This spring, I had the great good fortune to compose a new piece for the Calvin Community Symphony’s 25th-anniversary concert. Below are the program notes:
It may seem obvious—even unimaginative—to name a piece commissioned for a 25th anniversary concert “25.” What is perhaps less obvious is that the composition is in a 25/8 meter*.
One 8th note per year is not only a fitting starting place for a 25th anniversary piece, but it continues my long term exploration of rhythm. My compositions often draw on the rhythmic vitality of African, Celtic, Pop, and Minimalist music. In “25” you can hear the uneven rhythms of Eastern Europe folk music, Medieval dances, or even the Genevan Psalter.
If you listen carefully, you will also hear echoes of Ravel’s “Boléro.” Instead of Ravel’s famous snare drum rhythm, “25” begins with brushed snare, immediately announcing its connection to dance rhythms of our day, especially jazz. On top of the brushed snare, a series of solo instruments enter one at a time—flute, clarinet, etc—the beginning of a wedge that grows in volume, intensity, and range throughout the whole composition. Speaking of intensity, the piannisimo brushed snare rhythm morphs and grows throughout the piece, making a brash recapitulation at the drum set near the end.
Heartfelt thanks are due Maestro Varineau and the musicians of the Calvin Community Symphony for the love they’ve shown this new composition. Thank you for making me part of your 25th anniversary!
*Technically, the piece is in a consistent four-measure pattern: 6/8+7/8+6/8+3/4. I’m nerdy enough to take on the challenge of composing in an odd meter, but not stupid enough to make the musicians read a 25/8 time signature!
From this blog, you may get the impression that my compositional life has been dormant. On the contrary! I have been so busy composing new music that I haven’t had time to document my musical activities here. Over the next few days, I will try to catch up on the backlog of recordings that have never quite made it to my blog.
One of the tests of a congregational song is whether it can thrive outside its original context. In the church where a song is written, the people may be emotionally attached to the song because they know the writer, or they may have extra help learning the song. When a song is sung at a new church, it is just a song. That’s when you find out if it “has legs.” It sounds to me like this new song worked pretty well at COS. Maybe it has a future!
You never know if a song is going to travel. I’ve written hundreds of songs, but there’s just no predicting which one will grab people’s attention or even get the opportunity to be heard at all. I guess it’s a little like fishing.
“Feed Us, Lord” is a little communion chorus I wrote a number of years ago. Think of it as Taizé meets praise ballad–it’s simple and repetitive enough to be sung during communion.
If I remember correctly, I submitted it to the “cattle call” for the United Methodist Worship and Song hymnal. These preliminary calls for submissions regularly receive 2,000 – 5,000 songs that the poor committee members have to sift through. I would like to think they chose my song because of its superior craftsmanship and theological acumen, but I’m pretty sure it was actually for two very practical reasons: 1. There aren’t a lot of contemporary(ish) songs for the Lord’s Supper. 2. It only takes up a half page.
From there it was picked up by the Presbyterian Glory to God hymnal. And from there it ended up in a YouTube video of Central Presbyterian Church of Denver’s communion.
You probably know Harry Plantinga and me as the duo who co-founded Hymnary.org. As of a month ago, though, we are also a musical duo–a veritable hymnological Lennon and McCartney.
Harry wrote a Transfiguration hymn based on Luke 9:28-36 that needed a tune. I suggested my tune GILLIGAN (published in the hymnal In Melody and Song and also available at my website). After the text and tune pairing was finalized, he decided to use it as a test case for a new hymn presentation software he’s developing with Hymnary.org. You can try this “scroll-view” prototype here: https://rh.hymnary.org/history/v0.1.html (press “m” on your keyboard to start the demo) or click on the link below to read the full text.
This Sunday (4/28/19) was the premiere of “Psalm 84: Blessed Beyond Measure” at Trinity Lutheran Church in Owatonna, MN. The piece was commissioned for their 100th-year celebration service, which was held in a local arena. It was so beautiful to see 125 singers and instrumentalists of all stripes performing together.
The people have spoken, and the people have decided that “True Tenor” is the most worthy tune to be paired with the lyrics “Jesus Lives, and So Shall I.” For those of you who like statistics, the voting results are below. For those of you who like music, you can print this PDF leadsheet and sing the song in your congregation on Sunday!
Here are some of my favorite general comments:
The good news is that I can totally see each of the arrangements being used at different churches. The bad news is that you sound nothing like Chris Tomlin.
You need to use another cover pic. This one is nice but perpetuates the White Jesus myth. [Interestingly, this comment came in while I was at a cultural bias workshop where we spent time discussing this very issue.]
Nope. I hated them all and wish I could take back the time I spent listening to them to take the nap I was going to take.
Joanna says “I think one of them should be disco inferno.” So there is some solid feedback from a four-year-old. [My business manager’s daughter has sophisticated taste in pop music!]
1. Jesus lives, and so shall I. The sting of death is gone forever. Jesus lives— the One who died the bands of death to sever. God has raised me from the dust: Jesus is my hope and trust.
2. Jesus lives! My soul revived when Jesus called. I was awakened from my sleep to glorious light; the shroud of death He's shaken. From the grave God raised me up: Jesus is my hope and trust.
3. Jesus lives! New life begins within this heart so long in slavery. From the crushing weight of sin, God’s arm reached down and saved me. Each new day brings grace enough: Jesus is my hope and trust.
4. Jesus lives, and nothing now can separate me from my Savior. Earthly pain nor Satan’s power could cause his love to waver. Those he’s found are never lost: Jesus is my hope and trust.
Awake, my soul. Awake, my soul. Your Savior calls— calls you to rise with him this dawn, calls you to life within God’s love:
In this third and final version of “Jesus Lives,” I went all Chris Tomlin. This is new territory for me–keeping things four-chord simple, using pace and dynamics to shape the song, and even smoothing it all together with the magic worship glue known as worship pads.
Now it’s time for you to decide which of the three versions you like best. I’ll create a poll and upload it here. The winning song will be the official version which will be distributed throughout the world and beyond*.
*If someone on a future space shuttle likes it enough to put it on their iTunes playlist.
The first version of “Jesus Lives” was all business: The chords move every half note and the melody takes off quickly, leaving room to breathe but not much more.
This second version is more relaxed: It’s not just the country backbeat that makes this song feel so chill–the chords move slowly and the melody is smooth and leaves space between phrases. It’s also more guitar-friendly, which gives it a happy, chimey sound when led by a folk band.
So the question is this: Should a song about the resurrection be more energetic (#1) or relaxed (#2)?
As Easter rapidly approaches, many worship planners are simply trying to survive Holy Week. But Sundays will keep coming, and you need to have a plan for Eastertide! Don’t Worry. I have you covered. Over the next three days I will be unveiling my new Eastertide song(s) “Jesus Lives, and So Shall I.” “Why ‘song(s)’?”, you ask? Because I have actually written three different versions of the same song. Here’s how it happened:
I was searching for songs for Easter and beyond and noticed how many songs are perfect for Easter Sunday but don’t fit the week after. (“Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” for example.) Practically half of the New Testament is devoted to understanding the implications of the resurrection for the believer, so where are the songs about dying to self and living for Christ, etc? Then I came across the hymn “Jesus Lives, and So Shall I.” Loved it. I printed off the words, headed to the piano, and wrote a new melody for the text. Then I tweaked the text fairly substantially. Then I had doubts about the melody. Then I composed a new melody. Then I decided I liked both. Then I thought it would be fun to write a third melody and let people choose which version they like best.
Little did I know that my humble trio of melodies was up against such formidable competition: Crüger, CPE Bach, Green Carpet Players, ChurchFolk, and Nathan Partain. Feel free to check their fine renditions, but make sure you come back over the next few days to hear my other two versions of the song. I’ll give you a chance to vote on your favorite in a few days.
1. Jesus lives, and so shall I. The sting of death is gone forever. Jesus lives—the One who died the bands of sin and death to sever. God has raised me from the dust: Jesus is my hope and trust.
2. Jesus lives! My soul revived when Jesus called. I was awakened from my sleep to glorious light; the shroud of death my Lord has shaken. From the grave God raised me up: Jesus is my hope and trust.
3. Jesus lives! New life begins within this heart so long in slavery. From the crushing weight of sin, my God’s strong arm reached down and saved me. Each new day brings grace enough: Jesus is my hope and trust.
4. Jesus lives, and nothing now can separate me from my Savior. Earthly pain nor Satan’s power could never cause his love to waver. Those he’s found are never lost: Jesus is my hope and trust.
Awake, my soul. Awake, my soul. Your Savior calls— calls you to rise with him this dawn, calls you to life within God’s love: Jesus is my hope and trust.