Monday, September 28, 2009

Public Radio: Composer's Datebook

I suppose it's odd that I've written numerous entries on the joys of public radio, but I've never mentioned the program "Composer's Datebook." Thanks to a suggestion from Pastor, I'd like to rectify that situation today.

This past Saturday, the show featured a performance of "Genesis" by composer Charles Wuorinen. He is an American composer who fully embraced and enhanced the sound of "modern classical music." He is well-known for incorporating ideas of math and geometry into his music, and his work has been acclaimed with a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur "genius grant." Despite all of that, he remains largely unknown to the public because his music is far from easy to understand and enjoy. (To hear a free sample of "Genesis," click here. It's not a melodic, listener-friendly piece, but it may be the perfect sound for the chaotic process of creation!)

Wuorinen is particularly articulate on the distinction between art and entertainment, just as we might analogously attempt to draw a line between worship and entertainment. In a New York Times interview, he says, "I think there's a very simple distinction [between art and entertainment]. Entertainment is that which you receive without effort. Art is something where you must make some kind of effort, and you get more than you had before." In other words, great music and great art have a lingering influence on our lives and worldview.

However, despite his claim that it is a "simple" distinction, the line can admitedly become blurry. For instance, while I would argue that my vibrant memories of seeing Les Miserables on Broadway for the first time represent an artistic highpoint of American theatre, other people would surely rate it as entertainment. Individual perspective, experience, and even level of music education matter greatly in determining the difference between art and entertainment. Church musicians thus face a weekly struggle to find music that can reach people and yet transcend entertainment. It's a delicate balance, but the best hymns and service music will provoke thought and prayer as well as delight your ears.

No two people hear a piece of music in the same way. What brings an audience together, though, is the shared experience of hearing and making sense of a performance. On "Composer's Datebook," Wuorinen is quoted as saying, "Art is like nuclear fusion. You have to put something into it to get it started, but you get more out of it in the end than what you put in. Entertainment is its own reward and generally doesn't last." Replace "art" with "worship" and the same comparison is valid - worship demands participation and has everlasting reward.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Get out your Kushner

Tonight's sundown marked the beginning of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. It has been a long personal tradition of mine to reread one of Rabbi Harold Kushner's books during this season. He is primarily known for the best-seller When Bad Things Happen to Good People, but he has written more than a half dozen other books equally insightful in interpreting the Old Testament texts for our modern lives.

After Pastor's sermon today on the stumbling block of "if only," I was inspired to reread Kushner's book on the life of Moses, titled Overcoming Life's Disappointments. In a chapter titled "A hard road, not a smooth one," he writes:

"It may be that instead of giving us a friendly world that would never challenge us and therefore never make us strong, God gave us a world that would inevitably break our hearts, and compensated for that by planting in our souls the gift of resilience. It was in the harshness of a desert that God, through Moses, forged a band of former slaves into a people on a quest."

He goes on to describe a college writing assignment where the first sentence must be "It is only after many surprises and choices, detours and dissapointments, that I have arrived somewhere I could never have anticipated." Many of us regard our current situation, he muses, with "a mixture of regret and astonishment." From a personal point of view, I certainly never planned to live in north-east Ohio, but I'm loving the beauty of this fall season as the one-year anniversary of our home purchase draws near. It was such a pleasure to read Kushner's thoughts on the surprises of life. Having heard him speak once and having read all of his words repeatedly, he seems like an old, wise family friend.

The Jewish Holy Days (in my understanding) are a time to ask for forgiveness and be forgiven, to plan and hope for a better year ahead. We look forward in hope, setting aside regret and the allure of "if only." In closing, to turn the blog back to my proper topic of music, let me close by quoting the final verse of the old hymn "Be Still, My Soul." (It didn't make it into the ELW):

"Be still, my soul; the hour is hastening on
When we shall be forever with the Lord,
When disappointment, grief, and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love's purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul; when change and tears are past,
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last."

Friday, September 25, 2009

And now for something completely different...

This coming week, we'll be leaving behind the sounds of Bob Dylan in favor of Bach and Tallis. Our ears may suffer from a bit of musical whiplash, as we zip back in time hundreds of years!

The prelude will be a selection from Bach's Orgelbuchlein or "Little Organ Book," though it is often referred to as "The Liturgical Year." Bach had planned to compose 164 chorale preludes that would span the liturgical year, thus providing music for every Sunday, but he completed only 46 of them. For the most part, they are four-voice counterpart arrangements of famous hymn tunes. They present the familiar melodies in a novel setting, so that we hear the melody in a new way.

The particular piece for the prelude is a setting of "In Dir Ist Freude," which we translate "In Thee is Gladness" in the ELW. It's a text that I have quoted before, noting that the confident declaration of faith and joy is even more powerful when we realize it was composed during a time of religious turmoil and battle. We'll be singing the hymn during the service, and I felt it provided a great opportunity to hear Bach's version of this well-known hymn.

The choir will be singing during communion, a piece by Tallis, who lived for most of the 16th century. It has a strong rhythmic element, and to our ears will sound like a minor key (though technically modal). Don't let your ears get lazy, though, the investment of attentive listening to the text and the rhythmic vitality will help you realize that even music that is nearly 500 years old can still be relevant, exciting, and even fun to listen to.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

A quick quiz

Here's a quick, one problem quiz for you:

Name two different pieces of music that I have played during communion at a worship service any Sunday in the past 18 months.

Can you name anything other than "Blowin' in the Wind"? And that, my friends, is a primary reason that I think it was a great addition to this past Sunday's worship: it was memorable. It made people talk. (In fact, some people who came to second service had already heard about it.) Now, I'm not saying that church musicians should be controversial simply for the sake of controversy and conversation, but it can be exciting to see people actually discussing the music, rather than blithely ignoring it.

Many mega-churches have gone to the extreme of contemporary music, having no pipe organs at all in place of a praise band, for instance. Rick Warren famously said that people don't listen to classical organ music in their home (or on their iPods), so why should they have to do so when they come to church? I have three responses to such a critique. First, the unique nature of the language and music of church is what sets it apart as a santuary for our community. Second, some of the music people don't listen to is among the greatest ever composed (just as some of the books we don't read are the truly great classics), and we have a responsibility to aid their propagation. Finally, we can maintain our traditions while also being flexible and welcoming new music, technology, language, and ideas - the most promising trend in church music is toward "blended" worship.

Plus, I do believe that philosophers, artists, composers, and musicians continue to grapple with the same driving questions about the human condition that the Bible raises. In this particular instance, Bob Dylan's answer "in the wind" is not that different from the ongoing search of the book of Ecclesiastes.

I hope you enjoyed the musical change of pace, and whether you did or you didn't, I'd love to hear from you any week!

Saturday, September 19, 2009

"Music Near the Market"

Last spring, I had managed to arrange my academic schedule so that I could attend the Wednesday afternoon concerts at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church in Ohio City. I wrote then about the great experience of hearing their von Beckerath organ and the joy of an afternoon in Ohio City and shopping at the West Side Market. Unfortunately, this semester will not allow me to attend any of the concerts, but I want to help spread the word about the great opportunity to hear beautiful organ music in the area.

On Sept. 23rd at noon, Robert Myers will play a concert of "Point counterpoint," featuring the music of Bach and Pachelbel.

On Sept. 30th at noon, Linda Kempke and flutist Julie Wesolek will be performing together.

If you happen to be free, these events promise to feature incredible music in a beautiful setting!

Friday, September 18, 2009

Choir Notes from Cassie

This Sunday both the Chancel and Handbell Choirs will be joining us for worship. The bells have been working several weeks on an arrangement of the melody Hydrofol that you will all hear as the gathering Prelude.

Fun Handbell Fact:
Handbells began as a neighbor-friendly method of practice called change ringing.

The Chancel Choir will be singing K. Lee Scott's arrangement of "The Apple Tree." The text of this piece was found in the anonymous collection of Joshua Smith from the time that he came to the New World. Not only can you reflect on the text during worship, but perhaps also as apple-picking season arrives. As we harvest from fruit-bearing trees and enjoy our delicious Ohio apples and pies, remember the following:

The tree of life my soul hath seen,
Laden with fruit and always green:
The trees of nature fruitless be
Compared with Christ, the apple tree.

His beauty doth all things excell:
By faith I know, but ne'er can tell
The glory which I now can see
In Jesus Christ, the apple tree.

For happiness I long have sought,
And pleasure dearly I have bought;
I missed of all; but now I see
'Tis found in Christ, the apple tree.

I'm weary with my former toil,
Here I will sit and rest a while:
Under the shadow I will be,
Of Jesus Christ, the apple tree.

This fruit doth make my soul to thrive,
It keeps my dying faith alive
Which makes my soul in haste to be
With Jesus Christ, the apple tree.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Unorthodox wisdom

I heard the news about the death of Mary Travers today, and it really has created a sense of melancholy around the day. It certainly isn't hip or cool or trendy to be a fan of Peter, Paul, and Mary, but I have always liked their music. For one thing, there is the beautiful three-part harmonies of their song. There is also the fun factor of some of their upbeat songs, but mostly there is the depth and power of their lyrics, even when they were simple. They sang brilliant songs of protest and commentary in an enduring style.

This morning, I've been thinking of Mary's husky voice singing these lyrics:

If you miss the train I'm on, you will know that I am gone
You can hear the whistle blow a hundred miles,
A hundred miles, a hundred miles, a hundred miles,
You can hear the whistle blow a hundred miles.

Lord I'm one, Lord I'm two, Lord I'm three, Lord I'm four,
Lord I'm 500 miles from my home.
500 miles, 500 miles, 500 miles, 500 miles
Lord I'm five hundred miles from my home.

Not a shirt on my back, not a penny to my name
Lord I can't go a-home this a-way
This a-way, this a-way, this a-way, this a-way,
Lord I can't go a-home this a-way.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Chinese Christianity

This summer I read Rob Gifford's account of his travel across China from Shanghai to the western border, published as China Road: A Journey into the Future of a Rising Power. He had worked for many years as the NPR correspondent in China, and his book provides the history and context of a top-notch journalist, as well as a stirring and thorough depiction of modern life across China.

At one point, in the middle of the country, he decided to attend a church service. We all know that China has a sometimes-troubled history with several different faiths, but Rob Gifford discovered a powerful pocket of faith at a house church. In fact, he ended up being invited to preach. He wrote an eloquent description of the vividness of the congregation's faith:

"There is a purity and an intensity to Christian believers in China, and it overflows in their prayers. Mention Christianity to ordinary Chinese people, and they are not burdened by visions of crusading soldiers, fornicating popes, or right-wing politicians. They have heard about this belief relatively late in the faith's long and winding history, and for them it is a matter of the heart. That is perhaps how it was supposed to be..."

He goes on to describe a decrepit organ that cranks out the hymns that everyone joins in to sing. The description reminded me of the power of faith and worship and church music when you are first exposed to it. In Zen meditation it is called "beginner's mind," that mindset where life is wondrous and the joy and love of faith overwhelm us. Music can be one way to help create that thankful, powerful attitude, as can prayer and meditation, Bible study, or even simply going for a walk on a beautiful fall evening.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Contemporary worship

The latest newsletter of the Cleveland Chapter of the American Guild of Organists started a dialogue on "traditional worship in the 21st century." The article shared some interesting facts, and raised questions and shared ideas on how to use the organ in contemporary worship. I saw the driving force behind the dialogue as the author's question: "If the organ died tomorrow, would the council appoint a replacement committe or a committee to discuss direction and IF the organ should be replaced?"

Among the ideas shared there to help guarantee the relevance of organ music were two that I thought especially relevant for our church. One, maintain variety. The ELW has helped us by providing new hymns, psalms, and liturgies, but we've also been willing to use a variety of instruments and styles in all of our music. Two, provide information. This blog really grew out of my desire to do just that. I hope that my readers learn more about music, but I also want to encourage you to engage with me (and Cassie and Pastor and the WAM committee) in a dialogue about worship and music. We do our best to provide an interesting and dynamic worship experience, and I hope that organ music always remains a vital part of it, even as it continues to grow and evolve.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Even Schoenberg, Cage, and Manz would have been shocked!

What the heck were all those wrong notes emanating from the organ during the introduction to the Sanctus during the second service?!?!

Well, you see, the Great Thanksgiving we're using is in the key of E, while the rest of the liturgy is in F. Normally, to correct that I simply "sight" the Great Thanksgiving up a half step. Today, though, I decided to transpose the electronic pipes and make it easy on myself.

Unfortunately, I forgot to "untranspose" before adding the real organ pipes to the electronic sounds. So when I started the introduction, you were hearing the organ being played in two keys simultaneously - a half step apart. Not a pretty sound!

My first organ teacher had a saying that she didn't charge for the wrong notes; they were thrown in for free along with the right ones. So you can just think of that intro today as twice as many notes for the same price.

It's pretty much impossible to make a quiet mistake on a pipe organ on Sunday morning, but I hope you'll all forgive the mistake. I'll do my best to avoid a repeat next week!

Friday, September 11, 2009

Choir notes from Cassie

Long throughout myth and legend has man searched for the fountain of youth, looking for the answers to immortality. From our well known Ponce De Leon and his supposed Floridian discoveries, to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, we see the desperate actions and tales scraping for this ultimate goal of eternity. Unfortunately, those characters grasp for continuing a mortal life destined to end, for Christ paradoxically states, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:34-35).

This Sunday, the Choir will be singing the anthem O God of Youth, containing the final verse:

May we be true to him, our captain of salvation,
Bearing his cross in service glad and free,
Winning the world to that last consummation
When all its kingdom shall His kingdom be.

What does this hymn have to do with youth? As you will hear on Sunday, the word “youth” is only mentioned once in the hymn, yet was deemed so important as to be placed in the hymn’s first phrase. Virtues connected with Christ (our God of Youth) are sprinkled throughout the text in the form of prayer. Prayer for steadfastness, zeal, bravery, valiance, and His “clear-eyed” faith and light all reflect the virtues of youth needed to bear one’s cross through this life.

The melodic structure of this hymn also reflects the nature of the text’s message. You will hear the choir sing long, beautiful, flowing phrases-- phrases not confined to any one consistent meter. These lines produce the musical image of free-flowing streams and rivers that run on endlessly to that true fountain of youth where “all its kingdom shall His kingdom be,” and ages shall drop in it like rain.

Liturgy tweaks and some favorite hymns

The worship and music committee met this week to make plans through the end of the church year, as well as some preliminary discussions about Advent and Christmas. Just as we're getting settled into the fall season, we're already trying to get ready for the winter.

Among our decisions for this coming Sunday, we decided to make a few minor tweaks to the liturgy. During the Alleluia, the choir will be singing the verse before we all repeat the refrain. Then we'll be bringing back the sung responses before and after the Gospel lesson. The committee agreed that singing "Glory to you, O Lord" and "Praise to you, O Christ" is much more joyous than mumbling. In our opinion, it was a mistake to omit them from the ELW. You're always welcome to provide your own feedback on such issues, but we think it will be a welcome change to the service.

Of course, now that the choir has returned, we're also singing the Psalms again. This Sunday they will be singing an antiphon as well, further enhancing the Psalm. These aren't major changes, but just enough to help keep things fresh. I recently read O Clap Your Hands by Gordon Giles, and he wrote some thoughts related to these changes: "Our worship needs to be kept alive, kept moving by the familiar but also awakened by that which is new, challenging, or striking. Newness in music is not therefore necessarily something freshly composed, but something newly encountered."

This Sunday will also include some great hymns: "Lift High the Cross," "God of Grace and God of Glory," and "What a Fellowship." The last of those was composed by Elisha Hoffman, who has a Cleveland connection. The forecast is for a beautiful Sunday, so we can all get started with beautiful worship music and enjoy a great fall afternoon.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Live life with Glee

In Terrence McNally's brilliant play Master Class, the character of Maria Callas refers to the theatre as "a sacred place." If you understand that sentiment, or if you just love rooting for the underdog and hearing some great music, you need to watch Glee on Wednesdays at 9:00 on Fox this season. (The show had a premiere this past spring to help capitalize on the popularity of American Idol, but the season just started this week. You can catch the rerun of the premiere on Friday night at 9:00.)

The show so perfectly captures the angst and earnestness of high school theatre and music geeks that you simultaneously squirm but can't look away. The cast is hugely talented - Matthew Morrison played Link Larkin in Hairspray on Broadway and Lea Michele played the role in the acclaimed show Spring Awakening. The music and the dancing are both superb and hillarious.

How is it related to church music? Well, to me (like McNally's version of Maria Callas), music and musical theatre are their own forms of worship. At its best, it can awaken your soul while it entertains. The show also reminds us to be kind to each other and to live life with glee - that sounds like the Gospel message to me.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Closed and fearful hearts

I fervently believe that there is a showtune for every occasion, and Pastor's sermon this past Sunday about "closed hearts" reminded me of a scene in "Miss Saigon." When the heroine (or perhaps anti-heroine given the tragic ending) of the story, Kim, finds out that her lover has remarried she sings, "I feel walls in my heart, closing in. I can't breathe. I can't win." Her belief in him and in love and in the American dream (the "movie in her mind") is shattered at that moment, and her broken and closed heart leads inevitably to tragedy.

At the heart of many of the world's problems is a stubborn, closed heart (and mind), because a closed heart leads to fear, anger, despair, and loneliness. Like Kim, we can suffer because our faith in other people can be destroyed, but true faith in God and prayer should never leave us suffering with closed hearts.

Similarly, much of the greatest music and art is about reopening our hearts to interact with the broader world. To close your eyes and lose yourself in a beautiful song, to take in deep breaths and relax, is to refresh yourself in a kind of meditative prayer. During these busy back-to-school weeks, I rely on music to help keep me connected to that supportive faith. I hope singing hymns in worship and listening to the preludes and postludes help perform a similar function for many of you so that you can act on Isaiah's injunction to be strong and have no fear.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Happy Labor Day!

I hope everyone is enjoying the long holiday weekend. The lateness of the holiday this year simply seems to be providing a chance to catch my breath after one week of school. I miss the many past years that I spent this weekend "up at the lake" with my grandparents in Minnesota. It was a family tradition to spend the long weekend running, biking, swimming, skiing, and of course, having s'mores around an evening campfire. Simple things are sometimes the greatest experiences and memories.

Perhaps it was the relative simplicity of the tunes in church this past Sunday that has caused me to to continue humming them to myself as my weekend "sountrack." For one thing, didn't the choir sound great on a familiar hymn? Cassie has some great selections for the coming weeks, too, and you're always welcome to join us on Wednesday nights at 7:30.

I also want to compliment the congregation on how great everyone sounded on "This is the Feast." In an earlier post, I encouraged you all to "sin boldly," which actually drew two emails pointing out that perhaps it was a typo. Did I mean "sing boldly?" I realized that many of my readers are not familiar with my choir-directing mantra to "sin boldly," meaning to go right ahead and sing wrong notes loud and proud while you're learning new music. I'm indebted to a former choir director (Dr. Bob) at St. Olaf College, who would use the phrase as well. Part of the joy that I find in Lutheranism is that salvation by grace and faith can grant us the freedom to sin, sing, and live boldly, acting with "bound conscience" to live in a way that matches our understanding of scripture.

At any rate, I think setting two of the liturgy has officially become a part of our basic, familiar repertoire, and it's exciting to hear the congregation embrace the new tunes. Incidentally, for my non-Bethany readers, I'd love to hear about your experiences with other music from the ELW and your own favorite liturgical settings. So many congregations are still exploring and learning; we should be sharing those experiences!

Friday, September 4, 2009

Rousing hymns for Rally Day

This Sunday, we get to sing some of my favorite hymns, great rousing tunes from the ELW. The opening hymn will be "Rise Up, O Saints of God." I can think of no better way to start the "new season." I always think of back-to-school season as a second opportunity for resolutions. For students especially, it's a chance to set new goals and make big changes.

At communion, we'll sing "Around You, O Lord Jesus." Its text is a beautiful statement of coming together as a community, and it's tune is a third waltz - in addition to the new hymn of praise and the choir anthem.

The closing hymn is "Earth and All Stars," the St. Olaf hymn. I've heard some people say the text is not focused enough on faith, but I think it's great that it lists so many of the mundane aspects of life that can all celebrate and praise God. Even our classrooms and labs, even loud crashing cymbals, everything, every person, and every sound is part of the symphony of creation.

I also want to mention the prelude (Andantino by David Wehr), because of its metrical contrast with the waltzes and marches that constitute so much of the service. It's a modern piece with mixed meter, but the predominant meter has seven beats to the measure. That unique chocie by the composer will make it feel almost like there is no meter - just a constant flowing chant. It has a laid back, relaxed feeling that should provide a meditative environment before the service. I hope you enjoy.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Let All Things Now Living

As I've mentioned, Rally Day will mark the return of choir to our worship services. They'll sing at both services this week and alternating Sundays after that. Don't worry that you've missed a few rehearsals, you're always welcome to join us any Wednesday night!

Now, here's a message from Cassie about the piece that the choir will sing this week:

This Sunday, the choir will be singing Let All Things Now Living, a piece written by the American composer Katherine K. Davis in the early 1900s. Davis unites text filled of glorious Old Testament images with the traditional Welsh Tune, The Ash Grove. The text calls all of creation to praise and give thanks to God the Creator, "who fashioned and made us, protected and stay'd us, who guideth us unto the end of our days."

To listen to a lovely arrangement of the tune for violin and piano, click here.

The new, old liturgy

This coming Sunday is Rally Day at Bethany. Last year (and I believe in past years before I became the organist as well) that meant a new liturgy. This year, however, the Worship and Music Committee decided to continue with setting two with one modification - we will be replacing the "Glory to God" with "This is the Feast." So the liturgy will be both familiar and novel this week.

Pastor and I commented to each other about a week ago that setting two is finally starting to feel like a familiar piece of church music. I occasionally find myself humming that jaunty opening phrase: GLO-ry to GOD in the HIGH-est... It's a cheerful, upbeat, and modern resetting of the text. I think you'll find that "This is the Feast" is similar in many respects. One change is that instead of a syncopated four-four it is a lilting waltz. I'd be surprised if at least some members of the congregation don't find themselves swaying from side to side each measure.

The choir practiced the new piece last night, and they will be "previewing" it for the congregation during the meditative prelude. I think it's a great demonstration of both the utility of having the second prelude as well as one of the many ways that the choir enhances our worship. Please follow along in your hymnal during the prelude and then sin boldly during your sightreading. We're supposed to sing wrong notes the first time around! But it's Rally Day so the wrong notes can just be one more reason to laugh and enjoy the community of friends around us.

We have some other great hymns this Sunday that I'll write about more in the remaining days of the week!

I also want to take a moment to thank people for their comments and emails about the vandalism on the blog this week. I especially appreciate a friend who pointed out that it wasn't limited to the one entry. I believe that I have cleaned up all the "graffiti" at this point. I appreciate everyone's understanding, patience, and assistance with anything I might have missed.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A new password!!!

Wow, hello readers.

I logged in this morning to update my blog only to discover a rather scathing entry from yesterday, which was NOT my writing. To anyone who was offended or shocked, I would like to apologize. I immediately deleted the entry, since it was not appropriate for this blog.

My original password was imminently guessable, and my account must have been "hacked." I guess that simply demonstrates the potential danger of the Wild West Internet. I have, of course, changed my password to something much more secure so that nothing similar should happen again.

I know that emotions are high for at least a sizeable minority of Lutherans over decisions reached at Assembly. I have tried to maintain balance in my own opinions and certainly in my writing. When issues are contentious, it is especially important to remain civil and remember the primacy of community and love of our neighbors.

I'll get back to my musings on music and language, singing and liturgy, and there should be no more surprises here! Again, my apologies for the "security lapse."