As followers of this blog know, I am no stranger to ridiculous ideas. Indeed, I am willing to chase a ridiculous idea to extraordinary lengths.
This is one such idea.
When work begins to pile up, I either remind myself of the old adage: Q: How do you eat an elephant? A: One bite at a time. Or I begin to hum a little tune with the words, “Keep your nose to the grindstone.” When my friend, Julie, told me she was “just keeping her nose to the grindstone,” how could I resist providing an inspirational soundtrack for her work?
As I came home from church today, I vowed that I would keep the Sabbath by doing something creative (i.e. re-creation), but not something that was work (a fine line when writing music is your work). The result is a song based on a line I sang into my phone a few weeks ago, “All the things that you can’t change.” It feels like there’s something still to be done with this, but for now, I’m happy to have gotten back in touch with the joy and immediacy of simply writing what’s on my mind.
There’s only silence when you wake. You breathe the air, but it is thick. You don’t know if you’ll ever sing again; You don’t remember how it felt.
Because everything has changed. Your little life came to an end. It wasn’t much, but it was all you had And all that’s left is sad.
Everything’s broken that could break You took everything that you could take. Wished you’d been good instead of trying to be great. But you will be okay. It will be all be all right someday.
All the things that you can’t change; All the things you can’t forget; All the demons that have been with you so long That they start to feel like friends: It will all be all right someday.
Now you think that it’s the end, But it’s never just the end. You don’t know what, but it’s about to begin And it will be beautiful in its own way. It will all be all right someday.
One of the things that makes me feel downright legit as a composer is stumbling across a video of one of my pieces online–a video that I didn’t upload, performed by musicians I don’t know. In this case, it is the Daybreak Choir at Trinity Lutheran Church in Lansdale, PA. They did a great job with it. I love the addition of the drums!
If your choir wants to follow in the footsteps of the Daybreak Choir, you can order “A New Song” from Augsburg Fortress as part of the GladSong Choirbook.
It began its life in Fall of 2008 as a tune for another person’s hymn text. After my musical gift was ignored, scorned, and forsaken (Seriously? How many more hymn texts need to be paired with NETTLETON?) I wrote the text, “Make Us One within Your Spirit” to go with the tune. I submitted it to a contest. I lost. After a number of revisions I still believed in its potential, and two years ago wrote on this blog, “Maybe someday someone will commission me to turn this into a regal choral anthem with brass and timpani.”
That day has come!
Last Sunday, it was premiered at River Road Presbyterian Church, commissioned for their 60th anniversary and in honor of their retiring music minister, Larry Heath. Though it didn’t include timpani, it did include choir, brass, and organ.
You can enjoy the MP3 (played by Finale) or video (in which I conduct the musicians of River Road Presbyterian Church) above. If you want to go to the next level, you can download the one-page hymn version or the full score. But you have to sign up for my email list to get those. (And let’s face it, you want to be on my email list anyway.)
Every year for a few decades I’ve woken up early on Easter morning to lead worship. With no service to lead this year, I’ll contribute Easter music of a different variety: “Death Swallowed by the Real Good.” The text was written and narrated by Amy Phillips, interspersed with 1 Corinthians 15 from Eugene Peterson’s The Message. In these poignant scenes from the end of her grandfather’s life, we hear echoes of the pain and brokenness in our own lives.
We could all use a little resurrection, couldn’t we?
(The first version of Real Good appeared in 2009 on this blog; this is a brand new mix of the piece.)
You will no doubt remember that during my Adopt-a-Psalm composing frenzy, I wrote a setting of Psalm 46 in 4+6/8 time. Yes, it worked. Yes, it was kind of catchy in its own asymmetrical way. But realistically, it would have been quite difficult for a congregation to pick up. And that’s the point, right? I want congregations to sing the Psalms, so I need to make them as accessible as possible.
So I wrote a spanking new setting of Psalm 46 for my Psalm adopter. Though it shares the same text, it is very different from the previous one. I think it came out so different because when I sat down to write it, the old song’s rhythms were still in my head; I had to expunge them by coming up with a song that had an entirely new character.
I began with the most unique aspect of the text: the stressed/unstressed endings of each couplet. (“Refuge,” “rescue,” “with us.” What they used to call a “feminine cadence.”) That suggested to me an appoggiatura. One thing led to another and those downbeat appoggiaturas became the song’s primary personality. It’s not unlike “Eagle’s Wings,” come to think of it.
In any case, this harmonic language gives the song a sweet and gentle feel. I like how it draws out of the text a sense of contented trust, whereas the previous tune or EIN FESTE BURG highlights strength, confidence, and completion. Listen to the above demo or play it for yourself from this leadsheet.
Two weeks ago, I was artist-in-residence at Western Theological Seminary at the invitation of Prof. Dr. Rev. Ron Rienstra. Part of my work was to plan chapel services with students. We chose the theme “Psalm Echoes,” each day pairing a Psalm with a New Testament passage that quoted the Psalm or resonated with its themes. It was pretty splendid if I don’t say so myself.
Friday’s chapel (a weekly communion service) paired Psalm 118 with Matthew 26. In this retelling of the Last Supper, it is thought that “When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives” refers to the singing of the last Hallel Psalm, Psalm 118. Ron was planning to preach on the texts, letting them lead him right to the communion table. Brilliant.
On Thursday evening, I got a text:
Ron: Hey Greg – you want a challenge?
Ron: At the beginning and end of the sermon can we sing [picture of “Feed Us, Lord” melody with Psalm 118 text] I was gonna ask you to write a quick new song to exactly those words – but then I thought: hey, this would work, too.
Greg: What style and tempo are you looking for?
Ron: Joyful and thankful without rocking out.
Greg: I’m baking fresh bread and might want to add a loaf of fresh notes to the oven.
Ron: Hey if that’s what you wanna do… you are most welcome to do so! If you are up to the challenge, that is. (7:34 pm)
Of course, Ron knew exactly what he was doing. Baiting me with a challenge. Getting me firmly on the hook with a song that would get the job done but wasn’t inspiring or new. And then reeling me in with “If you are up to the challenge…” Naturally, I couldn’t resist. Between baking bread and driving kids various places, I wrote a few drafts. None was quite right. I was just about ready to admit defeat but gave it one last look before heading to bed. Things clicked and I finished it a few minutes later. The night ended with an email to Ron:
I was recently asked to write string parts to go with my choral anthem, “Jesus, Lord of Life and Glory.” It was great fun to revisit the piece, and I feel the strings add a dramatic dimension to the piece that makes it even more engaging.
This anthem was published by GIA in 2015. When I went searching for the link, I was pleased to find that they’ve just added a “bouncing ball” video version of the anthem. Feel free to sing along!
When I contacted a few people who had requested it over the years, Connecticut conductor Sue Riley told me she no longer had a women’s choir but would love to sing it with her mixed church choir. So I got back to work and produced an arrangement for SATB choir, piano, and flute.
While I was at it, I created a new translation. The existing translations (Suppe: Lord, you have come to the lakeshore, Jabusch: Lord, when you came to the seashore, Marshall: You have come down to the lakeshore) all have awkward phrases and misplaced emphases that the draw attention away from the simple beauty of the song. I wanted a translation that was smooth as butter:
1. Lord, you have come to the harbor
Seeking neither the wise nor the wealthy,
But only asking that I would follow.
O Lord, you have smiled upon me. You have sought me, and called me by name. Now my boat lies on the shoreline behind me, For with you I will seek other seas.
2. You know I’ve nothing to offer:
I’ve no treasure, just nets for fishing,
And two strong hands you made for working. Refrain
3. Lord, I will give you my labors,
Share my strength with those that are weary,
And share your love, your love unending. Refrain
4. You call me on to new waters
To seek those who are waiting and thirsting.
O my dear Jesus, I gladly follow. Refrain
Señor, me has mirado a los ojos, sonriendo has dicho mi nombre, en la arena he dejado mi barca, junto a ti buscaré otro mar.
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.