Crepuscular Ray

And the final sketch that lost to “Swampzilla”?: It’s called “Crepuscular Ray,” and is something of a minimalist piece for young players. The music sounded to me like shafts of light coming through the clouds at sunset. It turns out there’s a word for that: crepuscular ray. I couldn’t resist choosing a title that featured a word most people would need to look up.

Interestingly, director Erin De Young was already familiar with the term. Her young boys had been reading a book on animals one night and it explained that rabbits and deer are called “crepuscular” animals because they come out to feed at twilight. As fate would have it, the next day they visited a nature center where the guide asked what kind of an animal a rabbit is. She was probably looking for “mammal” or something simple, but Erin’s 5-year-old piped up without hesitation: “It’s a crepuscular animal!”

Even though this sketch lost to “Swampzilla,” I still think it has lots of potential for a high school orchestra. Feel free to contact me about a commission.

Browse the PDF score.

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Amber Waves

I mentioned previously that the Rockford orchestras read through three sketches before choosing “Swampzilla.” You’re probably wondering which sketches lost to “Swampzilla” in the initial round of voting, right? Wonder no more!

“Amber Waves” is a sprightly, festive piece that felt hopeful, American, and…Coplandesque. I love the title “Amber Waves” because it’s lifted from “American the Beautiful” (“amber waves of grain”) but could also mean a girl named Amber waving.

Don’t judge me on how the Finale demo sounds! If you want to take a look at the draft, click here. If you want to turn this into a completed piece for orchestra, let’s talk.

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Wen Ti at the 2018 Calvin Worship Symposium

Last fall I was commissioned to write an arrangement of the Chinese folk song “Wen Ti” (聞笛) for the 2018 Calvin Worship Symposium. This beautiful tune often appears in hymnals with the benediction text “May the Lord, Mighty God.”

The idea for this concluding communion service was to weave the song throughout the service with new texts that fit different liturgical moments. Scroll through the video above to hear the different sections of the piece:

11:47 Call to Worship: “Lift Your Eyes unto the Hills” (based on Psalm 121 and 124)
21:44 Assurance of Pardon: “God Is Gracious to Forgive” (evoking Colossians 1:12-15)
1:22:56 Doxology “To the One Who’s Shown Us Love” (from Revelation 1:4-6)

I’m currently reworking this for publication in GIA’s Calvin choral series.

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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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