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.


A bit about why I use the CC licenses I do.

When I write music I release it under a Creative Commons license. I usually use a CC BY-SA license, known as Attribution-ShareAlike. This means people can use it, without first asking me, as long as they give me attribution and any derivative works they make are shared under a similar license. If I am using CC BY-SA then they are free to earn money for derivative works, but since they have to release those works under a similar license they are not going to be in a situation where they have a monopoly on the work. For example, a musician might get paid for recording one of my compositions — this is a commercial use of the work — but as they must allow others to use the recording they are not going to end up being the only supplier of it. The CC BY-NC-SA (Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike ) license is more restrictive, and I rarely use it these days; I believe the drawbacks outweigh the benefits of restricting copyright in that way.

The reason for “giving my music away for free” is something I’ve been through a number of times, but a short summary is that it is more important to me that the music is heard and used than that I make money from it. People are not queuing up to pay me to write music and the writing I do is little enough, and sufficiently esoteric by mainstream standards (mostly choral music, mostly for use in churches), that I’m unlikely to make much money from it anyway. Like the majority of musicians throughout history, I earn more money from teaching and performing than from composing, publishing or recording. When I do write something, and someone uses it, I’m delighted. It would be great if they could chuck a fiver my way, but a lot of people are in the same boat I am, with little or no sheet music budget, so I’m not going to worry about it too much if they don’t.

So, why do I use Creative Commons licenses rather than simply adding a preface to work saying that people are free to use it?

One is that the license information is easier to include on the work itself, so that in the event that it gets separated from the preface my intentions are still clear. (See Christ Has No Body Now On Earth But Ours for an example — that work is four pages, but it wouldn’t have been hard to include the license information on all of them, and anyway one page of it isn’t that useful on its own.) This isn’t a big deal for short pieces, but if I were to publish, say, a booklet of psalms for Advent, it’s quite likely that some people would want to use — and print — only one or two pages from it. It makes sense to have licence information on all of them, rather than expecting people to remember where the music came from and come back to find it again.

Another reason is that the people at Creative Commons have done the research to make sure that their copyright statements are legally valid, whereas a simpler text statement may not be considered binding (particularly in areas of international jurisdiction). I’ve seen lots of plain text copyright statements that aren’t absolutely clear whether, for example, an organist playing for a wedding which will be recorded is allowed to use the work if they are being paid. While I’m alive this isn’t too bad, as people can contact me (I try to include an e-mail address on most paper copies of my work too), but after I’m dead if there is any lack of clarity people will have to wait seventy years for my work to become public domain. So there’s a lot to be said for using a standardised license that others will be able to interpret and which has been formulated by people who understand the full legal implications.

I use a Creative Commons license because I want to give my work away and I want to do it with a minimum of fuss for myself and for others.

Your Commission, Should You Choose to Request It

An experiment:

I would like to write more music, particularly choral music. I would prefer to do this on commission, for a whole bunch of reasons. But my music is not well-known, and so I don’t attract attention from people who have serious money to pay for commissions, on the whole. So far, every note I have ever written has been for free.

What if the money for commissions isn’t quite so serious?

For £30, I will set up to 50 words of English for SATB, with or without a simple organ or piano accompaniment. I’m willing to do more complex compositions, or simpler ones, or other languages, but please do contact me about it — Latin is easy, Russian much harder! You can see (and in some cases hear) examples of my other compositions by using the look what I made category on this blog. That isn’t a full list (I’m working on it; processing works that pre-date this blog is another thing that is easily pushed aside!), but it’s something.

Your chosen text must be in the public domain, or you must have permission from the appropriate sources for me to set it. The copyright of the finished work will remain with me but I will release it under a CC BY-SA license, meaning that others can use it freely in derivative works, even for commercial purposes, as long as they acknowledge my work and share it similarly. So if you commission a choral work from me, you won’t just be contributing to my livelihood, you’ll be contributing to a body of publicly available art.

Any takers?

Psalter Commons

I have a new project! It’s called Psalter Commons and I would love your help with it.

I’d like the words of the psalms to be freely available for liturgy and study, but copyright law means the only truly free translations are quite old.

If you have translated or paraphrased a psalm or many psalms, please feel free to add the texts! They don’t need to have music, though if you do have music that’s great too. If you know of existing public domain psalters not listed on the category page please add those, too, preferably with links. Using a wiki is easy and quicky, er, quick.

More background details:

I have often whinged about the lack of freely-accessible, modern-language, metrical settings of psalms available these days. The older psalms available in the public domain are glorious! I do love them, and I’m very glad to have a chance to sing them fairly regularly in London Gallery Quire (though I play the serpent more often than I sing, I still get to read the words as I usually play from a vocal score). However, the language is considered archaic by many, and in some cases the translations are a bit suspect too, compared to modern scholarship.

There are modern metrical translations. Some of them are even included in the Christian Copyright Licensing Initiative (CCLI), which means that for a fee and with a lot of paperwork, we’re allowed to make copies of the words — if we’ve already bought a copy of whatever book they’re in. That’s admirable, but for a small parish like St Andrew’s it’s still a pretty high barrier to use. Why not just release them under a CC-BY-SA license and let everyone use them? Then I would be able to write my own musical settings if I wanted to, or set them to existing hymn tunes where appropriate.

There are accessibility difficulties with prose translations, too. The Common Worship Psalter publication terms aren’t too bad for liturgical use but if I want to use that material in a separate piece of music I have to write an ask for permission. The Coverdale psalms which are usually bound with the Book of Common Prayer, and those in the King James Authorised Version of the bible, are commonly thought to be in the public domain, but in the UK they’re actually under strange special copyright laws which mean that, again, I would need to ask for permission to use them.

So, I was having my usual moan and a friend offered to set up and host a wiki. It seemed like a better idea than just whingeing, so I said yes.

I hope that Psalter Commons will eventually become a valuable resource for anyone interested in the psalms for study and liturgical purposes. It will take a lot more work than I could do myself, which is why a wiki makes so much sense — now others who are interested can join in. Please do, and please send this page to others who might be interested.

Words, words!

When I write music, I struggle with the words. As a child I was a decent poet, I’m told, but at some point I lost the habit of writing poetry in a notebook in spare moments. I think it may have been around the time I took up playing the horn and got a paper route and somehow seemed to always be out at one rehearsal or another! These days, most of the words I write are typed directly onto a screen and unpoetic at best.

But I do seem to compose better with words than without. So, I try to find others’ words that say what I want to say, words that inspire or words that I think will be right for the context for which I’m writing. Invariably, I run into trouble with this. Anything that’s still under copyright is a massive pain; sometimes it’s possible to contact the author and ask for permission but often attempts to do so are simply ignored, and in some cases it’s hard to find out who to get in touch with in the first place. As I often struggle to find the right words in the first place (it took me several months to choose the words for Christ Has No Body Now on Earth but Ours, and even then I wasn’t sure until I sat down to write; In Commendation of Music was similarly fraught, though for very different reasons), the bother with copyright is a significant hurdle.

Lately I have been enjoying Thomas Thurman’s poetry. Eventually I summoned up the courage to ask, since Thomas seems a churchy type, whether there might be any psalm paraphrases I could use. I was pleased that there are two of them, and possibly more to come! One of those is more Christianized than I’d be happy to use as a psalm in liturgy (more on that in another post), but would definitely stand well as a hymn on its own; perhaps it was that comment which prompted Thomas to point me at this hymn text, which can’t be used with the tune it was written for due to copyright issues (see? it isn’t just me that has trouble with this stuff!)… Thomas also writes software and so is familiar with and happy about Creative Commons and other open licenses.

It’s not exactly a time of year when I ought to be taking on new projects, but the other Friday I had a long-ish train journey to a rehearsal (Zone 5, south of the river, there’s no way to do it without at least two changes and as I wasn’t cycling to London Bridge it was three this time). So, I printed out the words, chucked some manuscript paper in my bag and decided to see what I could make of it. It was a delightful tune to set to music: all the word stresses line up beautifully from verse to verse, and though the meter is somewhat non-standard I do now have a tune I’m reasonably happy with. As, for once, I’m not working to a deadline, I’m leaving it in a drawer for a month before doing some editing, so you don’t get to see it yet. But I’m pleased with it so far, and really happy to have access to some newer words which I’m allowed to put to music!

Give Us Grace

Earlier this year, Rev Kathryn Fleming asked me to write something for the patronal festival of St Matthew’s, Cainscross, which was this Tuesday. It needed to be something fairly simple, a round perhaps, something the congregation would be able to pick up quickly and sing at the service; it needed to be relevant to the occasion but useful for other situations as well.

I was happy to make an attempt, of course.

I found writing a round an interesting exercise. I’ve written one before, which I released anonymously, but that one was not something I set out to write, just one of the little ditties that turns up sometimes. Keeping melodic interest while not writing too many harmonic crunches was a challenge, especially at one point when I got a deceptive (that’s interrupted to you Brits) cadence stuck in my head.

Give us grace [PDF] [MIDI] is the result. As usual, I have released it under a CC-BY-SA license; you are welcome to use this music, as long as you attribute me appropriately and as long as any derivative works are released under a similar license.

London Alternative Copyright Choir

Traditional copyright exists in order to protect the rights of creators. The idea is that if they know their work will be protected and they can profit from it, there will be an incentive for them to create new works. This in turn means that consumers or audiences have a wide range of works to choose from. We all benefit from the cultural richness of a diverse range of artists creating a large number of works.

That’s a nice theory, and an admirable goal. But in real life, things don’t always work smoothly. There are several problems with the laws of copyright as they exist today, and with the business models that emerged around them in the 20th century.

In the music world one of the biggest problems is that of getting your music heard. It’s not enough to write music and then leave it in a desk drawer where nobody will hear it, or not if you want to make a living. Before mass communications were around, the way to get your music heard was to perform it as much as possible and try to get your friends to do the same. The printing press and increasing literacy changed that a fair amount, but performance was still a very important factor. Audio recording and playback technology, paired with the broadcasting possibilities of radio and television, changed it profoundly. It was possible, if you could raise the funds, to have your music played to hundreds, thousands, even millions of people at once. It was possible to play your music once, twice, ten times until you got it nearly perfect, and then sell a duplicate of that nearly perfect recording without having to do it again. Word of mouth became less important than airtime.

High-quality recording equipment was still relatively expensive in the 20th century. To have a song recorded was simply beyond the means of most musicians. So a system emerged where publishers and recording companies would enter into a partnership with composers and performers. The creators of the music would give up some control over their work in exchange for money, and the recording companies would worry about the details of recording equipment and distribution of the finished product.

Again, this is alright in theory. But what happened in practise was this: recording technology got cheaper. Mass distribution got cheaper. Recording companies got better at marketing, and at making money. It was very difficult to get your music heard in the mass media unless you had a deal with a recording company, and very difficult to get a deal with a recording company at all, and even then you might not make much money unless your track was a hit. Depending on the details of the contract you might not make money even if your track was very successful. And the mass media was the only one where you were likely to make significant amounts of money. The widespread availability of cheap recorded music meant that live performances weren’t so easy to fix any more. Copyright became something the recording companies would defend in order to preserve their profits, but which didn’t necessarily benefit artists, and which actually reduced the average audience’s access to a variety of music. If you wanted something different from the offerings of the mainstream media, you had to go out of your way to find it.

This, too, is changing: technology has moved on. The biggest change is that the mass media is becoming more and more audience-controlled. I’m writing this to post on a website; I’m willing to bet that many of the people reading it will have websites or blogs of their own. People are creating, for the sake of it. Some may get paid in advertising revenue or support themselves through other means, but many don’t bother. Some of the best bloggers out there have day jobs. A significant portion of people are starting to question or outright ignore what the mainstream media says, whether that’s in journalism or visual art or written fiction or music. The thresholds to mass broadcasting are much lower than they have been before, and a lot of us have something to say.

What that means, in practical terms, is that we’re back to word-of-mouth again, but in a much different environment than the one where personal, face-to-face contact was the main form of communication. Word of mouth has gone global. And it’s noisy.

For creators this has some interesting implications. Broadcasting is cheaper than it has ever been, but so is copy&paste. Artists who try to keep their copyrighted works out of the public domain have only limited success in doing so: do a Google image search for ‘Gary Larson’ if you don’t believe me. Before the printing press if you wrote or told a story and someone stole it and claimed it as their own, there wasn’t a lot you could do, but you could try to tell the same story more than they’d have a chance to, and probably still make some profit. Mass duplication makes that a technology race as well a social skills race, and ultimately the choice to say anything at all is also an acceptance of the risk that someone else might try to steal it.

The challenges for the music industry are similar to those for the written word; the technology is different, but not far behind. The technology that lets me record a music rehearsal at a reasonable quality and put it online, should I wish, costs less than a month’s rent. The expertise required to do so really well is something I can learn. The equipment to create a CD-quality recording, isn’t much more expensive than what I’ve got. But once it’s out there, I have very little control: I can’t easily dictate whether it is duplicated or not. I certainly can’t afford legal fees against someone who attempts to profit from my own work. Participation is an act of trust.

We need new business models to deal with this environment.

We can lean toward more control, more stringent laws to prevent the theft and piracy of intellectual property. That way lies stifling bureaucracy and an endless arms race against what technology can do. And as shown, it doesn’t always benefit artists or audiences. If I hear something I like I’m going to try to show my friends by whatever technology I have available; making that illegal doesn’t benefit anyone.

Alternately we can tread the careful path toward increased openness and trust. We can build communities where intellectual property rights are respected, but not in a punitive manner: where people create for the sake of creating, not for the reward, but where reward is still possible.

The London Alternative Copyright Choir exists to explore some of the alternative business models available, at least as far as choral music is concerned. Our concert, “Songs of Freedom”, will be this Friday, 20th March, at St John on Bethnal Green Church.

London Alternative Copyright Choir

I’m running a very exciting project as part of my BMus degree. I am putting together a choir, which will do eight weeks of rehearsal and then a concert. The exciting part? All the music used will be acquired, copied, and performed using non-traditional alternatives to copyright, and the part of the proceeds will go to the Open Rights Group. You don’t need to read music and there are no auditions.

We will be rehearsing on Thursday evenings from 7.30pm to 9.30pm on the following dates:
29th January
12th, 19th and 26th February
5th, 12th and 19th March.

Please note: no rehearsal 5th February!

The concert will be on 20th March at 8pm. Rehearsals and the concert are at St. John on Bethnal Green church, conveniently located at Bethnal Green tube station.

The website (still under construction, but it has the important details) is here:
The Google Group is here:
There is a poster which you could print out here:

So: Five Reasons Why You Should Sing With The London Alternative Copyright Choir!

1. It’s only a small time commitment

Just one Thursday evening a week for eight weeks, and then a concert. A great way to try out the choir thing without committing to giving up an evening a week for the rest of your mortal life!

2. You will get to meet and spend time with shiny people!

Singing in a choir is a great way to meet new people, and to regularly see old friends.

3. Singing is great!

Singing is fun – and it’s good for your well-being and mental health! Breathing to sing is physically relaxing, creating music with other people is one of those things which is amazing in ways that it’s hard to put into words. Performing can be a buzz! (And it’s legal, and you don’t get a hangover).

4. You will get to learn some awesome music!

Purcell! He wrote the first opera in English! He wrote loads of music that was used as incidental music in contemporary productions of Shakespeare’s plays! And now you can access his music for free on the internet! How cool is that?

Plus, we’ll be doing some new music written specially for the choir. Honestly, there is nothing more exciting than getting to work on new music with the composer for the first performance – and amateur choirs are rarely able to do it, at least partly because commissioning fees are extremely expensive (after all, composers have to eat). We are lucky to be working with composers who believe that there are models which allow them to perform and spread their music differently, so that all sorts of groups have access to new music. Which leads neatly on to the big one:

5. The renegotiation of Intellectual Property Laws is one of the most important socio-political / legal debates of the Internet age.

This is about who has the power to profit from our music, our art, our ideas. This is about how we assign value. Some of you have already seen this debate go past, and already know how relevant it is to you. Some of you work with open source code. Open source music (and other forms of art) will have to work to a slightly different model, which we haven’t quite got figured out yet.

Regardless of whether you see this like I do, I invite you to explore the Open Rights Group website, and think about why this is so important in an age when our methods for dissemination of ideas are becoming something new and unforeseen and glorious.

Great! I’m sold! Sign me up!

If you want to take part in the London Alternative Copyright Choir, see the website (still under construction) for more details: or join the Google group at

That all sounds amazing, but I don’t have the time / don’t live in London

There are still loads of ways you can help out!

1) Spread the word, and help us recruit singers! I’m sure you lot know musical geeks in London that aren’t likely to be reading this. Let them know! Link to this post or point them at the website.

2) Come to the concert! It will be on the 20th of March, at St John on Bethnal Green, right by Bethnal Green Tube on the Central Line. Tickets will be sold on a ‘pay what you think this will be worth’ basis on the night, or you can get them in advance for a fiver. Details are on the website.

If you’re feeling really enthusiastic, you can help publicise the concert nearer the time.

Practising was unpleasant this morning. I’ve had three days in a row of not playing, and things never sound or feel quite right after that. It went reasonably well, though, so I think I’ll be on track again by tomorrow.

The reason for my non-practising yesterday is that I was attending a seminar presented by Open Rights Group, Creative Business in the Digital Era. The curriculum and various other useful information is all available under Creative Commons licence from the CBDE wiki, and participation is encouraged, so please do add your tuppence worth.

Last night I wrote up some of my impressions of the seminar in a fairly loose and unstructured manner, but I won’t be posting that today as I’ve left the laptop at home.

Classes are officially over until 14th April! Most of this week my focus is on getting my last Arranging assignment finished, and some chamber music rehearsals. I’m also looking at moving house again, sadly. Various things have not been going well, and I need to either move now while I don’t have classes or wait until after exams.