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Deus Ex Musica is an ecumenical project that promotes the used of a scared music as a resource for learning, spiritual growth, and discipleship.

Composer Spotlight: Zack Stanton

Josh Rodriguez

With independent house concerts happening all over the country and orchestras like the LA Phil reinvigorating the concert hall, this is one of the most exciting times for classical art music in America! The variety of sounds, genres, and musicians working today is astonishing, and there are thousands of talented composers tirelessly honing their craft. One of the goals of Deus Ex Musica is to introduce new audiences to some of the exciting voices working today – both established and emerging artists! And we are particularly interested in celebrating the music of composers who both seek a rich spiritual life in Christ and actively explore their faith in their music.

This month’s Composer Spotlight guest is Dr. Zack Stanton – an award-winning composer and conductor from Conway, Arkansas. His music, performed throughout the United States, as well as Ireland and South Korea, spans the gamut from solo and chamber to choral and orchestral. Ensembles that have premiered his work include the Austin Symphony Orchestra, Conway Symphony Orchestra, University of Texas Symphony Orchestra, and Millikin University Percussion Ensemble, line upon line percussion, and numerous respected soloists. Zack received his DMA from the University of Texas at Austin, and he is currently Lecturer of Composition and Theory at the University of Iowa.

Zack, tell us about your journey into music. How did you begin?

I took piano lessons at the age of 6 for a few months, and then again at the age of 9. I didn’t really make much progress and was your typical childhood music drop out. It wasn’t until I was 11 that music became important to me. A couple of guys came to my church to do a week long “revival” and they were both musicians. Before one of them would preach each night, the two of them would play and sing for a while. One of these gentlemen was a professional, Nashville-based banjo player named Mark Barnett. This guy was mind blowing.

I had never heard a banjo other than the Beverly Hillbillies theme, and to see a professional up close was a jolt of adrenaline. His banjo picking was like musical napalm. I begged my parents to let me start taking lessons, which they were reluctant to do given my drop-out track record with piano. Fortunately, there was a guy in my church that played banjo and had a student-level banjo he loaned to me so I could learn.

banjo4.png

After that I became interested in learning other instruments and took up the guitar, piano, and later singing. The other thing that ignited a love for music was the music of John Williams. I adored his film scores and listened to them over and over. Such beauty, craftsmanship, intuition, counterpoint, harmony, melody, orchestration, pacing...you name it, his film scores delivered. I think that’s one of the things that pushed me toward composition. To this day he is one of my musical heroes.

John Williams, film composer extraordinaire (Jurassic Park, Angelas Ashes, Close Encounters, Indiana Jones, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Star Wars) and inspiration for many of today’s leading concert and film composers.

John Williams, film composer extraordinaire (Jurassic Park, Angelas Ashes, Close Encounters, Indiana Jones, Memoirs of a Geisha, and Star Wars) and inspiration for many of today’s leading concert and film composers.

What’s your first memory of music?

That’s hard to say, but some of my earliest memories are listening to smooth jazz since that’s what my dad liked. He listened to a group called The Rippingtons and a guitarist named Larry Carlton. I remember loving that stuff. I also remember a Snoopy (or Peanuts) album we had, which was of course jazz. I have to this day never really played jazz, but my earliest memories of music are definitely from that genre. I also have early memories of listening to staples of the classical repertoire, such as Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet, Ravel’s Bolero, and Smetana’s The Moldau. I loved those pieces. My mom often had those playing in the car when we were going places.

Do you have a favorite sound?

Hmmmm….that’s really tough. I have a lot of favorite sounds. A beautiful chord progression, a colorful moment of orchestration, a chord sung in tune by a choir, a rich baritone voice, the virtuosity of a tight bluegrass band...I don’t know. I guess I’m pretty partial to a group of people singing together. There is something about communal singing that is very powerful.

University of Iowa - University Choir rehearsing a Stanton choral work, 2016

University of Iowa - University Choir rehearsing a Stanton choral work, 2016

Before You Kissed Me – one of your most celebrated works and winner of a 2018 Sanibel-Captiva Trust Prize – is based on a text by Midwest poet Sarah Teasdale. This work opens with a lonely, yearning melody. After a several rapturous climaxes, including one in which your compositional choices make it sound like there is a gentle rain in the background (2:38), the music settles into a reverential vow-like setting of “I am my love’s and he is mine forever.” (3:45). What is your process when setting poetry to music?

Setting poetry is tricky. For me, this stems from the fact that a well-written poem stands to lose more than it does to gain from a musical setting. Poetry is beautiful on its own and music can try too hard to “express” what the text is saying, to the point that it’s like cartoon music where there is a big crash when the anvil falls on Wile E. Coyote. Text-painting is effective when subtle. This isn’t easy to do, though. I’m not sure I was entirely successful with Before You Kissed Me, but my desire in setting that text was that the music would run on parallel tracks with the text, not try to carry the text, if that makes sense. I wanted to suggest things in the text in a subtle way that would reveal my own emotional reaction to the text or my reading of its meaning. That’s not to say my reading is correct, but it’s the one I have and the only way to set the text for me. So in a way I find text-setting daunting because it can easily get in the way of good poetry, and because it can clearly reveal what a composer thinks about a text, which is sharing something personal. And as a composer, I hope my reading of a text resonates with the listener. But it won’t always.

You recall feeling daunted, even anxious when first approached about writing a piano concerto.[1] Despite this hesitance, you’ve written an arresting, deeply expressive piece. How did you overcome your fears? What was your process like for working on this piece?

I found writing a piano concerto daunting because of how familiar I was with the repertoire. One of the first pieces I fell in love with was Rachmaninov’s second piano concerto. I remember listening to it for the first time when I was twelve, sitting on our living room floor. As a kid I also loved the Grieg Concerto, Saint-Saens’ 5th Concerto, Beethoven’s 3rd, Schumann’s, Brahms’, and on and on. Then as I got more into 20th century music, there was Prokofiev’s 3rd, Bartok’s 2nd, Corigliano’s, Lutoslawski’s, etc. There are so, so many incredible piano concertos out there. I knew I couldn’t write anything as great as those, especially since many of those composers were concert pianists in their own right. I’m certainly not that, even though I studied piano for many years.

The other daunting thing is that I didn’t know why a pianist would ever choose to spend the time learning my concerto if they hadn’t yet learned all the main concertos in the standard repertoire. Who’s going to learn the Stanton if they haven’t even played Rachmaninov yet? There are literally thousands of pieces for piano and orchestra, and more masterpieces than can be learned in a lifetime. But one of my professors suggested to me that I should write a piano concerto since I play the instrument. That suggestion in and of itself was a big vote of confidence—he thought I was capable of tackling a concerto and that changed the way I thought about it. Another thing that pushed me over the edge was with a friend of mine who is a band director. He was asking me about my plans for my dissertation and I told him I was considering writing a concerto for piano. He said that if I wrote a concerto for piano and winds, he would premiere it. That sealed the deal for me because guaranteed performance was enough of a reason to write it for me.

It’s always nice to have that. He even said he would find the pianist. That was a huge thing for him to promise, and he delivered on it. This was also less daunting because I would be writing for wind ensemble, which has a much smaller repertoire with piano soloist. At the time, I was only able to find about 35 pieces for piano and wind ensemble. I wasn’t competing with pillars of the repertoire this way, except maybe the Stravinsky concerto. As far as the process, I did what I usually do, which is to listen to and absorb a TON of music, especially piano concerti, then find some musical element to get me “in.” For the piano concerto, I wrote the introduction first because I wanted a big piano entrance and from there I extracted some pitch material from the piano part, around which I built much of the rest of the movement.

Throughout your music including your Piano Concerto, one can hear traces of American popular music – folk, rock, jazz, and blues. As you’ve mentioned before, growing up in Arkansas, you were surrounded by a variety of non-classical musical traditions. Were there any musicians or genres toward which you particularly gravitated?

I definitely gravitated toward bluegrass music after hearing the banjo. We would have “pickin’s” at our house—a bunch of musicians would come over to jam. Growing up, I adored artists like Chris Thile, Ricky Skaggs, Flatt and Scruggs, Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer, and Mark O’Connor. But I also loved it when artists would blend styles. When Edgar Meyer and Mark O’Connor teamed up with Yo-Yo Ma for Appalachian Waltz and Appalachian Journey, I was floored with the beauty of that combination. That was my musical diet for a while. It brought together both of the worlds I loved.

Conducting the string ensemble at Coda Mountain Academy Music Festival, WV 2017

Conducting the string ensemble at Coda Mountain Academy Music Festival, WV 2017

Your father is a respected surgeon, and your mother home-educated you and seven brothers. What was that like? Do you notice any connections between this unique childhood and your music?

There are definitely important events from my childhood that influenced my musical choices and opportunities. Neither of my parents are musicians but both are music lovers. Because my parents never studied music, they wanted their children to have that opportunity.

My dad often talked about how he wished he had learned an instrument growing up instead of spending all his time on the basketball court (he was a star point guard and his team won the state championship his senior year of high school). He said that playing an instrument is something you can do your whole life, but sports are more confined to a season of life. With regard to my home education and brothers, being home educated allowed a musical late bloomer like me to focus more on music than I otherwise could have. I arranged my schedule so that music was a huge priority.

My older brother and the brother just after me (I’m the second of the eight) also started taking music lessons around the same time I did. We played a lot together as we got better, especially my younger brother. Being able to play with my brothers was a gift of more value than I could imagine at the time.

Rehearsing  Trio for Horn, Viola, and Harp , 2018

Rehearsing Trio for Horn, Viola, and Harp, 2018

You’ve also written for less traditional ensembles, one example being your Trio for Horn, Viola, and Harp which won an award at the International Horn Society Composition Contest. How did this work originate? How did you choose your harmonies for this work? How do you typically begin composing? 

I have written several pieces for less traditional ensembles—you write what you’re asked to write when you know it will be played! Almost every piece I have written has been at the request of a person I know, and that is true of the Trio as well. My good friend, hornist Anne-Marie Cherry, commissioned me to write a concerto for her in 2010, and we enjoyed that collaboration so much that she asked me to write another piece. She had been wanting to find an excuse to play with two friends/colleagues of hers, a violist and a harpist, and they were not able to find any repertoire (as it turns out, there is one other piece for that instrumentation). So Anne-Marie asked me to write a piece for the three of them. When I began writing this piece, I decided that to find my way into the piece I would use ciphers, which is something I had never done.

I took the first names of each performer and I came up with a collection of pitches for each name. For most of the letters, there was an easy musical correlation. For instance, one of the performers was named Chris. C is obviously the first note I used. For “h” I used B, since in German the note B is called “h”. For “R” I used “re” or D since “re” starts with R. S is Eb because, again, in German Eb is called “es.” And for I, I just had to pick something that worked well with the other notes, so I chose Ab. After I created pitch collections for each name, I took these collections and made matrices with them so I had some variations to work with.

Beyond that, my process was mostly intuitive. It gave me a starting point for melodies and harmonies, but I didn’t confine myself to only those pitches. I would always break the rules when I found something that sounded better. I wouldn’t say that I have a typical way that I begin composing—this was definitely a new approach for me. Each piece is a little different. I try to find different ways to get into a piece. The only real constant for me is that I always do a lot of listening before I start.

Does your Christian faith shape your music? If so, how?

Yes, it certainly does, though perhaps not always in overt ways. When I compose, my desire is that the music I write touches on the spectrum of human experiences, from great joy to deep sorrow. When I was younger, I definitely focused on creating music that expressed joy. As I’ve gotten older, I have found it inevitable that my music must also grapple with pain. However, in wrestling with that pain, I want my work to ultimately point to the hope there is in Christ. Life is difficult and full of suffering, but a Biblical perspective says that suffering won’t get the final word. I want my work to have that same trajectory.

Are there aspects of your faith that have been influenced by your work in music?

I think it’s important for my faith to influence my art more than for my art to influence my faith. God’s word is a sure foundation on which to build a life, whereas art is a response to or a commentary on life from a particular perspective. But while I believe my faith should influence my art more than the other way around, being a creative artist has caused me to spend a lot of time thinking about the creative aspect of God’s nature.

The world around us demonstrates that God values creativity and beauty. He has given us so many beautiful things to enjoy, whether visual, aural, or experiential. When God gave Moses instructions concerning the tabernacle, we see that artistic symbolism is important to God—beautiful works of art express deeply important truths.

Through the scriptures, God calls us to worship through singing, which suggests that he designed the human body to be a musical instrument. That is astonishing to me and is evidence that art is a gift of God to humanity for our pleasure and his glory.

Interview with Zack Stanton conducted by Josh Rodriguez via email between Aug. 30-Sept. 28, 2019

To hear more of Zack’s music, please visit: http://www.zackstantonmusic.com/works

  If you are interested in contributing an article or would like to recommend a topic for exploration, please send an email to: blog@deus-ex-musica.com Photos used with composer’s permission.

[1] Program Notes for Concerto for Piano and Wind Ensemble

Where’s The Sound Come From?

Josh Rodriguez

US American consumers can take it as a given that music can live on after its initial creation. After all, it’s how we hear much of our music today (such as streaming services, or vinyl if you are a true audiophile). I love recorded music (as a recording artist myself), yet am also wary of it. I see that recorded music threatens to render the original environment in which the music was created entirely irrelevant to the music itself. Obscuring the original context in which the music was created leads people to believe that all that matters is the product they can consume. My hope is to convince any Christian music listener to resist this delusion and take the original context of music seriously.

JuJu Exchange, 2017

JuJu Exchange, 2017

With the shift to digitization of music in the 21st century, consumers of music have an ever-decreasing capacity to connect with the original context in which the music was created. Of course, this has always been a concomitant cost of recorded music (dating back to the ancient days of the phonograph). However, there was once a time in the era of commercially distributed recorded music when great effort was put into explaining where the music came from. Remember liner notes for vinyl? They often detailed the location of the studio, the names of the engineers, and maybe even an anecdote from the artist herself about the recording session. This extra-musical content that accompanied the physical piece of recording helped people understand the original context of the music at least a little. That effort on the part of the distributors and the artists demonstrated intent to house the music in a particular context.

But the digital age has redirected our attention to only the sound. For instance, it is increasingly difficult for modern-day listeners to find information about the original context where the music was created. More often than not, streaming services just present the listener with the music itself, an accompanying visual, and maybe some perfunctory information about persons associated with the song. Typically there is no place to look at the location of the music itself (what cities the music was created in, let alone what studio). Location is now irrelevant.

Beyoncé performing at the Grammys 2015

Beyoncé performing at the Grammys 2015

Stripping away details about where music was created gives us the illusion that context does not matter. We are conditioned to think that all that matters is the artist’s identity.

Beyoncé is Beyoncé no matter where she recorded. Her image is such that we can count on a Beyoncé record to have the musical quality that all of her other records have, regardless of where she recorded the music. This is a promise of the corporation-controlled society in which we live (where Starbucks coffee tastes the same the country over), but it is a delusional promise. Context matters to sound, and this is a fact that people know well in settings where music is only produced live. 

In settings where there is no recorded music (both presently and in the past), the listener had to engage music in-person. Consider listening to music in pre-20th century America. Living in earshot of their music meant that the listener knew intimately the environmental surroundings of the performer. The listener knew the vegetation that surrounded the musician, the animals that the musician was living near, or how hot the sun felt to the artist. The listener would have heard what surfaces the sounds were bouncing off of as the waves traveled from instrument to ear. The listener would have appreciated how the squirrel running in front of the performer made the drummer play slightly differently at a particular moment in a song. Having intimate knowledge of the original site of production meant that the listener had an intimate knowledge of the music because music is influenced by every element of the environment.

Snapshots from early 20th century New York City (Left) and Chicago (Right)

Snapshots from early 20th century New York City (Left) and Chicago (Right)

Part of the intrinsic beauty of music is that music necessarily requires us to pay attention to the influence of physical location on the sound. Sounds never come to us in a vacuum. They are necessarily in dialogue with the environment around them. A drum will necessarily sound different in an acoustically controlled studio room than it will in the forest. This is because the sound waves will bounce off padded walls and floors differently than they will trees and soil. Music is always telling us what is around us. So to listen to music deeply is to listen to our environment. When we do not attend to the original context in which music was created, we are only listening so deeply.

 As Christians, we must reject the status quo neglect of the original context of recorded music. The Scriptures invite us to consider the importance of context. Oftentimes knowing the location of the biblical writer is of supreme importance in trying to discern what the writer is saying. Consider the letter to the Philippians. In this epistle, the Apostle encourages the church at Philippi.

A well-known verse of encouragement is Phil 4:13: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” For good and for bad, American Christianity loves this verse. This verse can encourage America’s oppressed or underwrite American greed.

But the verse should not be used to finance American consumerism. This view obscures the original context. Paul states in Philippians 1 that he is a Roman prisoner writing to a church during a time of widespread persecution of Jesus followers (Phil 1:7, 13). So when we read the verse in chapter 4 about Christ being the means by which we can do all things, we should hear the Apostle writing this as he is sitting in a gruesome Roman prison. Paul’s theology emerges from his circumstances of oppression. How might this change our understanding of Paul’s writing? If Paul were just writing about doing anything his heart desires – as American capitalism inclines us to think – might he have gotten away from being imprisoned (and worse, decapitated)? When we consider the original location in which Paul was writing, we listen more attentively.

Our culture today would like us to think that context does not matter for deriving value from musical content. But Scripture resists a superficial reading. The Spirit summons us to reflect deeper on how context informs the theology of a passage and thus our reading of it. If we apply this sensitivity to music, I believe that we will resist the urge to listen to music as if its context did not matter. The Spirit of God is calling us to listen deeper. We can have a more fulsome connection by at least imagining where the music was created originally, if not actually learning about where it was created. If we listen to music like we read Scripture, I think that we will have a more fulsome connection with the artist, because recording an album in New York is different than recording in Chicago, which is different than recording in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Even if it’s the same artist, those different contexts matter. Don’t let the digitization era destroy our relationship to geography. Let’s take it upon ourselves to do the hard work of listening closer to where the sounds come from. The One who used sound to create the land around us and the heavens above us will reward us in that effort.

 --

Julian Reid is a son, brother, husband, writer, musician, and educator. He holds a Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology at Emory University and a Bachelor’s in philosophy from Yale University. He is a member of the genre-bending group The JuJu Exchange. He lives with his wife in Atlanta.


If you are interested in contributing an article or would like to recommend a topic for exploration, please send an email to: blog@deus-ex-musica.com Photos used with musician’s permission. Other photos from various online sources including digital.scetv.org and skyscrapercity.com

Composer Spotlight: Shawn Okpebholo

Josh Rodriguez

With independent house concerts happening all over the country and orchestras like the LA Phil reinvigorating the concert hall, this is one of the most exciting times for classical art music in America! The variety of sounds, genres, and musicians working today is astonishing, and there are thousands of talented composers tirelessly honing their craft. One of the goals of Deus Ex Musica is to introduce new audiences to some of the exciting voices working today – both established and emerging artists! And we are particularly interested in celebrating the music of composers who both seek a rich spiritual life in Christ and actively explore their faith in their music.

This month’s Composer in the Spotlight guest is Dr. Shawn E. Okpebholo. He is an award-winning American composer on faculty at the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music (IL). Shawn’s music is a powerfully expressive integration of contrasting musical languages reflecting an appreciation of non-western artistic aesthetics. His music has been performed throughout Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Americas, and he regularly receives commissions from noted soloists, chamber groups, and large ensembles—artists who have performed his music at some of the nation’s greatest venues including the Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, the Kennedy Center, and the National Cathedral.

Shawn, tell us about your journey into music. How did you begin?   

My musical journey is one of perfect timing due to God’s grace. I grew up in government housing ('the projects') in Lexington, KY. Around the age of 7, The Salvation Army Church bus came across town to the projects where I lived and took the neighborhood kids, my sisters, and me to a Wednesday night youth club. My mother, being the overprotective woman that she was, went with us on the bus, and every Wednesday night after.  After months of attending the mid-week youth program, we were invited to come to the church on Sunday. My mother, who appreciated the care and compassion given to us, allowed the church bus to pick us up on Sundays, as well. The Salvation Army church has a strong and vibrant musical tradition. Since starting to attend the church, they gave my sisters and me brass instruments to play, and we began singing in the youth choir. Growing up in The Salvation Army church, I had access to world-class music instruction from fellow parishioners, musically participated in weekly worship services, and even attended Salvation Army-sponsored music camps in Ohio, New York, and Texas. From early on, I was interested in writing music, and when I was 14 years old, I wrote a simple arrangement of "Be Still for the Presence of the Lord" for the baritone horn that I played at church one Sunday.  Among the many incredible musicians who attended my church, there was James Curnow, a prominent composer. After that performance, he generously began donating his time every week to give me private composition lessons, which was hugely instrumental in paving the way to what would be my future profession. So essentially, my music education consisted of free music lessons at The Salvation Army church, and for this, I'm truly grateful.

Images of Salvation Army founders William and Catherine Booth and their work with the poor in the late 19th century

Images of Salvation Army founders William and Catherine Booth and their work with the poor in the late 19th century

What’s your first memory of music?

My first memory of music was winning a small songwriting contest in elementary school. I was around 7 or 8 years old, and I simply recorded myself singing a song I wrote called, "Where Does the Sky End?"  I'm sure my mother still has a copy of that white cassette tape. I'm even more sure, while probably cute, the little song was pretty bad.

Do you have a favorite sound?

As a composer, I often strive to create interesting harmonies and compelling counterpoint, and as a listener, I appreciate that, as well.  But lately, I have been drawn to the sound of unison, especially experiencing more than one timbre simultaneously on a single melody. Silly, I know, but so satisfying.

Your orchestral work Kutimbua Kivumbi (a Swahili phrase that loosely means, “Stomp the Dust”) won second place in The American Prize Composition Competition (orchestral division) and was inspired by a sabbatical trip to Kenya. This work pulses with life and with surprise – often in the form of rhythmic and orchestrational shifts. How do you typically start writing a piece and how do you “develop” your musical ideas?

First, I should say, before I compose a single note, I am intentional in discovering the clear purpose of that which is ultimately going to be created. My compositions are not mere abstract constructions—music for music's sake, if you will (not that that is a bad thing). But rather, my works are about something: inspired by, a response to, a study of, rooted in, etc. That said, I start with form. I create a rough outline of the composition, working out the shape, architecture, and scope—not rigid, though. It is then that I begin formulating harmonic language, motivic ideas, and style. I find with this approach, developing ideas comes more easily to me, and musical cohesion is more successfully achieved.

Okpebholo (third from right) in Kenya, 2017

Okpebholo (third from right) in Kenya, 2017

“After a ferocious percussive invitation, the work begins with a violin solo, musically depicting the leader of a call-and-response, freely singing until the rest of the people join in and sing the synchronized tune. The primary theme of this piece is an adaptation of a welcome song that was performed for me by the Akamba people.”[1] What sorts of changes were made to this welcome song? Do you often incorporate pre-existing tunes into your music?

Great question. There was an 11th-hour change with my "welcome song" quotations in this work. If you listen to the Kenyan women dancers singing this melody, parts of the tune are displaced by a sixteenth note—nuanced syncopation.  To our Western ears, this appears to be a mistake, as if at times, the performers come in a little late. I actually loved that rhythmic subtlety and had initially included it in the composition. As I was finishing up the piece, I guess I chickened out, so to speak, and adjusted the melody to neatly fit in our Western box. While I still enjoy the work, I do regret that last-minute change.

To answer the second part of your question about incorporating preexisting melodies, I'll just say this: there is a reason why Charles Ives is one of my favorite composers.

Okpebholo (far right) participating in Kenyan Rain Dance

Okpebholo (far right) participating in Kenyan Rain Dance

Of your visit to Kenya, you’ve said that the “entire experience was moving: witnessing the drumming; the call-and-response singing; the dancing on the dry land; and, yes, watching the dust rise.” Kutimbua Kivumbi culminates with a musical depiction of one final stomp “with dust slowly rising and gaining intensity—a final plea for rain.” Could you unpack the significance of rain and rain dances in this part of Africa?

I'm not a scholar in this area, but water and its importance is one of the few things all cultures have in common. It's our primary life source. The Akamba people experience much of the year with very little rain, to the point where it's hard to simply live. So, to plead for rain, just for mere sustainably, is significant. I do know that the Akamba people are spiritual people that believe in a higher being. Dancing is a way to plead to that higher power.

Undisclosed location in India & Tawharanui Peninsula, New Zealand

Undisclosed location in India & Tawharanui Peninsula, New Zealand

America is a melting-pot of global cultures. All non-indigenous Americans who live here are from somewhere else with cultural roots in Europe, Asia, Latin-America and Africa. How do you answer the question: where are you from?

Simply, I'm from America, of which I am proud. My cultural identity, however, is beautifully more complex: a Nigerian-American who was born and reared in Kentucky. My mother is African-American, and my father is African. The vast majority of my relatives live in Nigeria, who I try to visit as much as I can. So while I'm from America, I feel Nigeria is also just as much my home.

Classical composition is still a white European-dominated profession, what’s your experience been like as a black man in this field?

Unfortunately, it is the reality that I'm in the minority, culturally, in most of my circles, both professionally and nonprofessionally.  But, my world of classical music composition has been the most welcoming. I've been intentional in exploring my musical heritage: Negro slave songs (the music of my African-American mother) and West African melodies and drumming (the music of my Nigerian father). Creatively, I've felt free to mix my cultural roots with my Western classical roots, a synthesis that has been supported professionally, and through programming.  And when I compose a work that falls within the boundaries of what we perceive as mainstream contemporary classical music, I feel I've been mostly viewed as a composer who happens to be black, rather than a black composer.  This is, perhaps, why I feel most comfortable in this world.

While my experience has been mostly positive, I believe more progress is still needed in the area of diversity within the field of music composition.  Ensembles need to be more intentional in programing music by women and people of color. The academy needs to allow room for more composers from unrepresented groups.  This may require the field to reexamine and expand what it means to be a contemporary classical composition, to better reflect our diverse society. The community needs to better embrace traditional art forms presented in nontraditional ways; for example, what if a modern opera dealing with racial injustice were a part of the canon?

Again, while my field has mostly been accepting of me as an African-American composer, there is still room for growth.

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On a Poem by Miho Nonaka: Harvard Square is your most frequently performed piece and winner of the 2016 Flute New Music Consortium Composition Competition. It was not your intention to text paint every word; instead your “tried to evoke the essence of the poem’s meaning.”[2] Tell us about the inspiration for this virtuosic music.

This was initially going to be a study piece—a work intended to stretch me compositionally.  As a composer, if I had to name elements of composition where I felt most comfortable, it would be harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration.  If I had to identify areas where I thought I needed the most growth, it would be rhythmic and timbrel ingenuity.  So, I decided to write a solo instrumental work where I couldn't rely on harmony, counterpoint, and orchestration.  Additionally, I didn't particularly care for the flute as a solo instrument (which I've since made a 180-degree shift).  So to challenge myself even more, I decided to compose a solo flute piece. 

Around the same time, I became acquainted with and captivated by the poetry of Miho Nonaka.  I needed to somehow work with her.  And while flute was not my favorite instrument, one of my favorite performing artists was flutist Caen Thomason-Redus.  He had masterfully performed one of my earlier chamber works, and since then, I had been eagerly wanting to collaborate with him. 

I had the motivation (to stretch my craft). I had the inspiration (the poet). I had the performer (the flute virtuoso). 

Now, all I had to do was compose.  So I wrote "On Poem of Miho Nonaka: Harvard Square."

This was a collaboration with flutist Caen Thomason-Redus. What was your process like for this piece? Do you collaborate directly with musicians often?

Caen was a significant part of the creative process. Not only did I listen to many recordings of him playing—to understand him as a performer—but I also engaged him quite a bit. We lived in different states, so we would Skype. He would have his flute out, and I would ask him lots of questions. For example, I would have an idea of a particular timbre I wanted to include in the work, and he would demonstrate many possibilities. He was even, at times, helpful with notation, as some of the extended techniques I composed was unconventional. As I wrote parts of the piece, I would send sections for him to try and provide feedback.  A huge reason for the success of this composition was due to Caen being a part of the creative process.

I often tell my composition students, a brass player, for example, "your creative margin may be much higher, but that violinist will always know how to write better than you for the violin." So work with them. 

So, yes, I often collaborate directly with performing musicians: creative partnership makes my art stronger.

Does your Christian faith shape your music? If so, how? Are there aspects of your faith that have been influenced by your work in music?

This question is the most important in this interview but will have one of the shortest responses because it is simple: it is impossible for me to create without the hand of God—the Creator who created all of us as creative beings.  Most of the music I write is not sacred programmatically. However, everything I compose I call sacred because my creative process is a spiritual journey.

From Okpebholo’s album

From Okpebholo’s album

You collaborated with opera rising stars J’nai Bridges and Will Liverman on Steal Away – an album of re-imagined Negro Spirituals. What’s the inspiration behind this project?

First, I would like to say that working with J'Nai Bridges and Will Liverman has been incredible. I used to refer to them as rising stars, but I don't use the qualifier "rising" anymore as these two have already solidified their places in the opera world.  On Steal Away, I also collaborated with other extraordinary musicians, such as pianist Paul Sanchez, flutist Caen Thomason-Redus, and violist Dorthy White Okpebholo.  Next year we will be releasing my second album of Negro Spiritual, of which I'm very excited!

The inspiration for the project was my mother. As referenced earlier, I had a strong desire to explore the music of her heritage. And being an African-American, my mother's musical roots in this country begins with slavery and the Negro Spiritual—a beautiful musical traditions that grew out of one of the ugliest times in our country. Secondly, I wanted to pursue a project that my mother would enjoy that hopefully would also have it's place in the academy (though that was secondary)—in other words, a project that was full of depth musically and conceptually, but also more widely accessible. 

The process of reimagining Negro spirituals has been the most life-giving to me as a composer as I connect to my heritage in this unique way.

Interview with Shawn Okpebholo conducted by Josh Rodriguez via email between Aug. 18-Sept. 14, 2019

To hear more of Shawn’s music, please visit: http://www.shawnokpebholo.com/

If you are interested in contributing an article or would like to recommend a topic for exploration, please send an email to: blog@deus-ex-musica.com Photos used with composer’s permission. Other photos from various online sources including Unsplash.com

[1] Program Notes for Kutimbua Kivumbi

[2] Program Notes for On a Poem by Miho Nonaka: Harvard Square 

beyond books: another way of engaging scripture

Josh Rodriguez

            When I graduated from Seminary, one of the first things that I strove to do was to acquire books. I wanted to have the insight and wisdom of great theologians, thinkers, and scholars to guide me around matters theological, ethical, and spiritual. This was, and still is especially the case with commentaries on the scripture. As a pastor, I am expected, on a weekly basis, to lead a community to wrestle with, consider, and delve into a Biblical text, and this is no small task. In one Bible verse are a multitude of meanings, layers of context and sub-context, social influences, rhetorical word plays, and traditions of hearing and receiving the text. With one Bible verse are centuries of tradition engaging with the text, centuries of scholarship that has considered the social, the historical, the literary, and the spiritual nuances that are overtly seen or are to be found more subtly within the text. I could read a passage and have a sense of what it meant for me, but I knew that there was so much more to the passage that I would not be able to ascertain on my own. There is mystery and wisdom to be found in the text that I do not have the training, the time, or the ability to discern without the assistance and guidance. Hence my need for commentaries, for books, for the collection of scholarship on passages from the Bible. I open a commentary on a Gospel reading or a story from the Hebrew Scriptures and deeper dimensions of experiences would unfold before me. And in doing so, I am engaging with the views and experiences of someone else, I am adding another conversation partner to my engagement of the scripture, and I am broadening my interaction with the text. Hence my desire to acquire books, specifically commentaries about the Bible.

            I now have volumes and volumes of commentaries and other books that offer different views, different readings, different lenses on just about every verse in the Bible. They are all helpful in their own ways, and have offered me guidance in my own weekly struggle to discern and engage with scripture but these works of writing are still limited. There is only so much that can be shared through the written word. There is a level of knowledge that is offered, there are revelations that can be discerned, but at a certain point, that knowledge and experience stop and there is still more to discern.

            The arts open us up to experience the divine in a different way, a way that is not simply shared through dissemination of information, but that is experienced.

The arts convey not so much knowledge, but a way of being, a way of feeling, a way of engaging with the ideas of the text that is not found in the technocratic expression of historical dates, rules of grammar, or social commentary and context.

The arts offer an opportunity to engage with scripture, and the revelation that can be found in scripture in a way that goes beyond information and settles with experience.

            Consider the psalms. Consider what were, very likely, songs that we find in the Hebrew Scriptures. We hear psalms expressing hope and triumph, fear and anxiety, and looking for direction and guidance. I could read what scholars have written, but through music, music written specifically with the psalm in mind, perhaps even for that psalm, we are invited to engage with the psalm thought a different lens, a different layer of interpretation. The difference between a composer and a Biblical scholar is the way in which one engages the text, the ways in which one is drawn into the text, and the ways in which the truth of the text is shared.

One could speak about the feelings of anguish that is found in Psalm 13, or one could write a piece of music that draws the listener to engage with the experience of anguish.

There are multiple settings of one passage, multiple ways of engaging, all offering ways to engage with Scripture. Just like I prefer to have a number of commentaries about a specific Bible passage, we can also look for multiple ways to hearing and experiencing a psalm. Find a musical setting. Listen with an open heart. Let yourself be pushed and challenged. Open yourself to hear the psalm in different ways through different compositions.

Deus ex Musica concert exploring the Psalms, Old South Church - Boston, 2019

Deus ex Musica concert exploring the Psalms, Old South Church - Boston, 2019

Check out three musical explorations of Psalm 13 written by members of the Composer’s Project.

            The psalms give a good start, but there are multiple settings of multiple passages of the Bible. Some are great and profound and challenging, while others are not. I would find the same range of excellence with books. What is important is to engage. To consider what the annuls of time have considered to be excellent, and take seriously those works, but to also engage in new works, in the unknown compositions, in the young and emerging composers. There are a multiplicity of voices offering greater depth and insight into scripture.

            From that time after Seminary through today I continue to look to books, to authors for guidance and wisdom. I continue to read commentaries and in engaging with various scholars I know that I am encountering a slice of a revelation of the divine. But I also listen to music, look at paintings and sculptures, read the reflections of poets, and look to expressions of dance that draw me to engage with the text, with the revelation of the divine in a different way. I bring my burdens and my hopes, my worries, and my joys, and a desire to be changed and challenged to my engagement with the art and the scripture. I hope to be pushed and challenged in a way that goes beyond the head and to the heart. There are times when I am not moved at all. There are times when a commentary does not offer me any new insight. But there are those times when I am shaken at my core, when I am challenged and comforted and a light of God is revealed that I had not seen before. I wish to continue to add to the shelves more books, but I wish also to add recordings, musical scores, and invite in the wisdom of those who experience the divine through music and the arts.

Rev. Dr. Jonathan Malone, Senior Pastor

First Baptist Church of East Greenwich, RI

If you are interested in contributing an article or would like to recommend a topic for exploration, please send an email to: blog@deus-ex-musica.com Cover photos from Pxhere.com

Composer Spotlight: Tatev Amiryan

Josh Rodriguez

With independent house concerts happening all over the country and orchestras like the LA Phil reinvigorating the concert hall, this is one of the most exciting times for classical art music in America! The variety of sounds, genres, and musicians working today is astonishing, and there are thousands of talented composers tirelessly honing their craft. One of the goals of Deus Ex Musica is to introduce new audiences to some of the exciting voices working today – both established and emerging artists! And we are particularly interested in celebrating the music of composers who both seek a rich spiritual life in Christ and actively explore their faith in their music.

The first musician we would like to introduce in this month’s Composer Spotlight series is Dr. Tatev Amiryan. She is an award-winning Armenian composer and pianist now living in San Francisco. Tatev’s music reflects a love of folk music and has been performed in the United States, Europe, Asia and the Middle East by such renowned ensembles and performers as, German Chamber Philharmonic of Bremen (Germany), CMEA Central Coast Honors Orchestra (USA), Carpe Diem String Quartet (USA), Ensemble Oktoplus (Germany), Metropolitan Choral of Kansas City (USA), pianists Jeffrey Jacob (USA), Hayk Melikyan (Armenia), and thereminist Thorwald Jørgensen (Netherlands).

Tatev, tell us about your journey into music. How did you begin?   

Music was born with me. I was connected with it since the first days I can remember myself. Everything that involved music and sounds was attractive and fascinating to me. I have experienced all forms of musical art, including singing, dancing, playing an instrument, and composing music from very young age. I grew up in a very small rural town in Armenia. I started attending the community music school at the age of seven, where I studied piano, solfege, music history, and sang in the choir. Until I could have a piano, I had been playing on the floor and on hand-drawn “imaginary” cardboard keyboards, trying to imagine the real sound in my head and the keys under my fingers. When I was eight, I got my first piano, and it became the biggest joy in my life. I used to spend many hours in front of the instrument practicing and improvising. This is the time when I started writing music, and my first pieces for piano.

Young Tatev and the location of Armenia

What’s your first memory of music?

My first experience of music was through my mother’s voice. She used to sing Armenian folk songs on my crib. Maybe that is the reason why I have such a strong and unique connection with music and especially with folk music, since it was the first music I heard.

How do you typically start writing a piece?

Every new piece appears first as a kind of “virtual” image or a character, or as an idea, which long dwells in my head, until I feel prepared to put it into “physical” shape. In general, for me composition involves a large amount of thinking, and every new work is usually preceded by long preparation process of improvising and examining different approaches and solutions.

Do you have a favorite sound? 

I love silence. It encompasses so many undisclosed and fascinating sounds.

What is the role of silence in your music?

Silence occupies an equally important place in my compositions along with the music. It completes and complements the music, and sometimes it enables me to convey emotions that are difficult to express through sounds.

Between Stepanakert and Alaverdi, Alaverdi, Armenia. Photo by Alexandr Hovhannisyan.

Between Stepanakert and Alaverdi, Alaverdi, Armenia. Photo by Alexandr Hovhannisyan.

You have written a beautiful lyrical work for string quartet called Retro Non (Latin for “no repeat”). You describe this piece as an exploration of the “life-changing choices we have to make sometimes unwillingly. It’s about the places left behind where we can no longer return to because we are no longer a part of them, and because they are no longer the same. It’s about…the feelings and experiences of all the people who have been forced to leave their homeland for different reasons, and who are trying to create a new life on a foreign land.[1] You’ve recently made San Francisco your home. As an Armenian composer living and creating far from home and family, what are the challenges you face? 

Living in a foreign country, all alone, far from home and family is really a struggle.  But for me as a composer, the biggest challenge is to live out of my cultural environment and far from the land in which I’m rooted. My homeland gives me a lot of strength and creative energy. When I’m away from my land I’m cut from all those supportive and nourishing sources which are essential for composing. Besides, living in a culturally and artistically extremely diverse environment I also have the challenge of preserving my national identity and staying true to myself as a composer.

In Retro Non, there is a section (4:50-6:10) that sounds like the beginning of a folk dance, but this music starts and stutters unable to truly coalesce into a dance. What is the significance of this moment? Where you trying to depict something extra-musical here?  

Yes, with its rhythmic intonations it resembles Armenian folk music/dance, recalling home as something bright and joyful. Later it gradually gets distorted and its dance-like cheerful nature acquires ironic character eventually turning into a cry. This episode attempts to depict the suffering and severe emotions one can experience through homesickness.

Classical composition is still a male-dominated profession, what’s your experience been like as a woman in this field?

Woman composer is an extraordinary, totally unique kind of category. Being a woman composer is a constant “battle.” In addition to facing the challenges of being a composer, you also have to constantly prove to the world that you are equally as capable as male composers. Women strive to earn an equal space in the musical field, which, unfortunately, still continues to be hugely misbalanced and show little attention and appreciation to women’s work in music. This is a kind of a “burden” that makes it extra-difficult for us to pursue a career in composition – a “burden” which we will carry throughout our entire musical career – but which at the same time creates a unique position for us in the musical world.  

Etchmiadzin Cathedral: the mother church of the Armenian Apostolic Church, located in Etchmiadzin, Armenia, founded in AD 301.

Etchmiadzin Cathedral: the mother church of the Armenian Apostolic Church, located in Etchmiadzin, Armenia, founded in AD 301.

Your piano piece, Waiting for the Dawn, was inspired by a poem called "Unceasing Belfry" by 20th century Armenian poet Paruyr Sevak. The poem features the life of remarkable Armenian composer Komitas. In your program notes, you recount that he “suffered a psychotic breakdown after witnessing the atrocities of the Armenian Genocide in 1915 and spent the rest of his life in psychiatric hospital in Paris. In the poem, Komitas represents the always ringing church bells as a symbol of the anguished Armenian people.”[2] Instead of the “expected sentiment for a martyr of 20th century’s first Genocide,” you’ve written a lyrical work focused on a belfry. Could you unpack the significance of this imagery?

Associated with the church in the history of the Armenian nation, the belfry is a kind of symbol of life and everlastingness, a living proof of the endurance and perseverance of Armenian people who, in spite of many hardships and tragedies throughout the long history of their existence, could survive, continue to live and thrive, building schools and churches, preserve their culture and religion, and keep their Christian traditions alive. Unlike Komitas’s prevalent image where he’s seen as a symbol and martyr of the Armenian Genocide, in my piece he is depicted as a lyrical character who rises high above the pain as a true beacon of light, similar to the toll of a time-defying belfry, a reminder of the Armenian people’s most archetypal features: perseverance, strong belief, and an optimistic approach to life.

This photo of an Armenian woman kneeling beside dead child in field is said to have been taken around 1915 (Library of Congress).

This photo of an Armenian woman kneeling beside dead child in field is said to have been taken around 1915 (Library of Congress).

This piece contains a quotation from Komitas’s song. What is the purpose of this quotation? Do you often use quotation in your music?  

In the piece, I have quoted Komitas's well-known song “Andouni” (meaning = homeless), which is about homesickness and exile, to build a bridge to Komitas’s own compositional language and to draw his image through his own music. I don’t use quotation in my works often, but most of my pieces resemble rhythmic and melodic intonations from Armenian folk songs/dances.

Can you tell us about the inspiration for Echoes From Childhood?

The piece echoes my childhood in war-torn Armenia in early 1990’s (the results of the Armenia-Azerbaijan territorial conflict). The piece depicts the emotions of the children living through war-time, when there is no gas, electricity, and food, and life is a struggle, but children can still find joy in life and things to be happy about. It aims to show how being hungry and cold and living in the darkness feels like to a child, how a child can cope with struggles, and how the light of a child’s soul can strike through the darkness of a sad reality.

Does your Christian faith shape your music? If so, how? 

My Christian background has played an important role in shaping my mentality and world-perspective as a person, which is somewhat reflected in my music; the strength, the positive attitude to life, the compassion and care to others, the love of the light, the beautiful and the human, those are some qualities that are coming partly from my Christian upbringing.

Are there aspects of your faith that have been influenced by your work in music?

Music developed in me more sensitivity and care towards the living world. It helped me achieve a deeper connection with the spiritual, and to find harmony within myself and with the world I live in.

Interview with Tatev Amiryan conducted by Josh Rodriguez via email between July 31-August 8, 2019

To hear more of Tatev’s music, please visit: https://www.tatevamiryan.com/

Personal photos provided by composer and used with permission. Headshot by Sonia Bagdasarian. Other photos taken from Library of Congress and Unsplash.com. If you are interested in contributing an article or would like to recommend a topic for exploration, please send an email to: blog@deus-ex-musica.com

[1] Composer’s Note, Retro Non

[2] Composer’s Note, Waiting for the Dawn

Why New Music?

Josh Rodriguez

It’s a question that is so familiar to those of us involved in and passionate about new music. By “new music” I mean that genre of newly composed contemporary classical music made by living composers that seems to uproot and defy so many labels, so for now please accept this term as an oversimplified but necessary tool for discussion. And to be honest, we know: It is a fair question! New music is not always as “easy on the ears” as other genres. For Christians, the question compounds itself with moral concern. Should we be drawn to this type of music that can be strange, erratic, and harsh? Why would we stray from attractive sounds or traditionally ordered melodies and rhythms? ...Is it even right to do so?

Possible answers stretch past any one response, but perhaps I can offer a few from my own journey. As a pianist and a follower of Christ who fell in love with new music years ago, I find it not only worthwhile, but used by God in my life as a vocation and a calling. Here’s why:

1. It’s exciting and challenging.

I was not introduced to new music until well into my undergraduate studies, but once it happened I was taken immediately. To a young classical pianist laboring daily over appealing curves of melody, delicate shapes of phrase, and subtleties of dynamics (volume levels), here was an intriguing change of pace! Abrupt melodies, seemingly nonsensical phrases, and dynamic shifts I couldn’t predict! The technical challenges peaked my interest also. Extended techniques for the piano (those ways of playing, plucking, muting a piano’s strings, drumming its case or singing into its soundboard, to name a few) gave me a world of new ways I could use my instrument. Never before performed pieces, some impossibly difficult, sent me into new thrills of what was possible. By the time I entered my master’s degree, I knew I’d always be hooked.

2. It is the future of “classical” music.

My fascination with new music in no way separated me from my beloved Bach or Beethoven. On the contrary, it strengthened my affection for them by taking me back to their beginnings. I started to truly consider the creative process behind music’s inception and learn from composers around me. In doing so, I realized my part in extending the heritage of art music into the future. What new pieces would join this canon? How would any piece stand a chance if it weren’t promoted and performed? I grew excited to serve as ambassador for the music of living composers and champion the future of music for my instrument.

3. It is uniquely relevant to today.

New music is, well, music that is new. It is the music of the world as it currently is. The fact that classical music (“classical” defined broadly here), exists primarily from composers long deceased and usually European is an issue already at large, but the artistic implications are important here. When I play a piece composed by someone living or active within the last few decades, I have a much closer understanding to their perspective. But wait, you may say; surely art transcends time! And aren’t human elements universal? Yes. But. That never negates the reality that art, to create, must always be moving and seeking. (Just imagine the tragedy for us pianists if Chopin hadn’t strived to create past what he’d heard before!)

coffee-communication-compose-1498964.jpg

4. It impacts culture.  

A crucial aspect of art is its ability to reflect and provide commentary on culture. Culture wears the garb of the everyday, the here and now. When I work with a living composer, I know their culture, history, and time, intimately because it is also mine (even international composers are relatable more than ever before in our global age). Furthermore, if they are seeking to impact or comment on our culture, I can join that conversation easily. For Christians, this should stand out immediately. Are we not called to be working and making an impact in our culture as witnesses to the love of Christ? Today’s art composers have real questions, relevant ideas, and significant things to say. Shouldn’t we be joining this conversation?

5. It is Powerful.

After a recent concert, I was approached with refreshing honesty from an audience member. “It was wonderful, I loved it! But…” she trailed off, searching for the words she needed, “Some of it was annoying, and made me feel upset. But I still loved it... Does that make any sense?” I assured her that it did! Relieved to see me unoffended, she concluded smiling, “It was even, cathartic.” Cathartic. Isn’t that just what music should be? Somewhere along the line we’ve grown accustomed to thinking of music as purely “feel good” in function. We use it for entertainment, for lyrics, for background, for worship. These are great functionalities for music, but they close the door to listening to music for its own sake and on its own terms. Music is sound. New music challenges us to experience a range of sounds that often evoke emotions, when listened to actively. We may be pleasantly surprised. Or “annoyed,” like my friend. Either way, we’ll be met with a genuine response every time.

6. It Reflects His Work in Our Lives

God has always worked within our broken world. Making “beauty from ashes” (Is. 63:1), He steps into all that is wrong here and brings His beauty as Creator among it. The finest music has always reflected this attribute (intentionally or not, directly or indirectly), by seeking to do the same: to touch with healing beauty (art). Many Christians point to the example of so many classical composers who lived tragic lives yet created masterpieces that uplift us today. New music, if well crafted, does the same.

Whether looking outward to world events or inward to my personal life, struggle and chaos coexist alongside moments of peace and joy. Bringing new a score to life that has sharp turns of mood, at times chaotic, at times serene, feels quite familiar. It is vividly depicting where I am. But if the piece is artfully made, I know it won’t leave me there. It may never sound harmonious in the traditional sense, but it will offer deeper beauty in meaning. In so doing, it offers a picture of God’s work in us. Fellow believers know that while here on earth, the beauty He brings is not always the “pretty” of this world (a perfect life, miraculous healing, quick fixes), but something far better: Himself, Perfection, to walk alongside us and bring deeper meaning. New music may not always bring those “pretty” chord progressions that soothe the ear, but often enough if we’re listening, it enriches and warms our hearts by bringing art that meets us where we are.


Caitlin Frasure, Pianist & Co-Founder of “Ascending”

www.caitlinfrasure.com

If you are interested in contributing an article or would like to recommend a topic for exploration, please send an email to: blog@deus-ex-musica.com Photos from Pxhere.com

Finding Your Voice

Josh Rodriguez

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Young musicians, and artists in general, will often be told by their mentors, or those who are farther down the road in their journey, “you need to find your voice.” But how to do that? And, if you’re like me, you wonder why, in an age when anyone on the planet can present their art to the rest of humanity, why bother adding one more voice to all the music that’s already been composed?  Do we really need another voice, specifically your voice?

Madeleine L’Engle’s Newbury Award winning “children’s” book, A Wrinkle In Time, describes a war between light and darkness being fought on our planet. Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Which, the three strange but kindly guides, teach the book’s protagonists that all of humanity’s great artists and scientists, people such as Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Hildegard Von Bingen, Shakespeare, Bach, Madame Curie, Einstein, Beethoven, Clara Schumann, St. Francis and many more, have been lights for us to see by in the war against the darkness. The musical equivalent of this light is what the teachers of the medieval era called “The Music of the Spheres,” the song of God that we can’t hear in our darkness. Our wounds have left our ears stopped, eyes blind, voices mute and legs lame.

And yet, sometimes we become aware that despite the darkness, we get hints of this music coming from—just over a hill? Messiaen believed that he heard it in the bird’s song. Plato believed that it existed in a dimension beyond the realm of our senses, beyond the realm of our universe. When we believe that something is “beautiful,” we believe this because somehow, we are aware of what the “form” of true beauty is. We are comparing something that is of substance in our universe, to something which is the ideal, true beauty.

Part of the attractiveness of the Gospel is that Jesus teaches that your voice is intended to help others hear The Music of the Spheres.

“You are the light of the world… let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father. (Mt. 5:14, 16). “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace.” (I Peter 4:10). “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Eph. 2:10)

Author and screenwriter Steven Pressfield has written a series of books that I have found helpful in my own search for my voice. The first of this series of books, The War of Art, states that in order to find your voice, you must overcome resistance.  

You know what resistance is. It’s negative. It can’t be seen, heard, touched or smelled, but you know it when you feel it. It’s similar to Plato’s realm of forms, but it’s just the opposite of goodness and beauty; it’s dark. It is anything that prevents you from doing your work, the work which God has prepared beforehand for you to walk in.

Pressfield calls it “the most toxic force on the planet.” Resistance takes many forms, especially comparison. Teddy Roosevelt has said that comparison is the thief of joy. It’s true. But finding your voice means that you must work to overcome resistance.

Finding your voice is work, hard work. For the musician/composer this means practice. It means overcoming your penchant for self-sabotage. It means working when you’re not . “inspired.” The painter Chuck Close has said, “Inspiration is for amateurs - the rest of us just show up and get to work.” Picasso said almost the same thing:

“Inspiration exists but it has to find you working.”

The great musical lights of the past knew this well. J.S. Bach, in his work to find his own voice, walked almost 250 miles to hear Dietrich Buxtehude present a series of concerts during Advent. He had permission from his superiors to leave his post in Arnstadt for one month to pursue what we might call today, continuing education.  The twenty year old Bach’s trip north was by all accounts, life changing. In fact, it was so enthralling that young Bach overstayed his leave by almost four months! Apparently he worked together with Buxtehude and played with him in the Advent concert series. While he was there, he copied by hand several of the master’s pieces for transport back to Arnstadt. Hand copying parts—that’s a lot of work, but many teachers feel that imitating others at first, is one of the best ways to find your own voice.

Bach hand copied a lot of music, including that of the Italian “Red Priest,” Antonio Lucio Vivaldi. In fact, Bach’s Harpsichord concerto in D Major, BMV 972, is for all intents and purposes, a copy of Vivaldi’s “L’Estro Harmonico.” But it was this work - this copying of Vivaldi’s “voice” that led to Bach finding his own “concerto” voice. For it was during his tenure at Weimar that he first came across Vivaldi’s concerti. It was also during this season that Bach wrote the bulk of his own concerti, including the magnificent Brandenburg concerti.

But aside from the work you must do to find your own voice, there is also the discovery that your voice is unique. Ephesians 2:10 may be broken up into three parts. The first states that you are one of God’s creative works, a product of His voice:  

  1. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus”

     The second is that you must work and do good work.

  2. “for good works,”

     Finally, you must understand and acknowledge that God has somehow, in mystery, had a hand in creating these good works for you to walk in to bring light to the darkness, “so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.”

  3. “which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.”

Pressfield puts it this way; 

“… it's as though the Fifth Symphony existed already in that higher sphere, before Beethoven sat down and played dah-dah-dah-DUM. The catch was this: The work existed only as potential — without a body, so to speak. It wasn't music yet. You couldn't play it. You couldn't hear it. It needed someone. It needed a corporeal being, a human, an artist… to bring it into being on this material plane… Beethoven got it. He brought it forth. He made the Fifth Symphony a "creation of time," which "eternity" could be "in love with.” 

You have been given a voice by God that only you can sing with. You are part of that “Music of the Spheres” that God has created. You are His “workmanship,” a work of art in your own right. Find your voice so that you can discover who God created you to be; and what He has planned for you to “create.” Bring His good works, His light into the world, through your voice.

Glenn A. Pickett, Professor of Music Composition & Music History

California Baptist University

If you are interested in contributing an article or would like to recommend a topic for exploration, please send an email to: blog@deus-ex-musica.com Photo from Pxhere.com

Discovering liturgy: ancient rituals and new music

Josh Rodriguez

In the long journey of my faith in Christ, I have mostly walked along a path set by leaders of what is termed Evangelicalism, and most of my central beliefs are centered around biblically based theology, rather than those based on tradition. However, in the last twenty years I have fallen in love with the liturgy as practiced by many of the main line protestant churches, as well as those used as the main structure of worship by the Anglican, Orthodox and Catholic denominations. I like its structure and its discipline, and love its language. I’ve found that, in the midst of a busy day, taking time out to read and pray the liturgical hours centers my focus back to God, instead of only being caught up in the typical hectic nature of my teaching days: ones that are long, very busy, and filled with the minutiae of academic bureaucracy.

Therefore, when asked by the violin-piano duo Ascending to write them a new work, I thought that I would try and compose for them a sacred work, since they are also both Christians as well. Because they had also asked for a piece that incorporated extended techniques for both piano and violin, I thought for many months what a sacred piece that encompassed those sorts of things would look and sound like. Eventually, the idea of a ‘liturgy of the hours’ emerged, both as a means of writing a multi-movement piece, but to also bring focus to the whole: a period of time defined by the individual hours of prayer and worship over the course of a day. Typically, during the course of a day’s liturgy, the prayers begin at midnight, with Matins -- dawn begins with Lauds, moving through the morning and afternoon with Prime, Terce, Sext, None, and moving into the evening with Vespers and finally, Compline. Each prayer is about three hours apart from each other, and depending on which church’s tradition you follow, will have a set of readings, hymns, psalms, and prayers which are read, sung, or prayed. This piece is loosely based on some of those readings. psalms, and prayers, with a verse or fragment of those hours listed below. The individual movements contain some shared musical material between movements but is unlike a typical violin sonata in that the violin is not always the principal instrumentalist – indeed, most of the time, the foregrounded music is an amalgamation of both instruments. The musical language, while accessible, is contemporary to the late 20th and early 21st centuries and takes advantage of scordatura violin writing (that is, an alternative tuning of the violin), modes of limited transposition, and inside the piano techniques popularized by Olivier Messiaen, George Crumb, Henry Cowell, Charles Ives and others. This piece reflects the impressions of these hours made upon me while working on it; when reading/praying the liturgical hours, I made similar connections between the texts and scripture listed below (taken from a single day’s breviary texts) and the music as it was being written.

Matins – “Lord, open our lips and we shall praise your name” – opening invocation
Lauds – “It is good to praise the Lord and to sing psalms to your name, O Most High….” - Psalm 92:1
Prime – “When I consider the heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars which     you set into place, what is man that you should take thought of him?” – Psalm 8:3
Terce – Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia. “Listen O God, to my voice; keep me safe from fear of the    enemy. Protect me from the crowd of those who do evil.” – Psalm 64:1
Sext – “This is the song I shall sing in your name, forever and ever.” – Psalm 61:8
None - Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia. “If the Lord does not build the house, its builder labors in       vain… It is vain for you to rise before the dawn and go late to your rest, eating the bread          of your toil – to those He loves, the Lord gives sleep.” - Psalm 127:1-2
Vespers – “Return to your rest, my soul, for the Lord has been good to you.” – Psalm 116:7
Compline – “The Lord grant us a quiet night and a perfect end.” – closing benediction

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Life in a monastery also informed the final part of the process of composition; Instead of using computer technology for preparing the score, I sat for many silent hours in my own scriptorium, writing with pen, ruler, and making my own lined manuscript paper to create this piece.  In so doing, I felt my spirit become more peaceful and reach out to Christ and engage in a kind of worship that was (to me) so much more fundamentally organic than if I had used the now usual tools of my trade (computer, MIDI keyboard, software instruments, and printer) to complete the work.  This was an excellent lesson for me, echoed by the text of the hours of Sext, Vespers and Compline listed above – indeed, “Lord, grant us a quiet night and a perfect end.”

The works of my musical brothers and sisters in Christ are multifaceted, well-crafted, and in many, many styles and genre – some are simple, and others are incredibly opaque and complex.  Indeed, each of them speak in their own language and every listener understands this music by their own multilingual abilities (or not, as the case may be!), but I am overjoyed to experience a facet of those scriptures that declare

… that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.  (Philippians 2:10-11 NIV)

I specifically aspire to be a multi-lingual composer, one who writes simply and direct one day, and who can change my musical language to speak to a differing audience the next.  To be a composer of both secular and sacred music; to write for the concert hall as well as the church; for recording and for live performance, for the world, or just for myself… or only for God.  Thankfully, we now all live in a time where this is possible, and musicians and audiences can really pick and choose how, and to what they wish to listen.  This kind of diversity in our Spotify world allows us all to become speakers and listeners of many languages, and my hope is that all who listen to music might develop into multi-lingual listeners, especially those who believe that music is vital to the life of discipleship.  The music of God is not just for the inside of the church building (although it may arise there, eh Johann Sebastian?), but can be realized or initially be presented from a concert hall, an art gallery, a theatre, a garage, an experimental multimedia laboratory… 

Or a modern scriptorium.

Gratia Deo – soli Deo Gloria!

Frank Felice, Associate Professor, Composition, Electronic Music

If you haven’t already, please take a moment to listen to A Liturgy of the Hours, a work that invites the listener into both serene meditation and exuberant celebration. Photography: The first image is taken from the last movement of Felice’s score; the second (courtesy of Pixabay) is from a monastic retreat in Gloucestershire, UK. If you are interested in contributing an article or would like to recommend a topic for exploration, please send an email to: blog@deus-ex-musica.com

Ready for Every Good Work

Josh Rodriguez

My mother has a picture of me as a baby plunking the keys of a piano. I began lessons when I was three; I could read music before I could read words. I wrote my first piece when I was five. It wasn’t much, but I placed my notes on the right lines and spaces and used the correct number of beats per measure.

My parents introduced me to music; they also introduced me to Jesus. Music and faith have been essential parts of my being for as long as I can remember. In high school I sensed the two were interconnected and that part of my calling as a Christian included being a musician, so I pursued a music degree in college.

My husband and I married right after college and had two kids within the next three years. Like every mom with young children, I had decisions to make regarding work and child care. Trained in both piano and saxophone, I decided to teach privately. The flexibility allowed me to work around my family’s needs. A few years later when my husband felt called to attend seminary, we moved halfway across the country and I “set up shop” there as well, teaching as much as I could.

Teaching kids and serving as a pianist at church used only a small fraction of what I was able to do. I sometimes feared I was sinning against the Lord and wasting my talent by burying it. After some time, my husband and I decided that we needed to homeschool our children. I knew my college degree and background in education would be put to good use, but I still wondered if I should be doing more music.

II Timothy 2:21 says that we are to be vessels “set apart as holy, useful to the Master, ready for every good work.” More than anything, I wanted to be a servant faithful to my Lord. I wasn’t sure what being useful as a musician meant, or what good works looked like in terms of music, but I knew that I needed to be ready. So, I made an effort to prepare myself for further musical work.

For years, I practiced. I taught myself new material, though I didn’t have time to work on anything particularly impressive; some days I could only play scales and arpeggios. I dabbled in composition; I read theory and composition books and wrote a few rather bad pieces. I wanted to have something to present if I ever had the chance to go back to school. I gained skills and hoped God would allow me to use them someday.

I did contribute toward “good works” during those years of waiting. First, I modeled practicing. My children learned that a mom is her own person with her own interests, her own skills, her own goals, and her own needs. There were times they played in the playpen while I practiced; other times they sat on my lap while I played Beethoven sonatas, dodging their little hands that were trying to play along. I am convinced those early years of observation influenced their own practice ethic later on. They were both offered enormous music scholarships to college.

            Second, some of my students were challenged taking lessons from me. I have been commended many times for my patience, but that doesn’t mean that some students have not cried during lessons. One boy in particular brought bad habits he learned from a previous teacher. Undoing them was a painful process for both he and I, but he became one of my favorite students; I was extremely sad when his family moved away. A few years later, I received a CD in the mail. He had been selected to be a junior ambassador for the United States and had recorded the CD to raise money! In her note, his mom told me how my work with her was a key part of his being able to participate in this opportunity.

            Third, when my family moved back to Rhode Island, I had the idea to start a music program for homeschoolers. Over the last ten years, my husband (also a musician) and two friends of ours have had the privilege of teaching a number of students instrumental and vocal skills, music history and appreciation, and music theory. Several of our students now serve on the worship teams at their local churches; a few have decided to pursue music on a professional level in various ways; many have grown in confidence; my intermediate and advanced theory students have written original four-part hymn-style chorales; the class my husband teaches on world music has helped to develop appreciation for other cultures. I know this program is one of the “good works” God gave me to do while I was waiting.

After fifteen years of preparation, I finally had the opportunity to go back to school at age 37 to study composition and piano through the continuing education program at New England Conservatory.  In only five years, my career has taken off faster than I expected. I have made new connections with musicians in my community, I have had increasing opportunities to work as an accompanist, and my compositions are getting performed.

I once thought that the interconnection of faith and music in my life would have a specific theme or form. But looking back I see that, like a through-composed piece of music that has different melodies and motivic development in each section, each phase of my life has brought about different “good works” for me to do. My responsibility is to be ready and to do the good works at hand which God has given me to do, whatever they might be. May I be useful to my Master.

Heather Niemi Savage - composer, music teacher, and collaborative pianist 

If you are interested in contributing an article or would like to recommend a topic for exploration, please send an email to: blog@deus-ex-musica.com  

Photo by Clark Young

Cantus firmus and the beat of Easter drums

Josh Rodriguez

In Medieval music, the cantus firmus is the principal melody upon which all other melodies are built. These melodies move in consonance or dissonance to the cantus firmus. While a modern equivalent to this kind of music making would be difficult to find, perhaps that of a groovy bass-line or jazz tune provides a near parallel: pop and jazz musicians improvising new melodies based on the original tune or on a pre-existing chord progression. The drama of the music is in the relationship between the original and the new, and this tension has profound significance for Christians. Take a moment to hear Guillaume de Machaut’s use of cantus firmus in his Messe de Nostre Dame. This excerpt from the Kyrie depicts lamentation (“Lord, have mercy”) a particularly fitting excerpt in light of the tragic fire at Notre-Dame cathedral.

In 1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer – a Christian pastor, theologian, and anti-Nazi spy – wrote in his letters from prison,

“God wants us to love him eternally with our whole hearts – not in such a way as to injure or weaken our earthly love, but to provide a kind of cantus firmus to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint… Only a polyphony of this kind can give life a wholeness…as long as the cantus firmus [love of God] is kept going.”

To me, this is a true picture of the role of Christ in the life of the believer. Christ asks to be the center, and that our love for him be strongest (as his love is for us). In this way, we are to base our lives around His song. Far from weakening “earthly” loves, love for God rightly orients and orders all our other loves and, in so doing, makes them meaningful. Whether it is our treasured relationship with our spouse and children, or our appreciation of breathtaking human achievements like Paris’ Notre-Dame cathedral and Oliver Messiaen’s Turangalîla-Symphonie, or the simple joys of a hike up Saddleback Mountain in Mexico (and tacos in the evening!), love for God invigorates each and enables gratitude and praise.

This is also why C. S. Lewis writes, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” Belief in God alters the way we see everything. In this light, that which is good, true, and beautiful becomes glorious. Love for God means love for our Creator and this must flow into love for our neighbor. This is the strong theological ground that compels us to fight against lies, hatred, poverty, and prejudice. It is this understanding of love – as the principal theme of our song – that makes sense of the invitation to freedom in Paul’s letter to the Romans (Ch. 8).

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death... those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”

This freedom is empowered by God’s love for us and our response to this love. This is a call to live deliberately and courageously in the Spirit. Our response is our first improvisation, the beginning of a lifelong journey – one without condemnation. “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal 5:1). God’s grace (the love poured out in Christ) is the cantus firmus. Our gratitude is the way we freely express our love in ways that improvise on this theme. In John Newton’s words, this is the song of those who were “once lost but now [are] found” and it transforms the way we see everything.

In 1957, Dr. Martin Luther King wrote, “[We know] that in [our] struggle for justice [we have] cosmic companionship. This belief that God is on the side of truth and justice comes down to us from the long tradition of our Christian faith.” The idea of “cosmic companionship” may seem arrogant to some, and it has no doubt been communicated poorly by many of us who call ourselves Christians, but this is the bold, radical love that followers of Christ claim. And it is this love – willing another’s good even at a great cost to oneself – that fuels and orders our many “earthly” loves. In rousing style, Dr. King concludes,

“There is something at the very center of our faith which reminds us that Good Friday may reign for a day but ultimately it must give way to the triumphant beat of the Easter drums. Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy the palace and Christ a cross, but one day that same Christ will rise up and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name.”

May we live and love in the light of this confident truth, and may our lives birth a song worth singing. Christ is Risen! He is Risen indeed!

Josh Rodriguez, co-director of Deus-ex-Musica, Assistant Professor of Music Theory & Composition

California Baptist University

If you are interested in contributing an article or would like to recommend a topic for exploration, please send an email to: blog@deus-ex-musica.com

 

A Song for the Outsider

Josh Rodriguez

Imagine this scenario with me. You’re an engaged, informed citizen of one of the world’s great cities. You’re active in the city’s flourishing artistic, intellectual, and religious communities. Everything in town is looking up apart from one major social issue. The population has been growing steadily thanks to the influx of immigrants seeking a better life here, but some of them have been less than successful at finding a place. Sometimes this is due to unforeseen socioeconomic circumstances, and sometimes it’s the result of systemic and individual discrimination. After all, many of these people bring with them cultural assumptions radically opposed to your own. Can you picture it?

Here are some specifics to help set the scene. The year is 721 BC, the city is Jerusalem, and the outsiders are Israelite refugees – descendants of the ten tribes that broke away from your own country 200 years ago. They’ve spent the last 200 years developing unique cultural traditions, and – as the more powerful of the two kingdoms – they’ve disparaged yours every chance they got. Now, as an informed citizen of Judah, you would never make the mistake of confusing one of these Israelites for one of you. They speak a different (though related) language, they practice different customs, and even though they claim to worship the same God they do it in a radically different way. These are outsiders, and – up until they came to your city for help – they were your enemies. How would you respond?

We learn from the Bible that the scholars and musicians of Jerusalem set out on a remarkable quest to preserve the Israelite culture, which had become quite different from their own. This story is not narrated but rather demonstrated by the materials passed down to us. Even though the Bible was mostly written and compiled by the Judahites and their descendants, their collection of Israelite history, literature, and music essentially saved Israel from succumbing completely to the cultural genocide being perpetrated against them in 721. The people themselves may now be lost to history, and yet we still sing their songs today as part of the Old Testament psalter.

Even more significantly, the musicians of Jerusalem wrote new songs to invite the Israelites into their community as well as to reorient the attitudes of the Judahites who were probably reluctant to welcome them. Perhaps the best example of this is Psalm 133, which I translate below for your convenience.

A Song of Ascents, in the style of David

Lo, how good and how pleasant it is when brothers live in unity!

It is like precious oil on the head

flowing down on the beard,

On the beard of Aaron,

Flowing down over the collar of his robes.

It is as if the dew of Hermon

Has flown down

On the mountains of Zion,

For there has Yahweh appointed the blessing – life eternal.

The fact that something more is going on beneath the surface of this psalm is apparent even from its first line. The oft quoted “how good and how pleasant” is actually a clever play on words. The word translated “good” – tov – is the standard Judahite word for good, while the word usually translated “pleasant” – na’im – is specifically the Israelite word for good. Keep in mind that these languages were closely related but still somewhat different, and an 8th century inhabitant of Jerusalem would hear this. Imagine saying “how good and que bueno” in a song for Latin American refugees today, or “how good and ma jayyid” in a song for refugees from Syria. When the psalmist says “how tov and how na’im it is for brothers to live in unity,” he isn’t just spouting a truism. He’s speaking into a specific situation. It is good for Judahites and Israelites to live together as one. It is good to welcome the outsider.

The appeal to Israelite culture doesn’t end with the use of the Israelite language, though. The psalmist also celebrates the arrival of Israelite cultural traditions in Jerusalem. When he speaks of oil flowing down on the beard of Aaron, he activates in the minds of the audience the image of Moses anointing Aaron as high priest (Leviticus 8:12). Close students of the Bible will of course remember that Aaron’s descendants made up the priesthood in Jerusalem. Meanwhile, Moses’ descendants became priests in the Israelite city of Dan (Judges 18:29-30). Overlooking the Israelite temple at Dan is the sacred mountain of Hermon, which fulfilled a role similar to that of Zion in Judah. So when the psalmist says it as if the dew of Hermon were to fall on the mountains of Zion, he means that it is as if these two temples and two priesthoods had become one. The psalmist is rejoicing at the arrival of people as well as cultural and religious traditions from Israel into Judah. He may even be celebrating the preservation of Israelite music, such as Psalm 42 (the most well-known song from the temple at Dan, now preserved in the psalter from Jerusalem). The refugees are thus not only welcomed but enthusiastically celebrated.

Exposing the heart behind the psalm reveals that it is far more than an altruistic proverb. It is a song about caring for our brothers and sisters in the Lord even when they don’t look, speak, or worship like us. It is a song about inviting outsiders – believing and unbelieving – into our community and earnestly pointing them to God. It is a song about celebrating our unity in the midst of diversity. It is reminder that although “pure and undefiled religion” involves caring for the widow and the orphan (James 1:27), it also involves welcoming the foreigner, the immigrant, and the refugee (Deuteronomy 10:18; Psalm 146:9; Jeremiah 7:6, 22:3; Zechariah 7:10; Malachi 3:5). Psalm 133 is an invitation to keep singing the songs of Israel, and to continue making music for our brothers and sisters who find themselves in need of refuge.

The psalms are still giving voice to prayers for refugees today, as in this rendition of Psalm 51 chanted in Aramaic by families of Syrian and Iraqi descent in St. Simon bar Sabbae Chaldean Catholic Church in Tbilisi, Georgia. The occasion was a prayer service for the refugee crisis performed by Pope Francis during his visit to Georgia in 2016.

Timothy Hogue, PhD Candidate in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures

University of California, Los Angeles

If you are interested in contributing an article or would like to recommend a topic for exploration, please send an email to: blog@deus-ex-musica.com

A Paralytic’s Tale: learning how to walk, run, and dance

Josh Rodriguez

Getting out of bed is a simple act for most, but for a paralytic, it is the substance of dreams. To walk, run, and dance is reserved for sleep when a paralyzed person can escape his limitations. There is a story about such a person in first-century Palestine. All he knew was that he’d laid on a stretcher for many years depending on others for movement when along came a stranger named Yeshua who said, “get up, take your mat and go home.” The man did it, and “when the crowd saw this, they were filled with awe…” (Matthew 9:6-8, NIV) I imagine a scene of joyous discovery and humor as this man relearns how to walk, run, and dance. His miraculous return home was the start of a new life free from the previous limitations. I wrote a piece exploring what this journey might have been like, and it takes on the shape of a fugue.

The fugue, a musical form and compositional process especially popular in the 17th and 18th century, offers listeners a unique picture of theological “walking.” For those who may not remember your music theory teacher’s presentation on fugues, I’d like to give you a quick recap. I will also include the timings for the various sections in my fugue.

Fugues are complex, but they all feature three types of sections: an exposition, episodes, and a middle entry. The Exposition is the first music that is heard (0:00), and it is composed of the subject (main melody) and countersubject (secondary melody) of the piece presented in different keys. These are the principal musical ideas that will govern the rest of the fugue.

The Exposition is followed by a musical Episode – this part of the fugue is filled with variations on the subject and countersubject. It is filled with free counterpoint, and there is a sense that the composer is exploring the original musical ideas through improvisation – intentionally and creatively developing the material in a spontaneous, organic way (ex. 1:33 & 2:05).

This is followed by the third section called a Middle Entry which is a return of the subject and countersubject in a closely-related key. The rest of the fugue alternates between Episodes and Entries of the principal musical material (ex. 1:51 & 3:04).

Jeffrey Czum - Paralytic.png

I like to think of the fugue as a musical depiction of Christian discipleship imagined as a form of walking. In this picture, the Exposition and Middle Entries can reflect the role of Scripture and theological statements (ex. church doctrine, tradition, and liturgy) which are then improvised upon by the Spirit-led faithful in their daily lives. Believers receive the Word of God in Christ and in Scripture and gather to celebrate the Eucharist (usually in a Sunday service), but the space we live in as believers is that of the Episode. Throughout the week, we are improvisers in a spiritual and practical sense. This does not mean that we are making it up on the spot. We have chosen to build our lives around the counsel of Christ, and this becomes our point of departure in life (or at least, it is supposed to be this way). As Christians, we see ourselves in the story of the paralytic, and our response to God is one of faith – the brave choice to “get up” and live into the words of Christ.  

The ways in which disciples walk may be quite different even though they are following the Way of Jesus Christ, so the result is one of tremendous variety. However, the gospel is the unifying tune upon we Christians improvise. This redemptive gospel narrative is a force that makes possible true celebration of unity in diversity – in music and in relationships (this is what we aim to accomplish through this website)! Christians acknowledge that brokenness (paralysis) is real, but so is grace. This is God’s gift to us, and our gift to each other. In Christ, healing happens, and we can all rise up and relearn how to walk, run, and dance!  

Josh Rodriguez, co-director of Deus-ex-Musica, Assistant Professor of Music Theory & Composition

California Baptist University


If you are interested in contributing an article or would like to recommend a topic for exploration, please send an email to: blog@deus-ex-musica.com Photo by Jeffrey Czum