Posts Tagged 'Music'

Announcing “Psalms for the King” Giveaway

2014 Genevans CD Insert COVER frontOne of the most common questions I receive on this blog is from readers looking for good recordings of the psalms. The list of psalm-singing recordings available on the web is already quite large, including some enjoyable (though outdated) recordings of the blue Psalter Hymnal and entire websites devoted to Scottish metrical psalmody. Today I’m happy to announce a wonderful addition to that list with the online release of one of my favorite CD’s, Psalms for the King.

Psalms for the King was recorded by my college choir, The Genevans, during the season that included a three-week international tour in the Philippines and Malaysia (you can read about that tour here). A freshman at the time, I got to sing all of these pieces as well as accompany a solo psalm setting on the organ (Track 14, “The Lord is my Shepherd”).

With the exception of the organ piece, Psalms for the King is entirely a cappella. That’s not for principled reasons as much as for practical ones: when you’re visiting concert locations that require piling into jeepneys and hiking through jungles, you can’t always guarantee there will be a piano or organ at your destination. But if you thought a cappella singing represents a single musical style, think again. Psalms for the King bridges the worlds of congregational psalmody and sacred classical music, with everything from Bruckner’s spine-tingling Os justi (Psalm 37:30-31) to a jazzy version of Psalm 118 arranged for men’s chorus by our director.

A lot of college choirs choose repertoire that shows off their technical skills. And The Genevans certainly have the chops for difficult music, including Mendelssohn’s motet on Psalm 2 and a choral fugue on Psalm 150 by J.S. Bach. But when the choir sings simple tunes, they do so just as beautifully. Despite my appreciation for intricate choral counterpoint, some of my favorite tracks are the traditional CRIMOND setting of Psalm 23 and a setting of Psalm 16 by Dr. Bob Copeland.

A drawback of this recording is that a few selections are sung in different languages, so a casual listener might not immediately benefit from those particular psalm texts without consulting the liner notes. However, the second half of the disc more than compensates for this shortcoming. Overall Psalms for the King remains one of my favorite psalm albums to listen to—not just because of my emotional attachment to the choir, but because it captures some of the best of psalm-singing from a wide variety of times and places. Below is a sample track from the album, a new setting of Psalm 130 by Geneva College professor Dr. Byron Curtis.

Psalms for the King was released in early 2015, but the album wasn’t available online until very recently. Crown & Covenant, the publishing house of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America, has just begun selling the CD’s on their website for $15.

Even better, I’ve obtained permission to hold a contest for a free copy of Psalms for the King on CD (the first of its kind on URC Psalmody!). Simply submit your information here, and the sixth person (in the US or Canada) to contact me will receive a free copy. I’ll even cover the postage!

Even if you don’t win the contest, consider getting yourself a copy of Psalms for the King. It will bring joy to your ears and your soul.

–MRK

Buy Psalms for the King (C&C) »

Enter the giveaway contest »

Solace (Review)

My friends at Crown & Covenant are aware of one of every niche blogger’s Achilles’ heels: free review copies. Over the past two years they’ve sent me several books and CDs to feature on URC Psalmody, and I’m always more than happy to do so. The only problem is that they’re the only publishing company that currently offers me this incentive, which means my reviews are not as well-balanced as they could be! Nonetheless, since I may be waiting a long time for Reformation Heritage or P&R to add their contributions, I’ll happily continue to review C&C resources.

Solace: Selections from the Book of Psalms for WorshipOver the past several years Crown & Covenant has published a series of albums with simple recordings of psalms from The Book of Psalms for Worship. Currently twelve such albums exist (if my count is correct), and more are expected to appear in the coming months. The most recent is Solace, a collection of twenty psalm settings that focus on the Lord as a source of protection and strength in times of trouble. Utilizing multi-track recording technology, Solace was produced by three members of a very musical Reformed Presbyterian family in California who recorded over their own voices to create the auditory illusion of a small choir.

I’ve had the privilege of getting to know this family a little bit and can attest to their love for psalm-singing, as well as their skill in doing it. Recording twenty psalm settings at professional quality for commercial distribution is no easy task! And overall, this is a recording worthy of the long heritage of psalm-singing that Reformed and Presbyterian churches have enjoyed.

The primary use I would have in mind for this album would be a reference recording. That is, I would go to Solace mostly to find out how an unfamiliar tune goes or to explore possible tempi, arrangements, etc. Because most of the arrangements are very simple, Solace would be especially helpful for those seeking familiarity with The Book of Psalms for Worship or a cappella psalm-singing in general. But the recording quality is generally good enough that the album could make for enjoyable listening music as well, particularly in the area of personal devotions. Again, the simple singing style makes it almost impossible not to meditate on the words as they are sung.

Some aspects of Solace are not as aesthetically pleasing as they could be. The multi-track recording can sound too manipulated at times, especially the female vocals. And, to return to one of my typical complaints about many kinds of psalm-singing, I would love to hear a little more variety in the pacing and dynamics of some of the psalms. In general, I always prefer real-time recordings like those of the Syracuse RP Church, also in this series, which are excellent.

Still, Solace and this series in general set a high standard for psalm-singing albums of all kinds. The closest comparison I can make to a series from the CRC/URC tradition would be Dordt College’s Be Thou Exalted, LORD! series from the 1980’s. As we look ahead to the publication of a new Psalter Hymnal, the OPC and URC’s talented musicians and singers ought to give careful thought to producing a similar set of recordings. Singing the psalms does not need to be beautiful in order to be worshipful, but it certainly deserves our best effort!

–MRK

(Per FCC rules, I need to note that I was sent a complimentary review copy of this book, and I was not required to write a positive review.)

I AM: Kids Sing Psalms! (Review)

I AM: Kids Sing Psalms!Last week I was reminiscing with some friends about the Sunday school songs of our childhood. Although we had plenty of choices, we really had only a few recurring favorites, including “Father Abraham” and the dubious classic “Arky, Arky.” Another favorite was the antiphonal “Hallelu, Hallelu/Praise Ye the Lord” chorus, which most often turned into a screaming competition between the boys and the girls as each group tried to produce the loudest exclamations of praise. We may not have been very musical, but we were definitely enthusiastic.

The topic of Sunday school singing comes to mind because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we teach kids the psalms. Even congregations with a robust tradition of psalm-singing often find it difficult to impress these songs on the minds and hearts of the next generation. On one hand, an energetic group of kids could be bored to tears by some of the more solemn selections in the psalter. On the other hand, more engaging styles of music like Steve Green’s classic Hide ‘Em in Your Heart albums tend to be unrepresentative of what would typically be sung in worship.

Crown & Covenant has recently released a CD album, I Am: Kids Sing Psalms! (2016), which seeks to meet this need. Featuring 27 children choristers from the Pittsburgh School for the Choral Arts, the album pairs eight “I AM” statements of Jesus (“I am the bread of life,” “I am the light of the world,” etc.) with similarly-themed psalm settings from The Book of Psalms for Worship. Each psalm is introduced by a choir member who reads the New Testament passage accompanying it. This album isn’t the first of its kind; other C&C releases include You Are My God: Kids Sing Psalms! and the correctly-spelled Kids Sign Psalms: O Be Exalted High, O God!

I expected I Am: Kids Sing Psalms! to resemble the singing I described above—what it lacked in tone quality it would make up in enthusiasm. Surprisingly, the opposite is true. These kids are excellent singers, and their polished sound proves that the Pittsburgh School for the Choral Arts provides a solid musical education. By the same token, I have to admit that the youthful zeal I anticipated often seems to be missing from this recording. The choir sings in unison with the rare addition of a second part, so the publisher’s description of “rich a cappella harmony” seems to be overstating the case. Whether it’s the restrained tempo, the absence of dynamics, or just the teaching style, I long to catch a little more excitement from these children’s voices.

Crown & Covenant describes I Am: Kids Sing Psalms! as being “designed for young children to gain familiarity with the psalms.” The difficulty in reviewing an album like this is that it really ought to be considered on two different levels. To be sure, the choristers in the recording have definitely benefited from learning and singing these songs. Nothing gets words and tunes stuck in your head more firmly than choir rehearsals, and the polished sound of these singers proves that they have put plenty of hours of practice time into the music. Whether they realize it or not, these kids’ experience with psalm-singing has left a lasting impression on their minds, hopefully one that mirrors the impression made on their hearts.

Unfortunately, the album’s design is less likely to make an impact on kids on the listening end. Subdued psalm-singing might be helpful background music for children as they go to sleep at night. But I doubt many children would beg to hear this CD in the car or in the middle of the day’s activities—and I say that as someone with an unusually mellow musical taste myself. Even lively congregational singing, for all its rough edges, might make more of a joyous and exciting impression.

Despite my criticism, I’m very encouraged by the production of this album—both because it’s great to see an acclaimed children’s choir working together with a Reformed denomination on psalm-singing, and because Crown & Covenant clearly recognizes the need for engaging and lasting ways to teach the psalms to youth. Although I Am: Kids Sing Psalms! may have left me missing the shrill enthusiasm of “Father Abraham” and “Arky, Arky,” I’m still looking forward to future releases.

–MRK

(Per FCC rules, I need to note that I was sent a complimentary review copy of this CD, and I was not required to write a positive review.)

Time for a Second Edition!

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Timing can be a funny thing. Two weeks ago came the news that the OPC’s General Assembly and the URCNA’s synod had both approved the Trinity Psalter Hymnal for publication—less than two weeks after Reformed Fellowship’s announcement that their stock of blue Psalter Hymnals had run out. At the very least, we can be sure the URCNA won’t be left without a book to sing from!

Of course, this historic decision means much more than that we have a book of our own. Several readers and friends have asked me: “Are you excited?” or “Are you relieved?” A few have even said something along the lines of, “Just think! Your Psalter Hymnal got approved by the synod!” And yes, I am excited—though it’s not my Psalter Hymnal by any stretch of the imagination.

See, that’s just the point: the fact that we’ve adopted the Trinity Psalter Hymnal means that as a federation we’ve been able to move past the substantial differences between “my” ideal songbook and “your” ideal songbook. It proves that by God’s grace, to some limited extent, we can work together—imperfectly, yet sincerely. The new book won’t provide the final answers to what we should sing or how we should sing in worship. It may be an excellent collection, or it may be only a reasonably good one. It may be forgotten in 100 years, or even 50. But it is a step forward.

As demotivational as it may sound, I’ll add this: The time to start preparing for a second edition of the Trinity Psalter Hymnal is now. If the URCNA and OPC have adopted this songbook out of a desire to worship God in greater truth and greater unity, we need to set our minds on long-term investments to improve this unity. I hope the Songbook Committees are already noting what might be done differently in compiling future editions, what recently-composed songs might be worth including someday, or even what other favorite songs from our old books ought to be reconsidered. As individuals and churches, we can take ownership of the new book by immediately noting which songs gain the widest acceptance and which problems need to be addressed most urgently. This could be as involved as an Excel spreadsheet or as simple as a tally mark placed above a psalm or hymn every time it is sung.

All of these are simple examples, but the central purpose is the same: to be thankful for the very good work that’s been done so far, while continuing to propel it forward so that future generations will benefit from the thoughtful investments in worship we are making today.

In short, I’m excited—not because we’ve yet reached the pinnacle of united worship in the URCNA and OPC, but because we’ve set our faces in that direction. And I’m excited for what God will do, as he has done in the past, when his people unite with a humble heart to seek the good of Zion.

–MRK

Spirit, Screamo, and Psalm-Singing

IMG_1773eThanks to my current college classes I’ve been thinking a lot lately about architecture. Even if we don’t often pause to consider it, it’s a subject most of us have at least some appreciation for. You could probably describe your idea of a cozy house, a sleek office building, or a majestic church just by how the structure is put together.

Architecture is fascinating because it can give us clues about the attitudes behind the buildings as well. Houses are built with separate rooms for individual people to sleep in, but also common areas for families to share meals and other day-to-day activities. Office buildings tend to be designed in tightly-packed cubes to optimize space and maximize productivity. Churches, at least old ones, often include lots of filtered light and upward-pointing lines in an effort to set the sanctuary apart from the workaday world.

I was reminded of the descriptive power of architecture just the other day, when the Alliance Defending Freedom released a video explaining my college’s current legal battle against the abortifacient mandate of Obamacare. The video contains footage of both Geneva’s campus and the US Department of Health and Human Services, and as a professor noted, the difference in architecture is immediately striking. Massive bureaucracy on one hand contrasts with small but vibrant community on the other. You don’t even have to begin by knowing the people inside each organization; you can see it in the buildings.

The point is this: Different architecture reflects different spirits. The way something was put together does–or should–reveal something about what its creators valued. And the same is true for music.

Music has its own kind of architecture: plain or ornate, simple or complex, for one voice or many. Music, too, conveys attitudes and beliefs about the world in which it is created. And when you consider psalm-singing alongside the dominant music of contemporary society, the result is again a study in contrasts.

Think about the structure behind “pop” music genres like screamo and dubstep–the piercing vocals, the guitar riffs, the electronic manipulation, even just the sheer volume. All of these traits certainly seem to send the message (what T. David Gordon would call a “meta-message”) that edginess and entertainment value are the supreme goals of the music. The content of music and lyrics may be trivial, but that doesn’t matter; the medium was created merely for mass consumption, and that’s what counts.

A good topic for another day would be to try to answer whether the genre of “contemporary Christian music” sends a different message. I’m afraid much of it doesn’t. But let’s skip this category of music, along with the older category of hymns, and go back to the psalms. What does the architecture of psalm-singing (not even the content, but just the structures and patterns of psalm-singing) reveal? I’d love to hear your thoughts, but for now, here are a few of my own:

  • Psalm-singing reveals a common identity. When we sing psalms in church, we don’t perform solos. Neither do we let a group of people stand at the front of the sanctuary and do the singing for us. No, we sing together, both in unison and in harmony, affirming that we are all members of the universal body of Christ.
  • Psalm-singing opposes the idea of performance. Groups like my college choir may occasionally sing psalms in concert, but congregational psalm-singing has never been designed around performance. To be honest, a lot of congregational psalm-singing sounds pretty rough around the edges. But in the era of squeaky-clean digital mastering, we may need to be reminded that there are reasons to sing other than “sounding good.”
  • Psalm-singing legitimizes a wide range of emotions. In contrast to the limited emotional vocabulary of pop music, the psalms treat a vast spectrum of life experiences with a vast spectrum of emotional responses. If we take psalm-singing seriously, our worship will include a variety of moods and subjects, some of which we may not be particularly comfortable with. And that’s the point: over time, psalm-singing prepares us for all the ups and downs of the Christian life.
  • Psalm-singing reveals an attitude of worship. The psalms address God so frequently that this point almost seems unnecessary–but it isn’t. The ultimate recipient of our singing isn’t the giant crowd in a mosh pit, nor is it even an auditorium full of fellow believers. The primary reason for our singing isn’t to share our thoughts and feelings with the rest of the world, it’s to communicate with God.

Different architecture, different spirits–and may the Spirit that dwells within us impart a God-honoring (and refreshingly different) shape to the songs we sing!

–MRK


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