Conversation and information about music and liturgy from a confessional Lutheran perspective.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Lamb Of God (Twila Paris)

This weekend I'm putting the finishing touches on a 4-minute piano meditation on Twila Paris' "Lamb of God". I was commissioned to write this by the Wisconsin Synod for their triennial national worship conference this summer. I won't be able to publish this on LS due to copyright restrictions, but NPH or another print house may choose to publish this should the piece be favorably received.

The inclusion of this tune in confessional Lutheran hymnals has generated some controversy because of its roots in the CCM genre. I have not shared those concerns, because I believe that each tune and text should be judged on its own merits, but I do understand them. After all, the mind works by association. (For this reason, I make exception to my "stand on its own merits" policy and don't use AUSTRIA for "Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken" because of the tune's association with "Deutchland, Deutschland Uber Alles", the Nazi anthem. Maybe it'll be OK for my grandkids to use the that tune, but I chose that tune once and had a Jewish convert and also a woman who grew up in the 40's Germany ask me not to choose it again.) If the song were still "the latest thing" in Christian Pop and had not proven its staying power, I would be more likely to agree with the objection that its use confesses unity with American Evangelicalism. However, the song has been seasoned by time, and the popular culture has moved on, and so we sing this American hymn at Bethany.

But though I have supported LSB 550 because the text is salutary and the tune is beautiful and accessible, I had always wondered if the tune was sturdy enough to support convincing compositional elaboration. The "sturdiness" of our historic chorale tunes is one of the reasons they are still so commendable for the church: they support all sorts of musical treatments. So after I accepted this commission, I mused extensively on the tune itself, seeking to separate it from all "poppy" accompaniment associations. I also didn't want to submit a predictable, formulaic piece that may be superficially pleasing but not really say anything.

I'm happy to report that I was able to do some pretty cool things with the tune, thanks to inspiration from the text but also due to some of the qualities of the tune. I used some polytonal techniques to paint "no sin to hide" and some impressionism to highlight "brought me to his side" and "O wash me in His precious blood". I created a mutation of the tune's intervals to accompany "I was so lost", and derived a harmonic progression from the polytonal assertions I made in the first stanza to accompany the Passion stanza, with pianistic flourishes to evoke the mocking and crucifixion. I was able to land all this with recapitulations of several ideas in the third stanza and found resolution in the end for "and to be called a lamb of God." It will take some pianism to pull it off, but is not a technically demanding piece.

I'm so pleased with this piece that I think I'll play it as the Voluntary at the Tenebrae on Good Friday this year at Bethany. I had another piece selected last August, but there is room for adjustment when something unexpected and convincing comes along. And I think the sobriety of my arrangement combined with the familiarity of the tune and text should result in more worshippers actually engaging with the text than usually happens with instrumental music in the church.

At least that's what I hope will happen. We'll see!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

The Hubris of Contemporary Worship

A couple of weeks ago my junior high choir sang a Kyrie by 16th-century composer Leonhard Lechner for the Divine Service. They sang it AS the Kyrie, so the assembly stood for prayer as the choir sang this. It was sung as originally composed, in beautiful 3-part a cappella counterpoint, and so we experienced the music as it was intended and conceived by the composer. Judging from comments I received afterwards - including from a young mother who exclaimed how much her baby enjoyed the piece - I dare say it worked as well for us in 2011 Chicagoland as it did in 1560s Germany. My young choir enjoys singing it as well.

And yet many in the church today believe that both congregations and singers, especially young ones, can only connect with the most recent of musical constructs. If something historic is done, then it at least needs to be done in a "contemporary" way. Now I am all in favor of new interpretations of existing melodies. It is a time-honored church tradition after all, and one of the strongest arguments for using traditional hymn melodies is their objective strength, i.e. they are sturdy enough to "hold up" various styles and musical treatments.

But it struck me after the service that all this emphasis on "new", "fresh", and "contemporary" assumes that somehow singers and congregations today are different than those of previous generations. Somehow what has served the Gospel well for dozens of years and even dozens of generations can no longer "work" today. No reason is really ever given for this, it is just assumed that "that was then, this is now." But do we really have different chromosomes, brain cells, and hearts today? Has our technology or our culture really changed us that much? Or are we in 21st-century America just full of ourselves. I think it is the latter. The church suffers because of it. The proclamation of the Gospel suffers because of it.

I say this as a composer, an improvisor, and as a church musician who embraces the musical developments of our age: let us constantly learn from the great musicians who have gone before us, and have the humility to let their voices speak. They usually have much better things to say than we do.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Another Solution

This video from Incarnate Word Lutheran Church - a mission congregation outside of Detroit - doesn't have much to watch, but is definitely worth a listen. Here the congregation's song was led this past Sunday by guitar, oboe, flute, and violin. This mission congregation meets at a local school, and so has no organ. They use piano, guitar, and various instruments each week. So here is another example of how many "solutions" there are to accompanying the Lord's song without organ. No karaoke required!

We will be publishing several accompaniments written for piano & winds by the arranger, Terry Herald. He asked me to note that the microphone was placed a little too close to the oboe and so the recording balance was a bit off. Oboe comes across stornger that it really was; congregation weaker. He'll get the mic a little closer to the congregation next time. He also wanted me to mention that the particular musicians couldn't see his cues for breaths between stanzas, due to where he was seated and the subtlety of trying to direct from the guitar. Still, this video shows how readily even a small congregation (20-30) can be led by all sorts of different instruments, so long as the musicianship is about the SONG and not about the instrument.

This arrangement and the ones we will be publishing (we can't put this one up due to copyright restrictions) are very flexible. They can be done with piano or organ for the harmonic part (and/or guitar in some cases), and the melodic parts can be realized by various combinations of instruments. A clarinet could easily have substituted for oboe, for example. And one of the instrumental parts could have been omitted as well. Also, a bass instrument can be added for additional support.

We look forward to sharing Terry's music with you over the months to come, as we seek to offer more "solutions" for leading the Lord's song according to the talents of your local musicians.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011


Last Sunday my junior high day school choir sang a Brazillian Cantate Domino for the Divine Service. It was not folk music per se, but a contemporary composition in a samba style, called "Cantate Brasilia", by Roger Emerson. One of the choristers plays percussion in the school band, and so had been given a conga part, but for greater authenticity I wanted to add the clave & shaker parts suggested by the composer. Of course, several choristers wanted to play the claves - but there was not way they could sing their part while playin a samba clave ("+ , e,1 a, + "). So a couple of nights beforehand I asked my daughter if she would play claves on Sunday, and she said, 'cool'.

After dinner on Friday, I took her into our music room and modeled the clave part for her. No music required. She listened once to the rhythm, as I played it first by itself and then while counting the pulse. She asked for the sticks and then played it perfectly. Upon repetition she made a slight error, which I corrected her by remindeing her that the groove starts on the "and of one". Done. We then went to the piano so I could play the whole piece and show her the breaks, and then we added a couple of accents to the breaks. It took about five minutes. The next night, we did the piece one more time together, adding my older son, Trevor, on shakers and then were ready to go on Sunday.

Now, the reason for the above title is not because I think my daughter is musically extraordinary - I teach her piano lessons and know her weaknesses, after all! Nor is it because of her servant heart, as wonderful as that is. (Lots of young people are eager to help, we adults just don't ask them enough.) No, the title is because of the reactions I heard from folks after the service, about how talented my kids are and then their reaction to discovering that we put the percussion for the song together in less than five minutes.

It is true that my kids are talented & musical, but there really is nothing extraordinary about their talent - however wonderful I think they are. Most people think that such musicianship is some big "gift" and suppose that it somehow "runs in our family", either through genetics or through hearing lots of music or through both. But what most people don't understand is that musical aptitudes and hearing music in early childhood are only foundations that may be built upon. The real reason Caitlin or anyone can do the wonderful thing of picking up a groovy clave part in short order and then play it well is because they are musically educated.

This education can't just happen by sending a child to choir once a week. It requires regular music instruction in music throughout elementary school, ideally accompanied by private instruction on an instrument. And it needs to be real, that is, classical, instruction. If they are to learn, the focus for grammar school children must be that they learn to count the pulse, hear the music, and play the notes. Sadly, much for what passes for "musical instruction" these days is just "edutainment", focused more on "community building" and "self-expression" than actual achievement. That may be more fun for the teachers (the focused repetition children need is much more boring for them than for the students), but it doesn't nurture comprehensive musicianship.

And that's what Caitlin has: comprehensive musicianship. Sure, she is a work in progress (I teach her piano lessons, remember?!). But even though she most likely will not major in music like her older brother she will always be able to make music for herself and for her community because she has learned the art of music.

That's my point here: the art of music is learned. Caitlin does not have unique chromosones or extraordinary grey matter between her ears, and still she is a WONDERFUL musician. Any Caitlin can do wonderful things with music, if their natural talents are patiently nurtured in the art of music. May we lead people to understand this, that more parents may see the potential in their children to achieve great things music.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011


This past Sunday we sang "Seek Ye First" as an Offertory. At one of the services, our Schola Cantorum (3rd-6th grade parish choir) was the choir for the liturgy, and so in addition to the other things they sang I had them add the traditional descant to "Seek Ye First" on the last stanza of the hymn.

After the service, a father of one of the choristers came up to me and excitedly told me how much he loved that descant. Turned out he had sung it himself as a boy. Even though this hymn was written in the 1960's, there is now a tradition behind it that connects the generations.

There are other times in our parish life where kids sing something the parents have sung. Every three years on Christmas Eve we do the Quempas Carol with the children, for example. Some of this music is newer, like the famous Willcox descant for "O Come, All Ye Faithful"; other pieces are centuries old, like Bach's "Zion Hears the Watchmen Singing". Our life together in Christ is manifested and celebrated as adults enjoy hearing the next generation sing favorites from their youth.

How much of this do we miss out on when we pick new music? Do we stop and ask ourselves what would we sing if we weren't doing this new piece? Is the new piece really better from the hearer's standpoint? Or is it just something fresh for the director? What is really best for the singers and the hearers? I think we should ask these questions.

And churches that don't share the living tradition of the church's song with their children have some more critical questions to ask themselves. What are their kids missing out on? And what are the adults missing as well? And are any of the new things they are doing something that the next generation will want to sing or hear?