Posts Tagged 'Contemporary Music'

Psalm 84: Highways to Zion

I have three recordings to share this week which fit together under the theme of Psalm 84.

I come back to this beautiful psalm again and again in seasons of anxiety and uncertainty. The text begins by extolling the courts of the Lord as the place where even a swallow can build a nest in safety for her young, and it ends by praising God as a sun and a shield who gives favor and honor. And in the middle, Psalm 84 includes the beautiful phrase: “How blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion!”

Now, some context for the three recordings.

I grew up savoring the Dutch-organ-psalm-improvisation genre, as I’ve mentioned before on this site. Not only is it hard to find this style of organ playing in America (let alone the sheet music for it!), but it is also difficult to find pipe organs that are built in a style that supports the music. What, exactly, do you need? I can only offer some amateur observations on this, but depending on the piece, you need three or four different characteristics in a pipe organ: (a) at least one manual with 8′, 4′, and 2 2/3′ flute stops, (b) a variety of mutations or Baroque solo voices such as Cornet, Sesquialtera, Crumhorn, etc., (c) mechanical key action and flexible winding to provide some fluctuation in pitch and attack, and (d) tremulants that are unified across the whole organ, or that at least synchronize with one another. If you’re an organist, you may be able to sympathize with how difficult it is to find a reasonably accessible instrument that satisfies all these criteria in the USA. (That’s why the organ at Dordt University is such a significant exception.) If you’re not, here’s the basic takeaway: unless you can find an organ with at least three of these characteristics, the music not only won’t sound authentic, it possibly won’t even sound pretty.

So, in my quest for organs in my regular haunts (Long Island and western Pennsylvania) that can handle Dutch psalm settings, I was excited to discover a 2-manual Flentrop organ about an hour north of Pittsburgh in a Presbyterian church in Slippery Rock. I visited last fall and recorded the first part of Jan Zwart’s Canonisch Voorspel (canonic prelude) on Genevan Psalm 84. It’s a good start, but the organ is really small, and without any tremulants available, the music seemed a little shapeless to my ear.

That’s why I was thankful for the chance to record the whole setting a second time earlier this month on the brand-new Peragallo pipe organ at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Sayville, NY. Although the key action is electronic rather than mechanical, the tremulants and mutations give this recording a much warmer and fuller sound. I hope to visit the Flentrop again, but I now have a better idea of what music it can handle.

Both of the recordings above focus on the beautiful tune of Psalm 84 which came from Calvin’s Genevan Psalter and is still familiar in many countries in Europe today. The third recording is a new tune for Psalm 84, this one from Russia. I previously posted about Konstantin Zhigulin’s work and attempted to record this same improvisation on an organ in Wilkinsburg. Turns out, the tune lends itself far better to piano. This is an excerpt from the benefit concert I recently gave for Geneva College.

Each of these very different recordings affords an opportunity to meditate on the soul-settling truths contained in Psalm 84. The Lord is a sun and a shield, our hope and our song in the night . . . how beautiful are your dwelling places, O Lord!

–MRK

Improvisation on “Lamb, Precious Lamb”

It’s not a psalm today. Instead, it’s a beautiful new contribution to the Trinity Psalter Hymnal by OPC minister Rev. Jonathan Landry Cruse and Presbyterian musician Paul S. Jones, entitled “Lamb, Precious Lamb” (#353). Since I had one more opportunity to practice and record on the magnificent Peragallo organ at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Sayville, I decided to improvise on this meditative and majestic tune.

Rev. Cruse has offered a significant contribution to the tradition of Reformed hymnody with his collection of 25 Hymns of Devotion, composed in collaboration with several modern-day church musicians. “Lamb, Precious Lamb” is one of the finest, as well as one of several that made it into the Trinity Psalter Hymnal. I look forward to Rev. Cruse’s future contributions to the music of the church.

The text of “Lamb, Precious Lamb” explores a variety of facets of Christ’s atoning sacrifice for sin. The fifth stanza closes with a fitting doxology:

Lamb, worthy Lamb, who reigns for endless days,
Maker, Redeemer, thine be all the praise.
We join the eternal choirs of heaven, great King;
“Glory and honor to the Lamb!” we sing.

–MRK

Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns (Review)

Why Johnny Can't Sing HymnsT. David Gordon’s recent book Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns: How Pop Culture Rewrote the Hymnal (190 pp., P&R, 2010) has created a bit of a stir within the Presbyterian and Reformed family of churches. While Gordon does not directly address the topic of psalm-singing, I think it is worthwhile to devote at least a little space here to a book by a respected author on an important subject.

Gordon’s areas of expertise include theology and media ecology. Music is not one of them, as he quickly admits (he can read music, but does not play an instrument). This both limits the extent to which he can discuss the music theory behind hymnody and allows him to approach the topic from a unique perspective.

To sum up the field of media ecology in one borrowed sentence, “we make tools, and tools make us” (10). From this angle Gordon digs behind the contemporary worship movement to expose the cultural assumptions of contemporaneity. Drawing from cultural analysts like Neil Postman and Ken Myers, Gordon characterizes the dominant ideology of the 21st century as one that disregards the past and trivializes the present. If this is so, he concludes, “the meta-message that contemporary music sends is this: Nothing is important; everything is just amusing or entertaining. This is hardly a Christian message” (72).

Throughout Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns Gordon employs a clear, readable style, comparable at points to Postman’s own renowned prose. After reading this book I felt as though the author were one of my own college professors. Unfortunately, Gordon also possesses the classic professor’s tendency to wander off into minimally relevant tangents (the low point, I think, is a footnote about the cost of his preferred razor blades). Between the occasional digressions and some significant overlap of material between chapters, I tend to think this volume could have been just as useful at two-thirds or even half as long.

While I found this book to be informative and enjoyable, I must also confess to some objections to Gordon’s line of reasoning. Where his cultural analysis is keen, his musical analysis is a little shaky—his final definition for “contemporary music” seems to be “music accompanied by a guitar”—and he often left me wondering how to make the final connection between the two subjects. Gordon also seems to directly correlate “triviality” and “contemporaneity” (a term he is reluctant to define), as though intelligent, articulate advocates of “contemporary Christian music” (CCM) either do not exist or are not to be taken seriously.

As you may have already guessed from the title of this blog, my biggest beef with Gordon’s case lies in his appeals to “traditional hymnody” (which, like the term “contemporary music,” he does not pause to explain). Gordon laments the fact that his students categorize the 1885 song “How Great Thou Art” as a “traditional” hymn—but his favorite example of hymnody, “Abide With Me,” is only a few decades older. He faults CCM proponents for knowing “nothing of Christian hymnody prior to the nineteenth or twentieth century” (41), but what other centuries are responsbile for the overwhelming proportion of the contents of any “traditional” hymnal?

It is clear that Gordon views the contemporary Christian music movement as a strange new blip on the church’s 2000-year-old radar. I would suggest that his “traditional” hymns are actually not that traditional either. Rather, I believe CCM is merely a small part of a much larger blip on the radar screen: the emergence of Western hymnody—a phenomenon that has crowded out the church’s (much more traditional) practice of psalm-singing, in some Reformed and Presbyterian denominations less than 100 years ago. I would love to read Gordon’s cultural analysis of how this worship shift occurred. Sadly, he barely mentions it.

In conclusion, Why Johnny Can’t Sing Hymns will certainly appeal to readers who already favor hymns over CCM. Gordon hits all the high points of the contemporary Christian music debate (guitars, repetition, amplification, triviality), and he does so far more articulately than the average church member. The book nobly champions the cause of hymns, though it is probably unlikely to win converts from the contemporary camp. All in all, I appreciate Gordon’s fresh perspective on a divisive topic. But if pastors and musicians merely follow his advice without probing deeper, I am not sure the church will be that much better off.

–MRK

“How to Evade the Worship Wars”

My latest article for The Outlook magazine, entitled “How to Evade the Worship Wars,” is now available online. The article summarizes the regulative principle of worship and the dialogical nature of worship, as well as applying them to some common questions about worship styles in Reformed churches. It’s a follow-up of sorts to our “A Look at Liturgy” series here on URC Psalmody. If you’re interested, check it out!

–MRK

“Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah”: A YouTube Survey

Searching for Psalter Hymnal songs on YouTube is an unbelievably challenging task.  No matter how I phrase my search, I’m usually bound to come up with the same list of hymns and praise songs, related to the desired item only in some completely unhelpful way—the same title, for example, or the same number in a different songbook.  So I’ve learned not to expect much when it comes to finding a psalm video on the web.

But the other day, on a random whim, I decided to search YouTube for the versification of Psalm 148 known as “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah” (blue Psalter Hymnal number 304).  And the results blew me away.  Actually, what I found was so unexpected that I’d like to share some of the highlights with you here.

The first result I got was this one—a simple a cappella rendition of the song.

What primarily surprised me was not the quality of the singing (which was excellent), but the fact that this recording appears to have originated from a clearly non-Reformed background!  The only other Psalter Hymnal selection that might be able to claim this honor is 94, “God Be Merciful to Me,” from Psalm 51.  I reflected a bit on this.  Then I watched the next video.

Not just another rendition of “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah,” but a gospel version!  Sung a cappella, again, and with great gusto!  I began to seriously wonder, “What is it about this song?”

My jaw dropped further and further as I progressed through the rest of the search results.  Next in the list was a recording from a congregational singing workshop of a church in Cincinnati—again without accompaniment, and again with exuberance.  Number 304 was also rendered by two solo YouTube artists (1 and 2), who recorded over their own voices to preserve the harmonization.  Then there was this congregational recording from a channel entitled “ipohchurchofchrist,” and another from the Westside Church of Christ in Salem, VA.  “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah” was also sung here at some kind of conference, although this recording is quite humorous since the song leader doesn’t quite seem to know the words.  In all of the above cases, there were no musical instruments whatsoever.  And it seems like there was no need for any.

Now, this wouldn’t be a balanced survey if I didn’t mention that there were some other—er, more instrumental versions of “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah” in the search results as well.  One worship team attempted, not very successfully in my opinion, to adapt the psalm to the contemporary Christian music genre.

Eagle Rock Community Church posted a similarly contemporized rendition of number 304, but their song leader gains some bonus points in my book for mentioning that “there’s actually a whole tradition of music-writing that is psalm-writing—and this is in that tradition.”

Whew—this is a weighty list of videos.  And these recordings comprise only a part of the first page of search results!  So, with my ears thoroughly flooded with the various sounds and styles used in the singing of “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah,” I returned to my initial question.  Why did this seemingly ordinary Psalter Hymnal song “break through the lines” of Reformed worship and become a favorite among such a wide variety of denominations?

As in all such cases of hymnological research, I turned to the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship project known as Hymnary.org.  This website, quoting from the CRC Psalter Hymnal Handbook, informed me that “PRAISE JEHOVAH was composed by William J. Kirkpatrick (b. Duncannon, PA, 1838; d. Philadelphia, PA, 1921) and joined in the 1890s to this versification of Psalm 148, with the original seventh stanza becoming the refrain. The tune was published with an 1899 copyright date in Life Songs, a 1916 publication of the Mennonite Publishing House.”

Wow!  That came as a surprise.  Not only did “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah” originate outside the Reformed tradition, but its first known appearance was in a Mennonite songbook!  Additionally, I discovered that this song isn’t even included in the 1912 Psalter, the source for the majority of the Psalter Hymnal’s content.  We put it into our songbook; other churches already had it in theirs.

But I still wondered what had made this song so popular in such a broad range of cultures and denominations.  In fact, it just might be the only complete (or very nearly complete) psalm versification I’ve ever heard sung outside a Reformed context of worship.  Why?  While we can’t know for sure, the following thoughts occurred to me:

  1. Both the words and the music of “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah” are simple and easy to learn.  This psalm is comparable to popular hymns like “How Great Thou Art” in terms of its basic structure and simplicity.
  2. The tune and format of “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah” place it squarely within the perennially popular gospel genre of Christian music.  With its simple part-writing, strong rhythmic structure, and exciting refrain, this tune is just plain fun to sing.
  3. “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah” is perfectly suited for impromptu a cappella singing, leading to endless possibilities for its use in many different circumstances.
  4. The mere age of “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah,” and its inclusion in such a wide variety of songbooks, has allowed it to sink into the ears and hearts of multiple generations of worshipers.

Now, with the above characteristics in mind, we must approach number 304 with a bit of caution.  As with many gospel-style hymns, there’s an underlying danger that we may sing “Hallelujah, Praise Jehovah” merely because it’s a fun song—not for its faithful versification of Scripture.  But I would like to hope that many Christians sing this selection with gusto mainly for its beautiful expressions of psalm-based praise to Jehovah.  In today’s self-centered worship culture, that would truly be a refreshing sight.

–MRK


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