Last spring I had the opportunity to participate in a songwriter’s concert with some other great folks at Southern Seminary. This is a live recording from that night of Great Is Thy Faithfulness. Enjoy!
Today is a good day. Jason and I have been married 5 years. Wow. I don’t think I am old enough for this. I am so grateful for him though, for his gracious and giving self.
Five years ago our pastor preached a 7 minute homily that I remember well despite everything else that went on around it. The text was Psalm 90, and he spoke of how we would find our home in an everlasting God even though our years are fleeting. This and the psalm’s final words “establish the work of our hands” have been a rallying cry for me, for us.
Life can be disappointing and bittersweet. Life can be lovely. Life can be frail. But our prayer is that God will establish it anyway, make it worthwhile, meaningful, significant.
Over the past month or two I have been working on a setting of Psalm 90 and hoping to record it for today. I was hoping to give you a perfect copy of it but circumstances intervened (the dog whining during a take and shaking his collar during another, family coming into town, the mic breaking) and so I’m giving you a less than perfect copy of it. May God use it anyway.
My schedule has been full of music: accompanying voice lessons and choir rehearsals, teaching piano lessons, playing for ballet classes. Finding time to write music has been more challenging. I recently picked up Writing Better Lyrics by Pat Pattison however, and I’ve been doing the first assignment semi-regularly- object writing. The gist of the assignment is to write for 10 minutes using all of your senses with an object as your jumping off point. For example, I have written about a bird picture on our calendar, our clock, a grand piano, melting snow and mail slots to name a few. How, you may ask, can you use your sense of smell to write about a calendar? The object is only the starting point, and then you can move on- so for the calendar, I ended up describing a woodland scene with two cardinals and the smell of the musty ground and leaves.
Object writing has been helpful as an avenue to stretch my writing as well as making me more aware of things around me even when I am not writing. Sometimes writing and music make me go off in la la land (thinking about them so much I don’t notice anything else 🙂 ). In contrast, object writing make me notice the outside world better and I think I see beauty more frequently because of it. This alone seems like a success to me.
On another front, as I already mentioned, I accompany for the Boyce College Choir and we will be heading on tour in a week. When the director was looking for arrangements of Amazing Grace I thought I’d try my hand at putting one together. They are going to sing it and I am very excited to hear something I worked on performed by an ensemble.
Over the past year I’ve been able to participate in some songwriting workshops with Steve and Vikki Cook, and will have the opportunity to sing a piece or two at a concert of original songs on March 25th (this coming Tuesday) at Southern Seminary (in Heeren Hall). Come listen! 🙂
In my *free* time I throw a ball to the dog, clean the apartment, and read a bit (just finished The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains by Nicholas Carr, and thus I should probably end this internet session). I also did my first house project in a while:
I thought it was ironic since we don’t have a bathtub. Hah.
Also, I’m very excited for spring break. 🙂
It might seem like I have wandered… away from this domain.
Meanwhile I’ve been enjoying singing a classic. Wayfaring Stranger
I had the privilege of singing with Nathan Bird and NorrSound Vocal Ensemble this last week in Minnesota and thoroughly enjoyed my time. The following are a few random reflections the concert brought about.
Collaborating is a gift (and a fun time!)
All of the singers for this event were alumni or currents students of Northwestern College in St. Paul, MN, as well as of the College Choir there. College Choir is one of the first places I experienced a sense of real community. Singing together brings you together (as all the “choir couples” can attest to 😉 ). The shared work, time, and then resulting music is a process that is hard to describe, but is so valuable. I am sure many groups with shared goals experience some of that same community, but I am always blessed to re-experience collaborating with other musicians and see the results that come from it. Somehow collaboration seems to make the whole more than the parts. It is no surprise that a lot of creative work comes from places where artists are gathered together and fan the flames in each other’s work. It was good to sing together and laugh together and make nervous humming staying-warmed-up vocal noises together.
Sometimes I get frustrated by how much time it takes to merely stay presentable and hygienic- showers, hair brushing, sweeping up the hair off the floor, taking out the garbage. Never mind eating and getting dressed. I have been trying to tell myself that it is part of the larger work of “holding back the forces of chaos”- haha. Well, I realized Thursday I should have trimmed my bangs again when they got stuck in my eyelash in the middle of singing a heartfelt rendition of Shelter with a camera closeup on my face. I decided the graceful exit was keeping my eyes closed in a meditative look. 🙂
Aging can be helpful
Nathan graciously commented that my voice sounded better than on the album, which I regard as surprising given my sporadic vocal work over the past 8 mo. since completing the recording. It is rather sad, I know. In any case, if it’s true that my voice has improved, it is most likely due to aging, i.e. maturing. So, just thought I would give a shout out to the much maligned process known as aging- who knew you could do good things?
Home is a complex word
I grew up in Minnesota, and moving away has identified it as my home, the place I come from and know well. Going back for Christmas and then for this concert are chances to be in a familiar place and more importantly see familiar faces. But the fact is I no longer have a home there, though at the same time I have many home-like places. At the airport I told my sister-in-law that we should go home, by which I meant my in-laws’ place. I went to my parents’, a place that was my home for a while, and then said I was going home when I headed to my lodging for the week. And at the end of it all, I was glad to go home to Kentucky and my husband, my dog and apartment, back to a schedule and employment. One of my piano teachers talked about a “home and away” conception of music. To be understandable and effective, music has to have a sense of going somewhere and then returning. If we were always “away” in terms of chords, melodic line and intensity there would be anxiety and stress in the music. If we are always “home” there is no variety and a sense of being stuck and oppressed by sameness. I am glad to have gone somewhere, and now I am glad to be home.
Great is thy faithfulness. I am not sure there is a better theme or anthem to sing.
I have been listening to this song a bit lately, as I am writing choral backup parts for it to be sung at an upcoming concert. The applicability of the text is perennial as the song itself describes: “Summer and winter and springtime and harvest…” This past year in my life has shown me again God’s faithfulness in all seasons. We sold a house, recorded an album, moved a few states away from home, found new jobs and a new church, and Jason started seminary classes, to name a few of the year’s happenings. Pretty much all of those events involved a little anxiety, waiting, praying, false hopes, and seeing again that God is faithful to provide for our needs.
Now nearly spring, this is the time of year in the northern hemisphere we remember that despite coldness and darkness, life will bloom. The earth will warm up, seeds again will sprout.
The sprouts will become a harvest. All that we need God’s hand has provided.
There is a new list each day of what needs to be done, what decisions need to be made. The coming year has a new list of uncertainties. But God doesn’t tire of making the sun rise, or the flowers bloom, as Chesterton points out. God “is strong enough” for this, for faithfulness, for giving life every day. He is strong enough to remain the same and not grow weary. He is strong enough to give us strength.
I was joined on the recording by David McKeen playing harmonica and Dan Lawonn playing cello, and my longtime friend Maria Schmidt singing harmony. The nostalgic harmonica and starry-eyed cello combo might strike some as odd, but perhaps they illustrate the intersection of the human and the divine, the unlikely reality of earth and heaven joined together in God’s relationship with us, each of us a mere grain of sand in the hourglass. Great is His faithfulness to me. To you.
Great is thy faithfulness, O God my Father;
There is no shadow of turning with Thee,
Thou changest not, thy compassions they fail not,
As Thou hast been, Thou forever, forever wilt be
Great is thy faithfulness!
Great is thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see
All I have needed thy hand hath provided
Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me!
Summer and winter and springtime and harvest,
Sun, moon, and stars in their courses above;
Join with all nature in manifold witness,
To thy great faithfulness, mercy, mercy and love
Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth,
Thine own great presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow
Blessings all mine, with ten thousand, ten thousand beside
Text by Thomas Chisholm, Copyright 1923
On the bookshelf/couch/bedside table lately- Te Deum: The Church and Music by Paul Westermeyer. I am really not far enough to give a full review or concluding thoughts. Mostly I appreciate a few things about the beginning of my reading.
1) It is always helpful to have a bit of history. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, if you join a conversation at noon that started at 8 am, you’ll be missing important parts of the conversation. This book is filling in some of the morning conversation for me.
2) Westermeyer brought out a few keys areas of theology that will necessarily be reflected in music choices: Who Christ is (divine, human, both- does our music suggest mystery, earthiness or both in “paradoxical tension”?); What Christ did (provide an example, save from brokenness, conquer sin and death, all of the above- does our music stir us to action, reflect on the brokenness and suffering of the world, or celebrate a victory?); he also reflected on perspectives of the church (ecclesiology) and our relationship to the kingdom of God (eschatology) (pp. 52-55).
3) Westermeyer emphasizes the intrinsic nature of music to humanity and its importance in worship in sections like this: “Joy inevitably breaks into song. Speech alone cannot carry its hilarity. The physical equipment we use to laugh is the physical equipment we use to sing. From laughter to song is a small step. To praise God, the highest form of joy, is to make music… The same can be said for sorrow, the opposite of joy. Sorrow also inevitably breaks into song. Speech alone cannot carry its moan. The physical equipment we use to cry is also the physical equipment we use to sing. From mourning to song is but a small step. To cry out to God in lament, the deepest form of sorrow, is to make music” (p. 28).
What a gift music is.
As I thought about this song, Psalm 92 came to mind: “It is good to give thanks to the LORD, to sing praises to your name, O Most High; to declare your steadfast love in the morning and your faithfulness by night, to the music of the lute and the harp, to the melody of the lyre. For you, O LORD, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy.”
The text for King of Heaven (Praise My Soul, the King of Heaven in the hymnbooks) is in fact loosely based on Psalm 103 where David pleads with himself, his soul, to praise the LORD and all the reasons why. To me this is one of the main purposes of church music- reminding us of what God has done, who He is, and inviting us to praise Him. I love songs that describe human experience, our questions and struggling. In the middle of things it can be hard to remember the bigger truths, though, that in fact give meaning to our experience.
On the album (Shelter), King of Heaven is the most simply recorded (total honesty, we were running out of time and patience, hah). There are no additional instruments, and I literally played the piano straight through twice and chose the better of the two. I sometimes think of it subsequently as the least special. However, when I let myself listen to the words and music simply, it can be one of the most meaningful.
I hope that if and when you listen to King of Heaven, or even sing it maybe (!) it will be a reminder to you of all the reasons it is good to praise God, all the ways He is unique, and His grace infinitely valuable in the midst of mundane and difficult, as well as happy, circumstances.
__________________________________________________________________Praise my soul, the King of Heaven To his feet your tribute bring, Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven, Evermore his praises sing: Alleluia, Alleluia! Praise the everlasting King. Praise him for his grace and favor To all people in distress, Praise him still the same forever, Slow to chide and swift to bless. Alleluia, Alleluia! Glorious in his faithfulness. Fatherlike, he tends and spares us, Well our feeble frame he knows; In his hands he gently bears us, Rescues us from all our foes. (Alleluia, Alleluia! Widely as his mercy flows.) Angels in the height, adore him! You behold him face to face! Sun and moon bow down before him, All who dwell in time and space. Alleluia, Alleluia! Praise with us the God of grace! Alleluia, Alleluia! Praise with us the God of grace.
This is me being a music nerd. Other music nerds feel free suggest additions to the story. 🙂
One day in a small ode far away
Some phrases discovered a young beat was gone
They took great measures to uncover the sequence of events
That led to this sad mode
The various movements came together in a great show of unity and harmony
Expressing in sympathetic vibrations what no words could say
Inquiries were made into the dynamics of the fateful day:
They spoke to those wearing staccato heels
And those taking legato steps;
Those with strange accents
And accidental homes;
The staid old tenutos and young sforzandos;
Those with anxious tempos
And those taking a ritardando;
The small fragments wishing they were arias.
But no one knew what played out
The day the beat went missing
And all despaired that the rhythm would ever be regained
Documents were signed with the time and date
And locked up with keys
All the notes huddled in their clefs
And gathered in chords
But soon only a fading melody remained
Of the great music they had sung
Before the young beat went missing
I am grateful for those who have given me texts and asked me to re-write their melodies. Jesus, My Joy, is one of these songs and I think it is most likely my favorite on the album.
In the hymnbooks you will find this listed as Jesus, Priceless Treasure. However, it was written in German and the German title is Jesu, Meine Freude (Jesus, My Joy). The English translation had some problematic lines like “foes who would molest me” that needed updating, so it was fun to look at the non-poetic translations of the German to aid me in rewriting. In the end I stayed close to the English version, but I would encourage folks to read one or two translations of the German- there are great depths there.
In looking at the German text, I realized this was set as a motet by Bach. Given how much I love Bach, I was a little reticent to change his work- however, I consoled myself with the fact that he didn’t actually write the melody.
To our modern American sensibilities, the prior melody is rather dour and plodding. In many ways this may be our problem more than the melody’s- we don’t know how to sing the melody beautifully or how to enjoy it. It just isn’t what is familiar to us. Search for the motet on YouTube and you’ll find some lovely recordings. I was thinking this morning that it could also be lovely sung in the style of My Own Home from The Jungle Book. 🙂 But I digress.
After all that, I think it was helpful to write a new melody for this song, as it communicates (I hope!) treasuring Christ in a modern music vocabulary, in a way that speaks to our hearts. I could tell you about how I wrote the new melody, how I think it reflects the words, but I’d rather say that it has given me a new avenue to express delight in Christ. In the end, I think much of our lives is about finding new ways to realize, express and remember the beauty of God and his sufficiency for us. Sometimes this is through old things, and sometimes it is through new things.
In all things let us say “Yours I am, O perfect Lamb- I’ll let nothing hide you, ask for nothing beside you.”
Jesus My Joy
Jesus joy of my heart, source of true life you are,
Truest friend to me
Long I have been waiting, long my soul’s been seeking,
Thirsting after you
Yours I am, O perfect Lamb, I’ll let nothing hide you,
Ask for nothing beside you
In your strength I’m resting, enemies though pressing,
Cannot reach me here
Though the earth be shaking, every heart be breaking,
God is with us here
Though hell’s scare and sin’s despair, with their heaviest storms assail us,
Jesus will not fail us
Banished is our sadness, for the Lord of Gladness,
Jesus enters in!
Those who love the Father, though the storms may gather,
Still have peace within
Yes, whatever we here must bear, still in you lies truest pleasure,
Jesus priceless treasure
Jesus joy of my heart, source of true life,
Source of true life, you are