The Gospel Truth

It’s not often that I pen something happy. I mean, just happy, with no twinges of melancholy, conflict, or nostalgia. I’m a content person, generally, but enough of a realist to understand that light needs shadow to have any meaning at all. But just this once I made an exception and wrote something that is all joy, beginning to end. To all you disappointed pessimists who follow my music: I’m sorry. It just came out that way!

The Abraham Brothers, from an article in Augusta Magazine entitled “The Gospel Truth.”

The song started as a little bass riff I made up while testing out some new strings. Like most of my music, it started as a seed and grew into something quite different. Not to nerd out on you, but the fundamental problem I was having was that the original melody mirrored the bass line, creating parallel octaves and a king of hokey opening melody. I woke up one day with this new opening melody in my head and all the pieces fell together. Now the song starts with a melody that takes off like a rocket, leaping an octave and a 6th in two measures.

Because the song has a jazz gospel feel, I named it “The Gospel Truth” as soon as I began working on it. It turns out there are lots and lots of “Gospel Truths” out there: songs, books, bands, CD collections, concert series, preacher podcasts, etc. Oh well, I guess if this song gets popular, they’ll have to call it “The Gospel Truth According to Greg Scheer.”

It should be noted that the violinist, Susan Mora, promised me she wouldn’t talk during the recording. And yet, a minute and mere minute and nine seconds after making that promise, she leaned over and said, “It’s very happy!” What would my Euro Bistro recordings be without Susan’s commentary?

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Fight or Flight of the Bumblebee

It may seem like I haven’t been composing lately. Don’t you worry, I’ve just been composing things that are too difficult for me to record by myself. But I’ll try to scratch together a few recordings in the coming weeks.

The first is a two-part jazz tune, “Fight or Flight of the Bumblebee.” I came up with the title first and knew I had to compose song to go with it.

Of course, this is a nod to Rimsky-Korsakov’s classic “Flight of the Bumblebee.” But mine has a “Fight of the Bumblebee,” too. So it’s better.

The song starts with two trumpets locked in battle; you can almost hear the punches fly as they wrestle each other dominance. Then they buzz away in the form of a flute solo, flying away to new adventures.

A few musical notes: The trumpets sound so punchy because they’re constantly in dissonance with each other. I’ve taken the tension notes of the chords and smashed them together like a fist against nose. The flute flight part of the song is a non-stop chromatic melody that floats above the chords, but rarely touches down. My first draft had no place to breathe for 16 bars; I didn’t want any flutists dying on my watch, so I added a few places to catch a quick breath. You’re welcome.

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Psalm 54: Save Me, O God (with Doug Gay)

Update: Sheet music for this song is now available at gregscheer.com.

February 2022 proved to be too short to achieve my goal of 14 Psalm collaborations. (You can hear a concert of the 12 songs I completed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dBiORFbDulE) However, I’m trying to make things right by completing two more songs that I left as drafts earlier.

This one is a hymn Doug Gay wrote on Psalm 54, a prayer for salvation from enemies. It is the kind of Psalm I once dismissed as petty and paranoid. But now that I am older (or more petty and paranoid?) I see that, indeed, life is full of people who get a thrill out of bringing others down a few notches: “Arrogant foes are attacking me; ruthless people are trying to kill me–people without regard for God.” (Turn the page to Psalm 55 and you’ll see that sometimes the worst foes are former friends!) Doug has done a great job of capturing the spirit of the Psalm honestly while focusing more on God’s salvation than the malice of the attackers.

Musically, I heard it as an urgent, yet confident prayer. It needed music that is vulnerable, but strong. My original version (which is retained in the SATB version of the music) sounds like an early music consort, with modal harmonies and a hand drum. But as I developed the song, I wanted to make it accessible to those who don’t have Estampie at their church, so I wrote a simple piano accompaniment. As I recorded it, it morphed from Estampie into Malicorne or Steeleye Span. One could do worse…

1. Save me, O God, save me by your great name.
Uphold my life, by your almighty power.
Those who despise me, pitiless and cruel,
seek to destroy me, mock me to my face.
Hear me, O God, draw near to hear my prayer.
Draw near to hear my prayer.

2. Still I confess my faith, that God is near.
God is my helper, God is my defense.
And I believe my enemies will find
God will not let their callous evil stand.
Come, faithful God, and bring it to an end!
Come, faithful God, be near.

3. In love and freedom, I will bring my praise.
I will give thanks, O Lord, for you are good.
You have delivered me and saved the day.
Now I can see my enemies dismayed.
Danger is past, my hope has been renewed.
I will give thanks, O Lord.

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Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies

Update: Sheet music for this song is now available at gregscheer.com.

Charles Wesley originally titled this text simply “Morning Hymn.” Indeed, the text is filled with images of morning, light, and day. Of course, Jesus Christ, the Light of the World, is praised as the true source of all light.

Even though Charles Gounod wrote one of the more famous tunes for this hymn, I’ve never felt like any of the tunes do the text and theme justice. This wide-eyed, joyful text needs something that makes you feel the refreshing hope of a new sunrise.

I hope my tune captures some of that vitality. It is a simple folk song with a melody that rises and sets like the sun. Though the song itself is simple and singable, I’ve added a challenging and exciting instrumental verse that can be played by either keyboard or two solo instruments. In this recording, I used the keyboard solo as an intro and the duet as an instrumental verse between verses 2 and 3.

1 Christ, whose glory fills the skies;
Christ, the true, the only light;
Sun of Righteousness, arise;
triumph o’er the shades of night;
Dayspring from on high, be near;
Daystar, in my heart appear.

2 Dark and cheerless is the morn
unaccompanied by thee;
joyless is the day’s return
till thy mercy’s beams I see;
till they inward light impart,
cheer my eyes and warm my heart.

3 Visit then this soul of mine;
pierce the gloom of sin and grief;
fill me, radiancy divine;
scatter all my unbelief;
more and more thyself display,
shining to the perfect day.

Posted in Church, Congregational Songs, Demos, Retuned hymn | 2 Comments

Psalm 102: My Heart Is Sick (Linda Bonney Olin)

I first collaborated with Linda Bonney Olin in February of this year. Our setting of Psalm 8, “How Often in the Deep of Night” was part of my 2022 Psalm Collaboration project. I’m now coming back to some other texts she sent in February. Among them was “My Heart Is Sick.”

The song title certainly catches one’s attention. Though the title doesn’t sound as inspiring as, say, “Like a River Glorious,” there are plenty of times when our hearts are sick and we don’t feel glorious at all. The Psalmist is certainly experiencing one of those times in Psalm 102. The Psalm vacillates between utter despair (“I eat ashes as my food and mingle my drink with tears”) to hope in God’s unchanging love and ability to save.

As I began working with the text, I could hear waves of dissonance that mirrored the heart-sickness and longing of the Psalm. Indeed, many notes of this melody are dissonant against their accompanying chords. What keeps all this dissonance from descending into chaos is an undulating stepwise motive that is woven throughout the song. It’s surprisingly singable.

Of course, there’s no lily I’m unwilling to gild! As I wrote the piano part, I began to imagine what the song might sound like with an accompaniment of low strings instead. I finally gave in and wrote one. The score calls for a cello quartet, but I’m sure I could be convinced to re-score it for string orchestra if you asked nicely. On this demo, though, it is played by a quartet of basses played by yours truly. For those of you who are having a hard time imagining a quartet of low strings accompanying this Psalm, a demo of the piano accompaniment is below.

The tune is named DESERT OWL after the lonely nocturnal bird in verse 2.

1. My heart is sick, my body weak.
I’m starved to skin and bones.
My mouth, too full of dust to speak,
can utter only groans.
O God, my God, see my distress
and heed my wretched prayer,
for I am poor and powerless
without your gracious care.

2. As lonesome as a desert owl,
I lie awake, in tears.
Around me adversaries prowl,
with curses, taunts, and jeers.
And you, the God I have adored,
in anger shun me too.
Restore me to your presence, Lord,
to walk once more with you!

3. Our days on earth so swiftly pass,
like waves on restless seas.
We fade away like withered grass,
like smoke upon the breeze.
But you, O God, will always be,
eternally the same.
All generations, hear and see!
All people, praise God’s name!

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Teach Us Your Peace (David Bjorlin)

Update: Sheet music for this song is now available at gregscheer.com.

I was talking to my boys yesterday about the mass shootings in Uvalde and Buffalo. I admitted that lately, I’ve become callous to the whole process: some troubled person murders multiple innocent people, the whole nation acts shocked, and then we quickly go back to life (and death) as usual. The Christians make pious statements about the existence of evil being the real problem. The conservatives sing the praises of the freedoms that make this country great, including the freedom of unrestricted gun ownership. (Did you know that there are 1.2 guns for every person in this country?) It’s an endless cycle that won’t stop until we decide we love our children more than our guns.

A short time later, David Bjorlin sent an email with a new hymn text addressing the world-weariness I was experiencing. As he described it, there is “something inherently life-affirming about the creative act.” Indeed, this life-affirming hymn is an act of defiance in a culture so enamored with weapons and so willing to offer children to the god of untethered freedom.

He wrote “Teach Us Your Peace” to the tune of FINLANDIA. I hope my simple tune will bring something new to our hearing of these important words.

1. Teach us your peace when death is all around us
and we are fed the bitter bread of tears;
when hollow words and cowardice confound us
as hope for action once more disappears.
Teach us your peace, and with your love surround us–
your perfect love that casts away our fears.

2. Teach us your peace where weapons meant for killing
are turned to tools to help us grow and thrive,
where hardened hearts are furrowed by your tilling
and stubborn seeds take root and come alive.
Teach us your peace where everyone is willing
to harvest change so children may survive.

3. Teach us your peace till peace rules every nation
and justice springs and streams to every shore,
till you return to cradle all creation
and put an end to violence, hate, and war.
Teach us your peace, a holy habitation
where we will dwell and death will be no more.

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Everybody Knows

I continue playing my bass each week with a jazz trio at a local restaurant and I continue to write new songs for said trio. I try to do something different each time: a different style, mood, or tempo. Sometimes I base a new song on an existing standard: Brubeck’s “Take 5” becomes my “Take 3.0” or Jobim’s “One Note Samba” becomes “The One More Note Samba,” for example. I figure my songs will be more likely to be played if I can slip them in beside a similar classic.

But his time I actually stole from myself. I was thinking about how my rap song “We Know the Changes,” would make a mighty fine jazz-funk groove. I began playing with some melodies that might work on top of the chords from that song (called a “contrafact” in musical terms), but it soon morphed into an entirely different thing.

“Everybody Knows” ended up as an A minor groove that pivots up and down a step on phrase two and four. That’s a cool way to keep things simple without getting boring. As you can hear from this recording from last night, the trio took to it like fish to water.

I probably won’t use the words with this one, but I include them here for posterity:

1. Everybody knows
and there’s no denying.
Everybody knows
And you know it, too.
Everybody knows
try to hide it, but it shows.
Everybody knows, everybody knows
when they fall in love.

2. Everybody knows
they can’t fight the feeling.
Everybody knows
it’ll only grow.
Everybody knows
just give in and let it flow.
Everybody knows, everybody knows
when they fall in love.

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Trio

I continue to explore jazz, this time with a healthy dose of classical composition technique. “Trio” is so named because it’s written for 3 players and in “3” (3/4 meter). More interestingly, the three players play a 3-part canon. Player #1 begins the canon (also known as a round), followed by Player #2 eight bars later, and Player #3 eight bars after that.

While this canon could theoretically continue repeating into infinity, my hope is to perform this with three musicians who will begin to improvise once their written melodies are finished. Imagine: three players improvising at the same time, like Dixieland, but more serene. Then, one at a time, they’ll come back to the head and take the coda to end the song.

For now, we will have to satisfy our ears with a quick demo of just the melody and coda.

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Iguana

Photo by Patricia Guillory

“Iguana” began its life as a bass line. I wanted to write a groove-oriented jazz tune like Herbie Hancock’s iconic “Chameleon.” (“Chameleon”…”Iguana” Get it?) The bass line soon morphed from a dirty funk into a smoother, jazz fusion groove with an ever-ascending harmonic sequence. While I was working on the melody I was also memorizing Thelonius Monk’s “Straight, No Chaser.” I was fascinated (and a little bit infuriated) by the way Monk takes one melodic motif and then shifts it to different positions in the meter each time it appears. A little of that leaked into “Iguana.”

The final test for any jazz tune–especially a groove-oriented one–is how well it works with real musicians soloing over its form. The first version of Iguana unraveled in that setting. The form was AABA, but the final A was so similar to the first two that no one ever knew when the song started again! In this final version, I simplified the form to AAB with a clear cadence marking the way back to the beginning. Voila! It worked like a charm.

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Behold the Love

As I was planning Easter services, I stumbled across a hymn text by Barton W. Stone called “Behold the Love, the Grace of God.” Stone is better known for his part in the Stone-Campbell Movement (also called the “Restoration Movement”) which is the precursor to modern denominations such as the Disciples of Christ. What struck me about this hymn text, seemingly the only one Barton wrote, is how effusive it is: “My soul’s on fire, it pants to prove the fullness of redeeming love.”

As I sat at the piano with the text, it suggested a rich, warm gospel ballad. The song has all the harmonic twists and turns that you’d expect in a gospel song, but the biggest surprise is in the third line when it suddenly shifts from the key of Db to the key of E. It’s unexpected but feels completely natural. (Though it is really hard to go from 5 flats to 4 sharps!)

Though I decided to write new lyrics, I tried to retain the original text’s first-person awe and gratefulness for Jesus’ sacrifice. This would be a great song for communion or Good Friday. Think of it as a gospel sibling of “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”

1. Behold the love, the grace of God,
displayed in Jesus’ precious blood.
My tongue will tell, my soul will sing
of Jesus Christ’s redeeming love!

I see the cross on which my Lord
bore all my sin within his pain.
He conquered death to bring me life
and I am healed; I’m born again.

2. O love of God, there is no end!
Thre is no bottom to his grace.
My sinful heart can cling to hope
when I see Jesus’ suffering face.

For though my sin could fill the sea,
God’s tender love is deeper yet.
He sent his Son to die for me,
to pay this grateful sinner’s debt.

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