Sunday, January 30, 2011

Music for the Pastor's Study: Part XXI. The St. Olaf Choir

I should have mentioned this at Christmas, but one of the great highlights of the Advent/Christmas/Epiphany cycle is the radio broadcast of the annual St. Olaf Choir concert. A truly world class choir filling the world with joyous, sacred song from Northfield, MN. What a treasure.

Music for the Pastor's Study: Part XX. Taizé

The music of the Taizé community likely needs no introduction, but is rather a cause for thanksgiving and joy. Organic yet broadly appealing, historic yet ever contemporary, the songs, chants and prayers of Taizé are, like the work of the Iona Community, a breath of fresh air and sanity in the midst of the so-called "worship wars."

Music for the Pastor's Study: Part XIX. The Iona Community

Based in the west end of Glasgow, and of course on the island of Iona itself, John Bell, Graham Maule, and the Wild Goose Worship Group of the Iona Community have been breathing new life into Reformed worship for some time now. With fresh texts set to many traditional Celtic tunes as well as some original melodies, their approach to the knot of gospel and culture is not unlike that of Luther in 16th c. Germany and Vaughan Williams in 20th England. Would that their work was still more widely known, but it has been making inroads and is being well received, so I suppose there is little more to say than simply, "Faster, please," and "More, please."

Music for the Pastor's Study: Part XVIII. The Psalms! The Psalms!

Hopefully it is clear that with this little series of entries on music that sets the tone for devotional study in the pastorate, I do not intend to "rank" these suggestions; rather, these are simply posted as they occur to me and as time allows. Were they ranked, the Psalms would, of course, have to stand in a list of their own for their qualitative distinction as Scripture itself. That they have not been mentioned so far is simply that one can easily take them for granted, they are so obviously essential and indeed stand far and away above everything we have said so far. It should go without saying, right? But just in case anyone stands in the need of the reminder ...

Meanwhile, the staggeringly diverse cultural styles and modes in which the Psalms have been rendered is a topic far beyond the scope of this modest post and ever further beyond my own expertise. From the rich cantorial art of synagogue worship to Gregorian chant and plainsong to the Genevan Psalter and on and on, down to fresh settings in CCM and the Jewish messianic strains of Paul WIlbur, the Psalms are truly enduring, an endless source of inspiration!

Perhaps the most intriguing and moving record I have run across in this area recently is Days of Majesty (below), where the letters of the Hebrew text of the psalms (and canticles) have been encoded or translated into the notes of music, i.e., the melody, itself; hence, the delightful and breathtaking designation: "Music from God." Who would have imagined the beautiful order of the text would lend such beautiful order in the musical dimension as well. Peculiar, but inspired and inspiring. Listen and select with reverence and wonder and care.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Music for the Pastor's Study: Part XVII. "Hear My Prayer"

Without prayer, there is no true preaching ...

Music for the Pastor's Study: Part XVI. John Rutter

I realize I began this series of posts with some pretty obscure suggestions for what makes for a good, studious, contemplative musical environment in the pastor's study, putting gleanings before the harvest perhaps, but we must finally ask, where would sacred music be today without John Rutter (and the Cambridge Singers)?

Music for the Pastor's Study: Part XV. Bruce Cockburn

It's hard to believe Bruce Cockburn's career is now entering its fifth decade. Like Van Morrison or U2, the Canadian songwriter, guitar player, environmental activist is a Christian whose career has been spent on secular record labels, striking the all but impossible combination of credible artistic reputation in the secular world with an equally credible Christian witness. Cockburn (pron. "COE-burn") has been issuing roughly an album every year for the last forty years, most of them including an instrumental track or two. More recently the best of his  instrumental pieces, ranging from folk and country to rock and jazz, were compiled on a lovely CD entitled Speechless.

Although Bruce's music gets more of a workout in this pastor's car than in the study, his "Salt, Sun, and Time" never fails to transport one to warmer climes. My iTunes has a playlist of Cockburn favorites that I call "Cockburn the Confessor," a compilation of both instrumental and vocal tracks that contain his most overt (though perhaps more often covert) expressions of Christian faith, hope, and love, in some of which he even dares to invoke "the name above all names," even "Jesus"! You go, Bruce!

Bruce Cockburn has produced an admirable and significant catalog of enduring character, and though the production quality often betrays the technical limitations of the times, in the end it is all good. Here are just a few pastoral and "faith-based" highlights.

What Every Pastor's Study Needs?

If your pastoral library is like mine, and your brain ever more challenged with multi-tasking: exegesis, sermon writing, worship planning, prayer, journaling, the novel, current events, etc., in short, if your short-term reading is too diverse and voluminous to carry around with you, but not yet all available on Kindle or iPad, ... well, consider one of these babies!

I'm wishing now I hadn't paid quite so much for the Book Buggy at Levengers!

Meanwhile, I suppose these really are becoming the new standard in portable libraries:

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Music for the Pastor's Study: Part XIV. Camel/Richard Sinclair

Before we leave the peculiar and historic Canterbury progressive (art) rock/jazz fusion scene entirely in the rear view mirror, let's mention a track or two by a great, but overlooked band, and some of its personnel. Camel is one of those groups like King Crimson that changed lineups with nearly every album. In this case the common element was/has been Andrew Latimer, who has been in ill health for the last several years, though I believe he's in recovery. A terrific guitarist, primary composer, and lead singer in the band, Latimer shared the microphone for a time in the late seventies with Richard Sinclair, who has in my view the most pleasing male voice in rock music. I suppose that is a somewhat moot point, since in the pastor's study I tend to privilege instrumental tracks, such as "Elke," from Camel's Rain Dances album (1977), which bears the "ambient" engineering fingerprints of Brian Eno. I always look forward to iTunes circling to this track for the same reason I've mentioned in connection with what makes for a great prelude to worship: it slows me down, pulse rate and all.

Meanwhile, I mention Richard Sinclair (Caravan, Hatfield and the North, The Wilde Flowers) and his soothing baritone voice because his own vocal tracks tend to fall into one of two categories that are virtually instrumental: on the one hand, he has a lovely wordless way of singing that should technically be called "scat," but for the fact that it bears no resemblance whatsoever to the North America jazz form that is normally associated with the word, and on the other hand, his songs with lyrics are delightfully non-sensical (i.e., he usually sings about the fact that he is at present singing the particular song to which you are listening), so they may either be enjoyed for their silliness or tuned out altogether with the knowledge that the words are just placeholders. "Umbrellas" on Before a Word is Said is a nice example of Sinclair's Kentish "scat," as is "My Sweet Darlin'" on R.S.V.P. "Going for a Song" on Caravan of Dreams, and "Tell Me" on Rain Dances represent his circular singing about singing. Enjoy.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Music for the Pastor's Study: Part XIII. Beethoven

There is something so very intimate about the Piano Sonatas of Beethoven, not only those with the most famous adagios, such as the Moonlight Sonata (No. 14) and the Pathetique (No. 8), but even the more bombastic, like the Hammerklavier (No. 29). Not surprisingly, for our purposes here, the Pastoral (No. 15) is a favorite.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Music for the Pastor's Study: Part XII. Alan Gowen

At the risk of going way, way, WAY off the charts of most readers' pastoral tastes, let me mention the late Alan Gowen, a bright light on the Canterbury jazz fusion scene in the 1970s, who died of leukemia in 1981. As a tribute, his band mates from National Health, Gilgamesh, and Hatfield and the North recorded a number of his charts brilliantly on an album entitled, D.S. al Coda (1982). "Arriving Twice" is the most contemplative, "studious" track.

Although Gowen's material is not generally meditative from beginning to end, it has many such moments, yet these are often punctuated with rather complex, meticulously scored melodies that are meant to sound improvised. In the study, I return again and again to a handful of quieter tracks from various albums. As with Lyle Mays' Oberheim synth patch that has the mood and the feel of a whistle, Gowen's use of old analogue tone generators and flute-like patches has always struck me as a happy sort of meandering. Would that he had left us more material.

Perhaps I would not have mentioned him at all, but for the fact that, some thirty years before "double rainbow guy" went viral on YouTube, Alan Gowen and Hugh Hopper put together their prescription for Two Rainbows Daily (I assume - perhaps naively - no pharmacological references here), which includes "Morning Order," the one track that has registered more plays on this pastor's iTunes than any other. I like the title as much as anything, but the simple combination of bass, Fender Rhodes, and lead Moog synth is sufficiently sparing and pensive, yet bright and cheerful, to serve as a pleasant greeting most mornings, a smiling "Welcome to the day!"

Music for the Pastor's Study: Part XI. Bill Evans

Speaking of Bill Evans, Everybody Digs ... (but in case you are new to jazz, or just new to the world, the paradigmatic tracks are "Peace Piece" and "Some Other Time.") Enjoy!

Music for the Pastor's Study: Part X. Pat Metheny (Group)/Lyle Mays

Perhaps the breathtaking output of jazz guitarist Pat Metheny and his (ever mutating) Group is better suited to a (hypothetical) list like "Music for the Pastor's Car," but a number of individual tracks figure on the 5-Star iTunes playlist that cycles in this pastor's study.

I remember as a high schooler first hearing tracks like "(Cross the) Heartland" and "New Chatauqua" finding their way onto the local rock radio station, before radio was 100% syndicated and local DJs were allowed to play what they liked. Pat Metheny was the local (Kansas City) "boy makes good," playing in jazz clubs when still in high school and eventually cranking out one brilliant album after another. He was blessed to find Lyle Mays early on to complement him on piano. It was a perfect fit. The voicings and progressions in their compositions (both together and separately) are simply unique, and open up indescribable vistas. If they occasionally go off the rails experimentally, well, never mind. The fact is I simply don't know of any more consistently joyful music anywhere.

[Warning: I still don't quite get the sheer noise album, Rejoicing, which title is terribly misleading. Stay far away from that one! Pat, what were you thinking?]

As far as whole albums go, the one most likely to make it all the way through in this pastor's study is an older impressionistic recording of Metheny's quartet, but Watercolors includes some some lovely solo pieces as well.

Some other tracks not to be missed are:

"September Fifteenth," from As Falls Wichita ..., a tribute to the late, great Bill Evans.

"Across the Sky," from Imaginary Day.

"Letter from Home," from the album of the same name.

"Sueno Con Mexico," from New Chatauqua (see my earlier posting on The Organ, and what makes for a great prelude to worship; well, this track too has a similar effect on the respiration.)

"The Search," from American Garage, is the climax on my Metheny playlist, and any pastor with even the slightest sense of being on a spiritual, vocation journey will grasp what this great, capacious midwestern quartet is saying with this simultaneous undulating and soaring chart. Mays' piano here puts me in mind of Vince Guaraldi or George Shearing, and his trademark Oberheim synth patch always sounds to me as care free as my late dad's happy whistling - just the thing to lift one's spirits.

Lyle Mays has had his own distinguished solo career. Check out the evocative and ethereal "Newborn" on Street Dreams.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Music for the Pastor's Study: Part IX. The Organ

What would the pastor's study be without great organ music?  Unfortunately, so many organ CD's aim to represent the entire opus or several opera by a single composer in all its (their) rich variety or to the showcase the performance chops of a great organist. Would that there were more thoroughly contemplative records like this one by Todd Wilson who clearly has a highly developed sense of what is appropriate for worship. I know preachers don't have traveling theme music, and we would appear even more ridiculous if we did, but if every time I preached I could request one of the first half dozen pieces on Disc 1 of In a Quiet Cathedral, I could be quite content with that. Vaughan Williams' Prelude on 'Rhosymedre" in particular is, to my mind, the perfect prelude to worship, bar none. Note the way it breathes and, more importantly, what it does for your own respiration rate. That is the hidden key to a great prelude.

Music for the Pastor's Study: Part VIII. March of the Penguins

I know next to nothing about Alex Wurman, composer of this lovely soundtrack, but his use of black and white musical dyads and couplets is beautifully evocative of both the coloring and the odd gait of the stars of this equally gorgeous film, yet without ever devolving into mere cuteness. I can only think the composer must have drunk deeply from the well of Saint-Saens. Simply the most beautiful movie soundtrack I have heard in a very long time. Having played it over 100 times since I loaded it onto iTunes a couple of months ago, I have not tired of it yet.

Music for the Pastor's Study: Part VII. Bach

To quote a famous fictional Army corporal who served during the Korean war era: "Ah, Bach!"

Music for the Pastor's Study: Part VI. Mozart

Karl Barth was certainly onto something when he kept Mozart spinning on the gramophone, um, you know, "the record player," as he himself spun out the 6 million words of the Church Dogmatics. I cannot imagine trying to concentrate at all, much less analyze deep theological problems while listening to opera, but the symphonies move right along, and when it comes down to sheer productivity, somehow I always seem to get a lot more done than I imagine possible when the symphonies of Mozart are running in the background.

At present I am having fun loading them onto iTunes in numerical order. I am no musicologist, but I do realize there are critical and historical problems with this approach. Nevertheless, I also think it gives one a general sense of how the great composer developed by listening to things in (grossly) chronological order, and in fact, I find this developmental approach to anyone's output, whether musical, theological, sermonic, etc., is almost always the most revealing.

So then, why not start with his so-called "Youth Symphonies"?

Music for the Pastor's Study: Part V. Phil Keaggy

The amazing Phil Keaggy has a sweet singing voice that is often compared to that of Paul McCartney. Nevertheless, his vocal albums are not what I would recommend for our purposes here. Once again, the instrumental contributions stand out. Legend has it this diminutive Christian man with only nine working fingers once received a hat tip from Eric Clapton when Johnny Carson asked him what it felt like to be the best guitarist in the world. "You'd have to ask Phil," came the reply.

Music for the Pastor's Study: Part IV. Rick Wakeman

Continuing with the theme of British progressive rock artists who went and grew up, Rick Wakeman's "Airs" trilogy is virtuoso piano at its exquisite best:

Music for the Pastor's Study: Part III. Steve Hackett

Ant Phillips was replaced on guitar by Steve Hackett, who later departed Genesis in 1977 to issue a number of solo projects in a variety of genres. For music conducive to study, one must be very selective where Hackett is concerned, but his most pastoral records are his instrumental acoustic albums. (Don't let the album covers put you off!)

Music for the Pastor's Study: Part II. Anthony Phillips

Perhaps the one figure who is most prominent in my music library generally, and who more than anyone has acted as a minister of music to me over the course of my life is Anthony Phillips, the original guitarist with the progressive rock group Genesis. "Ant," as he is called, quit the band to study composition just as the band was poised to soar to legendary success on the art rock scene. Never so famous as his former band, he has nevertheless been amazingly prolific, recording as many pieces for guitar  as piano, as well as synthetic compositions for soundtracks, and other albums of blended styles and orchestrations. While not all of his albums may be described as pastoral, there is a lush and evocative pastoral beauty to his lengthy series of now ten albums that he has entitled (or subtitled) Private Parts and Pieces (I through X), and this series is but a subset of his total output. CCM fans should note that Ant's first solo album, The Geese and the Ghost, had a profound influence on guitarist Phil Keaggy, specifically on his classic, Master and the Musician.

Music for the Pastor's Study: Part I. The Harp

Much as I love music, it is not always easy to find music that complements the tasks of study, prayer, and sermon preparation, rather than distracting from them. With this posting, I thought I would initiate a series devoted to some preferred sounds that I think are not incompatible with, but rather make for a good pastoral environment in the study. Not everything that is mentioned will necessarily be sacred music as such, or as intended by the artist, but in the same way there is a great deal of well-intentioned Christian music that does not contribute to a pastoral ethos in the study and thus will find no mention here. My aim is not to be exhaustive, but merely suggestive.

The harp seems a good place to begin as it offers a wonderfully therapeutic sound that is most welcome in these very tense and stressful days; so let me recommend the works of some of the best harpists or "harpers" (as they prefer to be called) who are producing some very pastoral and pleasing sounds today:

1. Kim Robertson

2. Aryeh Frankfurter

3. Joanna Mell