Sunday, November 29, 2009

Unorthodox Wisdom - Buffy and Victor Hugo

Empathy and love of neighbor is at the heart of Christianity and also a theme of some great music and literature - To Kill a Mockingbird is the classic example. But I was thinking of it this week when I watched an old rerun of "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer."

The mere mention of that show (or any work by Joss Whedon) is sure to inspire nods of recognition of his genius from rabid fans, looks of derision from the uninitiated, and shrugs from the majority of the population. You can guess my bias in that continuum, but the show is a great guilty pleasure of mythology and philosophy in a story that turned the traditional vampire plot on its head. The young blonde girl doesn't twist an ankle and get eaten; she's the strong heroine of the story.

At any rate, in this particular episode, Buffy prevents a classmate from committing suicide. He is depressed because he feels invisible and lonely, ignored by the popular students, and burdened by personal pain that no one notices. Rather than offer the typical platitudes and comfort, however, Buffy responds with this monologue:

"I was wrong. You are an idiot. My life happens to, on occasion, suck beyond the telling of it. Sometimes more than I can handle. And it's not just mine. Every single person down there is ignoring your pain because they're too busy with their own...If you could hear what they were feeling, the loneliness, the confusion. It looks quiet down there. It's not. It's deafening."

Her speech reminded me of a scene in Victor Hugo's novel commonly known as "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." The priest's brother observes him in a moment of extreme emotion, and Hugo depicts his reaction:

"...he knew not with what fury that sea of the human passions ferments and boils when it is refused all egress; how it gathers strength, swells, and overflows; how it wears away the heart; how it breaks forth in inward sobs and stifled convulsions...The merry scholar never dreamed of the boiling, furious, and deep lava beneath the snowy brow of Etna."

Music can express and expose those emtions within us. As a congregation and as Christians, we are obliged to open our ears and our eyes to those around us, in their joy and in their suffering. When we sing a hymn, think of our voices blending; listen to each other; notice how our shared music erases the divisions among us.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Join us for Thanksgiving worship

Didn't it feel great to have a full church this past Sunday? By having only one service to accomodate the budget meeting, we really packed the pews. That created an energy and vitality in all aspects of the service, and I especially loved to hear the congregation singing with gusto, even on a relatively unfamiliar hymn.

I invite you all to help us fill the church again: tomorrow is our Thanksgiving Eve worship service at 7:00. We have some fantastic music planned, including guest trumpet players and a flashy arrangement of "Now Thank We All Our God" that I hope you'll love to sing.

The choir's anthem will be "Stay With Us" by Egil Hovland. It's a beautiful composition with lush chords and harmonies. The middle section with four-part women's harmonies is sung particularly well by our small group. I hope our congregation realizes that we are blessed to have such strong dedication from our choir (and we're always happy to welcome other to join us, of course!). The text of the anthem is based on the last chapter of Luke's Gospel, when Christ appears on the road to Emmaus and interprets the scriptures for his disciples. The text comes from the moment when Christ appears to be leaving, and they urge "Lord, stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over."

They proceed to eat dinner together, with Jesus blessing the meal. It's a quiet moment in the Gospel story, gathering together to give thanks and to comfort each other. The modern Thanksgiving tradition does similarly tend to be about coming together with family and friends (in contrast with the secural corruption of Christmas). However, don't forget that the true origin of the holiday is a day of prayer and thanks for the many blessings in our lives. Surely, we can take time out from cooking and cleaning to come to church for worship and fellowship!

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Unorthodox wisdom - Marvin Hamlisch

Not too long ago, I listened to an interview on public radio's "Studio 360" with Marvin Hamlisch. He was talking primarily about composing the music for various films, including his most recent work for "The Informant." It was interesting to hear him describe the process of thinking about a character and having a musical motif simply come to mind. The host went so far as to describe it as a kind of synesthesia.

I don't think of myself as a composer, though I dabble in small things for church. But I think the truly great composers think primarily in a musical language that is their mother tongue, in the way Hamlisch is describing. They hear text and immediately translate it into music; they feel an emotion and hear a melody.

Church music is elevated prayer, whether or not it includes text. At its best, it is the sublime expression of praise and penitence, prayer and proclamation. Of course, Hamlisch composed music for "A Chorus Line," which encapsulates this process in the medium of dance. In particular, the song "Music and the Mirror" talks about expression through dance. I'll close with a portion of that song's lyrics today:

Give me somebody to dance with.
Give me a place to fit in.
Help me return to the world of the living
By showing me how to begin.

Play me the music.
Give me a chance to come through.
All I ever needed was the music, and the mirror,
And the chance to dance for you.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Chancel Choir sings gospel

This week, the choir will be singing a popular gospel song titled "He Never Failed Me Yet." It'll be a big change of pace for us and an important part of hearing a variety of musical styles. We've been having a lot of fun singing it in rehearsals.

Beyond the musical style, though, gospel and spiritual traditions contrast with traditional Lutheran music in their text as well. Usually, the text is built around a repetitive chorus that allows for musical improvisation and a focused spiritual message.

In his book Church Music, Edmund Lorenz describes the style as "A sacred folk song, free in form, emotional in character, devout in attitude, evangelistic in purpose and spirit... These hymns are more or less subjective in their matter and develop a single thought rather than a line of thought."

We've enjoyed rehearsing the piece, and Lisa does a great job improvising the lead vocal part. I think you'll enjoy the anthem, and I hope it has you inspired to tap your feet and maybe even clap along with us!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

We, like sheep

Last Sunday, we had a guest pastor, which is always a harrowing experience for all concerned. Every church, like every family, has its idiosyncratic practices. When those are violated, it can create a brief moment of discomfort, but it can also call us to greater participation and leadership, refreshing our worship experience.

I'm thinking of one specific moment during the service, following the offering, when we are used to a certain way of presenting the offering on the altar and a particular offering prayer. Pastor then turns to face the congregation and makes eye contact with me at the organ so that I know we can being the Great Thanksgiving. Without our usual practices, the acolytes didn't know what to do with the offering plates, I didn't know when to begin the music, and the service faltered for just a brief moment. Of course, it was a minor issue, and the service continued.

From a musical perspective, it made me think of two things. First, the rhythm and melody of the liturgy and the hymns can truly unite a congregation, even if the prayers are offered with a slightly different verbal stress or the service is not one hundred percent aligned with our past experience. When I travel and attend services, there is a sense of being an observer, until the music begins. When a congregation is singing, we are all together in one endeavor.

Second, we (like sheep) do go astray when we don't have strong leadership. Once, a choir director of mine asked the group who was the leader of our music. Most people said the director, some said the accompanist, some pointed to section leaders or particularly strong singers in the group. But the director said all those answers were wrong. Every single member of the choir needed to be a leader for it to work. If you wait for the person next to you to sing, then you are already late, of course. The best choirs have a confidence and shared trust among themselves because they are all leaders.

Perhaps the experience of having a guest pastor can shake us up a bit and encourage us all to step up and take responsibility and leadership. A congregation is a community, and it thrives on participation, in its ministries and its music.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Unorthodox Wisdom - Peter Vaill

Next week we have our congregational budget meeting. Like all mission-driven organizations, churches struggle to balance priorities, mission, and budget. Of course, the struggles of Catholic churches around the Cleveland area have been prominent in the headlines, and no congregation seems to be immune from the demographic and economic challenges around us.

The biggest danger is to think that we will restore all our priorities "when things calm down" or "get back to normal." When you prepare music every week, you quickly learn that things never do settle down into the free time you'd like to have to accomplish all your goals. You simply do the best you can, ask for help, and try to look at the big picture as much as possible.

It all reminds me of the business management writings of Peter Vaill. One of his books is titled Permanent Whitewater, and the premise is that the business world is always in flux. You must make decisions in times of turmoil and hope for the best. I'm hopeful that we will make prayerful decisions, keeping in mind our mission and planning for the future.

Friday, November 13, 2009

A Manz tribute and a choir repeat

A few weeks ago, the world lost one of the greatest organists and sacred music composers in recent history, Paul Manz. He had a profound influence on Lutheran church music and earned numerous awards, including an honorary docterate from my alma mater.

Manz was actually born in Cleveland, though he became most well known for his work in Chicago and Minneapolis churches, as well as concerts around the world. As a Lutheran, he was steeped in the hymn tunes, literature, and traditions that we all know so well, but he updated them with a spicier, more rhythmic sound for a fun change of pace.

His work has a large following - certainly, he is admired and idolized by Lutheran organists everywhere. I often use Manz's hymn arrangements; in fact, when you hear a hymn arrangement with a "modern" sound, you can probably safely assume that it's his. This week, the postlude will be "Lord, You I Love with All My Heart." It seems like an appropriate tribute for a church musician, since it epitomizes the church musician's philosophy since the time of Bach: "Soli deo gloria" (To God alone by the glory).

The choir will be reprising the anthem from last week: "Go, Ye, Into all the World." By repeating the anthem, we can focus on other places we can enhance worship, including the acclamation and antiphon, as well as a hymn descant. We're also hard at work preparing music for Thanksgiving. Make sure Nov. 25th is on your calendar for the Wednesday night service!

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Concert series: Mount Union College Choir

Next Friday night (Nov. 20th at 7:30 pm), the concert series at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist continues in downtown Cleveland. The Mount Union College Choir will be performing a wide variety of works. The promo information I've read simply lists the composers (Handel, Victoria, Seelinck, Lauridsen, Walton, Vaughan Williams, Britten, and Whitacre), so I don't know how much of it will be sacred, but it's a safe bet there will be a great deal and that it will all be beautiful.

This is a great chance to hear some of the best choral literature performed in our own backyard, and it's another free event - free will offering only. Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Military hymns

In honor of Veterans' Day, I wanted to mention some of the music of our soldiers. Growing up, I spent every Memorial Day playing in the band at the cemeteries of my hometown. Since I played trumpet, I was often called upon as well to play taps at military funerals. While I don't come from what I would consider a military family, I know that both of my grandfathers served our country, and one of the most moving aspects of the funeral of my one grandfather was the presentation of the flag to my grandmother in recognition of his service.

To be reductionist about military music, in general it comes in two varieties: marches and hymns. Of course, even the hymns can be a bit triumphalist for comfort sometimes (sing the opening few lines of the Marine Hymn and you'll see what I mean). The music that I find so powerful and relevant are the hymns of comfort and solace, the hymns of prayers for safety and a quick end to war.

My favorite (and probably the best known) in that category is the "Navy Hymn," known to us as "Eternal Father, Strong to Save." It was sung at the funeral of FDR and played at JFK's funeral procession as well. It's a popular funeral hymn, and I think that stems from the powerful symbol of God as Father, a strong protector and a comforter. This version of verse 4 epitomizes that in its text:

O Trinity of love and power!
Our family shield in danger's hour;
From rock and tempest, fire and foe,
Protect us wheresoever we go;
Thus evermore shall rise to Thee
Glad hymns of praise from land and sea.

The triune God of love and power is our protector whom we thank with hymns of praise. That's a succinct message of what the Christian faith means to many of us. To hear a midi version of this hymn and to read more verses (including some more specifically to the military) you can click here.

In closing, thanks to everyone, everywhere who serves our nation. I'd like to offer special thanks to my National Guardsman brother-in-law and prayers for everyone serving overseas. Please feel free to add your own names, thanks, and prayers in the comments.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Culinary musings

For lunch on Sunday, I grabbed a quick bite of fast food, still humming church music to myself. One of the dangers of the choir anthem from last week was that the chorus could easily get stuck in your head (or at least in mine). While eating, I was reflecting on the morning's services and thinking about the variety of music. (For second service people who haven't heard our "rock sound" yet, you'll get to hear the same anthem this coming week.)

My culinary musings had me thinking about the need for variety in our lives. Recently I prepared a meal that included a creamy pumpkin and squash soup, and in a moment of ambition I had decided to start the whole thing by making my own vegetable stock, in an all day project that made the house smell great. But Sunday there I was eating a hastily prepared sub sandwich and chips. They were about as different as could be, but I liked them both, in their own way.

Sometimes we hear and sing classical music that is complex and intellectual, like the Buxtehude prelude. Other times, we get to enjoy ear candy like the choir anthem, simple and fun. We can enjoy them both on their own terms and for their own merits. One could even make a case that the anthem's text provides the piece with more direct religious content than the organ prelude with its subtle symbology.

Of course, we can't subsist on a diet of junk food, candy, and dessert. We even need a variety of healthful foods to stay healthy, just like Bach alone won't cut it for church music. I'm at work planning a smorgasbord for this Sunday; I hope you enjoy all the courses!

Friday, November 6, 2009

From Buxtehude to "rock"

This Sunday will demonstrate my usual goal of incoporating music from a wide variety of styles. The service has some of the greatest hymns from the ELW, including "At the Lamb's High Feast We Sing" and "On Our Way Rejoicing," the latter of which will include a choir descant on verse two.

The prelude will be Passcaglia in d minor by Buxtehude. I hope that's a name that is becoming familiar by now. This particular piece is built on a simple 7-note ostinato bass. An ostinato is a short phrase that is repeated throughout the piece, much like a canon. Pachelbel's Canon in D is familiar to most people, of course, and you can probably think of how that piece involves a repeated chord progression.

The Passacaglia in d minor represents Buxtehude's interest in symbolic numerology (an interest he shared with Bach and many other notable men and women of their era). The 7 note ostinato takes up 4 bars and occurs 28 times over the course of the piece. Overall, the structure modulates into 4 different keys, each of them for 28 bars. I've heard it described both as a tribute to Mary and as symbolic of the phases of the moon.

The choir's anthem, titled "Go, Ye, Into All the World," is composed in an entirely different style, with a driving rock beat (or at least as rock-like as a traditional ELCA service normally gets!). The song alternates between an up-tempo chorus that encourages us to "Spread the Gospel to every people" and lyrical verses. Overall, the text is based on Christ's "Great Commission." Not only is it a great piece of music on its own, but it also provides the perfect contrast to the Baroque prelude.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Psalm for a Lost Summer

I had to share a poem by that name, don't you think? Snow fell yesterday, and I spent part of my day today raking (yet again given our many trees). The summer has ended and is therefore lost to us. I can hardly read this poem without humming one of the psalm tones. It begs to be chanted! But I hope you enjoy and remember to savor the passing of the seasons.

"Psalm for a Lost Summer"

1. By the rivers of Estes Park, there we sat down, yes, we sighed, when we remembered Italy.
2. We pressed our pens against paper, and we sat under the pine trees, listening to the crows.
3. For there in Colorado we were captive at a high altitude, required to write without breath; and if we could not write, our consciences required us to read, and improve our minds.
4. How shall we write our poems in this strange land?
5. If I forget you, Venice, let my right hand forget to wind the fettuccini around the fork.
6. If I do not remember balmy Sorrento, let me never taste lemons again; if I prefer not Capri above my chief joy.
7. Remember, O Muse, the couple who strolled about Assisi; who said, How lovely this is, but next year let's vacation at home.
8. O Citizens of Assisi, do not blame us for the earthquake that destroyed your basilica; how happy we were, looking at your frescos during a thunderstorm.
9. Happy we shall be again, when we dash from this rented cabin, and drive down from these great stone mountains forever, Amen.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Take a break

It's a busy week for me, full of exams. We all have weeks that get a bit hectic or challenging for a variety of reasons, and I'm always reminded that they seem to go better when I have a break to work out, to listen to music, or to practice the organ or piano. It's important to step back from our busy, project-filled lives to have time to breathe and reflect on what's most important to us.

That's true not only at the level of our daily lives but within worship as well. Sometimes the logistics of worship can distract us from a prayerful attitude. Sometimes the repetition and the ceremony overpower the meaning. I recently reread a quote from an Anglican priest named Gordon Giles who wrote several books and articles on church music. On this issue he wrote:

"We say 'Lord, have mercy' so frequently that it can seem unremarkable and automatic, and seeking God's mercy in worship can become so common and instinctive that we barely notice that we are doing so. Similarly, we tend to sing hymns without thinking about what we are really singing to ourselves or to God or to each other...The Kyrie is all about seeking forgiveness, not only for ourselves, and for any individual sins we feel we may have knowingly or unknowingly committed, but also for the sins of the world, past and present, which, as we study history or read our newspapers, we very much lament."

It's important for us to sing and listen thoughtfully in worship. The tune and the text are simply vessels to convey deeper truths. This week take a moment to focus your attention on the text of our hymns and to the kyrie especially. Let your meditation refresh your spirit for the busy week ahead.

PS For my non-Ohio readers, there was a bit of snowfall here today. Christmas planning suddenly seems ever-so-important!