Category Archives: Trubedor

Music to Work By

I am always looking for the perfect album.

Yes, that’s right I said album. Even in this day and age of individual song downloads, I am still looking for the perfect 70 minutes to spend with an artist. I buy a lot of music, though a lot of it comes attached to video games. In fact the soundtrack is the justifying factor in buying more than a few games. “I may not have time to play this right now, but I always have time to listen to new music.”

Music permeates my every creative activity throughout the day, as well as more mundane moments like my drive home. Some people use music to help them keep a pace while running, and I feel like I use it in much the same way. Music can help me focus by cutting out other distractions, and can help me to establish a tone or rhythm to my writing. It can even affect the pace of my typing, either forcing me to pause and reflect for a moment, or tap the keys with a mad flourish like a concert pianist (speaking as one with no piano playing ability).

Sometimes I construct playlists but this is not always effective in establishing a consistent rhythm. Too many shifts in style, even subtle ones, can take me out of the work and force me to pull my focus back in. Obviously lyrics when writing can be distracting, even for songs I know very well, though for a while I was using Adele’s Skyfall to tell me it was time to pack up the laptop. Ambient music is okay, but if it’s little more than shifting waves it can put me to sleep, at a time I’m naturally inclined to do so. I kinda need a beat to keep me going.

I think I’ve commented on my theory that techno music is the perfect music to program by, and it serves me in my writing often as well. Many good video game soundtracks fit into this category as well, especially the less “symphonic” scores. I like albums not only because I don’t have to spend time putting a playlist together, but also because a good album retains a thematic consistency while keeping enough variety to keep my brain stimulated. And 70 minutes is my optimal writing session, both because it’s about how much time I have before work to write at Starbucks, but also because it gives me enough time to gear up and get going, and to pause and think without feeling rushed, while not cutting too much into my day or sleep.

During the writing of the fractal book one of my soundtrack staples was Indie Game: The Movie. It clocks in right at the 70 minute mark and since the score is to a movie that follows the creative process, it can throw my brain into that mode within minutes. Another more recent discovery is Bastion. I particularly appreciate how individual themes are sung, and then blended in the final tracks.

What about you? What music do you listen to while you work? Or do you work in silence? What is that like?


Filed under Trubedor, Writing

Scripture In Music (Part 3) – Contrasting Reactions to the Greatness of God

This is the third and final week of my Scripture in Music series, a brief class for Sunday School. You can read the previous two weeks here and here. This week’s handout can be downloaded here.

One of the most traditional ways people encounter scriptural music is through Hymns. As in, let’s all turn to number 32 and sing “How Great Thou Art”, ladies take verse two, guys on verse three, altogether on the final verse. These are often thick bound books (usually red or blue) and containing a wide spectrum of quality, origin and scriptural relevance. Whether or not hymns are a way that you personally like to worship, they have been part of the tradition of the church for centuries (and some of those hymns are still sung today)! They are in many ways as much a part of the life of a service as scripture itself. Today we’re going to make use of the back of the hymnal to find some of the scripture these songs are based on, and explore the history of two Hymns centering around the awesomeness of God; “How Great Thou Art” and “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”

Hymn 101 (in my church Hymnal) – Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence

This Hymn dates back to one of the oldest liturgies, the liturgy of St. James back in the 4-5th century. The medley is French, from the 17th century Picardy and the arrangement in most Hymnals is from the early 20th century. Picardy is sung in a minor key, with an 8:7:8:7 Trochaic meter, which means that the first syllable is stressed and the second is not. The title and opening verse are a combination of Habbakuk 2:20 and Psalm 2:11, and the last verse is derived almost verbatim from Isaiah 6:1-3.

The song is often sung at Christmas as it speaks of Christ’s coming, though the tone is tone is reverent and deferential more than happier tunes likes “Joy To the World”. I’ve personally always found the tune to be haunting, and a little difficult to stay on key when singing, especially in the jumps.

Let’s take a moment to listen to the Hymn sung in a mixed choral arrangement. Pay attention to the phrasing and emphasis of each verse, tempo, and crescendos versus decrescendos.

Most hymns have a tune that is repeated a number of times. What are the ways in which this choir and the text itself invite emphasis on certain verses or phrases?

We often don’t think much about angels in terms of day to day Christianity. What do you think about their inclusion at the end of the Hymn and in the passage from Isaiah?

How does the hymn speak of the various levels of the world, heaven, earth, hell? How is this point emphasized in the melody?

Why does the composed of this piece combine the Psalm and Habbakuk in the initial verse?

Hymn 32 – How Great Thou Art

This hymn was originally a poem by Carl Gustav Boberg, a Swedish poet who reportedly wrote it after witness a great storm appear and disappear suddenly. The Hymn is in many ways a paraphrasing of Psalm 8, though there are a number of other scriptural allusions as you’ll see from the handout. The version sung in most churches (including ours) is a translation by Stuart K. Hine done in 1949. He added verses 3 and 4, so half the song we are singing is not the original! These verses were inspired by the missionary Hine’s time with the exiled Polish community during and after World War 2. The song was popularized in the Christian community by Billy Graham’s crusades and has been performed countless times by singers of all stripes. There are 1700 recordings in existence to date of this song.

Let’s read Psalm 8 and then listen to the Mormon Tabernacle choir’s version of the song. Again listen for the ways certain phrases are emphasized.

How do you react to this Hymn in contrast to the previous one?

Do verses 3 and 4 feel like part of another song?

Which Hymn (sections of scripture) relate most to your feelings about God and your relationship to him?

How can we think more about the words we are singing and the scriptural basis for them?

How has listening to both these hymns changed your perspective on the scripture they are based on> How about the hymns themselves?

You can read more about this hymn and its various translations here.

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Scripture in Music (Part 2) – Scripture in Secular Music

You can read last week’s class on Brahms “How Lovely Is They Dwelling Place” here.

Scripture for this week can be downloaded here.

While Christian music is becoming more mainstream than in the past, generally speaking the chart toppers in the secular world have little basis in scripture. However, there have been several notable examples in the 60s, 70s and 80s that appropriated scripture for a variety of purposes, from protesting a war, to summarizing a movement, to something thrown together to fill some needed minutes on a new album. Today we’ll be taking a look at three songs that use scripture to convey a variety of different messages in wildly divergent styles.

The Byrds – Turn, Turn, Turn (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8) 

Pete Seeger arranged the original setting of these verses to music in 1959, adding only seven words of his own (Turn (repeated 3 times) and I swear it’s not too late). The song has been covered by dozens of artists but the most notably by the American Folk Band, The Byrds, in 1965 (3 years after Seeger’s own version). The song was one of several that popularized folk rock music into the mainstream, and was seen as a call for peace as the Vietnam war was kicking into higher gear. The song reportedly took 78 takes over five days to get the material for the final cut and is credited as being perhaps the oldest lyrics in a number 1 hit (Solomon was thought to have written it in 1011 BC).

Despite using most of the King James Version of the Bible verbatim the song rearranges many of the couplets, flipping some and stringing others together that are in separate verses of the text, and some are omitted altogether. As we listen to the song I want you to observe which couplets have been flipped, which have been connected from separate verses, which are omitted, and which are repeated. Depending on how much we catch the first time we can go back over the verses as needed.

NOTE: For those of you following on the blog at home you can check my answers here.

Why do you think certain phrases are flipped? Is there a general pattern to the way Seeger has rearranged couplets and how does this change the overall tone of the piece?

What’s omitted, repeated? Why are certain passages left out and how do you think this changes the piece (if at all)?

What is Solomon trying to say in this portion of scripture and does this match up with the way Seeger interpreted (appropriated) it?

Trivia: 45% of royalties for this song are donated to an advocacy group committed to a peaceful resolution of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict without the demolition of Palestinian settlements (ICAHD).

Boney M. – Rivers of Babylon (Psalm 137:1-4, 19:14) 

Our next song is a Rastafarian hit, popularized in 1978 by the German disco group Boney M. which became a UK #1 hit. Originally arranged in 1970 by Brent Dowe and Trevor McNaughton, the song embodies many tenants of the Rastafarian faith. “Babylon” is interpreted as representing any oppressive authority figure, and Zion refers to Africa. Rastas believe Africa to be the birthplace of mankind, so remembering Zion is remembering paradise, a paradise promised by the supposed second incarnation of Christ, Haile Selassie I. The bridge also features the last verse of Psalm 19 (a popular prayer favorite of a certain pastor of our mutual acquittance). Rastas also tend to relate to the twelve tribes of Israel, making this Psalm a natural choice. It has even been adopted by some Unitarian churches in their hymnal.

Again the King James Version is used here, with verse 2 and the second half of verse 3 omitted. Since this is a disco hit, it has a markedly different tone than the Psalm. As you listen think about how the Psalm is portrayed. What might be a reason for the bridge? How have the Rastafarian composers arranged the song to align with their particular faith. How does this change your perception of the Psalms used?

Trivia: This song is featured in the 2009 Rayman spin-off “Rabbids Go Home”.

U2 – 40 (Psalm 40:1-3) 

Following the studio sessions for their third album “War”, U2 did not have a good ending track. With studio time running out the song “40” was quickly arranged using the first three verses of Psalm 40, and subsequently became a staple of live performances in the 1980s and again in 2005. Live performances often featured long periods of the audience singing after the band had left the stage. The first verse uses verse 1 and the first half of verse 2, the second the second half of verse 2 and verse 3, with the chorus adapted from verse 3.

How does Bono interpret these three verses in the way phrases are arranged and in the overall tone of the piece? What would you think about this being a hymn?

Trivia: Weirdly enough the song was written, recorded, mixed and played in about 40 minutes which has nothing to do with the title.

Couple of final overall questions:

In what ways do you think these songs expose people to the Bible and might be used to lead them to faith?

Does scripture have a place in secular (popular) music?

What were your reactions to these songs both in relation to your faith and just generally?

Next week is our last Scripture in Music class. I’d tell you what we’re going to cover but I’m still not sure 🙂 .

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Scripture in Music (Part 1) – Psalm 84 “How Lovely Is Thy Dwelling Place”

For the next few weeks I’m teaching Sunday school, and I thought it would be an interesting change of pace to share the lessons I’ve prepared here on the blog, both for the general blog audience, but also for anyone else who is following along in the class.  I’ve always wanted to take a crack a teaching, and our summer Sunday school class is kind of a hodge-podge, a couple of weeks with one teacher, a few more with another, and now three with me.

In particular I’ve always been interested in the relationship between scripture and music, both in traditional ways like Hymns and contemporary, but also choral settings, chants and even popular music. As a choral singer I think the best music to sing is always sacred. Secular pieces, even great works like Carmina Burana, lack the spirituality, the contemplative nature of sacred music. Some of the best of this can be found in the Psalms, and it’s here where we’ll start our first week with Psalm 84, and one its best known settings in music, Brahms’ “How Lovely Is They Dwelling Place.”

Hopefully by the end of these three weeks we can gain a new perspective on how scripture is set in music, and the ways in which music can increase our understanding of scripture. This is a little bit of an unfinished thought for me, one I’m hoping to refine over these few weeks and possibly in a longer series sometime in the future.

Before we dig into the meat of the Psalm, take a minute to listen to the piece. Try to think of the recurring themes, the ways in which those themes are emphasized, and anything else that stands out to you or moves you.

Note: For my class I’m using Robert Shaw’s version which you can find here.

Brahms composed “A German Requiem” between 1865 and 1868, shortly after the death of his mother. It is commonly believed that this is one of the influences for his choosing to write the requiem in addition to resolving feelings over the death of his friend and mentor Schumann. “How Lovely is Thy Dwelling Place” is the fourth of seven movements, and serves as the center of a fairly symmetrical piece, though it was the first composed. Other movements contain a combination of modern and classical influences, as well as some material thought to be composed shortly after Schumann’s death.

The title “A German Requiem” refers to the original language of the libretto, and Brahms himself contended that this could be considered “A Human Requiem” as well. It differs from most classic Catholic Requiems in that Brahms wrote the libretto himself, using the Luther Germanic Bible as a basis instead of the Latin Vulgate used by the Catholic Church. (The Vulgate can be found in English as the Douay-Rheims Bible, whereas the Lutheran Bible appears to be only available in German). The practice of using the Lutheran Bible is common among composers of this period after Brahms in part because it is more vernacular or accessible to the people of the time.

Instead of emphasizing the salvation of the dead through Christ, Brahms’ requiem emphasizes comfort and solace to the living. It contains parts of the Beatitudes and blessings are a common theme throughout. There is a plaintive cry by humanity that is comforted through God. This was controversial at the time, and even led to some performances adding portions of the Messiah “I Know My Redeemer Liveth” in an attempt to appease some clergy.

“How Lovely is Thy Dwelling place” takes the first stanza, verses 1,2 and 4 from Psalm 84 as its basis, and is the only piece in the entire requiem to be composed from a single scriptural source.

Read the first four verses of the Psalm again looking for recurring themes, emphasis, and anything else that pops out to you as interesting. What are the different ways David refers to God and what do you think are the differences in meaning?

Note: For my class I have a handout which you can read here. It includes an RSV translation of the full text (which is pretty close to most English translations of the song), as well as Google’s attempt at translating the original German for the first four verses.

While it is generally difficult to put a specific date to any of the Psalms around the events in David’s life, there is some thought that he is exile at this point, his throne usurped by Absalom, and in any case the Tabernacle and holy of holies is a place for priests and not for kings. This is particularly emphasized in verse three, envying the sparrows that can build their nests in the house of God, and again in verse ten where he would rather be a doorkeeper in the Lord’s house, then dwell anywhere else. In verse four “Blessed are they that dwell within thy house.” David seems to be referring both to the Church in general, but also to the Lord’s house in heaven.

Why do you think Brahms leaves out verse three and does it alter the thought of the first four verses in any way? What do you think of both David’s and Brahms emphasis on the soul AND body crying out for the lord? Why do you think (other than maybe for symmetrical musical purposes), Brahms concludes the piece by repeating verse 1 (as well as repeating it throughout in the middle)?

Listen to the Brahms piece again, this time stopping after each verse. How does this setting correspond with how you read the Psalm? Does the music change how you perceive the verse or vice versa? Do you agree (or are you moved by) Brahms’/Shaw’s emphasis in terms of volume, tempo, and which parts sing where?

Now take a look at the rest of the Psalm. What connections can you make? How does David expand on the thought started in verses 1-4, or is he going in a completely different direction? (Lovers of contemporary Christian worship music might recognize Verse 10 right off).

For Brahms “A German Requiem” was really where his career took off, his work taking on greater prestige after its performances in 1868 and 1869. For David, Psalm 84 may chronicle a difficult period in his life which he would go on to overcome though not without cost. What can Psalm 84 say to us in times of trouble? Are there times when we long for the Lord in the way David did? What are the ways God helps us through such times and how do David and Brahms explore this?

A couple of other references you might want to explore are Charles Spurgeon’s Treasury of David, a commentary of the Psalms written about twenty years after the Requiem, as well as these two excellent commentaries on the piece as a whole. You can also download the sheet music from here.


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