Just for fun, here’s a cellphone recording of my friend Cathrin Campo singing “In a Still, Small Voice” at a baptism service in Emden, Germany. If you would like to sing this song in your country, you can download the music for free, just like Cathrin did. Thanks for sharing, Cathrin!
In case you are a geographic neophyte who doesn’t know where Emden is located…
What do I like about Bessie Porter Head? What’s not to like? I say. First, her name is Bessie, which is cool in an old-fashioned way, and also rhymes with Nessy, the name of my favorite guitar (a red Ibanez hollow-body). Next, she was rockin’ the hair bun way back in the 1800s. Respect. Added to that, her last names almost make Portishead, a band you need to get to know if you’re not already fan. More to the point, for today’s blog post, she wrote a beautiful hymn text that talks about the Holy Spirit’s role in renew the Christian life and Church.
What do I like about punk rock? What’s not to like? I say. I was hooked from the minute I heard The Ramones, Iggy Pop, Mission of Burma and their pop punk progeny, Weezer, the Ataris, Green Day, et al. And I’d give a kidney to produce a song like The Atlantics “Lonely Hearts.” More to the point for today’s blog post, I was listening to Frank Black the other day and I wondered if punk might work for worship.
So I took it upon myself to give it a try. I present to you “O Breath of Life,” co-written by Bessie Porter Head and me. PDF, MP3
This song started as a seed of an idea about 4:30 this afternoon. Just the first two lines. Seven hours later the writing, recording, and mixing are done. There’s something about working quickly that releases you from the fear of perfection and the danger of over-thinking. Right now I’m digging the loose “Inside Me Wants Out” vibe. (Andy Pratt) We’ll see if I still feel that way tomorrow morning.
Stop checking your phone.
No one’s gonna call anymore.
You know you’re alone
when no one answers when you’re talking to yourself.
But what would you say?
You got what you deserve anyway.
You got what you gave:
an empty heart and an early bed (or early grave).
You took what you could;
packed your memories–some of them good.
Like hammer on wood it’s ringing
true and loud and hollow.
Stop checking your mail;
that endless binary sea but nobody’s there.
You pull in your sails.
You drift away, just drift away,
just close your eyes,
just close your eyes. This is your life.
Is this your life?
Or has it all been dreaming?
Have I been awake?
Or have I been sleeping?
Stop checking your phone.
No one’s gonna call anymore.
You know you’re alone.
You know you’re alone.
This is how it works for me: It’s afternoon and the pastor stops by my office to let me know he’s going to skip out on the evening worship committee meeting. “No problem,” I tell him, “I’ll let you know if anything comes up you need to know about.” About an hour before the meeting I realize said pastor is scheduled to lead devotions. Dag! I guess I have to do it. I think, “Well, it’s Pentecost. I’ll just lead a Pentecost song.” I look through my Pentecost ideas folder to see if there’s anything I want to introduce. My eyes fall on a text by Isaac Watts about the work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness to salvation. “Hmmm…” I think. “I’ve always wanted to write a tune for that.” I run (literally) to the piano and get to work. By 7:02pm I have an admittedly half-baked version of the song which I sing with the worship committee. The next day I roll it around in my head until I figure out what the song wants to be when it grows up. The next day I sit down at the piano and finalize the song. But can I let it rest? No, I cannot. So instead of going home, I surround myself with bass drums, guitars, and tambourines and fire up Logic Pro to capture the moment. The moment is above. If you want to make your own moment, download the leadsheet: PDF
Wendell Kimbrough won the Church of the Servant New Psalm Contest a few years ago with his setting of Psalm 104, “Oh Rejoice in All Your Works.” Since that time it has become a favorite of our congregation. Psalm 104 was the lectionary Psalm for Pentecost and I had a string ensemble available, so I took the opportunity to write a string arrangement for the service. It turned out splendidly, if I don’t say so myself.
If you want to hear the song in context (along with Pastor Jack Roeda’s exclamation at the end of the singing) visit the COS website.
If necessity is the mother of invention, the lectionary is the muse of new Psalm settings.
I already composed one setting of Psalm 67, but that was a complicated choir, organ, brass, and percussion anthem. What I needed for yesterday was a simple, solid setting that all but sang itself. A first attempt was…frothy. My second attempt put me on a path I knew would be more fruitful.
The song is in what I’ve dubbed a “modern medieval” style–stately but with a strong rhythmic spine. Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about how music can dignify or trivialize a congregation’s humanity, and this feels like something an adult could sing without being trite on the one hand or elitist on the other.
One of the cool features of the song is that the verse mirrors the chorus, but one step up. This modulatory slight of hand makes each return of the chorus sound inevitable, but surprising. It also allows for Taizé style layering of verse on top of chorus or men singing the chorus underneath the women singing the verse. I love that Escher stuff!
Feast your eyes on the dignified modern medieval Taizé-style Escheresque goodness here: PDF.
My choral arrangement of Kwake Yesu/Here on Jesus Christ I Will Stand (GIA) is beginning to make its way in the world. Here is a video from a recent LOFT service at Calvin College: http://livestream.com/calvin-college/events/4678265/videos/113157761.
Kwake Yesu begins at 22:55.
Imagine Earth, Wind & Fire (rest in peace, Maurice White) retired from touring and set up residence in a local church. Now imagine that in a dusty hymnal on the shelves of that church they came across the hymn All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name, but decided it needed new music to fit their sound.
That’s pretty much what this version of “All Hail” aspires to be.
Now, this two-bit demo doesn’t do much to help you imagine what I’m hearing in my head, but suffice it to say this is a fat funk sandwich filled with a deep meaty groove slathered in buttery vocals, and topped with spicy horn licks.
Email me for the score if you’ve got an Earth, Wind & Fire cover band that would like to cover this. (Or if you’re Earth, Wind & Fire.)
One of my first compositions to ever be published was “A New Song (Psalm 96)” in Augsburg Fortress’s GladSong Choirbook in 2005. It’s nice to know that it’s still being used. How do I know choirs are still singing the song? Because I just got an email from a choir director in Lansdale, PA who would like his choir to hear a recording of the anthem. I searched high and low and finally put my hands on the only recording I have. It was just a read through I did with some students at Northwestern College, but it’s the best I’ve got. (Until the folks at Trinity Lutheran in Lansdale send me a recording!)
This graphic was unwittingly donated by C148, an independent musician who is doing some great electronica, including contributions to the Minecraft soundtrack. Check him out at http://c418.org/.
I wrote Creation’s Chorus in 2000 hoping to forge a daring new path of Motown Psalmody that I was sure others were sure to follow. But it turns out people prefer to keep their Sons of Korah and their Jackson Five separated by family…
However, when Psalm 148 came up in the lectionary this week, I thought I’d give it another try. Unlike the 4/4 syncopated funk of the original, I decided to reimagine the song in a 3/4 Black Gospel groove. It’s easier for musicians and congregations who are not steeped in pop styles, and there is, perhaps, less of a gulf between the words and music style.
I was pleased with the basic shift in meter, but I’ve marked dozens of edits I plan to make to the choral arrangement. (This may have something to do with my finishing it 5 minutes before rehearsal started.) If you’re interested in seeing the choral score, just email me. Otherwise you’ll have to wait for the release of Creation’s Chorus 2.1!