Friday, February 6, 2009

If Ye Love Me

Regular readers of this blog know that I have done a fair amount arranging music in my time. Either through foresight, or through good fortune, I decided when I was studying for my minor in college that I would take the hard-core music theory classes--the Comprehensive Musicianship classes that were required of the music majors. I could have gotten away with easier classes for my minor, but for some reason I decided I wanted a challenge. And I have never, never regretted taking those music theory courses.

Now, most people might think to themselves, "How often do ordinary people, with no career in music, need to be able to arrange stuff?" And the answer is, you'd be really, really surprised. I've arranged music for a couple of weddings now, including my own. I've arranged music for my church's Christmas pageants. And when I started to learn to play Celtic Harp, I started arranging music for that too. After all, when you're dealing with non-standardized folk instruments, you often won't be able to find good, published sheet music for what you want to do with the instrument. So, you have to figure out how to write it yourself.

So I've done a fair amount of arranging. Alas, I haven't done much recently. I took a much-needed pass on last year's Christmas program. This was very good for my family's health and well-being, of course; I don't regret that decision. But it means that I haven't had much cause lately to be writing or arranging stuff.

Enter my little brother, Andy. Andy is a bit of a composer/arranger himself.

(It runs in the family, actually; my dad has done a fair amount; my older brother too; and in fact, we all inherited it from Dad's mom, who was a composer and musician; and she got it from her Dad, who was an accomplished Cornet player and bandmaster (and younger associate of John Philip Sousa). And my mom's side of the family isn't slouchy when it comes to music either. My Granny was, in her day, pretty good with the steel guitar; and Mom played the piano quite a bit while I was growing up).

Well, Andy has been giving some thought to overhauling the music service at his church--training the singers, introducing new (better, and more appropriate) arrangements of the music, unifying the songs with the rest of the service better, that sort of thing. He has been contemplating taking the song "Amazing Grace/My Chains Are Gone", from the soundtrack of the recent movie Amazing Grace--and which is currently fairy popular on Christian radio stations--and creating an A Capella arrangement that would be appropriate for congregational singing.

Now, when you create an arrangement for congregational singing, there are a number of very fine lines to walk. On the one hand, it's too easy for an ambitious hymnwriter or arranger to make an arrangement that's absolutely gorgeous, but is too complicated for the amateur singers of a typical church congregation to be able to handle. I've done this myself on more than one occasion. :-( On the other hand, if you make it simple enough for the congregation to sing, often you've taken the fire out of the song; you've taken out the life; the song winds up sounding boring, stilted, and bland. This is especially true of songs that originally included strong instrumental parts; often these songs are tricky to translate to an A Capella setting, since so much of the energy of the song was carried by the instruments. It can take a great deal of imagination and care, to create a beautiful song, one that inspires, while keeping it simple enough for church singing.

Andy emailed around his arrangement, and my older brother (Rick) and I both took a look at it. He did a really good job. My own opinion was that his first attempt leaned a bit toward the complicated side, but sounded really, really good. And then Rick took Andy's version, tweaked the bass line, and passed it back. Andy (with plenty of input from his wife) then came up with a new version that incorporated all the ideas we'd given him.

The song is sounding pretty good.

But all of this has gotten me itching. What have I been doing with my own music-writing skills lately? Partly this comes from a "parable of the talents" sense, where God expects us to use the abilities he gave us. And partly it comes from me remembering just how much fun it is to write music. Arranging music has the same intellectual stimulation and payoff that you get from solving an interesting physics problem or Sudoku puzzle--if you're into that sort of thing. But in addition, when you've figured out what all the notes should be, and how they should lead into each other to form something just right, you then get to play it. And you get to hear it. And then, if you're lucky, you get to teach it to other people, who then sing it back to you. Talk about satisfying!


So I've been in a contemplative mood lately. Part of me has been itching to start writing something that could be done to the Glory of God. But part of me has been holding back. You see, my musical tastes are very, very different from those of most people in our church. My tastes lead toward the polyphonic. I like the works of Bach--the only one of which we ever do in our church is O Sacred Head, and we haven't done that in a while. I like the works of Palestrina--which is entirely in Latin, and is based on Catholic liturgy anyway, so we don't do it. I like Orlando di Lasso and Anton Bruckner and Maurice Duruflé and...

You see where this is going, don't you? After having sung all of these guys in my college days, after having fallen absolutely in love with their music, after having worshipped with this music in concert, even though it was just our secular univerity's Concert Choir concerts; well, perhaps I've become spoiled, but it takes some work for me to get excited about most of the songs we sing. After you've sung the original Beethoven's 9th, final movement, the song "Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee" seems like such a pale counterfeit in comparison. And much of what plays on Christian music stations seems so saccharine to me.

One solution, of course, is to start writing my own! I have arranged and written a fair amount that has been done by special seasonal programs or (much more rarely) the whole congregation. And typically, people grumble while learning it (because it's so haaaard!) and then they come to like it pretty well when they have it down. It's not the kind of stuff that they would listen to on their own, given their own choices; but they like it enough to appreciate it. (And I generally wouldn't listen to the stuff that's their first choice, either, so we're even).


So I was thinking about what kinds of stuff I would write were I (entirely hypothetically!) to start writing church music. And of course, the first thing that happened is I started thinking about that perfectly sublime motet, O Magnum Mysterium, that I posted about last Christmas. (Feel free to click on that link and listen to it right now. Go ahead. I'll still be here when you get back.)

That's the sort of music I like. Even the Alto part is interesting! :-)

Well, as I was thinking about how this kind of music is written, and how polyphony works, I started noticing all the other links at the bottom of the screen when O Magnum Mysterium finished playing. Turns out, I did most of them when I was in college; so I was able to sing along with them--in some cases by memory--when I clicked on them to play them. These songs were like old friends. They brought back some fond memories of hanging out with good people late at night, in one of their garages, with a bottle of red wine and a book of madrigals (which were sung progressively less precise as the night wore on...)

And then, I came upon the song that inspired this whole post. Remember, I've been thinking: how would I write a hymn that would inspire me? Something in four-part A Capella, perhaps based on the words of Jesus...

This was the song I came upon, and I just had to share it with you. I do hope you enjoy it. When I heard it, in the mood I was in, I was thunderstruck.

I'm under no illusions about teaching this to a congregation, but still... That's the way it's done. That's the kind of thing that inspires me.


Just, wow. I think I need to brush up on my counterpoint and start writing something soon.


B. Durbin said...

Fun stuff!

And I, for one, LOVE good alto parts. G & S is easy... but sometimes it's a little too easy, you understand. And traditional four-part music all too often has an incredibly boring alto line (I'm thinking of "O Come All Ye Faithful." One note. For most of the song.)

Theocentrica said...

I sang this, at a church I worked at last year (organist/mezzo). Thanks for reminding me of how beautiful it is. ^_^