Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Classical Music for Nerds

Do you consider yourself to be a nerd? Then you really should be listening to more classical music, at least according to this article which presents 7 reasons why nerds should listen to classical music.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Composition: Meditation

For a few years I have been encouraged by family and friends to record a solo guitar CD but have not felt comfortable enough with my repertoire to do more than occasionally play around with low-quality recordings done on my Mac at home. I don't have any firm plans for recording a CD at this point but I am moving in that direction, albeit slowly. Two months ago I wrote an original piece for solo acoustic guitar titled "Meditation". This evening I decided to give another shot at getting a decent recording of something out of my guitar with the sparse equipment I have. When my plans to record my guitar through my amplifier's line-out plugged into the Mac's line-in were thwarted by my amplifier picking up some radio signal from who knows where, I resorted to simply amplifying the guitar and recording through the Mac's internal microphone.

Yes, I am aware of how low-tech that is...

The following "video" is my first take, edited to clean up the audio a bit and add a mix of chorus/echo/reverb to improve the sound of the low-quality recording. I prefer the piece without the effects but the raw unedited track needed some help due to the quality of the recording, or lack thereof. For those interested, the tuning I used is DADGAD which accounts for the unique sound compared to standard guitar tuning. You may want to try listening with headphones because if your computer's internal speakers are like mine you'll have a hard time picking up the bass. Let me know what you think!

Researching Psalter Editions

One of the great practices of the Reformed tradition that has fallen by the wayside in many denominations, especially in the last century, is the practice of singing the 150 Psalms in corporate and family/private worship. If Psalms are sung at all, it is usually a selected few that can be found in popular hymnals such as the Trinity Hymnal.

Personally, I do not find Scriptural warrant for rejecting all non-Psalm hymnody. I have great respect for the scripture-based hymnodic tradition that has developed over time since the 16th century. (This is another discussion for another day.) Yet I will readily agree with anyone that the Psalms should be our key resource for all types of worship. They should be prayed, sung, and meditated upon in our worship and throughout the day. Over the past few weeks I have been researching different editions of the Psalter that are currently in-print and I thought I'd share some of my findings as a resource for those who may be interested in the same.

By far the most popular Psalter on the market is "The Book of Psalms for Singing", published by Crown and Covenant Publications, a branch of the RPCNA denomination. From the C&C website, this Psalter is described as "the most popular English psalter because of its comprehensiveness and singability. The Book of Psalms for Singing has been used for more than 30 years.
Many psalm passages are set to multiple arrangements. Setting include many familiar hymn tunes, traditional tunes, some original arrangements and a few chants. Translated from the original language into English meter for singing. Over 425 selections include all 150 Psalms in their entirety. Includes 4-part music for each selection."

My personal experience with this Psalter has been positive. At WPC we use the Trinity Hymnal as our primary source for hymns and Psalms. However, when we use extra-hymnal Psalms they are drawn from "The Book of Psalms for Singing". Many of the Psalms are split into mulitple settings due to their length, and some Psalms in their entirety will have multiple tunes. Many of the tunes. Two congregational and personal favorites are Psalm 119X (the letter after the Psalm designates the progression of settings - like I mentioned most of the longer Psalms are split into different sections and set to different tunes.) and Psalm 148. Most of the tunes are familiar and the language of the verses is in the tradition of the KJV, but is not as archaic as the 1650 Scottish Psalter, for example. The settings for this Psalter are in 4 parts as noted above so it is not particularly suitably for chanting/singing the Psalms in unison.

Thus ends my current real experience with Psalters. Everything that follows is a result of my research and I haven't had the opportunity to get my hands on any of these other editions yet.

A text-only version of the Book of Psalms for Singing is also available, known as the "Trinity Psalter". What good is a words-only version, you say? I can think of a couple good uses. First, as a workbook for writing new Psalm settings. I have taken my hand to writing new settings for hymns before but I am almost invariably influenced by the existing tune on the page. Having a words-only resource would be helpful. Also, these are much less expensive than the music-and-words versions, so for budget-minded churches and families this could be a good option. A spiral bound music-and-words edition is available for accompanists. Finally, since many if not most Psalms are set in common meter or long meter, any number of tunes can be used to sing one Psalm. A words-only version would allow more flexibility with less confusion for those switching between tunes. However, for part-singing the lack of 4-part notation (or any notation at all for that matter!) could pose significant challenges.

Of all Psalter versions, the 1650 Scottish Psalter stands as one of the most significant and enduring despite the 17th-century language and often-stiff versification. There are a number of editions in-print such as the 1650 Scottish Metrical Version from Crown and Covenant, and The Comprehensive Psalter from FPCR. The Comprehensive Psalter is significantly more affordable and appears to be a sturdy volume. A words-only version of the 1650 Psalter is also available from C&C as The Psalms of David in Metre.

The Reformed Church of Ireland uses The Psalms for Singing: A 21st Century Edition. Unfortunately there are not many details available on the web about this version that I have been able to find. I would guess that the verses are directly based on the 1650 edition but with updated grammar and language.

The prominent Roman Catholic Psalm translation is called the Grail Psalms. This is simply a different translation from the Hebrew that is used primarily by the Roman Catholic Church. Here is an example of a Grail Psalm, Psalm 23. Unfortunately some of the versions are "Inclusive Language" (i.e. gender neutral where gender is specifically indicated in the original language). I need to do some more research before coming to any firm conclusions about the value of the following Psalters but they do look interesting if only for getting a full picture of how the Psalms are and have been sung throughout church history.

The Mundelein Psalter
The Abbey Psalter
Psalms: A New Translation, Singing Version (A non-inclusive-language Grail Psalter designed for chanting the Psalms)

The above "Grail" Psalters are designed to assist in praying/singing/chanting the Psalms on a daily schedule (kind of like a daily Scripture reading plan, except musical and restricted to the Psalms) - a Jewish practice carried on by the early church and a central part of Roman Catholic tradition that was abandoned by the Reformers. Rightly or wrongly, I have no opinion at this time.

If you're looking for a Psalter, hopefully this will point you to some good options. Like I mentioned earlier, the only Psalter I can currently recommend is Crown and Covenant's original Book of Psalms for Singing. I do, however, plan to obtain at least a few of these other Psalters at some point and intend to post on their quality after I've had a chance to review them. If any of my readers have had experience with any of these or other Psalters, feel free to share your thoughts!

"Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! Know that the Lord, he is God! It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise! Give thanks to him; bless his name! For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations." (Psalm 100, ESV)

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Singing and Making Music: Music and the Word of God

"Music clothes the Word of God with sound and also reinforces its message with meaning beyond the realm of words. It communicates to our souls as a metaphysical force." (Paul S. Jones, Singing and Making Music)

Monday, April 13, 2009

Singing and Making Music: Church music as entertainment?

One of the musical books I am going through right now is Dr. Paul Jones' "Singing and Making Music: Issues in Church Music Today", a collection of essays on church music by the organist and musical director of 10th Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia. (Thanks to my friend and co-laborer in musical service at WPC, Dan Joner, for lending it to me.) I will be posting quotes and perhaps some commentary along the way.

"When music in church becomes entertainment, it is objectified as "an event". It turns into something to watch, a spectacle. Such events are necessarily detached from the immediacy of being something in which we are involved. Other worship elements can be treated this way, too. Pastoral prayer can be an aural "spectacle" if members of the congregation are not praying along with the minister. But perhaps more than with spoken prayer, music becomes something done for us instead of being done by us. This disconnection may be amplified by the music-suffused society in which we live (music in the malls, restaurants, elevators, etc.--when it is a mindless backdrop for other activity). We thus become desensitized to music in a public setting, as something in which we are not involved as "doers"--whether we are listening or singing. This musical alienation is a danger prevalent in services with soloists and even choirs--that the parishioner views music as an event he is watching or to which he is listening as a bystander instead of a participant" (Paul S. Jones, "Singing and Making Music")

Sunday, April 12, 2009

He Is Risen

He is risen indeed!

"Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?" (1 Cor. 15:55)

Christ Jesus lay in death’s strong bands,
For our offenses given;
But now at God’s right hand He stands,
And brings us life from Heaven.
Wherefore let us joyful be,
And sing to God right thankfully
Loud songs of Alleluia! Alleluia!

No son of man could conquer Death,
Such mischief sin had wrought us,
For innocence dwelt not on earth,
And therefore Death had brought us
Into thralldom from of old
And ever grew more strong and bold
And kept us in his bondage. Alleluia!

But Jesus Christ, God’s only Son,
To our low state descended,
The cause of Death He has undone,
His power forever ended,
Ruined all his right and claim
And left him nothing but the name,
His sting is lost forever. Alleluia!

It was a strange and dreadful strife
When life and death contended;
The victory remained with life;
The reign of death was ended.
Stripped of power, no more it reigns,
An empty form alone remains
Death’s sting is lost forever! Alleluia!

Here the true Paschal Lamb we see,
Whom God so freely gave us;
He died on the accursed tree—
So strong His love!—to save us.
See, His blood doth mark our door;
Faith points to it, Death passes over,
And Satan cannot harm us. Alleluia!

So let us keep the festival
Where to the Lord invites us;
Christ is Himself the joy of all,
The Sun that warms and lights us.
By His grace He doth impart
Eternal sunshine to the heart;
The night of sin is ended! Alleluia!

Then let us feast this Easter day
On the true Bread of Heaven;
The Word of grace hath purged away
The old and wicked leaven.
Christ alone our souls will feed;
He is our Meat and Drink indeed;
Faith lives upon no other! Alleluia!

(Martin Luther, 1524)

Thursday, April 09, 2009

Small-group hymn-singing

Tonight at the small group I host and lead, we began a study of Paul's Epistle to the Galatians. To wrap up the evening I suggested we sing #135 from the Blue Trinity Hymnal, "I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art". The verse cited on the page is Galatians 1:4 which reads, "Who gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil world..."

It was a wonderful opportunity to offer praise to God with voices unprepared but joyful and sincere. The result was beautiful and a reminder to me of the blessing it is to "let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God." (Col. 3:16)

Here is the full text to this wonderful hymn:

I greet thee, who my sure Redeemer art,
My only trust and Saviour of my heart
Who pain didst undergo for my poor sake;
I pray thee from our hearts all cares to take.

Thou art the King of mercy and of grave,
Reigning omnipotent in ev'ry place
So come, O King, and our whole being sway;
Shine on us with the light of thy pure day.

Thou art the Life, by which alone we live,
And all our substance and our strength receive;
O comfort us in death's approaching hour,
Strong-hearted then to face it by thy pow'r.

Thou hast the true and perfect gentleness,
No harshness hast thou and no bitterness:
Make us to taste the sweet grace found in thee
And ever stay in thy sweet unity.

Our hope is in no other save in thee;
Our faith is built upon they promise free;
O grant to us such stronger hope and sure
That we can boldly conquer and endure.


(Text from the Strasbourg Psalter of 1545, tune from the Geneva Psalter of 1551)

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

How NOT to sing the National Anthem

Time Magazine presents, the Top 10 Worst National-Anthem Renditions. You may only make it through the first one...

Nathan Clark George

Last August, I was introduced to the music of Nathan Clark George by R.C. Sproul Jr. who came to our church to speak for our annual Heritage Weekend. I didn't look into his music again until recently, when I purchased one of his CDs, titled "Rise in the Darkness". Nathan is a believer (a good Presbyterian, to boot) who travels with his wife and kids all over the south performing his music for churches, conferences, and retreats. He is a very talented songwriter and guitarist. Much of his music, including most of the songs on "Rise in the Darkness" are versifications of the words of Scripture. I find his music to be a refreshing contrast to the slew of over-produced, shallow poppy Christian contemporary music that fills the wavelengths these days. I would place his music in the same vein as Michael Card, but even more down-to-earth and folky. To give a secular reference point, he sounds to me a bit like James Taylor, Sean Watkins, and with a bit of Jack Johnson thrown in on occasion.

You can listen to many full songs for free, or purchase his albums, at this site. Or you can read more about him and his music at his homepage. To download his albums digitally, visit Behemoth.com.