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.
In this, my third to last Adopt-a-Psalm song, knowing I was writing something to commemorate the Reformation—and especially because Luther himself set Psalm 46 to music—I knew this needed to be special. I’m a huge fan of the lively rhythmic tunes from the Reformation. They dance in a way that their later, isometric descendants don’t. I had great success with a 7/8 setting of Psalm 78 for a Calvin commemoration (I won a contest and a trip to Berlin), so I decided I’d build on that by writing this setting of Psalm 46 in 4+6/8.
The mixed meter makes this a little more difficult than the average hymn. It may be wise to sing it in unison to start with. (My understanding is that Calvin and Luther’s congregations would have sung in unison.) Once February is done and all my Adopt-a-Psalm songs are written, I’m going to return to this and write an accompaniment that will fill in some of the rests and support the congregation. If all else fails, the text can be sung to EIN FESTE BURG. (Another tip of the hat to Luther.)
The song text is in three verses, which correspond to the sections of Psalm 46. Each ends with, “The Lord of all is with us”–a boiled down version of “The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge” which ends each section of the Psalm. Whereas Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress” concentrated on the citadel aspect of the Psalm, I chose to focus on the theme of city. In fact, early drafts of the song used the phrase “city of refuge” and “sanctuary city.” What was fascinating to me as I studied the Psalm was how it resonated with the vision of the heavenly city in Revelation 21 and 22. Read them side by side; you’ll be amazed. In any case, I borrowed a good deal of language from Revelation and was even able to sneak in a reference to Emmanuel, “God with us.”
1. O, Lord of all, you are our home,
our strength, and our sure refuge;
our only hope in fiercest storm
to whom we run for rescue.
The ground beneath our feet
may slip into the sea,
but still we will not fear;
in you, we rest secure. The Lord of all is with us.
2. A river flowing from God’s throne
brings life, and joy, and healing.
God’s splendor, shining like the sun,
gives light to all the people.
For though the nations roar,
soon comes a glorious morn.
Our God will come and dwell
as our Emmanuel: The Lord of all is with us.
3. Come see the marvels God has done.
Behold with awe and wonder.
Hear how the battle’s deafening sound
falls silent at God’s thunder:
“I AM your God, be still.”
Let all the nations kneel.
Exalt the Lord of all,
your refuge, strength, and home. The Lord of all is with us.
Psalm 33 was a refreshing change. I’ve been doing a lot of dark Psalms during my Adopt-a-Psalm month, so it was nice to have one that was joyful and musical. I use Psalm 33:3’s “new Psalm/skillfully” as the scripture for my songwriting workshop description, so I was eager to use it in a song.
I chose E, the most joyful of keys, as my starting point. As I doodled, I came up with the melodic motive for “you saints of the Lord,” which I really liked. It’s off the beaten path, but still singable. The first draft flowed freely from there. What I found, though, is that my first draft was “breathless.” Literally, there was no place to breathe. After another two or three drafts I was able to produce a song that was singable and joyful, but not predictable or (I hope) trite.
I should point out that the phrase “a symphony of praise” came late in the game. At first, I had, “to the music of your name,” but I realized that Marty Haugen had already used that line. So I kept brainstorming and finally came up with “a symphony of praise.” This final phrase felt like it was the missing piece. Indeed, it became the title of the song.
Take a minute to read through Psalm 33, then take a look at my rendition in notated or recorded form.
Rejoice, you saints of the Lord! Adorn yourself with God’s praise. Lift up a joyful new song and renew old melodies. Let every lung, every pipe, every string lift the lift up the song until all the world rings with a symphony of praise.
1. God’s word crafted sea and earth,
the rivers, wind, and waves.
God breathed and the planets turned;
And still they spin in space.
But even surer than the coming dawn
Is God’s everlasting love. (Chorus)
2. All earth: love and fear the Lord.
All peoples: stand in awe.
All life’s cradled in his word;
our days God only knows.
One generation waxes another wanes,
but God’s wisdom still remains. (Chorus)
3. God watches from heav’n above
and sees our days and deeds.
God knows every human heart,
Our passions and beliefs.
Blessed indeed are those whose only trust
Is their God’s unending love. (Chorus)
4. Ruler’s trust in their own strength,
But strength is never enough
God saves those who call his name
and hope in his strong love.
Even in doubt, despair, and darkest night
God is leading us to life. (Chorus)
Our souls will wait for the Lord;
We give ourselves to God’s care.
Rejoice! Our hearts have a hope,
and our voices fill the air
with a symphony of praise.
I recently completed a full choral arrangement of Wendell Kimbrough’s “Rejoice in All Your Works.” (Which reminds me that I’ve forgotten to post it here on my blog.) Paul Ryan led it at Sunday’s LOFT service at Calvin College with a full band and the Campus Choir. Pretty cool. It starts at 13:28 minutes into the video below.
This was one of the “easier” Psalms of my Adopt-a-Psalm month—lots of good images to work with, and no imprecations—but it gave me the hardest time. I think it was difficult because the song is so simple, and simple music has to be just right or else it sounds simplistic.
For example, I changed the first three notes over and over again. I wrote F#, A, B in my first draft, but then second guessed myself because it sounded too much like “Ten Thousand Reasons.” I changed it to A, F#, B, but then it threw off the symmetry with “like the city” a few measures later. So I changed it back, but decided in a final draft to accompany those notes with an F#m chord rather than the D, A/C#, Bm I had at first. On and on it went for a week, writing something, changing it, singing it while driving my car or running, changing it again. I even made significant changes as I went through the process of recording it!
You’ll notice that the third verse (not included on the recording) pulls from John 14:23-31. It’s uncanny how closely that passage tracks with this Psalm. The one alludes to “the scepter of wickedness” and the other “the ruler of this world,” “those who trust” becomes “those who love me,” and “Peace be upon Israel!” is transformed to “My peace I leave with you.”
The music is quite adaptable. (PDF) It could be led by one folk guitar, played in flowing arpeggios on the piano, or rocked out with a full metal praise band. In this recording (MP3), I went for something of a South American style—perhaps because I spent the week of worship symposium with a group of Argentinians! (Turn the bass up on the recording so you can hear the bass and bass drum groove.)
Those who trust in the Lord shall abide, shall abide like the city of God, Holy Zion.
Oh, the people of God shall remain, shall remain, for the Lord shall surround those he loves.
1. The scepter and the crown
belong to God alone.
Though evil rages,
it shall not rage for long.
2. God, bless us with the strength
to walk your holy way.
Lord, keep your children
within your strong embrace.
3. Christ’s peace will be with you;
Christ’s peace will dwell in you;
Do not be troubled—
let nothing frighten you.
Psalm 16 is the next in my Adopt-a-Psalm settings. I took a unique approach on this one. At first glance, it may seem like the song has little to do with the Psalm. It uses none of the “protect me, God” or “path of life” phrases that other settings of this Psalm use. Instead, it goes a layer deeper, into the Psalm’s structure.
Samuel Terrien proposes that Psalm 16 is made up of 6 strophes, with the first three mirroring the last three. In broad strokes, the Psalm begins its focus on things of earth and moves toward heaven. As I meditated on the Psalm it suddenly struck me that it closely follows the span of human life. It is very clear in the last two strophes, which focus on the grave and eternal life. Working your way backward you can see further life milestones: the growth of wisdom (strophe 4) and earthly blessings (strophe 3). The first two strophes are less clear, but with a bit of imagination, I recast the first strophe’s protection and refuge as the womb and the sacrifices to false gods in strophe two as the sins of youth. It’s easier to understand when you see the Psalm and my song side by side as in this PDF.
Once I decided the lyrics would be a life-spanning prayer, I knew I needed a folk melody that could hold all the different emotions. Something with a classic contour and perhaps a Celtic color. The melody came out quickly. I channeled my inner Irish balladeer and wrote a tune reminiscent of “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need,” John Bell’s “O Lord, Our Lord,” or “The King of Love My Shepherd Is.” In fact, it uses the same hexatonic scale as “Be Thou My Vision.”
Try it out for yourself or just take a listen: PDF, MP3
In the waters of the womb;
In the first breath my lungs drew;
even there I knew
the refuge of my soul.
Please forgive the wasted years
I spent chasing empty dreams
That could never be
The refuge of my soul.
Still, you kept me in your care,
Granted blessings undeserved,
But I treasure most
The refuge of my soul.
As years passed and wisdom grew
My best thoughts were still of you
In the quiet of night
The refuge of my soul.
In the cool air of the tomb
Even there I rest in you.
Still my life, my all,
The refuge of my soul.
And as life begins once more
And I’m filled with joys unknown,
The refuge of my soul.