up the “from the this to the that” pattern that became tedious in the first draft. The big win was the new phrase, “the smell of resurrection.” Man I like that line!

1. From the postlude to the prelude,
Glow of moon to hope of dawn.
May our days sing benediction
And every minute pulse God’s love.

From the garden to the city,
From the studio to the stove,
From the playground to the prison:
Every inch of earth resounds.

In every thing our God will have the last word,
Echoing through the centuries: benediction.
Even death will yield to resurrection,
And the curse will kneel to blessing

2. From the midnight rain on concrete
To the meadow jeweled in dew,
Comes the smell of resurrection,
And the hope of all made new. REFRAIN

3. From the prayer room to the protest,
From the swing to seat of power,
From the birth chair to the deathbed,
O may all our labors bow. REFRAIN

This will end well. This will all end well. All will be well.
This will end well. This will all end well. God will have the last word. REFRAIN

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Psalm 82 live at COS

It is so rewarding when a song goes from something that was in your head or dots on paper and becomes something people can hear and sing. It never gets old.

This Sunday my most recent Psalm setting “Gathered in the Judgment Hall” was premiered at Church of the Servant. Special thanks to Erin De Young for singing and Scott Yonkers for pianoing.

If you’re interested in reading the dots on paper or the lyrics, you’ll find them here.

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Psalm 82: Gathered in the Judgment Hall

I’ve been working on a setting of Psalm 82 for a few weeks now. It’s really an interesting Psalm. Most of the time it is taken as an indictment of unjust people, but in actuality it appears to be a judgment against the high council of gods. Who are these “gods” over which God holds court? In the Psalmist’s time it would have lmusic_now_thats_what_82ikely referred to the pantheon of gods who were believed to oversee weather, oceans, fertility and every other aspect of life. But I don’t think it would be inappropriate to recast them for modern times as “The Man.” The powers that be. The principalities. The forces (inequity, fear, racism, etc) that seem to control our world on some higher, untouchable plane. However, just like in the Psalmist’s time, these gods of our time are not, in fact, untouchable. They bow to the Almighty God.

With this starting point I began to work on the song. Three significantly different drafts later, it’s done. The PDF score may give a better impression of the song than my tired, one-take, midnight demo. But it’s free, so I don’t want any complaining!

Gathered in the judgment hall,
the gods of earth in silence fall
before the Lord, the King of kings,
the Judge of principalities.

1. How long will you gods of earth
grow fat on what you haven’t earned?
How long will hungry mouths chew air,
while you feast on their despair.

How long will the rich go free,
while the poor wait vainly for release?
How long will orphaned children cry,
as hope recedes from sight?

Arise, O God, our one true Lord;
Bring down sweet justice, right these wrongs.
O Ruler of the nations come;
Restore to earth your law of love.

2. How long ‘til you finally know
the darkness of your hearts and souls?
The evil schemes your minds have birthed
are rumbling deep in earth.

Listen closely, earthly powers.
Your day of domination’s over.
Your judgment and damnation come;
undone by flesh and blood.

Arise, O God, our one true Lord;
Bring down sweet justice, right these wrongs.
O Ruler of the nations come;
Restore to earth your law of love.

Arise, O God, ascended One.
May heaven’s will on earth be done.
Let all the nations give you praise,
and every knee bow at your name.

Posted in Church, Congregational Songs, Psalms | 2 Comments

Another Foothold

I recently posted a quick demo of a new tune I wrote for Debra Rienstra’s sweet setting of Psalm 25. Yesterday we introduced the song to the congregation. It went swimmingly, in part due to the leadership of the Rienstra Clan Band (Deb on viola, Ron on bass, Philip on sax).

It’s not a foregone conclusion that a jazzy piece will work with congregation. It may end up sounding too lounge lizardy or it may simply be too complex for a congregation to sing. I feel like we struck a good balance, keeping it from excess and caricature.

I’m pretty sure this song will soon become a staple of jazz worship services all over the world. All two of them.

For those of you who are considering using the song, make sure you use this version with a newly updated second verse.

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The Strangest Rendition of “One Generation.” Ever.

I don’t want to contribute negatively to anyone’s body image, but this guy has really teeny arms…

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O Breath of Life (by rote at COS)

Recently I recorded a pop punk retune of a hymn text by Bessie Porter Head. Naturally, the idea was met with some skepticism. Don’t let the style throw you off! Beneath the hood is a perfectly singable congregational song. How do I know? Because I taught it to my congregation this Sunday. By rote.

Sometimes communion takes longer than expected, so I always plan to have a few extra songs ready to go just in case. Normally I just call out a number for the people to look up in the hymnal. Other times I lead a song by rote–either something they’re likely to know by heart or a repeated call-and-response style song that doesn’t need written music.

This week I taught them the chorus of “O Breath of Life” by rote and then sang the verses for them. You can hear the congregation gain steam with each returning chorus. You see? Songs are just like people. Sometimes beneath a prickly punk facade is a placid heart of gold.

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Foothold (Psalm 25)

10 years ago, my friend Debra Rienstra wrote a hymn text based on Psalm 25, called “Foothold.” Not only that, she won the Fuller Seminary School of Psychology Fortieth Anniversary hymn competition with it. As I began to work on an upcoming service in which she, her bass/guitar playing husband Ron, and her jazz sax improvising son Philip would be playing, that song came to mind.

But I wasn’t wild about the KINGSFOLD tune that the text had been paired with. Don’t get me wrong–KINGSFOLD is a great tune. But it is overused: “O Sing a Song of Bethlehem,” “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say,” “I Sing the Mighty Power of God.” The list goes on and on. More importantly, the tune seemed like the wrong vessel for this text. It moved too quickly to allow the deep inner life of Deb’s text to emerge.

So I, being the incessant musical tinkerer that I am, set about to compose a tune that would do the text justice while also allowing Philip to unleash his inner Coltrane. I’m always nervous about changing the music a poet originally heard in her ear, but in this case the poet gave me permission to share, so I must not be too far off base.

Want to play it at the piano rather than listening to Greg croon? Download the PDF.

Posted in Church, Congregational Songs, Demos, Hymn tunes, Jazz, Psalms | 1 Comment