Monday, February 1, 2016

Contemplating Craft and Psalms

I had a delightful time at the Calvin Symposium on Worship. It was an international, intercultural, and interdenominational feast. The music was exhilarating and sometimes challenging--and often a bit loud!
I was privileged to be a resource for a songwriter's retreat along with Greg Scheer and Sandra McCracken.

When I saw the stack of submissions from retreat participants, I knew that this would be a learning experience for me. All but a handful of the songs were written in a decidedly "contemporary" idiom. (I use quotation marks because everything, when it is written, is by definition "contemporary." I'm using the term here to describe what's often known as "Contemporary Christian Music," or CCM--typically guitar-driven songs, often with through-composed, non-strophic lyrics.) What would I, as a writer of hymn texts, contribute to the conversation? Greg and Sandra are far more knowledgeable about that world, and I loved hearing their wisdom at work.
Sandra, and half of Greg

I elected to highlight the work I've done with composers like Sally Morris and Ben Brody to blur genre lines. I attempt to bring the toolbox of hymnody to the styles of CCM. Ben and Sally (and many other composers) craft accessible melodies in ranges and rhythms that congregations can sing together with a variety of accompaniments.

As we offered feedback to retreat participants, I suggested ways that texts and lyrics could be structured to enhance their congregational use. That, I think, is a gift of the hymnological tool box. (An interesting digression--a Japanese participant pointed out to me later that his language has an entirely different set of tools. But the disciplined use of structure carries across cultural lines.)

An interesting thought occurred to me later--I wonder if the Psalmists sat in similar workshops, honing their craft. Is that how the Sons of Korah worked? Robert Alter's The Art of Biblical Poetry describes the careful structures of the Psalms. Craft like that must be learned, just as I learned how to write by studying the works of masters, attending workshops, and being mentored. I picture an apprentice Psalmist bringing her work to a teacher and receiving feedback. "Can you tighten this parallelism?" "You could really bring more emphasis to this phrase if you tweak the sprung rhythm a bit." "You know what would work wonderfully here?  Put in a Selah!"

At any rate, all of this encourages me to keep learning, and to keep refining my own craft. I'm grateful for the opportunity that the retreat gave me to examine more carefully the structures of CCM and dream about how they might inform and shape my own writing.


  1. This is great, Adam. Last month I interviewed Brother Jean-Marie at Taize. He is one of four brothers who write new music for the community. It was a fascinating discussion about the role the community plays in shaping music that gets written/sung. Hopefully I will turn it into an article at some point. (from Ben)

    1. Thanks, Ben! I was grateful to be able to use your tune ALEPPO as an example of genre-crossing. I look forward to your article.

  2. Adam, I'm so glad you were able to take part in the session. You brought an important voice to the table, and I expect the future Sons and Daughters of Korah who attended the workshop will be better prepared for your insights.