Psalm 84: Blessed Beyond Measure

I’m currently working on a big choral commission for the centennial celebration of Trinity Lutheran Church in Owatonna, MN. (“Big” as in, youth and adult choirs, handbells and handchimes, woodwinds, brass, strings, timpani, harp, and praise team.)

While it is relatively easy to write a festive choral piece that would add to a centennial celebration day, it’s a lot harder to write something that will continue to be used by the church for years to come.  With that in mind, I wanted to do a reality check, creating a demo that would strip back all the instrumentation to reveal how well the song itself sings. I’m glad I did because the very act of recording the song showed me places I should leave space for breathing, words that tripped the tongue, and parts of the melody that could be streamlined. What remains is smooth as butter.

My study of Psalm 84 revealed a Psalm full of wide-eyed wonder about God’s temple, but also trust in God’s presence on the journey of life. Most commentators break the Psalm into three sections: 1. The beauty of God’s temple. 2. The blessing of the journey (to the temple and the journey of life). 3. God’s presence in the heart and life of the faithful. What a beautiful theme for a church that has journeyed for 100 years and is looking to its future! I followed this same three-part structure in my song.

The song is what I often call a “blender.” That is, a song that can live comfortably in both traditional and contemporary settings: think “In Christ Alone,” “There Is a Redeemer,” etc. This demo leans toward the contemporary with guitars and drums, but the full arrangement (to be completed any day now) leans more traditional, as it will be premiered in a large hall with lots of reverb. Ultimately, I think it will be right at home in both Trinity’s weekly traditional or contemporary services.

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Speak Sabbath O’er My Soul (TL Moody)

My second collaboration with TL Moody is a tune for her text “Speak Sabbath O’er My Soul.” What I love about this text is that positions Sabbath as something life-giving that God does for us rather than a teeth-gritting discipline we do for God.

I went with a serene, stately setting of the text, which I think creates quite a lovely, mystical mood. The piano provides a steady pulse, and the vocals feel like inhaling and exhaling on top of that. (Yes, there are echoes of Sibelius’ “Be Still My Soul.”)

Fortuitously, the day I wrote this was also choir rehearsal day at Fuller Ave CRC. My choir didn’t know they were showing up for a recording session!

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#4 (piano miniature)

In the past few years, I’ve played through almost all of Scott Joplin’s piano music. His music is intelligent, full of life, and simply fun. I wish I was more of a pianist, because I really don’t do his compositions justice. Given my love of Joplin’s work, it made total sense to me that piano miniature #4 (in 4/4 time) should be an homage to him.

You can hear a bit of Joplin in the left hand stride pattern and the melody’s syncopated spring. Of course, mimicry is not my thing; I had to put my own stamp on it! The most striking feature of #4 is that the left hand lays down a march in 4/4 time while the right hand waltzes in 3/4 on top of it. Oil and water? You bet! Check out the PDF of the score.

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#3 (piano miniature)

This third piano miniature is–not surprisingly–in 3/4 time. It reminds me a bit of Erik Satie’s whimsical compositions. While the meter is the “straight man,” remaining in an elegant waltz tempo, the harmonies never seem to land quite where you expect and the melody leaps as if over-stepping its goal. I expect I’ll return to this sketch in the future to expand on these themes.

Want to play it for yourself? Here you go: PDF

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#2 (piano miniatures)

I was telling my son tonight that I feel like I’m working out my harmonic demons. Perhaps “demons” is too strong, but I do feel that I’ve been exploring a particular harmonic palette in depth lately. It’s not clear to me yet whether this is something I’m refining for use over the long haul or if it’s just something I need to get out of my system. In either case, a series of diminutive piano compositions is the perfect vehicle to develop some of these ideas.

I guess my recent harmonic language could be considered pandiatonicism, that is, the free use of the diatonic scale (as opposed to chromatic) stacked into harmonies without implying tonality. (Non-music-theorists: from this point, on feel free to let your eyes glaze over while nodding your head knowingly.) I’m trying to create a satisfying “musical gravity” without using any of the traditional trappings of I, IV, V chords, etc. I avoid tritones and dominant sevenths–intervals that would imply tonal movement. And I find myself using pentatonic scales for my melodic material.

Blah, blah, blah. You can also just listen to the piece and enjoy it (or not) without understanding the music theory behind it. Sometimes it’s better not to know how the sausage is made…

But if you do want to see the sausage, here’s the PDF.

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#1 (piano miniatures)

I often take part in FAWM–February Album Writing Month–as a way of keeping the creative juices flowing. The FAWM challenge is to write 14 songs in 28 days. This year I plan to compose 14 “piano miniatures.” (I’ll think of a better title later: sketches? bite-size compositions? Think Erik Satie’s “Gymnopédie” and you’ve got the right idea.) Just short pieces that allow me to work out some ideas in small form.

Tentatively, each piece will be numbered, 1 through 14, with a time signature corresponding to that number. The first is #1 and is in a 1/1 meter. This is not only a cute idea, stuffing a piece into the unusual 1/1 meter for show. Instead, I composed a piece that truly has a one-beat pulse and that doesn’t group into larger 3s or 4s. If you want to try this out at your piano, download the PDF score.

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“Joy Inside My Tears” at Calvin College’s Chapel

Paul Ryan periodically asks me to speak/sing at Calvin’s chapel. On January 14, 2019 my theme was “Joy Inside My Tears,” in which I explored the paradoxes of the Christian’s emotional life in scripture and song. Just in case you don’t want to listen raptly to all 20+ minutes, here is the outline:

  • Prelude: “Joy Inside My Tears” from Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life
  • 2:00 Blah, blah, blah
  • 3:15 We Worship You (Scheer)
  • 7:00 More blah, blah, blah
  • 10:20 Psalm 30: I Worship You, O Lord (text: Seddon/Seerveld, tune: Norman L. Warren) A new jazz arrangement written especially for this chapel.
  • 15:00 Expanded blah, blah, blah
  • 23:50 Psalm 126: All Those Who Are Weeping (a beautiful song by Bifrost Arts)
  • Postlude: “People’s Parties” from Joni Mitchell’s Court and Spark

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Prayer of Jonah at Western Seminary

The first performance of “Prayer of Jonah” took place in December at Western Seminary. The song begins at 27:54 in this video, but the whole enactment of the book of Jonah is well worth watching. The next performance will be at the Calvin Worship Symposium during the Thursday and Friday Vesper services, 4:15pm in Gezon Auditorium.

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2018 Year in Review

It’s that time of the year again, my friends! You faithful followers of this Musical Diary have already heard all these songs, but I thought you might enjoy hearing it in a narrated podcast format. It’s also a format that is easy to share with newbies. (Yes, that was a hint!)

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A New Year’s Carol

A New Year’s Carol

As the year draws to a close, one has to take stock and observe, “That sucked.” Yes, 2018 was about the worst year since 7th grade. Worst. Year. Ever.

The good news? It can only go up from here. To commemorate the enormous sinkhole that was 2018 and the great hopes for a brighter future, I’ve written “A New Year’s Carol.” On the surface it may sound a little bleak to sing “it’s been a terrible year,” but there is hope embedded in the music of this carol. You see, the key rises a whole step with each repeat of the carol. Crazy, huh? You want to really geek out? I double all the tracks at the octave so that I could create Shepard Tones–the effect that the song continuously rises without actually going out of range. (Although I’m singing nearly four octaves all told.)

By all accounts it’s been a terrible year.
As the days dragged into months,
there was little to cheer.
Sing “Oo la loo ley!”
when there’s nothing to say.
Sing “Oo la ley loo!”
for what else can you do?
But next year cannot be worse,
so it’s all up from here!

You want to sing along? Here’s the music: PDF.
You want to hear the Shepard Tones more clearly? Here’s an instrumental MP3.

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