Bass Clarinet and Marimba – Underneath the Spreading Tree

November 8th, 2011

This bass clarinet and marimba duet, while being very difficult, is full of wonderfully rich sounds and textures that you can not produce with any other combination of instruments. I partly regret my choice of instrumentation and may rewrite it for something more practical someday, but my reason for the choice is because of a phrase in Isaiah 55:12, “…all the trees of the field will clap their hands.” This personification stirred my creative curiosity on the brink of obsession, and I could not get the combination of bass clarinet and marimba out of my head. They are the perfect two instruments to depict the sound of living trees rejoicing over redeemed Israel and I couldn’t rest until I’d used them together for the purpose. However, a story is pointless if you only share the ending without saying how it came about. Using the perspective of the trees in the land I’ve written this work to tell the story of Israel’s fall into paganism, God’s judgement on them, and then finally their redemption. To listen to this work correctly, you must understand that you’re listening to a tree tell a story.

This video is only a sample of the work.

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Sample score

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Duration: 11:00

Throughout the major prophets in the Old Testament, the term “spreading tree” is used repeatedly in reference to the location in which the nation of Israel conducted their sinful pagan rituals. If one applies the personification of the trees in Isaiah 55 to these texts, it’s not hard to imagine what sorts of sounds God’s trees would make in response to detestable practices being performed underneath them. These practices included various ceremonies to honor false gods, ritualistic sexuality (mass orgies), and child sacrifice; clearly detestable practices in the eyes of God. The beginning of this tree’s story portrays these pagan ceremonies through primitive sounding harmonies and intricate rhythmic dancelike textures. At first these sounds seem innocent, but as the work progresses the harmonies are twisted to depict the darker components of pagan Israel’s worship.

The following are the texts I had in mind while writing this beginning section:

Jeremiah 2:20 (NIV), “Long ago you broke off your yoke and tore off your bonds; you said, ‘I will not serve you!’ Indeed, on every high hill and under every spreading tree you lay down as a prostitute.”

Isaiah 57:5, “You burn with lust among the oaks and under every spreading tree; you sacrifice your children in the ravines and under the overhanging crags.”

The second section is the tree’s telling of God’s response to Israel’s disobedience. This is depicted by energetic and ominous sounds followed by sounds of intense sorrow. It is the tree’s version of these texts:

Jeremiah 4:13-15, “Our enemy rushes down on us like storm clouds! His chariots are like whirlwinds. His horses are swifter than eagles. How terrible it will be, for we are doomed! O Jerusalem, cleanse your heart that you may be saved. How long will you harbor your evil thoughts? Your destruction has been announced from Dan and the hill country of Ephraim.”

Jeremiah 13:24-27, “‘I will scatter you like chaff that is blown away by the desert winds. This is your allotment, the portion I have assigned to you,’ says the Lord, ‘for you have forgotten me, putting your trust in false gods. I myself will strip you and expose you to shame. I have seen your adultery and lust, and your disgusting idol worship out in the fields and on the hills. What sorrow awaits you, Jerusalem! How long before you are pure?'”

The final section depicts the tree’s swelling joy at the thought of the future return of God’s people to the land, the original reason I set out to write this work:

Isaiah 55:12,
“You will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands.”


Acceptable Sounds for Worship; The Salty Aesthetic

May 7th, 2011

Before we make an attempt discover what Christian music should sound like, I’d like to take a moment to remind ourselves of what the fundamental truths of Christianity are. Phillipians 2:6-11 (NIV) says,

“Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.”

The first fundamental truth of Christianity is that Jesus is Lord. If he is not, then the Bible is false and so is our faith. In fact, Romans 10:9 says that this truth is also how we are saved from judgement: “That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved”. Our lives have to reflect this because faith without works is dead and cannot save you (James 2:14-26).

“Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see (Hebrews 11:1).” If we’re certain that Jesus is Lord even though sometimes it doesn’t seem like it, our lives will reflect our faith by obeying Jesus’ laws and seeing sin as high treason to the crown of the Kingdom of God. At this point, it will also be useful for us all to be clear on what exactly Christian worship is. Dictionary.com defines worship as “reverent honor and homage paid to god or a sacred personage, or to any object regarded as sacred.” Since we are citizens in the kingdom of God (Phillipians 3:20) and Jesus is Lord of that Kingdom (Colossians 1:15), worship is simply giving Jesus (and no one else) the reverent honor and homage he deserves.

So then, a Christian is a person whose national identity is that of the Kingdom of God and who pays homage to Jesus Christ. Again, 1 Peter 2:9-10 says, “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.” So then, the broad category of Christian music can be said to be music that reflects this national identity. It has nothing to do with genre, instrumentation, or any other subcultural classification of music. Just as American music is music rooted in America and South African music is music rooted in South Africa, so Christian music is music rooted in the kingdom of God. It cannot be based on any other classification because the “Christian” in Christian music refers to a certain group of people who are citizens of a certain nation and who identify themselves as the people of a certain King who they love dearly. Christian music is simply music produced by Christians. This is not to be confused with Christian worship music, which I have already defined as harmony, melody, color, and rhythm that is organized for the expressed purpose of paying homage to Christ and portraying or teaching the Christian worldview with its cumulative effect on a sentient being. Christian music does not have to be all of those things to be Christian music. However it does have to be something which Christ can enjoy with you.

We have to be very careful when determining whether or not music is Christian. If you do not know the musicians that produced it personally, how can you be sure that they are Christians unless you observe their lives and they clearly show what they believe? I cringe inside when certain artists are labeled “Christian” when a passing glance at their cover art tells me otherwise. Such cases are even more subtle and diabolical when artists make attempts to sound exactly like their secular counterparts in order to yield a greater profit for their labels. Sounds that are typically associated with gross sexuality, selfishness, and inherent arrogance are set with a new text that is supposedly not offensive to the kingdom of God. I have two problems with this: 1) this shows an unsettling lack of creativity and 2) the sounds are being used because they have been made popular; it matters little that the sounds were crafted to be used in a culture of sin and death. This puts music that uses these sounds far from a redemptive category and firmly into the camp of syncretism.

I am not saying that these sounds are evil, but rather that these sounds have been clearly associated with evil. Why would we use them when God gave us wonderfully imaginative minds that can come up with sounds that are much more beautiful and creative? I am not here to tell people that they are immoral because they enjoy certain sounds. As I said previously, the dark forces do not have such specificity in their dominion over the physical world that they have actually taken control of certain sound waves and mathematical patterns when executed through time. I am simply here to say that we can do better.

The most prominent characteristic of Christian music should be its inherent transcendent beauty.  No music in the world should be as beautiful or as interesting as Christian music because what inspires it are truth and beauty themselves.  The Spirit of God has clearly manifested itself in the most beautiful art in human history, but God has not so clearly manifested himself in “Christian music” because I am not convinced that very much Christian music has actually been attempted. We have plenty of music that has been borrowed and put to Christian texts, but this is not Christian music.  How can we have a sound that establishes a distinct national identity when all we do is borrow from our secular counterparts?  Consider the sounds you hear on Christian radio and in church.  Who are the musical ancestors of those sounds?  The strophic form used for traditional church music goes back to romantic Germany; Schubert, Wolf, Schumann, Brahms, etc. (hardly Saints).  Western harmony itself is hardly Christian, Bach and Handel being the only Christian composers from those time periods (and calling Bach a Christian is a stretch).  It is common knowledge where the sounds in contemporary Christian music came from.  While I have no problem with our musicians being influenced by these sounds and using them, calling these sounds Christian would be like jazz African music.  These sounds are not salty.  They are not useful in creating a Christian national identity.  Please note that I am not suggesting that Christians have been writing secular music.  I am suggesting that they have not been writing music at all.

Christian music then, while it is influenced by the sounds it gets from the culture around it, should develop into something very distinct. Something alien. Something the world only hears in music produced by Christians.  Something divine.  Something better than humanly possible because of the intervention of the Holy Spirt throughout the creative process. After all, if the core of our being is to be salt and light in this dark world, should not our art reflect the glory of God also? Even in the case of comical Christian music, there should be something there that is distinctly and unmistakably Christian. Again, this distinctive quality is not the text used or implied in the music; many Godless men have proven this to be false. Ultimately, this will sound like the music that will be produced on the new earth. It should sound like truth. It should sound like wisdom. It should sound like Isaiah 6:1-5, Daniel 7:9-10, and Revelation 4. It should sound like music that is dripping or at least sprinkled with the overflow of the artist’s passionate worship of God. If it’s music about God’s creation, it should somehow point back to our Father. If it’s music about the dark events in this world, it should somehow point back to Jesus. If it’s a love song celebrating a romantic relationship, it should sound like the Song of Solomon and give glory to God. There is no room in Christian music for anything that isn’t holy, sincere, and honoring to the King of the universe.  And it should be awesome.

It is not my place to judge for you what fits this description and what doesn’t. You have to judge this for yourself. But if homesickness is your default state of mind as it should be, you will know the sound when you hear it because it will fill you with longing for the world you were made for (Romans 8:18-27).

As a Christian musician, my greatest goal is to make my fellow believers long for the return of the King.


Acceptable Sounds for Worship; Quality

January 17th, 2011

What are you capable of?  How much more time do you have to spend in practice?  Is someone available that has more time and would do a better job?  What is your motivation for being in front of your church playing an instrument or singing?  Are these fair questions?

“Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”

Hebrews 10:19-25 (NIV)

My siblings in Christ, this is what we are doing on Sunday mornings during services.  This is what we are doing anytime we come together in prayer, fellowship, study, or song.  This is worship.  When we join together in song on Sunday morning or any other time, we are entering the throne room of God through the blood of our Lord Jesus to spend time pouring our hearts out to the King of the universe.  If we are going to insist on using music at our meetings, I would expect that the people or person leading the music take it more seriously than anything else they do during their week (unless the same person is speaking).

I have an unsettling number of memories of worship services that were clearly not taken seriously.  Sometimes this has been demonstrated through an effort issue in which a better sound was possible but not attempted because it was “good enough for church” (being out of tune due to laziness during performance for example).  Sometimes it has been a preparation issue that should have been avoided through more individual study and practice. Sometimes it has been because a person incapable of the task leads music because they were “led by the spirit” to do so.  If the music during services is being taken as seriously as it should be taken, should we not see people’s most valiant efforts to sound as good as possible?  Unfortunately, the issue of taking the music seriously is a surface issue, the possible causes of which are much more diabolical.

Being a highly trained musician, I know all too well the extreme temptation of thinking too much of myself after a performance that brings people to their feet in appreciation for what I just accomplished.  While it’s fine to be pleased that I have pleased others, it is not fine to be pleased with myself for all the hard work I did to get that reaction (that is pride, the sin that made Satan who he is). I should be pleased only to the end that I brought pleasure to my audience.  Leading worship with music requires humility in performance to be taken to a whole new level. When I do a recital, it’s half about me being really good at music and half about teaching people about God through music.  Pleasing my audience for the sake of pleasing my audience is on my agenda.  However, when someone leads worship with music their agenda should not be to please others, but to lead both their self and their congregation into passionate worship of our Creator.  If someone is pleased with the leader, I hope it is because the leader played or sang so effortlessly, skillfully, and passionately that the layman saw Christ right through the leader and worshipped Christ without a second thought towards what the leader was doing.  Therefore, every musical leader in a church should search themselves deeply and honestly in order to find their motivation behind leading worship.  Regardless of what they find within themselves, humility has to be the top priority before leading music.  If this one thing were handled more honestly, many issues related to taking musical worship seriously would be solved.

Take ability for an example. As a music teacher, I can confidently say that consistent practice for a notable length of time will always yield an increase in proficiency.  If someone is not showing steady progress in their technique, then they’re clearly not taking the role of leading a congregation into the throne room of the Almighty through the blood of Christ seriously enough. If not practicing would not be acceptable in a recital hall, how much less in this context?  If people are getting on the stage in church and not giving the sacrifice of praise they are capable of, what is this saying about their motivation for leading worship? As I hope you are beginning to see, the attitude required in order to lead musical worship takes care of these other problems.

Humility causes the right motivation. The right motivation causes leading music to be taken very seriously. Taking worship seriously causes refined technique. Therefore, just as good works are the natural result of faith (James 2:14-25), good technique is the natural result of humility.

So how good should the music be in church to be acceptable?  Depending on the cultural context, the size of the church, the availability of skilled people, and the quality of the local teachers, the music should be the best in town.  However, it should also be very different because of the reason behind the sound…


Wedding Music for Piano – Oath of Unity

December 18th, 2010

I wrote this wedding music for piano with an accomplished pianist in mind. However, this detail should not stop anyone from attempting it. I set out to create a broadly usable piece to be used towards the end of wedding preludes and I hope that I have done this well enough to appeal to most performers. The only questionable challenge is that there are some wide intervals throughout the work. I am able to reach a major ninth with ease and therefore wrote many without a second thought. If this is not the case for you, please feel free to change a few notes using your best judgement.

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Sample Score

There are three hymns woven throughout this work. The sample above contains an arrangement of “O Perfect Love”. The other two are “Take my Life and Let It Be” and “Be Thou My Vision”:

     

These samples are taken from my album, Purpose. Click here for more information.

Additional information

I wrote this wedding music for piano to be premiered for my friends, Pam and Ryan, at their wedding for prelude. The danger with this role in a program is that the beginning material is either easily missed, or it rudely interrupts conversations. I have attempted to use this problem to the performer’s advantage by utilizing John Cage’s philosophy: Any sound you hear during the performance is part of the music. While I disagree with Cage on many points, I do believe that there is something to be had with the idea of artistic noise. I actually want the audience to passively participate in the performance by talking at a respectful volume until the piece starts to unfold it’s main themes more clearly. It is the performer’s job to play beneath their mummer and crescendo as they decrescendo by becoming interested. I have yet to see it actually work out that way, but it’s a nice idea…

Since I was writing for a wedding, I have obviously written a piece about marriage. I’m am very passionate about the issue of divorce, and am strongly against divorce outside of marital unfaithfulness and even then only in extreme cases. This work is a charge to any bride and groom to fulfill their oaths to one another out of unconditional love no matter what their situation is. The harsh section of this piece represents the more unpleasant parts of marriage; but this section is fleeting and resolves quickly by returning to the original themes depicting unconditional love and faithfulness. The main take away I want people to have is that the love within marriage unites two people so intimately that the darker parts of the relationship are nullified.


Acceptable Sounds for Worship; Deeper Problems

December 12th, 2010

I’ve heard more than a few stories about churches breaking apart over issues related to music used during services.  I’ve heard many arguments condemning much of the music I enjoy because of it’s musical content (not lingual).  More often than not, traditional music is accepted in the sanctuary no matter its intent while new music is probed and prodded simply because of the fact that it is new.  But on what basis do all of these things occur?  Is it the Word of God, or is it a dismissible preference issue that has been blown way out of proportion?

I hope that we can all agree that there is no solid Biblical basis for deeming one sound as blasphemous and another as holy.  On what doctrine or passage of scripture is the organ more relevant to our relationship with God than a guitar?  By whose authority is a four part homophonic texture sacred and a rock beat profane?  Do the dark forces have such specificity in their dominion over the physical world that they have actually taken control of certain sound waves and mathematical patterns when executed through time?  Of course not, that would be silly. It seems to me that the only satanic thing that has taken place as a result of the new sounds that have been made over the past century is the fact that they have divided the church and caused wild accusations in various conservative Christian circles.  To deem a rock beat or a strummed guitar as unfit for use in worship is comparable to saying that certain shades of purple or the use of a powerpoint presentation is unfit to use for worship.  Satan does not have power over such things, he only has the power to tempt us to use them against God’s laws (pride, for example).

Different sounds are the musician’s tools for creating aesthetic (the actual message). In language, you cannot condemn a speech based on the use of a certain word. Even if a pastor uses a curse word in a sermon (I’ve witnessed this twice and was not offended at all) you cannot judge his message based on the use of a certain linguistic tool unless you deeply analyze its context. Sounds are elements of a larger context, just like words. To condemn a musical work for the use of a specific element is comparable to the condemnation of a craftsman for using a crescent wrench instead of a regular one.  Instruments and basic stylistic expressions and ostinatos are tools and have no spiritual implications outside of the ones maliciously ascribed to them by humans.  Does it matter if the pastor uses powerpoint, overhead, or no visual aid when he speaks?  Should congregations be worked up about the eccentric polka-dot skirt someone wore to Wednesday night prayer meeting?  Wrenches are wrenches, visual aides are visual aides, clothes are clothes (assuming the skirt is in line with 1 Timothy 2:9-10), and sounds are sounds.  If anyone has any contention about this, I urge you to dig into the Bible (the whole Bible) without allowing your interpretation to be influenced by your immediate social context or the way you were raised.

Please note that I have no quarrel with preferences.  If you just don’t like the drums, I’m fine with that.  But don’t you dare say that they have no place in corporate worship. If you don’t like a strummed guitar but it’s being used in your church, feel free to make a quiet suggestion knowing full-well that the sound itself is of no consequence.  I hope that clears up any misconceptions so that we can move on to deeper and more urgent matters:

Please bear with me as I contradict myself.  Sounds (when put together in profound ways) have enormous theological, philosophical, programmatic, political, and emotional implications.  However, the complexity and formal structure required in order to achieve sounds that are capable of this are far greater than with what most Christians are familiar.  The fact that many of us are unfamiliar with sounds capable of deep meaning is a matter that concerns me greatly.  This is not because Christians should be expected to be interested in the complex sounds of today’s academic institutions.  On the contrary, I don’t think the church as a whole has any use for the academic classical music that is being produced today. I’m concerned because nearly every church in the world uses this form of expression, yet their leaders don’t understand music well enough to use it in any constructive or deeply worthwhile way.

Week after week our congregations are presented with sounds that function as no more than an entertaining addition to the text (which had more meaning before it was set to music).  In extreme cases, the music even makes a mockery of the text it sets. Outside of the text, much of the church’s music is very shallow if not completely irrelevant to our faith.  It seems to me that if something is going to be included in our corporate worship that it be valuable at least to the end of coloring a relevant text in a way that enhances its meaning.

Worship music is not simply a melodic line used to sing a text that agrees with the Christian worldview.  For example, “Joyful Joyful We Adore Thee” is not worship music, but a worship text.  That tune played by itself portrays Christianity and a form of deism simultaneously, making the melody an unsettling oxymoron. While the song can be justified being used in church by pointing out aesthetic implications between the text and the music and the comparing text to the text in Beethoven’s 9th, the tune is not worship music by any stretch of the imagination and the hymn should be handled very carefully if it is used in worship. The key words in worship music are “worship” and “music”.  I’ve been asked before what I thought worship music was, and I never gave a straight answer. I am realizing that the reason for dodging this question is due to the scarcity of worship music.  It’s very difficult to pinpoint a definition without clear examples to test your conclusion.  But in any case, this essay demands to conclude with an attempt:

Christian worship music is harmony, melody, color, and rhythm that is organized for the expressed purpose of paying homage to Christ and portraying or teaching the Christian worldview with it’s cumulative effect on a sentient being.

Sounds without theological meaning have no place in corporate worship.  That said, I hope we all realize that people on both sides of this issue have a lot of work to do.

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