One thing leads to another…

Today has been one of those bitty days when I can’t quite settle to anything. A twitter chum of mine had a comedy exchange with a twitter chum of his, which resulted in this:

While dead in sin and error’s way,
My soul was troubled greatly.
My grief o’ertook me night and day,
Pain was all I did see.
The light of the Gospel grace did shine,
My darkened soul arose.
Made anew,
Baptized, too,
By water and the Spirit now a-living.

(by Revd Alex Klages)

I like odd metres. I like Lutheran chorales. So instead of tidying up I seem to have written a melody… here it is, played by a robot guitar:

Harmonisation to follow, and if I get appropriate permission I’ll put it on CPDL.

It has caused me to reflect slightly on my composing process. When I wrote Sweet Spirit Comfort Me I sat down and wrote pretty much the whole thing without touching a keyboard, then put it into Sibelius and cleaned it up a bit (not much). That’s my usual style when I compose for a capella SATB. But writing this tune (as yet unnamed*) my instinct was to secure the melody line and then sit at the piano to work out the other bits. I realise I used the same method for When you made this planet. It just feels a little odd, because in all my years studying keyboard harmony I rarely actually played my harmonisations on any sort of keyboard instrument — usually because I was finishing them in the aural skills class before they were due — I just relied on my ability to hear all the notes at once, as I do with a capella writing. Piano compositions (none online), on the other hand, were always done by noodling around at the piano and then writing down the results.

How odd. I’m pretty sure this is something to do with playing at least five hymns per week for the last couple of years: hymns are now as much something that I play as something that I sing.

*all serious and some tongue-in-cheek suggestions considered.

How to introduce new music in churches

I wrote this as a comment elsewhere, and thought it perhaps worth reproducing:

You can get congregations to sing new music, but it takes a bit of work and cooperation from your organist/music director/whoever.

1) If you have one, see if you can get the choir (or music group or what have you) to sing the new tune (possibly to old words!) as a Communion hymn or an anthem a few times.

2) In the weeks running up to the use of the new tune, ask the organist/musicians to play it as part of the processional or recessional voluntary (whichever people are more likely to listen to), or even a short verse after the reading of the Gospel if appropriate.

If people have heard it a few times, they’ll find it much easier to sing.

3) Having sung the new tune, don’t abandon it; use it again in a few weeks time, if possible. (Again, you might want the choir to do this with different words.)

If copyright allows, I also find it helps to include music notation for the melody in whatever the congregation are reading from. At our church we have a fair number who read music “a bit” but don’t sing in the choir, and between them and the ones who pick up tunes quickly by ear, it isn’t so terrible.

4) Try to get people to sit close together. If you are Anglican this is probably the hardest step, but it really does help.

I might add a few more points:

5) Try to make sure the first and last hymn or song of a service are tunes that people do know. I was taught that the first and last notes a musician plays will be what most people remember; this is also true of liturgy, and familiar, well-loved hymns at the beginning and end of a service will be less disorienting.

6) If the music is something people are going to be singing a lot (say, a hymn for Lent with different verses for each Sunday, or a congregational Mass setting), or if it’s a bit difficult (syncopation, changes between triplets and duple quavers, awkward leaps in the melody, changes in harmonic rhythm and so on), it’s worth offering a brief rehearsal at some point so people can go over the tricky bits. Try to make this short (ten minutes is plenty) and don’t expect to get things perfect. Make sure it’s at a time people can attend — after a service is usually best.

7) Try not to introduce new music alongside changes to the general format of services, and don’t introduce too many new things in quick succession, especially if it’s a long time since the congregation has had to sing anything new at all.

When you made this planet

Some time ago, Thomas Thurman drew my attention to a text to try setting as a hymn. The story behind the text, as well as the text itself, is here.

After spending the requisite months sitting in a “drafts” drawer while I got distracted by other things, and some help with editing from various people (Dr Christopher Parker at St Mary’s Addington was particularly helpful), I think it’s about as finished as it is going to get.

I’ve called the tune “Hitchin”, because that is the birthplace of the author of the text, and because clever Latin things ended up looking like “Cum hoc tellure” which, let’s face it, isn’t going to be a giggle-proof title for working with choirs.

Today the some churches celebrate or remember the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and this morning after the necessary clarification about just whose conception this refers to (the Immaculate Conception is not the same as the Virgin Birth), I was thinking about that. I was thinking about how it is that when someone does something wonderful, or fulfills what we might call God’s purposes for them, we are sometimes tempted to say “Oh, but they’re special, we could never do that…” rather than being inspired by their actions. For me, the amazing thing about Mary is not that God chose her or somehow set her aside — whether or however that happened — but that she said YES. “Let it be unto me according to thy will,” she said.

Or possibly, in today’s language, “My Lord, I pray my life will mirror you.”

Here is a .pdf of the music.
Here is a .midi file of robots singing it.
As usual, the material is CC BY-SA.

St Andrew’s Carol Service

This service will draw on a mix of Advent and Christmas repertoire, including the Advent Prose and Berlioz’s Shepherd’s Farewell, as well as a West Gallery carol and traditional hymns.

There will also be a rehearsal at 3.30pm on 11th December. All are welcome to join the choir. If you can’t make all the rehearsals but would still like to take part, please speak to me.

Friday Evensong at St Paul’s-in-the-Camp, 6.15 for 6.30pm.

EDIT, FRIDAY AFTERNOON: It turns out St Paul’s are having Evensong tonight after all, but didn’t tell anyone about it until late morning. While I don’t wish to compete with them, I think we should go ahead and have Evensong outside anyway.
END OF EDIT

On Friday we will have Evensong outside St Paul’s. While the Cathedral has said they will be open for worship, I don’t believe they are having Evensong tomorrow, so I want to go ahead with this. It’s the day for St Simon and St Jude, apostles.

Meet at 6.15pm for 6.30; outside M&S seems to be a reasonable place for it, although we may need to move (especially if there are enough of us to obstruct the walkway).

You can print a copy of the liturgy from here ON THE DAY or from here today (Thursday). Alternately you can follow along online using the same links on a smartphone or using one of the various Common Worship smartphone apps.

The really simple way to do it will be to bring a Book of Common Prayer, though. I have a small number of spares. The Psalm will be Psalm 119.1-16. The Old Testament reading will be 1 Maccabees 2.42-66 and the New Testament reading will be Jude 1-4,17-25.

I did not choose these readings; I want to use the same ones that will be on the Church of England website, for ease of letting others follow along at home or elsewhere. Readers for the readings will be assigned when we meet.

We will sing the psalm and canticles from the Parish Psalter. If you have a Parish Psalter please bring it, even if you don’t sing! These are harder to get hold of than the BCP and I only have a small number.

Unless a conductor volunteers in the next couple of hours, we will stick to the ferial responses. Please bring music to these if you have it; it’s hard to get hold of online and I only have a small number of copies. I will cantor if there are no clergy there who are willing/able to do so.

We will use the same hymns as on Sunday and Wednesday. If you want to print the words to these yourself they are available in .pdf format here. If you want to bring a hymnal to sing harmony I prefer New English Hymnal (note that some of the words are different).

If you don’t have any of these bits of pieces, you can still come! Really. You can look over my shoulder, or someone else’s, or participate in a more reflective manner.

It would be helpful to have a rough idea how many people will be coming along, so if you are planning on it please do leave a comment here. Anonymous comments are fine.

If there are enough singers we might do an anthem — same one as yesterday — but be aware that if numbers are low this will be cut.

Summary:
6.15 for 6.30pm outside M&S, St. Paul’s-in-the-Camp
Liturgy here on the day.
Bring BCP, Parish Psalter, and ferial responses if you have them.
Further updates from @artsyhonker and @FlashEvensong on Twitter.

St Paul’s Evensong at OccupyLSX

I didn’t think, when I got up this morning, that I would somehow wind up leading a BCP Evensong at St Paul’s Cathedral.

The cathedral has had Occupy LSX, a protest camp, on their doorstep for the past week. Last weekend the Canon Chancellor, Revd Dr Giles Fraser, told the police to leave the protesters alone. As the week has worn on and the tents have stayed up, the cathedral has been operating on a reduced schedule, and on Friday the Dean issued a statement saying it would have to close until further notice.

I have no strong criticism of the cathedral closing to sightseers; there is a point at which keeping things ticking over stops making economic sense, and though I am uncomfortable with entry fees for cathedrals I cannot condemn them without calling into question the legitimacy of thousands of smaller, parish-based fundraising efforts. Fair game.

But a cathedral is more than architecture and establishment. Cathedrals exist to serve the local community, as well as to support parish churches in their work. Their primary task is of public worship, and it is difficult to see how Occupy LSX are a significant threat to that. The supposed health and safety reasons for closure given by the cathedral haven’t, to my knowledge, been specified in a way that would allow the protesters to improve matters, and so things have come to a sort of impasse.

Practising the organ this morning I half-joked on Twitter about being tempted to turn up at St Paul’s and hold Evensong myself, if they weren’t letting people in for services. Then I went back to practising, it being one of those mornings where I felt like I had someone else’s fingers and feet, and the choir turned up and we rehearsed, and there was a service and afterwards tea and toast. I checked my phone before heading home and there seemed to be some positive response to the idea of an outdoor Evensong, and I began to think more seriously about it.

I’m accustomed to Evensong services of varying sizes. I knew that without any real idea of who was going to turn up, I wouldn’t want to plan anything too complicated.. but there definitely wasn’t time to select metrical psalms, so we’d have to do simple Anglican Chant (and hope for enough people who can make sense of it for it to work) or even just said psalms and canticles. I made a few more tentative tweets, putting out feelers to see who else might be interested. I tried to contact both St Paul’s, and Occupy LSX, through Twitter, and got no response — fair enough, both are busy organisations. But people who had been involved in the protest, and various clergy and churchy types online, seemed encouraging, so I decided to go for it.

At 12.12 I tweeted “Right. Evensong at @OccupyLSX outside St Pual’s, 3.45 for 4pm. Please bring Parish Psalter & BCP if you have them.” From there it was a matter of choosing hymns with words in the public domain and printing them, providing links to those and to the BCP liturgy for the day through the C of E website, making sure I had the readings and the Collect for the 21st Sunday after Trinity to hand, and the sort of low-grade terror at what I was doing that you might expect, complete with wildly beating heart and trembling hands. A lot of people were generally supportive but simply unable to get there due to geography or prior commitments. But people said they would come, and I turned up and they found me. Our numbers were small but mighty, and included an atheist and a Roman Catholic, as a typical Evensong at St Paul’s well might! Apparently there had been some sort of praying and singing not too long before my arrival, but the clergyman involved was busy being interviewed by someone with a camera and I had come over all shy, so we decided just to get on with it. We chose an almost-quiet spot outside M&S and did just that.

And it was good. Christ is made the sure foundation was our introit, chosen because I love it and it is a good length, and one or two people did join us as we sang. There was a bit of informal awkwardness going from one bit of the service to the next — I nearly forgot the psalm, think of it! — but we chanted psalms and canticles in something resembling unison, and the ferial responses were fairly straightforward. The readings were Ecclesiastes Chapters 11 and 12, and St Paul’s 2nd Letter to Timothy, Chapter 2, verses 1-7. One annoying photographer insisted on trying to ask us questions during the service, which I found a bit difficult — I tried to explain we weren’t finished, I think someone else went and talked to him and then came and joined us again. Instead of sermon (the epistle said it all with “The husbandman that laboureth must be first partaker of the fruits.”) or anthem we had Guide me, O thou great Jehovah and after the “Prayer for the Clergy and People” (rather apt I thought) and “A Prayer of St Chrysostom” and the Grace we sang O God, our help in ages past and went our respective ways — some of us to the pub, to slake the thirst after righteousness (I’ll get my coat), others off home or to other parts of the protest.

So, that was a pretty strange day. I wonder what tomorrow will bring?

Metrical Psalms for Advent

I want to encourage the use of psalms in liturgy. To this end I have committed to compiling a small booklet of metrical psalms for use this coming Advent (Year B). As with everything else I publish I will release the work under a CC BY-SA licence so that other people can use it, free of charge, without having to bother me for permission.

I aim to have two settings of each of the psalms for the main Sunday morning service, one with a very well-known hymn tune and one perhaps a little less well-known (I might even write something myself). I will include full music, and also a “lead sheet” version with the melody line and chords. The psalms will have an optional refrain, so that they can be sung congregationally (without the refrain) or in the “responsorial” style with the choir/music group/whoever singing the verses, and the congregation joining in with the refrain. I used this method of metrical psalm singing quite successfully in my own parish, St Andrew’s Leytonstone, during Lent.

There is a catch, however. Most of the public domain metrical settings of the psalms use language that, at best, is considered archaic. Some of the older settings are quite difficult to understand. While that might be all right for the choir at St Andrew’s, where people have a fairly high tolerance for “old-fashioned” language, I do think it might be difficult in other contexts.

To this end I would like some modern metrical settings of the following psalms:

Advent I Psalm 80:1-8,18-20
Advent II Psalm 85:1-2,8-13
Advent III Psalm 126
Advent IV Psalm 89.1-4,19-26
(These are all from RSCM’s “Sunday by Sunday”, so please tell me if I’ve got the lectionary wrong…)

It would, of course, make sense to add these translations or paraphrases to Psalter Commons. Some of them have been shortened in order to be a sensible length for congregational worship; that’s the lectionary’s suggestion, not mine, so please feel free to include a bit more if the text sits better that way.

A modern metrical setting of the Magnificat (listed as an alternative to the psalm on Advent III or Advent IV) would also be useful, but this is not as crucial as there are serviceable settings already available in many hymnals (Timothy Dudley-Smith’s “Tell out my soul” is perhaps the best known).

I’ve promised people I’ll have this booklet done by mid-November, so I really, really need the text by the end of October. Do let me know if you’d like to help out.

Multi-tracking chant experiment

This is a brief experiment with multi-tracking chant.

http://player.soundcloud.com/player.swf?url=http%3A%2F%2Fapi.soundcloud.com%2Ftracks%2F19235111 Creator lucis optime (English) by artsyhonker

You see, I’ve got this hare-brained idea about podcasting a sung Compline online, possibly in some kind of Whitacre-style virtual choir. That’s hard to coordinate, with chant: the pulse is directed by the words, so metronome markings are no help, for starters. But gathering together a little schola cantorum to come and sing with me in person once a week or once a month seems equally daunting. And I worry that singing Compline by myself is just going to sound a bit daft; there are too many responsorial bits, really.

So I thought I’d take something simple and see whether I can sing chant with myself, so to speak. In went the headphones and out came the hymnal to select something I’d not sung before. The results are… instructive, really. This will need a lot of work on intonation and timing before I’m happy to do an entire Compline. I did actually cheat and “mute” some sections of some voices in one or two places where the timing was just unbearably out of sync; I didn’t do any other fancy stuff, though. What you hear is what I sang.

I guess if I want an online Compline to be a recording of an actual prayer, rather than something that takes hours of editing and re-recording to get into acceptable shape for posting online, I need to find some people to sing with me, or get used to the idea of singing alone.

There are, of course, other folks who put this sort of thing online. Most seem to be regular “Compline choirs” in the US, who rehearse regularly, or monastic groups with their daily Office available as podcasts. I’m not entirely sure how what I want to offer would be significantly different, and maybe I need to figure that out, too. On a very basic level, I’d like it to be something that encourages people to join in. That means providing links to the text and preferably to notation with the text underlaid, not just an audio file as I have above.

Dances, not dirges

On Saturday I had the pleasure of conducting the <a href=”http://www.lgq.org.uk”>London Gallery Quire</a>, not once but twice. We started with a service of Mattins at St John’s, Fulham, and then in the evening made our way to St Peter’s in the Forest for a concert as part of their Flower Festival.

Elsewhere there are conversations going on about music and liturgy, and as usual there is a certain amount of lamenting over organists who refuse to play anything “modern”, the boring drudgery of most hymns, and the problems this causes in making the church seem outdated or old-fashioned among young people.

As an aside I would like to note that, within the Church of England, canon law is quite explicit on the matter. I don’t have the specific reference to hand, but the final responsibility for choice of music lies with the incumbent, not with the organist. Any organist who point-blank refuses to comply with the wishes of the incumbent in this might do well to consider whether the position is right for them. In practice, this can get difficult: the liturgy, the “work of the people”, is collaborative and no one person can easily be held responsible if it just doesn’t work… but that is another discussion. My point is that simply blaming the organist for the overall feel of the liturgy is a cop-out.

That said, organists (and other church musicians) do have a huge impact and  responsibility in worship. Problems with the perception of liturgy as drab or outdated are, in my opinion, usually systemic, but an organist may have more
influence within that system than others.

What does all this have to do with the lovely West Gallery music I was conducting at the weekend? More than you might think. Some of the metrical psalms and non-conformist hymns we were singing are direct precursors to what most people would recognise as “traditional” hymnody. Regular metrical texts with fairly simple (even if lively) rhythms are easy for people to sing together, and that is crucially important for congregational music. The more florid and complex styles which arose out of the West Gallery tradition, while glorious and great fun, weren’t so easily learned or understood by congregations and I think this is a large part of why the Victorians slammed on the brakes. The tension in liturgy between rich complexity and accessibility is not limited to this period, or even to music. But metrical hymns are a very good and versatile compromise.

I believe many of the complaints launched against “traditional” hymns are groundless when those hymns are played and sung appropriately. Understanding their roots in folk melodies and dances (yes, I said dances) is important. The organ is perhaps not the instrument best suited to conveying the rhythmic vitality of this music, but it is not an impossible tool for the job. It is possible to be creative with articulation to imitate a strong pulse without distorting the timing; even doing this for one or two hymns per service would help to counter the impression of a wall of noise with no real beat.

Also important is remembering that congregations do not have an unlimited lung capacity. One December I was somewhat taken aback by the extremely slow speed at which I heard “Lo, he comes with clouds descending” sung, and then even more discouraged when I looked around on YouTube to find a version at a more lively tempo and found dozens which, like the live version I had encountered, were painfully slow. I am not certain whether the habit of playing most things too slowly in parish churches is from trying to imitate cathedral hymnody, where the acoustics often demand a slow tempo, whether it is because so many organists are like me — pianists who have taken up the organ later in life and simply cannot play the pedals that fast — or whether it is simply musical laziness, following the congregation (who are following the organ) so that things get slower and slower. All of these are, in my opinion, bad reasons to play everything slowly. Cathedrals are wonderful but they are not the same as parish churches, and imitating cathedral-style hymnody while disregarding local circumstances is foolish. Pedals are wonderful too but if you can’t play them nimbly, I suggest that discretion may be the better part of valour. Congregations are wonderful but left to their own devices will tend to sing too slowly.

None of this is meant to suggest that no hymns should ever be played slowly; there is some music which works better at a slower pace. My point is merely that if someone thinks all traditional hymns are boring drudgery, the problem might be more to do with how they have heard hymns played and sung than with the century in which the hymns were written.

Adventures in hymn selection

In the Common Worship lectionary there are two options for Eastertide. One uses an Old Testament reading, a reading from Acts, and a Gospel reading each week. The other uses an epistle instead of the Old Testament. The point is that Acts is required.

Somehow, I thought we were using the Old Testament readings, and chose hymns accordingly. So this morning we had a lovely reading from Acts, then a letter to Peter or someone, then a gradual hymn which was very much related to the Old Testament reading we hadn’t just heard.

Mix-ups do happen. I planned that we would sing “Allelyua, sing to Jesus” as the Communion hymn on Easter Sunday — what can I say? I like to get as much of that A-word in as I can now we’re allowed to say it again. When I had a closer look at it the night before, I realised that the words to verse two are very much more appropriate for Ascension, particularly “Though the cloud from sight received him when the forty days were o’er”. Oops! Thankfully I caught that one in time to change it.

I usually choose hymns in advance, about a month at a time, sending the list to the vicar for approval (canon law means the incumbent does have the final say). Occasionally we end up caught in the guessing game of trying to figure out which hymns the choir and congregation will already know, and then find out that no, it’s just us who think of some hymn tune as very well-known. I would have expected them to know NUN DANKET ALL for “Jesus, these eyes have never seen”, for example, but at rehearsal on Thursday that turned out not to be the case. We used another Common Meter tune instead, there are enough of them about that it wasn’t a problem!

The other thing that has happened sometimes is that I’ve chosen carefully, the vicar has given a thumbs-up to the choices, and then on Sunday morning we both wonder what on earth we were thinking! Sometimes I can follow the thread of my thoughts backward, sometimes not.