The reasons are many, but I've identified three primary motivations: first, I am a Christian; second, I am a working church musician; and third, all composition is a spiritual act. Those reasons also spill over into my understanding of what makes something liturgical, as opposed to only sacred in content. And finally, I want to share some examples of my music intended for liturgical use that goes deeply into sacred themes.
[Note: I promise that not ALL of my blog posts will be so explicitly about Christianity. I know it makes some people uncomfortable and that I have a wide circle of friends and colleagues of many faiths or non-faith backgrounds. But, this is an important part of both who I am as a person and as a composer and it's something I want to write about from time to time!]
Three Reasons and a Theological Framework
I was raised in the church, grew up attending a Christian grade school, high school, then Christian college. Though I've struggled with my faith at times, I still believe in the Gospel message and see God at work in my life. I still find the words and music compelling. Sometimes I struggle with my Christian identity, particularly in these divisive times, but these traditions and the act of worshipping God are very meaningful to me. They sustain me spiritually. They sustain me creatively.
Second, I am a working church musician.
Throughout my career, I have always participated in church music in some way. As a child and teenager, I sang in church choir and played piano preludes and offertories. My earliest compositions were improvised settings of hymn tunes. I grew up around church music, then studied it more seriously at Dordt University. Nowadays, I am a part-time choir director, a regular praise team accompanist, a substitute organist, an occasional tenor section leader for several church choirs in addition to singing sacred music of all kinds in a handful of professional choirs. Most of this is paid work and I enjoy the challenge of leading a worship service or sight-reading anthems. It is always fun to learn new music and put my skills as a musician to use. I also enjoy meeting musicians and congregations from other churches and learning more about different faith traditions. I am also grateful that my income is not entirely dependent on church music. I know many musicians that get burnt out doing this work, both by the physical demands of the job (especially around major holidays!) and by the sometimes stressful dynamics of church leadership, finances, scheduling, politics, gossip, etc. It's hard work!
I regularly compose original music for church services, out of interest but also out of practicality. As an organist or pianist, I know what I'm capable of and what my interests are. Composing my own preludes, postludes, and offertories (or improvising them!) saves me the effort of finding and learning new music (some of which is beyond my abilities and some of which is very boring or poorly written). It also allows me to more closely match the theme and content of that particular service instead of shoe-horning music by different composers that doesn't quite fit. As a choral director, I can write music knowing the strengths and weaknesses of that particular group of volunteer choristers. These practical considerations are critical for working church musicians, but by taking more ownership of the music as a composer or arranger myself, I can also maintain a more personal and hopefully spiritual connection to the music that I am providing for a worship service.
Third, composition is a spiritual act.
Composing music is a form of creation that reflects God the Creator.
Abraham Kuyper writes in his Lecture on Calvinism and Art that we owe "artistic ability, that art-capacity...to our creation after the image of God. In the real world, God is Creator of everything; the power of really producing new things is His alone, and therefore He always continues to be the creative artist. As God, He alone is the original One, we are only the bearers of His Image...all this because the beautiful is not the product of our own fantasy, nor of our subjective perception, but has an objective existence, being itself the expression of a Divine perfection."
It is because of God's goodness and grace that humans have the ability to perceive and create art. To be an art-maker is to participate in something Divine.
This might all come across as very bizarre to my secular composer and musician colleagues that come from different faith backgrounds or have no faith -- and that is understandable! What I'm saying is very traditional but is also quite radical and very humbling. They might not see what they do as a spiritual act in the same way that I do, but art makes us *more* human by transcending our humanity. To be fully human is to recognize our value within God's cosmic plan and art reminds of that spiritual dimension to our existence.
There are many composers whose faith or spirituality is woven into their music. There is Bach's devout Lutheranism, Messiaen's technicolor Catholicism, Pärt's tintinnabuli, Bernstein's humanist Judaism, but even an avant-garde composer like John Cage affirms the spirituality of art-making. In his 1957 lecture called Experimental Music, Cage proposes that writing music is a paradox: "a purposeful purposelessness or a purposeless play. This play, however, is an affirmation of life -- not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we're living, which is so excellent once one gets one's mind and one's desire out of its way and lets it act of its own accord." If there is no such thing as silence in life, then the endless sounds around us become music by our attentiveness to their chaotic beauty by our wakeful playfulness. We are naturally curious about sound and drawn to manipulate and interpret it. A Christian worldview might affirm that this curiosity comes from the Creator, but regardless of one's faith, that curiosity is an essential human quality that takes on spiritual significance.
There is much more to be said about the theological framework of why I compose (!) but all of these reasons inform why I compose sacred and liturgical music. Not all everything I compose appears sacred on its surface, but anyone trying to understand my music on a deeper level would need to understand its spiritual motivations.
What is the difference between sacred and liturgical music? Why does that matter?
Both are spiritually motivated. Both can be composed and performed as an act of worship. And while both can be experienced outside of a religious service, liturgical music is intended for a religious service and is marked by that intention. More strict faith traditions have very defined guidelines for the music used in liturgy (e.g. specific texts, chants, ceremonies, sacraments). Other traditions sample more broadly. And some traditions use music more like a drug -- a spiritual high or boost that we can get passively -- instead something we participate in actively. We *get* more than we *give* and need to feel something in order for it to be real.
I would argue that while much of contemporary praise and worship is sacred, it is not always liturgical. I would also argue that an elaborate Catholic, Anglican, or Lutheran service may overcomplicate things and get so wrapped up in traditions that it doesn't connect with people. But, what those "high church" traditions do recognize is that worship is a reflection of spiritual truths that exist beyond us. God exists whether we are moved by the music or not. God is already being praised ceaselessly by His creation and we are invited to join that endless song. The service doesn't manufacture these truths for us to make us "feel good" in the moment, but rather we participate in the liturgy as a small part of a much larger divine mystery.
My own faith tradition (Reformed, largely Calvinist), as theological and scholarly as it is, is not always very liturgical. The backbone of the Reformed service is hearing God's word through the sermon and singing congregational hymns. That's enough: bare white walls, three hymns, and a good preacher. I disagree, and I think Calvin himself disagrees. There are many Reformed scholars that have written about Calvinism, worship, and the arts (there is an entire institute dedicated to this topic called the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship!) but go to your average Reformed church and it is either modelled on the starkly traditional or the vaguely evangelical. It sometimes wounds me (seriously!) to think about the vast, beautiful, and messy musical and liturgical traditions of the global church only to hear a congregation half-mumble "Great is Thy Faithfulness" or "How Great Thou Art." Now, I have been to Reformed churches where people actually *do* sing those hymns robustly in a deeply moving way, but if you try to introduce something new or something ancient or something different you'll get the skeptical side-eye or be told that the music needs to meet the congregation "where they are." Again, I disagree. The music is not only for God or only for the congregation, the music is part of this liturgical meeting place between the two where both are active. I believe that there is room for both rapturous mystery and restrained, unaffected, simplicity. What I don't believe in is bland worship devoid of color and life, depth or nuance, tradition or relevancy.
How does this affect what and how I compose?
My ideal when composing for a church service (a liturgy) is to compose music that can be both rich and musically vibrant, theologically sound, rooted in tradition, relevant and meaningful to anyone in the congregation, and deeply personal to me as an artist on my own spiritual path. That's a tall order!
One of my ongoing projects that best encapsulates this way of working is a series of hymn settings called O Love, How Deep, How Broad, How High (Hymn Settings for Liturgical Use). These are arrangements that I've written over many years of accompanying church services. Many of them have deep personal meaning because they were written for weddings, funerals, or special services at the many churches I have played at over the years. Some of them were written following my own personal struggles or crises of faith. On their surface, you might think these are basic, straightforward hymn arrangements, but many of them are quite virtuosic and some veer off into pretty adventurous harmonic, textural, or formal explorations.
Almost one year ago, several of these were played at a faculty recital at Dordt University (my alma mater) by MaryLou Wielenga and Lois Vander Zee (see the playlist below). That was one of the first times I wrote "program notes" about these pieces and that process revealed to me how interwoven my craft as a composer was with my understanding of my faith and the varied traditions of these hymns. Below the playlist are some examples of those program notes and links to the scores if you're interested in following along.
These aren't the only types of sacred music that I've composed, but they are certainly the most liturgical in the sense that they were intended for worship services. But they were also never intended to be polite background music, but rather as theological statements that push a little harder and stretch the listener a little further towards a spiritual discovery.
Written in December 2017 for Calvary Church in Edina, MN, this hymn narrates the entire liturgical calendar from Christ’s conception in Advent to his Ascension to the throne of heaven. The intricate accompaniment of sixteenth notes is relentless and underpins the dramatic character of each verse. Throughout the setting, the circle of fifths is used to highlight the cyclical nature of the text itself (which returns to “Praise to Christ, our newborn King!”) as well as the all-encompassing nature of the Holy Trinity’s redemptive plan throughout history.
O Jesus, I Have Promised
Written in summer 2013 for Bethel CRC in Waupun, WI, this text is more often associated with the English tune ANGEL’S STORY than the Finnish folk tune NYLAND which appears in the Gray Psalter Hymnal (#285). When my pastor insisted that we sing the traditional English tune because no one knew that “Finnish dirge” (as he called it!), I decided to use this beautiful tune (in my opinion!) for the offertory instead. There is a gentleness and innocence about this tune that appealed to me. Between phrases of the hymn are diminutions of the melody in 3/4 time contrasted against the more straightforward 4/4 time. Ironically (or rather, typically, because of our fallen nature) when we arrive at the text “nor wander from the pathway,” the music wanders abruptly into a “dazzling” waltz with “tempting” chromatic surprises. When the child-like innocence returns, it affirms that our trust in God is not naïveté but assurance gained through world-weary experience.
My Faith Looks Up to Thee
Written in 2013 or 2014 for Bethel CRC in Waupun, WI, this hymn has a structure reminiscent of Debussy’s “The Sunken Cathedral” in which each passing verse grows more harmonious and vibrant like it is rising up out of the water. The full range of the keyboard is used to evoke chiming bells, which take on a poignancy after the final verse’s text “when life’s swift race is run, death’s cold work almost done” is truncated and the bells chime with an unresolved sense of anticipation.
O Love, How Deep, How Broad, How High
Written in January 2012 for Bethel CRC in Waupun, WI, this hymn and text from 15th century England is often used during Epiphany and looks forward to the following liturgical seasons of Lent and Easter by telling of Christ’s actions of immense love through his words and signs, then ultimately his sacrifice, resurrection, and glorification in heaven. The accompaniment grows more complex and richly orchestrated to match the text of each verse and depict the growing depth, breadth, and height of Christ’s love. For the final verse, it shifts dramatically to a mixed modality of C minor and C major to highlight how the Kingdom of God exists paradoxically both fully now and fully in the future.
My Shepherd Will Supply My Need
Written in 2012 and dedicated to my sister Nicole and her husband Zach Staudt and premiered on their wedding, this setting uses a beautiful melody from Walker’s Southern Harmony and text by Isaac Watts based on Psalm 23. When the melody appears in the lowest bass register in the final verse, it is an assurance of God’s promises as a faithful husband to his bride. The duet that follows weaves together the melody in canon like hands intertwining. In my arrangement for wind ensemble of this hymn, those parts were assigned to clarinet and tuba, which my sister and brother-in-law played at Dordt where they met.
He Leadeth Me
Written in 2014 for Bethel CRC in Waupun, WI, this setting includes two verses followed by the refrain. In the first verse, the fluid left hand accompaniment uplifts the soaring “heavenly” melody. But this accompaniment grows wilder and more chromatic to conjure up ideas from the text like “by waters calm, o’er troubled sea” from verse two and “e’en death’s cold wave” from verse four. The storm passes gently and we travel “through Jordan” on a mysterious rising Lydian scale. What follows is the emotional release of the chorus with poignant jazz-inspired harmonies that eventually lead back to the opening accompaniment.
It Is Well With My Soul / O grosse Lieb
Written while as a student at University of Wisconsin – Madison and performed at Bethel CRC in Waupun WI, this setting combines a verse from the Lutheran chorale HERZLIEBSTER JESU as it appears in J. S. Bach’s Saint John Passion. At the time, I was singing this monumental work with the university chorus and orchestra and this chorale particularly moved me with its beautiful harmony and words. The passion invites us to contemplate Christ’s sacrifice and this chorale evokes the weariness and weight of our guilt. The third verse of “When Peace Like a River,” emotionally matches the text of this chorale:
“My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
—My sin, not in part, but the whole,
is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more;
praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!”
Fragmented reminders of that “glorious thought” are hinted at throughout the dark chorale setting. The refrain, “It Is Well,” fully appears suddenly (surprisingly!) when the entire piece shifts to a new key at the end. The traditional resolution of the chorale should be from G minor to G major, but this shift is to an entirely new dimension in a new key with a new hymn tune in C major and linked by three repetitions of the pitch G – a pivot from guilt to grace to gratitude.
And, finally I had also wanted to use this as an opportunity to introduce a consortium of organ fantasias based on the Genevan psalm tunes (as a companion to the already completed and premiered Fantasia on Genevan Sixty-Five). That project will certainly pick up on some of the themes of this post, particularly the centuries-long debate in Calvinist and Reformed circles about the austerity and/or exuberance of worship.
But for now, there is so much music to write, so many services to organize and prepare for, and so much more to learn as I continue to express my faith through my music-making. At the end of the day, it's reassuring to know that if I don't praise him, all nature and the heavenly hosts will still be singing. There is no such thing as silence. That is a joyful thought and also a compelling invitation to join the divine mystery.