WCRC Take 3: Renew Us, O God!

In a Goldilocks’ moment, my third and final porridge…er, song…is just right. This time, my theme song for the World Communion of Reformed Churches 2017 General Council brings together the best of my earlier drafts.

My first attempt was too “slogan-y”. This version takes that slogan’s idea (“transformed and transforming; renewed and renewing”) and puts it in prayer form: “Renew us, O God.” This prayer serves as a refrain that can be sung joyfully, as on the recording, or introspectively, like a Taizé chorus.

My second attempt had a solid text, but stolid music. (Okay, “stolid” is probably too strong of a word–but it wasn’t festive enough for the occasion.) This third one recycles that same text, but matches it with more vibrant music. It is a lively 6/8 melody that could be accompanied in a variety of styles: hymn-like with organ accompaniment, in a liturgical folk style with piano, or with guitar and even full praise band.

I knew I was onto something when the song continued to come back to me throughout the week. It’s highly singable, but has enough Scheer™ twists and turns to keep it interesting. The first four chords, for example, are pretty far off the beaten track. The D (I) chord moves to an F#m (iii) chord, which should head to a Bm (vi), G (V), or even A (V). Instead, it goes to an Am (minor v), a surprising shift that doesn’t go off the rails because of the stable melody.

But enough harmonic geekery. Take a listen to the recording above or take a look at the PDF.

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WCRC Take 2: God of All Creation

My second attempt at a theme song for the World Communion of Reformed Churches 2017 General Council was inspired by their meeting place: Leipzig. Leipzig, of course, is famous as the city in which Bach worked for almost three decades and the where he is laid to rest. My second draft, then, is an homage to Bach: a four-part chorale with as many Bach-isms as I could muster.

It is a sturdy tune with all the harmonic twists you’d expect of imitation Bach. The text was also a step in the right direction. Instead of getting at the theme, “Living God Renew and Transform Us,” in slogan form as I did in my first draft, this time I approached it in strophic form. The three verses address the three persons of the Trinity and explore the ways they lead us to renewal. Check it out: PDF.

In the end, though, it felt too backward-looking for this assembly. They have thousands of historic hymns to choose from when planning worship–including chorales by the actual Bach–and likely don’t need any historic sounding hymns in the mix. So I decided, once again, to move on.

Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion of Greg writes a theme song for the WCRC 2017 General Council!

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WCRC Take 1: Semper Reformanda

I’ve been asked to write a song for use at the World Communion of Reformed Churches 2017 General Council.

The difficulty of this sort of assignment is that–with intuition rather than information–I have to project what might be needed and what the vibe of the gathering is likely to be. The theme of this global assembly is “Living God Renew and Transform Us.” This is both a prayer for the ongoing work of the Spirit and a tip of the hat to the 500th year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

You likely know the phrase “Semper reformanda: Reformed and always reforming” that captures the spirit of the modern Reformed Church. I began my composing with this as a starting point. I liked the way phrases such as, “Reformed and reforming; transformed and transforming; renewed and renewing, forgiven and forgiving” show both what we’ve received through faith and what we, in turn, offer the world. However, in song form, I felt the phrases were quickly turning into a laundry list, a lyrical dead end. (I often refer to this kind of song as a “contest hymn”; they use enough catch phrases to win a contest, but never really catch on in real-life congregations.)

While I like the Medieval music groove and believe it will be immensely singable with the right lyrics, I decided to pull the plug and move on. If you want to take a stab at writing new lyrics, please feel free to download the PDF and get to work. Otherwise, stay tuned for WCRC Take 2.

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Die Alone

If you follow this blog you know I have a tradition of writing depressing birthday songs. And depressing Christmas songs. Come to think of it, I write all sorts of depressing songs.

We’re all going to die alone. Happy birthday!

Since I turned 50 this week, I thought I was due for a big shot of musical existentialism, so I wrote this ode to mortality, “Die Alone.”

One of the things I’ve learned as a songwriter is that a sad song doesn’t necessarily benefit from sad music. Sometimes that just makes it mopey. I decided to break into an upbeat soul groove on this to pull it out of a morass of self-indulgent pity. Serendipitously, as I was working on the recording, I was also at a conference with the inimitable Urban Doxology singers, so I took them out in a back hallway and had them sing the “Hallelujahs” into my laptop. They are joined by the also inimitable Latifah Phillips. Stephen Roach laid down some sweet keys on the a piano in a mostly empty conference room. This was a low tech, high skill affair.

So find a friend, make yourself comfortable, and get ready to Die Alone.

We’re all going to die alone; hallelujah!
Been that way since we were born; hallelujah!
Everyone’s hoping for a home; hallelujah!
Someone they can call their own; hallelujah!

Everybody’s looking for a friend; hallelujah!
But we’re terrified to let them in; hallelujah!
If they knew what’s in your heart and head; hallelujah!
They’d leave you on your own again; hallelujah!

All our lives are spent chasing the wind
But it’s the wind that catches us in the end.
Bones and memories turn to dust.
And another generation only coughs.

Is that enough?

Spend our days wondering what we did; hallelujah!
To deserve all this; hallelujah!
But we’ve spent our years collecting sins; hallelujah!
Maybe that’s why it’s come to this; hallelujah!

We all know that we’re going to die; hallelujah!
We just don’t know how or when; hallelujah!

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Psalm 121: Lift Your Eyes Up to the Mountains!

As you know, my dear listeners, I scour the globe for songs that might find a home in your congregation. Sometimes they come from the globe that is my head. Other times they come from far-flung lands on the globe underneath my feet. In the case of this setting of Psalm 121, it hails from Korea.

I learned this song from two Korean friends who were studying at Calvin Seminary. This is the second in a big pile of lovely songs that we sang through a few years back. What I love about these songs is that they are simple, heartfelt, and based on scripture. It fits well with a Korean spirituality that is so full of prayer and devotion. The song is by Seong Sil Chung. (If you know him, please introduce me!) I translated the text using the videos below, notes from friends, and Psalm 121 itself. There are two arrangements: the first is a piano accompaniment with guitar chords (capo 4), the second is a simple four part arrangement like you’d find in hymnals.

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One Generation with liturgical dance

We Will Extol You, God and King from Church of the Servant on Vimeo.

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Benediction (The Last Word)

How does Sunday morning’s worship relate to Monday morning’s work? That’s the question on BiFrost/Cardiphonia’s mind, one that was the impetus for a song contest. And if it’s on the mind of song contest judges, then it’s on my mind, as well.

The song’s genesis began with some phrases scratched on the back of a church bulletin. The phrase that stuck was “from the postlude to the prelude.” (That’s also the title of a book about church music administration by Randall Bradley.) From there I started to flesh out the kinds of things that could, indeed should, be understood as part of a worshipful life. Some of these seem clear: a playground feels like part of God’s world. But what about a prison?

My first draft received a two thumbs down evaluation from my son, Theo. He felt that the melody was too bouncy and trite and that the lyrics were just a big list of things that rhymed. Ouch. So I did a complete rewrite. I’m more pleased with this version. It’s in 3/4 meter, rather than 4/4 with a backbeat. That gives it a more stately feel. And the melodic contours have a more classic Celtic feel now. The lyrics were trimmed down substantially and I broke up the “from the this to the that” pattern that became tedious in the first draft. The big win was the new phrase, “the smell of resurrection.” Man I like that line!

1. From the postlude to the prelude,
Glow of moon to hope of dawn.
May our days sing benediction
And every minute pulse God’s love.

From the garden to the city,
From the studio to the stove,
From the playground to the prison:
Every inch of earth resounds.

In every thing our God will have the last word,
Echoing through the centuries: benediction.
Even death will yield to resurrection,
And the curse will kneel to blessing

2. From the midnight rain on concrete
To the meadow jeweled in dew,
Comes the smell of resurrection,
And the hope of all made new. REFRAIN

3. From the prayer room to the protest,
From the swing to seat of power,
From the birth chair to the deathbed,
O may all our labors bow. REFRAIN

This will end well. This will all end well. All will be well.
This will end well. This will all end well. God will have the last word. REFRAIN

Posted in Church, Congregational Songs, Contests, Demos | 3 Comments

Psalm 82 live at COS

It is so rewarding when a song goes from something that was in your head or dots on paper and becomes something people can hear and sing. It never gets old.

This Sunday my most recent Psalm setting “Gathered in the Judgment Hall” was premiered at Church of the Servant. Special thanks to Erin De Young for singing and Scott Yonkers for pianoing.

If you’re interested in reading the dots on paper or the lyrics, you’ll find them here.

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Psalm 82: Gathered in the Judgment Hall

I’ve been working on a setting of Psalm 82 for a few weeks now. It’s really an interesting Psalm. Most of the time it is taken as an indictment of unjust people, but in actuality it appears to be a judgment against the high council of gods. Who are these “gods” over which God holds court? In the Psalmist’s time it would have lmusic_now_thats_what_82ikely referred to the pantheon of gods who were believed to oversee weather, oceans, fertility and every other aspect of life. But I don’t think it would be inappropriate to recast them for modern times as “The Man.” The powers that be. The principalities. The forces (inequity, fear, racism, etc) that seem to control our world on some higher, untouchable plane. However, just like in the Psalmist’s time, these gods of our time are not, in fact, untouchable. They bow to the Almighty God.

With this starting point I began to work on the song. Three significantly different drafts later, it’s done. The PDF score may give a better impression of the song than my tired, one-take, midnight demo. But it’s free, so I don’t want any complaining!

Prologue:
Gathered in the judgment hall,
the gods of earth in silence fall
before the Lord, the King of kings,
the Judge of principalities.

1. How long will you gods of earth
grow fat on what you haven’t earned?
How long will hungry mouths chew air,
while you feast on their despair.

How long will the rich go free,
while the poor wait vainly for release?
How long will orphaned children cry,
as hope recedes from sight?

Arise, O God, our one true Lord;
Bring down sweet justice, right these wrongs.
O Ruler of the nations come;
Restore to earth your law of love.

2. How long ‘til you finally know
the darkness of your hearts and souls?
The evil schemes your minds have birthed
are rumbling deep in earth.

Listen closely, earthly powers.
Your day of domination’s over.
Your judgment and damnation come;
undone by flesh and blood.

Arise, O God, our one true Lord;
Bring down sweet justice, right these wrongs.
O Ruler of the nations come;
Restore to earth your law of love.

Epilogue:
Arise, O God, ascended One.
May heaven’s will on earth be done.
Let all the nations give you praise,
and every knee bow at your name.

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Another Foothold

I recently posted a quick demo of a new tune I wrote for Debra Rienstra’s sweet setting of Psalm 25. Yesterday we introduced the song to the congregation. It went swimmingly, in part due to the leadership of the Rienstra Clan Band (Deb on viola, Ron on bass, Philip on sax).

It’s not a foregone conclusion that a jazzy piece will work with congregation. It may end up sounding too lounge lizardy or it may simply be too complex for a congregation to sing. I feel like we struck a good balance, keeping it from excess and caricature.

I’m pretty sure this song will soon become a staple of jazz worship services all over the world. All two of them.

For those of you who are considering using the song, make sure you use this version with a newly updated second verse.

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