Swampzilla at Rockford High School/Middle School

I had the great pleasure of composing a new piece for the Rockford School orchestras this spring. Directors Erin De Young and Allison Holden wanted a piece that would work for their combined orchestras: 6th grade through 10th. That’s a huge range of ability levels.

Part of the fun of this commission was that I got to work with the students as I developed the piece. We started by talking about the composition process and getting a chance to hear each group play. Then I composed three sketches for them to try out and decide which they liked best.

We decided to go with “Swampzilla”–essentially a rock and roll piece for orchestra. “Swampzilla” is a fictional “hideous marsh man with a heart of gold.” The piece starts (programmatically speaking) with Swampzilla rising from the twilight mist, dancing surprisingly well for a creature that has just risen from the fetid slough. There’s a slower section in the middle, which is the love theme for Zilla and his love, Gator Girl. And then the two lovers dance off into the evening mists.

The premiere was incredible. The combined orchestra had over 200 players packed onto the stage, wings, and the first few rows of the audience seating! The score had simplified parts for the younger players and solo parts for the very best older players. They all got to slap their strings to create a backbeat. The auditorium was packed, too, with well over 1000 people. You can hear from the applause at the end that they loved it. It’s hard not to love 200 young people rocking out a piece called “Swampzilla.”

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A Million Miles Away

I had the good fortune of receiving two commissions from school orchestras last year. “A Million Miles Away” was written for the St. Cecilia Concert Orchestra with Patricia Wunder conducting. As Maestra Wunder and I began brainstorming about what type of piece might fit her group, she explained that the rest of her program would be pieces based on stories–Telemann’s Don Quixote Suite, for example.

I decided to maintain that theme, composing a programmatic piece with a yet-as-undetermined story. Here’s how I described it in the concert’s program notes:

A Million Miles Away is a phrase that dropped into my mind as I began composing this commission for St. Cecilia. It certainly describes the desolate, open harmonies that were emerging in the early stages of the first draft. Knowing that my piece would be part of a concert of compositions based on stories, “A Million Miles Away” sounded like the title of a novel or movie without providing a full story. In fact, I’d love it if you would listen to the music and create your own story based on what you hear.

The piece is arranged in three sections–stars, sea, and sand. You can almost hear the pinpricks of light appearing in a black sky as the piece opens. Then waves begin to well up and break, splashing from one side of the orchestra to the next. Finally, the sounds become bone dry and blow away into nothing. The first and last sections are “aleatoric” sections that allow the performers a certain amount of freedom. For example, play the sequence of notes, but in any rhythm you want. It was challenging for the students to have that much freedom!

The above MP3 is a mock-up of the piece I created in Logic Pro. Below is a video of the concert.

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Close to Your Heart (at Fellowship Reformed, Holland)

Fellowship Reformed, Holland, MI

Two more recordings of yesterday’s “Close to My Heart.” Above is Jordan Clegg leading the Fellowship Reformed gang in a beautiful rendition that includes penny whistle (played by Jackson Nickolay). Below is yours truly in a stripped down acoustic version.

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Psalm 131: Close to Your Heart

Psalm 131 is the third shortest Psalm, consisting of only three verses. So when Jordan Clegg commissioned me to write a song based on the Psalm for Fellowship Reformed in Holland, MI, I thought, “This’ll be a piece of cake!”

While this was certainly easier than a sprawling history Psalm like 78, the challenge is to write a song as concisely focused as the original. In this case, I felt the spirit of Psalm 131 is captured in the image of a child resting with her mother. That utter dependence and contentment is a metaphor for our trust in God’s care.

The song is short, simple, and heartfelt. (This is unusual for me; I tend toward long, complex, and nerdy.) My favorite thing about the song is the way the child/mother image places the child–and by extension, us–next to her mother’s (God’s) heart. That is not only a place of intimacy and comfort, but a place where we can listen for God’s “heart”–God’s desire and will for us–turning the song from statement to prayer.

I will still my soul
like a sleeping child
in a mother’s arms.
I’m content to be,
to be where you are,
to be close to your heart.

Close to your heart, my Lord,
close to your heart.

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O One with God the Father

William Walsham How is best known as the author of “For All the Saints,” but he wrote almost a hundred other hymns, including the focus of today’s post: “O One with God the Father.” It is a powerful Epiphany text that begins with the theme of Colossians 1:15, “The Son is the image of the invisible God.” It continues by focusing on the light of Christ, praying that Christ’s light would dispel the darkness or our lives. Beautiful.

He wrote the hymn in 1871 and I wrote new music for it on June 18, 2018. I needed a song to go with the theme “We believe in Jesus Christ his only Son” from the Apostles’ Creed series we’re doing here at Fuller Ave CRC. There are surprisingly few hymns that address the oneness of the Father and Son. This wonderful text has been paired with unmemorable tunes for years, so I decided to give it a fresh coat of (musical) paint.

William Walsham How (1823-1897)

1. O One with God the Father
in majesty and might,
the brightness of his glory,
Eternal Light of Light;
O’er this our home of darkness
your rays are streaming bright;
the shadows flee before you,
the waiting world’s true Light.

2. Yet, Lord, we see but darkly:
O heavenly Light, arise!
Dispel these mists that shroud us,
that hide you from our eyes!
We long to track the footprints
that you yourself have trod:
we long to see the pathway
that leads to you our God.

3. O Jesus, shine around us
the radiance of your grace;
O Jesus, turn upon us
the brightness of your face.
We need no star to guide us,
as on our way we press,
if you, your light would grant us,
O Sun of Righteousness.

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We Break This Bread

Christopher L. Webber, my unwitting collaborator

At this summer’s Hymn Society meeting in St. Louis, I was approached by a publisher about composing some tunes to go with a new collection of hymn texts by Christopher L. Webber. I can never resist an opportunity to compose new music, so I got right to work.

Of the numerous texts I could have chosen, I gravitated toward, “We Break This Bread.” I love the way Webber connects the breaking of bread at communion to our human brokenness. What I don’t love is that almost every line elides into the next–and at different places in each verse. No melody could accommodate the text perfectly (or allow people to sing each phrase in one breath!) but I feel like I struck a good balance that holds up well to the shifts in each verse.

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That’s When Lonely Begins

Sometimes you just have to go with it, you know? A phrase popped into my head mid-afternoon: “That’s when lonely begins.” It was a title in search of a country song. Five hours later it’s written, recorded, and posted to my blog for your enjoyment. Maybe playing bass with the Malpass Brothers a few months ago rubbed off on me…

1. When I wait for your “hello”
when I’m coming through the door,
and the only thing I hear
is the echo of these walls.
When this loveseat made for two
becomes a bed for one—
That’s when lonely begins.

2. When I head out on the town
‘cause I’m tired of staying in.
When I’m looking through the crowd
but only see your friends.
When I know you’re not around
because you’re loving him—
That’s when lonely begins.

That’s when I know it’s over.
That’s when I’m sure that it’s the end.
I know the tears that fill my eyes
will be there tomorrow night;
That’s when it starts again.

3. When the radio is all
the friend I’ve got tonight.
When I’m lying in half the bed
‘cause it’s always been my side.
When I’m praying for some sleep,
but have no hope in sight—
That’s when lonely begins.

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Kwake Yesu in Ontario

Hot off the press from Immanuel Christian Reformed Church in Hamilton Ontario comes a rendition of my GIA anthem, “Kwake Yesu.”


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Two Christmases

The final song in my Christmas triumvirate is not a church song at all.

As I was working on Christmas songs for worship during March’s songwriting retreat, I began thinking about how unsettling it must be for my boys to split their time between two homes during Christmas. While I’d like them to have a Hallmark holiday, life doesn’t provide many picture-perfect moments. Instead, the good and the bad are mixed together in this heart-wrenchingly glorious thing we call human existence.

I decided to try to express these conflicted holiday emotions in a Christmas pop song. It’s written from a kid’s point of view–being caught between two families on Christmas–but I think it touches on emotions we all feel: the exhausting hustle to make it to every Christmas party or visit every side of the family each year, and the ambivalence we feel when everything is so manically cheerful all around us.

Someday I’ll write a Christmas song that has no hint of sadness in it. Until then, I offer you, “Two Christmases.”

1. We’re having two Christmases this year.
We’re having two Christmases this year.
We’ll have two times the presents
and two times the food;
too much of a good thing
seems like it should be good…

We’re having two Christmases this year.
We’re having two Christmases this year.
There will be two Christmas dinners
and two Christmas trees,
but once in a while, I miss
the way things used to be.

We’re having two Christmases this year.

2. We’re having two Christmases this year.
We’re having two Christmases this year.
Now there’s two sets of parents
and two different homes;
and everyone keeps telling me,q
“The greatest gift is love!”

We’re having two Christmases this year.
We’re having two Christmases this year.
Dad’s back from his honeymoon
and Mom has a new beau,
And I’m starting to hate
the sight of mistletoe.

We’re having two Christmases this year.

3. We’re having two Christmases this year.
We’re having one too many Christmases this year.
After spending the whole day
With the kids of Dad’s new bride,
all I want for Christmas
is a silent night.

We’re having two Christmases this year.
We’re having way too many Christmases this year.
Everybody else seems to be
in the Christmas spirit.
Maybe I’ll feel happier
by New Year’s Eve.

We’re having two Christmases this year.

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My Friends May You Grow in Grace, orchestra

One of the fun things about doing music is that I get to meet people–virtually or in person–from all over the world. One of those musical friends is Jill Friend (actual name) from Sioux Center, Iowa. Jill periodically uses my arrangements for orchestra at her school and church. Below is a recording from Covenant CRC Church on May 20, 2018. I love to see videos like this, with all ages taking part in a church’s music. And I’m pleased that it was my arrangement of My Friends, May You Grow in Grace that enabled this intergenerational orchestra to play together. Thanks for sharing, Jill!

If you’d like to try this arrangement in your church, contact biz@gregscheer.com.

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