What we sing is important. Singing is an act of embodiment—turning words and musical notes on paper into living, breath-filled expression. It often is the first step many of us take to move outside our own comfortable environment. We will sing a concept before we actually live it.
What songs get our attention within the current discussion of nonviolence?
Community of Christ Sings contains a wealth of texts from which to choose; but how might the music affect our consideration? Let’s consider three songs with music techniques and styles that enhance the meaning of the texts. These techniques or styles can feel unusual to singers and musicians at first, but once mastered they underline the text’s important message. Here are three examples:
CCS 348, “We Serve the Prince of Peace”
The words by Terry W. York, a Baptist minister and academic from Waco, Texas, USA, are based on Matthew 5 and allude to concepts like, “Blest are the meek,” “turn the cheek,” “Go the second mile,” “Give your coat,” “share your bread,” “Love your enemies,” “Lend, expecting nothing back,” and “You are the light, place your lamp upon the height.”
This text has much to explore about nonviolence. The composer, C. David Bolin, also from Waco, in an unusual move literally gives singers time to contemplate these sayings of Jesus by having them hum for two music systems at the end of each stanza. It’s the only instance of humming in the hymnal. This technique intentionally provides musical space for reflection that sends us deeper into the text.
CCS 303, “Till All the Jails Are Empty”
The 2013 Community of Christ International Peace Award recipient, John L. Bell from Iona Community in Scotland, composed the melody for this Carl P. Daw Jr. text. Daw is an experienced Episcopal minister and hymn author from Boston, Massachusetts, USA. The list of desired Zionic conditions he incorporates into this text are worth probing as we begin to identify our underlying assumptions about nonviolence.
The unusual musical technique Bell employs is to change keys and move up the scale as the text lists situations ripe with possibilities as well as instances of violence, injustice, and inequality. Bell’s melody is arranged masterfully by Daniel Charles Damon, a retired professor and minister from the San Francisco, California, USA, area.
When keyboard musicians first look at Bell/Damon’s music, they may feel overwhelmed. It looks hard. The music is in four keys! However, after giving it a go, musicians generally find the melodic and harmonic patterns repeat, making them easier to access. This also is true for singers. The melody is a repeating pattern until the statement, “God has work for us to do,” at the end of each stanza. For singers, following along with a recording may be a bit easier than watching the notes on the page when learning the melody.
The technique of progressing from key to key gives this song motion and symbolically hints at following Jesus, the peaceful One, in dynamic rather than static discipleship. Creative use of this hymn at a reunion included worshipers forming protest groups with placards, marching around the assembly as they sang. They literally demonstrated or embodied the song in their actions.
CCS 212, “God Weeps”
New Zealand author Shirley Erena Murray wrote this provocative text identifying behaviors and situations that affect God. She ascribes human characteristics to God: weeping, bleeding, crying, waiting.
The composer, Mark A. Miller of Summit, New Jersey, USA, has been called “a gifted voice in this generation’s stanza.” He is the type of musician that advises: “Let go of the written page and start listening.” He is a practitioner of improvisation, developed at a Baptist church in Harlem, New York, USA. For “God Weeps,” Miller employs jazz to match with the struggles and injustices in Murray’s text.
Musicians who are accustomed to playing hymns may find this song challenging. Miller employs second and ninth chords, which typically are not found in our heritage of church music.
For example, while in the key of F Major, Miller uses an Eb9 chord to lead into the final declaration of each stanza. The recognizable jazz feel slows us down to listen to what we are singing. The musical dissonance mirrors the text’s meaning. The pain God feels becomes embodied as we sing.
In just these three examples, there is much diversity, not unlike our discussion of nonviolence. Apostle Janné Grover in a recent podcast spoke of this:
[It] really struck me as an important part of this process. …we hear the diverse voices, the diverse contexts and experiences, and…allow those voices to be part of what shapes us…to name injustice in our prayers, in our practice of the daily prayer for peace, and praying for peace.
May it be so in our songs as well: naming injustice while embracing the diverse and emerging musical techniques and styles used to illuminate what we are singing. Let us be blessed and shaped by singing together!