Wednesday, July 29, 2015

God, Give Me Faith Like a Child

I wrote "God, Give Me Faith Like a Child" in 2012, shortly after moving back to Indiana. I was impressed by my then-toddler's ability to adapt to our new life, even as I struggled to figure out what to do with myself. Sally Morris provided me with the plaintive tune just a few days later.
This might be the simplest track on Walk in Peace; it is certainly one of my favorites. The vocalist is the amazing Patrick Ressler--please see more of Patrick's work here: -- and the guitarist is Matthias Stegmann, who also engineered most of the album. Rather than recording the guitar and vocalist separately (as would normally be the approach), we recorded them simultaneously. Giving the musicians some room for give-and-take makes for a beautiful track.
The text and tune can be found in Stars Like Grace, in the Walk in Peace collection, or as an octavo (with another piece from the CD, "When You Wonder, When You Wander."

Friday, July 24, 2015

Art and Craft (and Hymns)

There's an old dresser in the guest room of our house. To an untrained eye, it looks "nice," perhaps "pretty" in an antique sort of way, and certainly functional. Look closely and you'll notice artful stenciling on the front that says, "John Kinsinger" and "1876." (Look even more closely and you'll notice that the "s" in Kinsinger is backwards.)

John Kinsinger was my great-great-grandfather. The dresser was made for his 18th birthday by his grandfather, Jacob Knagy. Jacob, my great-great-great-great-grandfather, lived from 1796 to 1883, so he was around 80 when he built this piece. He was a prolific furniture maker, and his work is now considered quite collectable.

Beyond its functionality and basic visual appeal, people who know anything about wood-working get very excited about the dresser. They pull open the drawers and marvel at the hand-carved dovetails, which line up perfectly. They touch the wood and comment on its durability. They look at the underside and back and see that nothing was skimped on it the crafting process.

Most of those details are lost on me as a layperson until they are pointed out, but they all contribute to a perfectly crafted piece of art. Unlike the cheaper snap-together-yourself furniture that populates most of our house, this piece has lasted 139 years. The detail and care applied to it at its creation gave it the potential to endure for generations, while I will be lucky if my $20 bookshelves hold up a decade under all of my hymnals.

I use this dresser as an illustration when I offer fellow hymn writers comments and critiques on their work. There are elements of our craft that infuse our work with durability, sing-ability, and aesthetic appeal. Many of these would be lost on the average singer, or would seem unimportant. But I think there is a strong analogy between a perfectly tight dovetail and a perfect rhyme (or smooth rhythmic accents, or proper grammar, or . . .) The analogy can extend to material, design, tools, and on and on.

Approaching the work of lyric writing as a craft does not mean leaving aside artistry; it means applying skill and hard work to the art. In my experience, honing a text to "tighten the dovetails" always pays off in the end. That process generally requires the help of other skilled crafters who can help me spot the loose connections. (This is certainly an aspirational process; I don't expect to achieve perfection!)

I don't expect that much of my work will endure as long as my dresser. I would guess that Jacob Knagy would be surprised to learn that many of his pieces are still around and highly valued. But when a well-crafted piece of art finds a home with people who love it and care for it, it can serve its purpose long beyond the life of its creator.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Where the Joys and Hopes of Living

I was delighted to spend Tuesday at the National Association of Pastoral Musicians annual convention in Grand Rapids. It was a wonderful day of connecting with a number of my collaborators, several of whom I met for the first time. (One of the odd things about hymn writing is that sometimes producing a piece together can happen without any direct interaction!) One of these previously un-met composers is Norah Duncan IV:

Norah is best-known in Mennonite circles for the "Duncan Alleluia," which was popularized by John Bell and the Iona community, and is included in our Sing the Journey hymnal supplement. Several years ago Norah provided my text "Christ the Victorious" with an energetic choral setting in an African-American gospel style. (The "listen preview" here provides a rather buttoned-down rendition.) He tells me that the premier performance went on for 26 minutes! When I conducted it at Hyattsville Mennonite it only took four. It has also been translated into Swedish. No word on how long it takes Swedes to sing it.

My second collaboration with Norah came just this Spring. The local planners for the NPM convention had asked me to create a text that could be sung at the opening plenary session. The theme of the convention is "Called to Joy and Hope: Let the Servant Church Arise." It celebrates the fiftieth anniversary of the promulgation of Gaudium et Spes, which begins "[T]he joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the people of our time, especially of those who are poor or afflicted in any way, are the joy and hope, the grief and anguish of the followers of Christ as well" (Gaudium et Spes, 1). After digging thorough that document for a while, I wrote "Where the joys and hopes of living." The planning committee had requested something that could be sung to a familiar tune, so I wrote in meter, which could be used with the uber-familar NETTLETON ("Come, thou fount of every blessing"). Several months after completing the commission, I learned that Norah Duncan had created a brand new setting for it. He wrote in a style deliberately imitative of early American hymnody (like NETTLETON), providing a perfect match for my text. So here's what it sounds like when sung by two thousand Catholic musicians:

NPM Convention Opening Celebration

And here's the hot-off-the-presses choral octavo: Where the Joys and Hopes of Living

I got to hear several of my other texts sung in various settings and will post about some of those in the coming days.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Sometimes Our Only Song is Weeping

Following the terrorist attack in Charleston a few weeks ago, The Hymn Society distributed a number of hymns that could be used in response. "Sometimes Our Only Song is Weeping" was included in that group. Last night I discovered that a musician has already recorded this soulful rendition of the piece using WAYFARING STRANGER, the tune I had in mind when writing.