Listen. Look. Read:
A few days ago, a friend of mine, Wendell Kimbrough, asked about a Nigerian song he had heard. I checked it out and was immediately smitten. It has everything you’d want in an African praise chorus: it’s immediately singable, thematically focused, and it leaves plenty of room for ad lib verses. Oh, and one more trait of African praise choruses: everyone sings it slightly differently. Below are a few versions to give you an idea of the variety of styles.
I decided I needed to commit the song to notation, but that meant I needed to synthesize all the different renditions and make some comprises for Western musicians and notation. First, I bumped the key up to G. No biggy; it just felt more congregation-friendly. Next, I standardized the syncopation–”of the Lord” is always syncopated the same way. This is fairly consistent in all the recordings, so I felt it was the right thing to do. My transcription keeps the spirit of the original rhythm, and also gives newcomers only one rhythm to learn. On the same subject, “from heaven come down” is usually syncopated in the source recordings, but I decided to go with the straightest version of them–no point in giving Western congregations the “right” rhythm which they’ll never get right. Finally, I wrote it in four-part harmony. Since an SATB version doesn’t exist in any of the original performances, I had to create one from what those performances imply.
Consider the above paragraph “truth in advertising.” There are some Western arrangers (some of whom may hail from Scotland) who give the impression that their versions of songs are definitive. I want to document what recordings I was working from and what decisions I made. You are free to make your own arrangement or adapt to your context. That is especially true for an “off the page” song like this. For example, I must say that I really like Wendell’s rendition below. It’s completely different, yet entirely faithful to the original.
If anyone has any background information on the song, I’m all ears.
The last song from my Hallel Psalm cantata, Everlasting to Everlasting, is a setting of Psalm 118 for which the cantata is named. Psalm 118 is also the lectionary Psalm for Easter Sunday, so I decided to use the song at Church of the Servant this year. This is a slow burner–it sneaks up on you rather than grabbing you by the collar and shaking you–but I think it worked rather well. Of course, who can dislike a song that starts with a boy soprano? Thank you, Christian Voetberg for doing the work of winning over the congregation to my new song!
Listen to the MP3.
Wendell Kimbrough is one of my favorite new congregational songwriters. I figured I’d hitch my wagon to this rising star early on his career so that when he becomes a household name, I’d be a household footnote.
One of his latest songs is a setting of Psalm 31 called “In You, Lord, I Refuge Take.” It’s simple–most congregational songs are–but also profound, translating the desperate prayer of Psalm 31 into fresh new language that sings well. I wrote a four part harmonization of it so we could use it in my church. As you can hear from the recording, my congregation took to it right away.
Since you all are so kind to stop by my blog, here’s little bonus Palm Sunday music for you: Hosanna in the Highest, and Sanna Sannanina (piccolo, djembe, choir).
The Rosthern Junior College Choir in Saskatchewan, Canada did a bang up job of singing “Deeper than the Sea” (Psalm 36):
What are you waiting for? Get your sorry self over to GIA and buy a few dozen copies for your choir!
It’s very satisfying to know that half a world away, the Kampong Kapor Methodist Church of Singapore sang my song as part of their 120th year anniversary celebrations!
Jesus, Lord of Life and Glory, SATB/Piano: MP3
A new setting of the 1839 text, “Jesus, Lord of Life and Glory” was born a little over 24 hours ago. This beautiful hymn by James John Cummins had fallen into disuse until fairly recently, when Greg Thompson’s “By Thy Mercy” appeared on the Indelible Grace CD By Thy Mercy and High Street Hymn’s self-titled CD.
I wrote my own setting in 2012 and decided to bring it back again this Lent in an arrangement for SATB choir and piano. I’ve got to admit that I was pleased with how it turned out. The tune sings well, as you can hear by the way the congregation owns it when they join the choir in verse 4; the choral texture adds richness; and the piano provides a certain gravitas to the song’s theme.
We sang it Sunday morning in worship and then again that afternoon at the home of one of church friends who is terminally ill. It gave poignancy to the line “when we feel our mortal weakness, when all human help is vain.” Something else I observed during that visit is that Margaret requested a lot of upbeat hymns–not insubstantial, but also not morose. It made me wonder if that’s one of the roles music plays in faith: it reminds those who are likely far from death that there will one day be, in the words of verse 6, a “solemn hour of dying”; and it gives those close to death a hope of joy as fresh as the songs of their youth.
After the crisp air of September and the melancholy of October, 91 Days ends with the hopeful resolve of November: PDF, MP3.
Whereas the first movement of 91 Days is a lively tango, the second movement slows to a bi-tonal ballad. (Bi-tonal, for those of you who didn’t study music theory, is when two different “keys” are sounding simultaneously. A famous example would be Charles Ives’ “The Unanswered Question.”) I quite like the way the violin and piano are like oil and water that swirl around each other, but never quite join.
Movement 2, October: PDF, MP3
In my college and grad school days, I focused on composing modern classical music–otherwise known as art music, concert music, or “scary monster music.” Actually, I haven’t changed all that much. I continue to enjoy a biting harmony or complex rhythm. But I’m also a practical person, so I try to work those interesting elements into pieces that people will actually hear.
While I was at Pitt I wrote a piece, 91 Days for Violin and Piano, that was an important part of my transition from composing what I thought I should compose to composing what I would want to listen to. It’s still “art music,” but incorporates more energetic rhythm, harmonies that slip in and out of tonality, and melodies that sound, well, melodic. The piece was premiered by Roger Zahab, the patron saint of new music, with Robert Frankenberry on piano.
Movement 1, September: PDF, MP3
“I’ll Be a Witness to the Light” is a song I wrote almost 10 years ago to go with a sermon series on the beginning chapters of John’s Gospel. It’s held up surprisingly well, maybe because it sings a bit like a Negro Spiritual. In fact it feels enough like a spiritual that Michael Burkhardt included it with a number of global worship songs in his collection “From a Distant Home.” (Please don’t tell him that I’m just a white guy from Michigan.)
You can download the music at my main website or listen to the recording from last Sunday at COS.