In 2020, the St. Sinner Orchestra is releasing an album entitled One. Long. Year. This is an ambitious project in two ways:
One. Long. Year. is a concept album following the inner life of an unnamed protagonist throughout the course of a year. The songs start on New Year’s Day with new love and hope for the future (“We’re Holding On”). But by Valentine’s Day, tiny cracks begin to appear in the relationship (“Never Perfect”) and the darkness that resides as a seed in every heart begins to grow into a vine that threatens to choke out all that is good. By New Year’s Eve 365 days later, the protagonist’s life has unraveled completely.
One. Long. Year. is a serial album. I will release the 10 tracks where they occur on the calendar throughout the year. “Almost Already Gone” on Ash Wednesday, “Am I the Only One (Who Wishes Summer Would End)?” on July 4, etc.
It should also be noted that this album is recorded more-or-less live with two microphones. This may not be the most polished album of 2020, but it is honest music played by real musical friends. I think the world needs more of that.
Let’s begin our musical journey with “We’re Holding On.” (It starts quietly.)
1. Raindrops explode and combine; they stream down windowpanes in the night. Cars pass in brief bursts of light; shine like stars falling from night skies.
We’re holding on for dear life.
2. Warm breath, exhaled, intertwined; this breath is it yours? Is it mine? Can two hearts resonate, synchronize? As the universe keeps time,
This year, Church of the Servant (my “alma mater” church) commissioned me to arrange a lovely “Magnificat” by Keur Moussa. I don’t know a lot about the Keur Moussa Abbey, but my impression is that they are something like the Taizé of Senegal. The Keur Moussa community has developed its own style of singing that combines the beautiful austerity of Catholic chant with the insistent rhythms of West Africa.
If you listen to the original recording you’ll hear a simple perfection that is irresistible, with the vocals and rhythms held in perfect balance. You’ll also hear what I found most difficult about writing this arrangement: the more “interesting” my arrangement was, the more it betrayed the original song. I must have reminded myself a hundred times while working on it: “Greg, don’t gild the lily!” But it was not easy to remain simple when writing for choir, string orchestra, guitars, and a smattering of percussion!
In the end, I felt that I struck a good balance. The arrangement is complex, but not flashy; exciting, but still mesmerizing. But I am hardly an impartial observer. You be the judge. The above recording is from the December 15, 2019 premiere at COS’s annual Lessons & Carols service.
This fall I visited Baylor University, giving the “Hearn Innovator” lecture, speaking in classes, and enjoying rich conversations with students and faculty. One of my favorite events was leading a chapel of Psalm singing. The band was tight and the students were (mostly) enthusiastic. My part begins at 11:47.
Necessity is the mother of invention, and in the case of this Sunday’s service, I needed an arrangement of “Lead On, O King Eternal” for worship band. Henry Smart’s tune is triumphant, bordering on a march. That doesn’t work well with pop music instruments. So I softened the march rhythm and gave it a bit of a groove with a jangly electric guitar line a la early Elvis Costello. It might be the perfect blend of old and new; it might be an awkward marriage of substance and style. I will report back on how it works.
On October 28, I was privileged to lead Calvin University’s chapel with the Campus Choir. We focused on Psalm 103–my favorite–singing four different versions of the Psalm as a way of “preaching with song.” We sang Taizé’s “Bless the Lord My Soul,” Matt Redman’s “Ten Thousand Reasons,” and the classic hymn “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven.” We concluded with my anthem, “Bless the Lord, O My Soul!” which begins at 17:23. A good time was had by all. (As far as I could tell.)
I’ve been a fan of M.C. Escher for a long time. One of the things that fascinates me about his art is how he meticulously worked out his tesselations on graph paper before incorporating them into a finished print. These “proof of concept” sketches were a necessary step in creating his mind-boggling works of art.
In the same way, I’ve had a number of Escheresque musical ideas that have been simmering on the back burner for some time. Yesterday, I was able to record a quick demo–a draft that would allow me to figure out some of the logistics for a later piece. In the end, it didn’t work. So be it. That’s how one learns.
Can anyone guess the musical concept I was trying to implement?
Last year I attended a songwriting retreat that focused on writing Christmas songs for too often overlooked themes. Great writers like Liz Vice, Matt Papa, Eddie Espinosa, and Latifah Alattas applied their skills to theological ideas like the union of heaven and earth in the person of Christ and the dark side of the Christmas story such as the slaughter of the innocents and the flight to Egypt.
It was at this retreat that I wrote “Jesus, Be Enough.” In the year since, I’ve wondered what this song wants to be when it grows up. Now, just in time for Christmas, it has decided that it would like to be a choral anthem! Above, you can listen to a rough demo I recorded at choir rehearsal this evening. To download it for your choir you can visit my website: https://gregscheer.com/product/jesus-be-enough/.
It was my great pleasure to work with Liz Vic, Wen Reagan, Bruce Benedict, and Lester Ruth to write this song, “Away in A Manger.” Most Christmas songs are all sweetness, with the baby Jesus sleeping contentedly, “no crying he makes.” This song turns that idyllic picture on its head, revealing the drama and stress of a real family with a real baby who was the target of jealous politician’s wrath, forcing them to flee “away from the manger” to the safety of Egypt. Liz does a wonderful job on this new recording, just in time for Christmas.
Singing Scheer Psalms in Indonesia translation is certainly a niche interest. Nonetheless, I wanted to make this video available for all the people who might be interested. Both of you…
I’m making self-deprecating jokes, but this was a really wonderful evening. The GKY Manggabesar is a singing congregation. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my friend (and GKY pastor) Lucky Samuel had already taught many of these songs to his congregation. What a gift to hear them singing songs I had written half a world away in their own language!
I was privileged to receive a commission from Baylor University to compose a piece on the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem, “Binsey Poplars.”
The poem is an ode to Hopkins’ once-favorite, now-felled trees, but it is also a meditation on the environment and the ways humans interact with it. Ultimately, it is a poem of loss and grief.
The premiere took place at Baylor’s Armstrong Browning Library on September 20, 2019, with Karen Hogue, soprano, the Ensemble from First United Methodist, Weatherford, and Carlos Colón on the piano.
You know you can email me to peruse the score, right?
My aspens dear, whose airy cages quelled, Quelled or quenched in leaves the leaping sun, All felled, felled, are all felled; Of a fresh and following folded rank Not spared, not one That dandled a sandalled Shadow that swam or sank On meadow & river & wind-wandering weed-winding bank.
O if we but knew what we do When we delve or hew — Hack and rack the growing green! Since country is so tender To touch, her being só slender, That, like this sleek and seeing ball But a prick will make no eye at all, Where we, even where we mean To mend her we end her, When we hew or delve: After-comers cannot guess the beauty been. Ten or twelve, only ten or twelve Strokes of havoc unselve The sweet especial scene, Rural scene, a rural scene, Sweet especial rural scene.