Monday, February 21, 2011

A Contrasts Review: Folk Art and High Art Meet Popular Art

Something new for a new year:
A Contrasts Review
is where our reviewers
contrast very different kinds of material
to better understand them all.

Heath, Brandon. Leaving Eden. Franklin, TN: Reunion/Provident-Integrity/Sony, 2011. Audio CD. $13.98. (N) 

RED. Until We Have Faces. Franklin, TN: Provident/Essential, 2011. Audio CD. $13.98. (N)

George, Nathan Clark with Mark Stoffel an Ross Sermons. Still. Westpoint, TN: NCG, 2010. Audio CD. $14.95. (mp3 download is $9.00.) (H)

Leavitt, John. A Celtic Prayer. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2008. SATB and piano sheet music. $1.60. (H)

Leavitt, John, composer and conductor. The Jubilee Festival Singers with Susan Laushman, pianist. Symphony of Songs and River in Judea. Andover, KS: John Leavitt Music, 2008. Audio CD. $15.00. (H)

Leavitt, John, composer. Symphony of Songs: Song Cycle for Mixed Choir and Piano. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2008. Choral Book. $5.00. (H)

Kim, David, violin. With Paul S. Jones, piano. The Lord Is My Shepherd. (Includes American Spirituals, Book One, for Violin and Piano by Kile Smith.) Philadelphia: Paul Jones Music, 2006. Audio CD. $17.00. (H)

Williams, Anne Martindale, violoncello. With Paul S. Jones, piano. Sacred Music for Cello. (Includes American Spirituals, Book Two, for Cello and Piano by Kile Smith.) Philadelphia: Paul Jones Music, 2009. Audio CD. $17.00. (H)

I do like the new. I also cherish the old. Perhaps you remember the old campfire song where "one is silver and the other, gold."

Today's Contrast Review is not merely about new and old. That would be too simplistic a description. Tonight, I would like to show parallels between folk culture and high culture on one hand and popular culture on the other.

Pop culture products have a built-in expiration date. Like the computers we're both using, there is a planned obsolescence involved here. Everybody knows that a pop singer, famous personality, or popular politician won't likely be popular forever. Then, people are on to the next big thing, whatever that may be.

Folk music, as an example of folk culture, transcends generations. Folk culture may fade as languages and unique national costumes and musics often do, but the sense of belonging to a people group remains. America, the great Melting Pot, has made it possible for Scotch-Irish-English-Bohemian-American mutts like myself to enjoy a my choice of Chinese, Mexican, or a kosher hot dog for lunch. Folk tunes have found their way into more recent hymnals and are cherished almost immediately.

And then there's high culture. What did people derogatorily call some "classical" music a few generations ago? "Long hair music." Consider how that became more of a relevant connotation to folk-pop-rock in the 1960's and '70s. Yet, we still listen to Bach, Beethoven, Handel, Mozart, and the gifted musical geniuses of the past. Yes, high culture also transcends generations.

Folk culture and high culture both have the ability to bridge generations, something pop culture largely lacks.

Consider CCM artist Brandon Heath.

Heath's vocal musicianship is better than many in his field, sacred or secular. He is responsible, at least in part or in whole, for writing every track on Leaving Eden. His overarching narrative for the project is life as a sinner in a sinful world. He demonstrates a comfortable discomfort with pain in this world. 

The most commonly used euphemism for God is "You." The song "Now More than Ever" suffers from the "Jesus or my girlfriend" syndrome, where the lyrics are ambiguous and could refer to either or both. The track "Only Water" had so much potential for being about regenerative Holy Baptism with an Acts 2 twist at the end that Baptism is NOT only water, but that thought wasn't explored.

Heath's Eden is listenable, non-objectional pop that will be appreciated now and produce a few tracks for his "best of" albums in the future.

Red is something completely different. Watch/listen for yourself.

Red presents an intense rock album with Until We Have Faces, intentionally named similarly to C. S. Lewis' retelling of the Psyche myth, Till We Have Faces. With this release, Red covers some of the same thematic ground as Heath above and Lewis' book. 

The sound tends to overwhelm the text and is its master until a couple of the late tracks on the album which show more melodic and harmonic development. The rock sound made it a challenge to hear Red's message of life in search of a new identity in Christ. I look forward to a regular release copy so I can better understand the lyrics from the album liner notes.

Listeners unaccustomed to modern rock will be unsettled. I enjoyed the intensity and creativity. The music is powerful and emotive. Until We Have Faces sounded great on my Sony car speakers, but like Leaving Eden, this album will remain "on the road" music instead of that composed for the Sunday morning sanctuary.

Moving from pop to a reflective treatment of folk and traditional hymns, consider the Christmas album of Nathan Clark George and friends!

Listen at: Web visitors will also be able to see lyrics/notes for each track and free downloads.

Vocals, mandolin, violin, bass, and guitar accompany cherished hymns and two new compositions by George, "For What Did Christ, the Babe, Appear" and "In Quiet Hope." The latter is a haunting instrumental. The text of the former (with Nashville-numbered chords) reads:

6 4 1/3 2 6 3Msus 6
For what did Christ the babe appear, Fashioned in an earthly style?
6 4 1/3 2 6 3Msus 6
And rest within a manger here, Immanuel, a heavenly child?
4 5 5/7 1 2 5/7 3 4 5
This, foretold in ancient times! This th'angelic hosts now sing
4 5 5/7 1 2 6 3Msus 6
Glory unto God on high, The Child of Peace is born a King!
For what did Christ, the babe, appear, and His Father's will obey?
From Jordan's waters in holy fear, to the cross, what was gained?
All is gained by Him alone. All the law is satisfied.
All obedience to the throne! He, the perfect sacrifice.
[Bass Out]
For what did Christ, the babe, appear, offering His most precious blood?
And once ordain that I should hear, placing me within the flood?
[Bass Walks Down]
In the flood of Gospel light, Clear and pure as shining star,
Fast I stand with end in sight; distant yet, though not afar.
For What did Christ the Babe Appear
nathan clark george 2010
Key of A / F#m
Guitar: capo 2 play in G
I look forward to seeing this new hymn in hymnals someday!

I appreciate the honest musicianship of the recordings of Nathan Clark George and would be honored to include music like this to Christmas Eve Lessons and Carols at Immanuel.

I have long been a fan of the compositions and arrangements of John Leavitt.

Symphony of Songs and River in Judea
John's new choral song cycle features beautiful Hymn and Psalm settings as well as the newly recorded RIVER IN JUDEA.
  1. Rejoice in the Lord
  2. Create in Me (Psalm 51)
  3. The Beautiful Treasure (Shaker Hymn)
  4. Come Let Us Sing to the Lord (Psalm 95)
  5. Shall We Gather at the River (Hymn Arrangement)
  6. As Pants the Hart (Psalm 42)
  7. Praise the Lord (Psalm 150)
  8. A Celtic Prayer
  9. River in Judea

The Jubilee Festival Singers and Susan Laushman, pianist perform under the direction of composer/conductor John Leavitt.

This is not the first time I have heard the beautiful settings of tracks 1-3 and 5, but this was the first time I have heard the texts paired with the now-beloved arrangements.

"Create in Me" would be a delightful choral substitute Offertory Canticle at Divine Service. The piano arrangement is more modest and approachable for the choral pianist.

In a similar way, I would love to incorporate "Come, Let Us Sing to the Lord," an adaptation of Psalm 95, as the Venite for Matins or Morning Prayer. A well-practiced pianist could handle the sixteenth notes. A more novice player could focus primarily on the left hand on page 22, 24, and 28.

The remaining tracks were a fresh auditory feast for this reviewer.

"A Celtic Prayer" is a notable setting of St. Patrick's Breastplate (yes, that St. Patrick). It is accessible for a beginning SATB-capable choir. The six-flat key change may prove to be a challenge for the accompanist, but Leavitt utilizes the unique key to its full potential before returning to three flats. Harmony is lush.

The singers made my job of listening (and following along with some of the printed music) very enjoyable. Their balance, varied volume, and proper pronunciation helped the music and text come to the fore unless I intentionally focused on their musicianship in detail.

Buy this recording for your listening edification and donate the sheet music to your congregation's choir for year-round possibilities!

Leavitt is but one example of what I consider a Godly fusion and celebration of folk hymnody and high art culture. Bach can be intimidating. Leavitt and Paul S. Jones are a blessing to traditional liturgical churches looking to preserve their common Christian heritage of song and add substantial and reverent contributions from the current generation.

Recorded at Tenth Presbyterian Church, Paul S. Jones' recordings set a high standard for creative harmonizations and arrangements of beloved hymn tunes expertly played. Jones himself is one arranger among several including Jeremy Strong, Richard A. Nichols, Timothy Shaw, Peter Leibensperger, and QBR favorite, Kile Smith. Smith arranged tracks 16-18, including the haunting "Sinner, Don't Let This Harvest Pass," the tune Resignation, and "The Old Ship of Zion."

Visit for sheet music of the arrangements on this recording. They will be welcome at home, the Church, and the concert hall alike!

The other recording from Paul Jones Music features Ann Martindale Williams on cello.

18 Tracks of cello/piano music with 14 new Hymn and Spiritual arrangements and four favorite short Classical works played by Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra principal cellist, Anne Martindale Williams. Composers/arrangers of new works include Kile Smith, Dan Barta, Tim Shaw, Rick Nichols, Peter Leibensperger, Jeremy Strong, and Paul Jones; classical works of Bach, Mendelssohn and Fauré.
Violin and cello are part of the same family, but it would be a mistake to say a cell is merely a larger violin. The same kind of substantial arrangements found on the 2006 violin recording are found here in 2009 with piano and cello. Pizzicato surprises on "This Is My Father's World," especially when contrasted in the same arrangement with the deep strength of the lower register of the cello. Similar playfulness is evident on a very creative Leibensperger arrangement of "Jesus Loves Me."

Hymns are followed by American Spirituals, including Book Two of Kile Smith's compositions, including the tune Helmsley (creatively reminisent of his Vespers), the soulful " When the Stars Begin to Fall," and "Little David, Play on Your Harp."

The album concludes with skillful performances of classics by Mendelssohn, Bach, and Faure. All three components belong together!

I could listen to the last four recordings all day long. They are edifying, reverent, historic yet fresh, and represent high folk music accessible transgenerationally. I could easily imagine them appreciated and still heard and played centuries from now. There is a time and a place for temporary things, but the Eternal Gospel deserves vesture that brings glory to God and doesn't get in the way of communicating salvation to mankind.

The Rev. Paul J Cain is Pastor of Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming, Headmaster of Martin Luther Grammar School, a member of the Board of Directors of The Consortium for Classical and Lutheran Education, Wyoming District Worship Chairman, and Editor of QBR.