Alto Saxophone Solo – Psalm 51

February 17th, 2012

This alto saxophone solo is a musical depiction of Psalm 51; a biblical text describing David’s sorrow over his sin. Using a concert A drone (from any source you want) to create harmonic tension and release throughout the solo, the music follows the same emotional path that the psalm does. It begins in lament and brokenness and slowly moves towards repentance, and restoration.

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Below is the text off of which this alto saxophone solo is based:

Have mercy on me, O God,
   according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
   blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
   and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
   and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
   and done what is evil in your sight;
so you are right in your verdict
   and justified when you judge.
Surely I was sinful at birth,
   sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
   you taught me wisdom in that secret place.

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
   wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
   let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins
   and blot out all my iniquity.

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
   and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
   or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
   and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
   so that sinners will turn back to you.
Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
   you who are God my Savior,
   and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
Open my lips, Lord,
   and my mouth will declare your praise.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
   you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
   a broken and contrite heart
   you, God, will not despise.

May it please you to prosper Zion,
   to build up the walls of Jerusalem.
Then you will delight in the sacrifices of the righteous,
   in burnt offerings offered whole;
   then bulls will be offered on your altar.

-Psalm 51 (NIV)

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

Additional information

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 in Worship; Objective Beauty

August 24th, 2011

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”  Really?  So if I find sin to be beautiful, then it is so for me?  While this saying may have been coined with good intentions I find no value in it as a Christian. If someone finds an object, action, or idea beautiful when God does not, then that person is wrong. That thing is not beautiful and the person believes in a lie.  There is beauty in the eye of the beholder only if the beholder we are referring to is God. At this point some may object, “That proverb only refers to things which are actually subjective.  For example, some may find a musical work to be beautiful while another finds it to be disgraceful and both views would be justified.  No proverb is without exception.”  But that’s a silly idea because there is an absolute standard for beauty, and that standard is Christ. Since perfect beauty is possible, human opinion is irrelevant.  Saying that beauty is subjective is as silly as moral relativism (and maybe just as diabolical).

Truth is what is; what is not is untrue. When something is untrue, it is a lie. Lies are not beautiful and no amount of postmodern relativism can make them true or beautiful.  In other words, truth is reality and lies point to nothingness. (I don’t understand why people think “what is truth?” is such a deep question. It seems to have the most obvious answer of any question ever asked.) Conversely, truth gives birth to beauty and goodness because beauty and goodness are real.  Were they not real, they would not be beauty and goodness. Therefore beauty and goodness cannot be subjective.  Truth is true and it does not create things that are unlike itself. If this does not settle the matter for you, read The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis.

In C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, a conversation happens between two artists; one damned and the other glorified.  The heavenly artist said to the ghost, “When you painted on earth…it was because you caught glimpses of Heaven in the earthly landscape.  The success of your painting was that it enabled others to see the glimpses too.”  The ghost’s painting was good because it reflected heaven; because it tried to capture the reality (truth) from which beauty comes. (In this, Lewis also made it clear that Godless men can still depict heaven; which is why Christians should not hesitate to consume secular art when it is good.)  Music is the same way; it is only beautiful if it points beyond itself and towards the standard. Therefore, there is nothing subjective about beautiful music.  It is either beautiful or it is not. If music depicts a glimpse of heaven, then it is so and no amount of opinion or reasoning can undo its beauty; we are obligated to enjoy it.  If it does not point to heavenly beauty (especially if it does not even point beyond the author) then it is not beautiful.  If it is possible that one person can observe God’s beauty in a musical work and another cannot, then there is something wrong with one of the two people’s perspectives.

There is an obvious exception that must be addressed.  Some art is beautiful despite the use of ugliness. In fact, ugliness seems to be the very thing that makes certain varieties of beauty more beautiful.  If this were not true, God’s plan for redemption would be darkened by our sin thereby making redemptive history one enormous contradiction. For light does not do battle with darkness but rather transforms it into more light.  Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” is the most obvious example.  It is the ugliest movie ever made: “Let’s sit in a dark theater and watch a perfectly innocent man get sentenced to death by corrupt authorities, beaten to to bloody pulp, mocked by evil, ugly people, and then put to death by being nailed to a splintery cross and slowly suffocating.”  Why is this beautiful? The best it could possibly be is boring if not the sickest and ugliest thing you’ve ever watched.  This is not the case, however, because every ugly element in that movie is transformed by the Object of perfect beauty.  Every insult, every lash, every slap and punch, every nail, and every painful breath was transformed into a beautiful act of forgiveness and compassion because Jesus makes all things new through his own perfection.  Not only that, but those wounds also turned into victory through the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:54)!  Such amazing beauty could not exist without something ugly being redeemed.  If you let this line of thought go through to its logical conclusion, you will understand why a good God allows evil to exist.  Sin turns into God’s goodness (Romans 5:20-21).  We can also see that unredeemed ugliness can also be beautiful so long as the ugliness knows that it is ugly and is seeking help; there is beauty in ugliness’s search for a cure to its ugliness. However, when ugliness does not desire to be redeemed or does not even realize that it is ugly, then it is intolerable.  The only exception is when unrepentant ugliness is depicted honestly; to point out a lie is to tell the truth, and this is also beautiful.

So then, there are three ways to express beauty.  One is to depict heaven through divine inspiration. The very thought of doing this makes me very nervous, although I have written a few pieces out of passionate joy that turned out very well.  To call it divinely inspired, however, is someone else’s job.  Another (and much safer way) to depict beauty is through redeeming ugliness or pointing out ugliness for what it is.  The third is to reveal lies for what they are. These three ways of creating beauty are all very difficult, but the only other alternative is to write pretentious lies.

When we apply all of this to the music in our worship services, we can see that many people take musical preference far too seriously. When a certain type of music is used because that is what people prefer, there is a risk of using music that doesn’t reflect heaven. The reason we select or create a style of music for worship should not be due to anyone’s preference, but rather to what music is the most true and beautiful. Whether truth is in the music through heaven being reflected, ugliness transformed, or lies dismantled, the music in worship services must be inherently beautiful. If this is done honestly, not everyone is going to naturally favor the music that is used because our sin keeps us from recognizing beauty. It causes our judgement to be biased towards ugliness.  There is therefore no possibility of every individual getting the music they naturally want in light of this truth. There will always be details of beauty that bother some people and not others since we are all uniquely imperfect.  All we can do is create and use music that is as true as possible. But as time progresses our music must point to heaven more and more (or reach out for it). How do we do this?

Technique 1; make beautiful music for beautiful reasons: The measurable and universal characteristics of musical truth must be used (we’ve already addressed this in “Acceptable Sounds in Worship; Quality”). We must also not be picky about what genres to use (this should be based on cultural context), but rather what specific sounds and patterns are based on aesthetic truth and theoretical concepts. Obvious falsehood should be avoided.  For example, heavily distorted electric guitars should not be used simply because the guitarist desires to sound powerful. This depicts God to be more like Thor than YHWH. Traditional western harmony, four part homophony, and strophic form should not be used for the sake of idolatrous nostalgia. The organ should not be abandoned (it’s being replaced by electronic keyboards, let’s face it) because it is quite possibly the most beautifully powerful instrument in the world.  The music is not to be easy simply because people are content to be unskilled; the sounds they make will reflect their poor attitude.  Yet all of these things are becoming rampant and are but a few examples of why the music in many worship services is becoming less and less beautiful.

Technique 2; admit that your music is ugly: All church music is ugly to a certain degree. This should not be a surprise and if it is I hope that it is only as surprising as Romans 3:32. To think that sinful people could create indisputable canonic music is like saying that people are basically good.  Only through divine inspiration could a person make a sound of perfect beauty.  And yet this debate of “traditional vs. contemporary” is still in session.  Just as all people are sinful, so our music is ugly. So instead of forcing music to be something that can only come through divine inspiration, expose the ugliness for what it is and redeem it.  Let the Thor-like guitar be Thor, but redeem it.  You will instantly hear the power of our all-mighty God taking the strength of a brute and turning it into divine power, glory, and majesty. Stop hiding your ugly sounds with lies and depict the ugly sounds reaching for heaven so that we may hear the saintly cry for mercy and God’s response of redemption. Who has the wisdom to attempt anything else? It’s very difficult to do, but I’d rather attempt to make sounds like that than sing lies.

Technique 3; give control to God: Stop and think about a few things that you find beautiful. Take the things you thought about; consider how much control you have over each of them. You’ll find that you have very little if any at all. When we consider Christ as the object of ultimate beauty, we realize that the reason we find him beautiful is not because we have control over him but rather because of who he is without our meddling. This idea holds true in our faith and all the way down through the created order.  We find beauty only when we discover something we don’t know. We discover it in the depths of the unpredictable and constantly changing details of life. My wife is beautiful because she has new things for me to discover each and every day.  She is beautiful because she is growing. Changing. Completely outside of my control. Free to be the woman God designed her to be. Were I to manage this freedom that makes her beautiful, every component of her being that I successfully controlled would no longer be beautiful to me. It would be like capturing a flame in a jar to take wherever I pleased while it slowly faded out of existence. I love the way she thinks because its not the way I think. I love the way she teaches because it’s not the way I teach. I find her beautiful because I do not have control over her, and we attend to each other’s aesthetics like gardeners attending to trees we don’t even know the names of. As should be the case with how we handle all beauty; particularly the bride of Christ and the sound she makes.

Regardless of what generation you are from, your music is not finished developing. I understand that many (particularly my elders,) hesitate to step outside of what they are comfortable with musically, but beauty is born out of the truth we are designed to revel in and there is no such thing as perfect beauty when it comes to man creating art in this life. It has to constantly continue becoming more true and more beautiful. So If the music in your church has not become any more beautiful for several years (let alone a century), then that should indicate a very serious problem: God’s spirit is not developing or moving in your music. Our music needs to progress in the same way that our understanding of God does because our music is an expression of worship created through our understanding of God. If you do not desire for your worship music to develop into deeper and truer beauty, it is very likely that your worship itself is not becoming deeper or truer either.

If you will not grow, then you will die.

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