Every year for a few decades I’ve woken up early on Easter morning to lead worship. With no service to lead this year, I’ll contribute Easter music of a different variety: “Death Swallowed by the Real Good.” The text was written and narrated by Amy Phillips, interspersed with 1 Corinthians 15 from Eugene Peterson’s The Message. In these poignant scenes from the end of her grandfather’s life, we hear echoes of the pain and brokenness in our own lives.
We could all use a little resurrection, couldn’t we?
(The first version of Real Good appeared in 2009 on this blog; this is a brand new mix of the piece.)
You will no doubt remember that during my Adopt-a-Psalm composing frenzy, I wrote a setting of Psalm 46 in 4+6/8 time. Yes, it worked. Yes, it was kind of catchy in its own asymmetrical way. But realistically, it would have been quite difficult for a congregation to pick up. And that’s the point, right? I want congregations to sing the Psalms, so I need to make them as accessible as possible.
So I wrote a spanking new setting of Psalm 46 for my Psalm adopter. Though it shares the same text, it is very different from the previous one. I think it came out so different because when I sat down to write it, the old song’s rhythms were still in my head; I had to expunge them by coming up with a song that had an entirely new character.
I began with the most unique aspect of the text: the stressed/unstressed endings of each couplet. (“Refuge,” “rescue,” “with us.” What they used to call a “feminine cadence.”) That suggested to me an appoggiatura. One thing led to another and those downbeat appoggiaturas became the song’s primary personality. It’s not unlike “Eagle’s Wings,” come to think of it.
In any case, this harmonic language gives the song a sweet and gentle feel. I like how it draws out of the text a sense of contented trust, whereas the previous tune or EIN FESTE BURG highlights strength, confidence, and completion. Listen to the above demo or play it for yourself from this leadsheet.
Two weeks ago, I was artist-in-residence at Western Theological Seminary at the invitation of Prof. Dr. Rev. Ron Rienstra. Part of my work was to plan chapel services with students. We chose the theme “Psalm Echoes,” each day pairing a Psalm with a New Testament passage that quoted the Psalm or resonated with its themes. It was pretty splendid if I don’t say so myself.
Friday’s chapel (a weekly communion service) paired Psalm 118 with Matthew 26. In this retelling of the Last Supper, it is thought that “When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” refers to the singing of the last Hallel Psalm, Psalm 118. Ron was planning to preach on the texts, letting them lead him right to the communion table. Brilliant.
On Thursday evening, I got a text:
Ron: Hey Greg – you want a challenge?
Ron: At the beginning and end of the sermon can we sing [picture of “Feed Us, Lord” melody with Psalm 118 text] I was gonna ask you to write a quick new song to exactly those words – but then I thought: hey, this would work, too.
Greg: What style and tempo are you looking for?
Ron: Joyful and thankful without rocking out.
Greg: I’m baking fresh bread and might want to add a loaf of fresh notes to the oven.
Ron: Hey if that’s what you wanna do… you are most welcome to do so! If you are up to the challenge, that is. (7:34 pm)
Of course, Ron knew exactly what he was doing. Baiting me with a challenge. Getting me firmly on the hook with a song that would get the job done but wasn’t inspiring or new. And then reeling me in with “If you are up to the challenge…” Naturally, I couldn’t resist. Between baking bread and driving kids various places, I wrote a few drafts. None was quite right. I was just about ready to admit defeat but gave it one last look before heading to bed. Things clicked and I finished it a few minutes later. The night ended with an email to Ron:
I was recently asked to write string parts to go with my choral anthem, “Jesus, Lord of Life and Glory.” It was great fun to revisit the piece, and I feel the strings add a dramatic dimension to the piece that makes it even more engaging.
This anthem was published by GIA in 2015. When I went searching for the link, I was pleased to find that they’ve just added a “bouncing ball” video version of the anthem. Feel free to sing along!
When I contacted a few people who had requested it over the years, Connecticut conductor Sue Riley told me she no longer had a women’s choir but would love to sing it with her mixed church choir. So I got back to work and produced an arrangement for SATB choir, piano, and flute.
While I was at it, I created a new translation. The existing translations (Suppe: Lord, you have come to the lakeshore, Jabusch: Lord, when you came to the seashore, Marshall: You have come down to the lakeshore) all have awkward phrases and misplaced emphases that the draw attention away from the simple beauty of the song. I wanted a translation that was smooth as butter:
1. Lord, you have come to the harbor
Seeking neither the wise nor the wealthy,
But only asking that I would follow.
O Lord, you have smiled upon me. You have sought me, and called me by name. Now my boat lies on the shoreline behind me, For with you I will seek other seas.
2. You know I’ve nothing to offer:
I’ve no treasure, just nets for fishing,
And two strong hands you made for working. Refrain
3. Lord, I will give you my labors,
Share my strength with those that are weary,
And share your love, your love unending. Refrain
4. You call me on to new waters
To seek those who are waiting and thirsting.
O my dear Jesus, I gladly follow. Refrain
Señor, me has mirado a los ojos, sonriendo has dicho mi nombre, en la arena he dejado mi barca, junto a ti buscaré otro mar.
February’s Psalm songwriting culminated in the “Big Sing Liturgy Thing Psalm-Song Sing-Along” at Western Seminary on March 14, 2017. We sang all ten new songs, as well as a few old favorites. I am pleased to report that no one got hurt.
Every once in a while I receive a note letting me know that someone has sung one of my songs in their church, or asking if a song could be included on a recording project. Last week, though, I opened my email to an unusual gift: someone had used my song “Tremble Before the Lord” (from Psalm 114) as the soundtrack to a stop-time video shot in Eagle Creek, New Mexico. Justin Medlock heard the song on the Cardiphonia Hallel Psalms track I recorded a few years ago. Besides fitting the tempo and length of his video, Justin has some interesting observation on how Psalm 114, my song, and his video went together:
The message of Psalm 114 is beautiful, especially how the Lord cares and provides for his people. But I liked how your song emphasized creation trembling / falling down before the Lord with a strong but simple sense of worship. Joining the music with the timelapse brought it all together: the snow weighs down the pine tree boughs as if they are bowing before the Lord, the trees seem to dance to their King through shadows, the falling snow, the fleeting snow, and so forth. (I understand that the word “tremble” might also be translated “dance”.)
February is over and my Adopt-a-Psalm commissions are complete. The stats?
38:50 minutes of recorded music
12 pages of completed music
62 pages of drafts
Below is a link to an audio compilation of the all the songs. If you want to experience them live, join me at Western Seminary in Holland, MI on Tuesday, March 14 at 7 PM.
Psalm 3: I Shall Rest in Peace
Neither Death nor Demon
Psalm 4: I Rest in You
May the Peace
Psalm 12: I Will Now Arise
Psalm 16: The Refuge of My Soul
Psalm 24: Lift Up Your Heads, O You Gates!
Psalm 33: A Symphony of Praise
Psalm 46: The Lord of All Is with Us
Psalm 125: Those Who Trust in the Lord Shall Abide
Psalm 145: My Mouth Will Speak the Praise of the Lord
Psalm 150: Hallel, Hallelujah!
Psalm 150 is the last, but by no means least of the Psalm settings I wrote this month.
Interestingly, it was the first one I drafted. The exuberance and repetition in the Psalm text gave me the idea of writing a Taizé style chorus, repeated and adding descants, but in a regal rather than meditative style. I wrote the basic chord sequence and some of the descants at the beginning of the month and then put it away. When I returned to it today, I saw that the basic form of the song was strong; I just needed to tweak the descants so that everything flowed.
You’ll notice that the song is built on a repeated 10 measure phrase. In some ways this is unusual; music is normally written in divisions of four. But the irregular phrase length keeps the repeats from feeling banal. Also keeping the song’s motion moving forward is the unresolved final chord.
Which brings me to my biggest dilemma: how do I end this song? On the recording I fade out, which is not possible in a worship setting. I guess I’ll have to treat it like a Taizé chorus and just let it flow until it seems like it’s done, at which point I guess I’ll just ritard into the final chord.
Take a look at the score. Be thankful that I didn’t go through with my original plan of using 5 flats!
The composition process is funny, because sometimes when you’re in the thick of writing something you begin to psych yourself out thinking that you’re polishing a fundamentally mediocre idea. I wrote a first draft of this yesterday, but by the end of the day I had so many Psalms in my head, I didn’t know which way was up. I put it aside and thought, “Oh well, I guess I’ll just have to start from scratch tomorrow.” But then in the evening, I played it for my kids and they really liked it. I slept on it and when I returned to it this morning I thought, “What was I thinking? This is really good!”
The melody flows like butter (if I might say so myself) and it supports lyrics and a Psalm text that has so many beautiful words: goodness, blessing without end, gracious, satisfy, compassion, care unbounded. It was just delightful to work with. I was telling my son Theo that after the 8th Psalm song I wrote this month I began to think I was repeating myself, but then I realized that themes like compassion and forgiveness are woven through all the Psalms.
Depending on who you ask, Psalm 145 is thought to be in four parts, with sections on a God who is great, good, faithful, and righteous. Those themes are bookended by verses 1-2 and verse 21. Since I was only setting the second half of the Psalm I decided to turn v21 into a refrain and write two verses based on the faithful and righteous sections of the Psalm. I especially like how the music in the verse changes half way through and the lyrics switch from talking about God to praying to God.
Take a look at the lyrics below, read the score, or listen to the MP3.
My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord. My tongue will bless God’s name. All flesh shall see the goodness of God, and blessings without end. God has blessed us without end.
1. The Lord is gracious to all,
like a mother to her child.
God raises us when we fall
and sets us by his side.
Our eyes look up to you, Lord,
to provide our daily bread.
You satisfy our longings
when you open up your hand.
2. The Lord works justice for all.
God’s compassion knows no end.
God hears his children who call
and comes to our defense.
We wait, O Lord, surrounded
by those who’d do us harm.
Lord, in your care, unbounded,
reach down your saving arm.