What I Do For My Job (Some of It…)

Like any pastor, my job is a grab bag of odd jobs. I do a little of a lot of things — prayer, scripture study, counseling, mentoring, preaching, administrative work, attending meetings, cleaning out my inbox — just enough of each to remind myself that I am a newbie at everything. But, given the nature of my particular position, a huge chunk of my job is spent on one thing: music. This post is not about anything lofty like the resurrection, salvation history, the Trinity, etc… it’s about the nuts and bolt of melodies, rhythms, and chord progressions.

A lot of my work is arranging and rearranging songs. When I hear a song, I hear it as the sonic equivalent of a model made out of Legos. Any of the pieces can be moved around, and anything can be taken out or added in. Entire songs can be mixed into each other. I’m not a maker; I’m a tinkerer.

Stealing music is my love language. I am always sneaking music into music. These are things no one in the congregation notices. And this is intentional, because if the musical references were too explicit, they would be distracting. Instead, all of the musical mixing and matching helps to make everyone’s worship experience more vibrant and colorful. Not a very “spiritual” answer, but there it is. (Hopefully you can hear my skepticism about splitting the “spiritual” from the “unspiritual”…)

So, if you’ll humor me, allow me to give you a glimpse into my process of arranging music for a Sunday morning. As an example case, I’ll use the liturgy from Easter Sunday. This service has more packed into it than usual, but it will allow me to show more examples.

Also, if this feels like compulsive name-dropping, it’s not. I’m just showing how none of my ideas are ever original. And also, you should listen to these good people, too.

Here we go…

* * *

For the pre-service music we played an untitled piece of music that I wrote. The piece was heavily inspired by early video game music, contemporary chiptunes, and The Bad Plus. The piece evokes their “happy” pieces like “The Big Eater,” “1979 Semi-Finalist,” and “The Radio Tower Has a Beating Heart.” Some of my solo lines were in the style of Japanese pop melody lines. It was probably one of the most unapologetically happy songs we’ve ever played. Also, it metrically modulated back and forth between a quarter note pulse in 5/4 and an equivalent dotted quarter note pulse in 4/4, which made it even more infectiously happy.

The call to worship featured “He is Given” by Isaac Wardell, as recorded by DM Stith. I definitely kept some of Wardell and Stith’s production aesthetic, but I incorporated some of the stylings of Yann Tierson and Ryuichi Sakamoto into the piano, violin, and cello parts. As much as I have tried to exorcise him from my vocabulary, James Newton Howard is also always simmering underneath my piano and string parts. The end of the piece transitioned into an alleluia, and I switched into what is probably my go-to piano style: a Keith Green base, with hacked-up minimalist multi-layer polyrhythms a la Steve Reich, and Sigur Ros harmonies.

A litany of celebration in the middle featured the “Celtic Alleluia” by Fintan O’Carroll and Christopher Walker. We’ve done this piece many times, so I’m always looking for new ways to arrange it. We sang it four times, so I wrote four different violin and cello parts. Some parts borrowed the harmonic language of Sufjan Stevens‘ string parts on songs such as “They Are Night Zombies” and “Jackson.” At one point I wrote out a walking cello line that featured some Baroque-ish voice leading, but I added a few angular intervals in to make it a little crunchier.

During the communion prayer, we sang the ever-protean “Sanctus” by our own Jonathan Gabhart. This is another song we’ve done countless times, so we’re always trying to rearrange it. For a long time I’ve wondered about trying a Dodos-style indie rock drum part on it, so Noah McLaren and I played cross stick on the rims of as many drums as we could reach. Also, Andy Bast wrote spectacular parts for brass quartet. They were Copland-esque, with perhaps an unintentional hint of John Williams (or maybe Holst?) under the surface.

During communion proper, as people were coming forward to receive the elements, we played two pieces. The first was a chord progression I shamelessly ripped off of Melanie Penn’s fantastic retuned hymn setting of “He Dies the Friend of Sinners.” (Don’t worry, because it was Easter, we played the part when Jesus is alive again.) Second, Noah led us in Luke Morton’s “The Lamb Has Overcome.” The song is in the American folk tradition, through the accumulated filters of Cash, Dylan, and acoustic Springsteen. I wrote a string interlude that was meant to evoke the hammier string moments of Tom Waits, Leonard Cohen, or late Dylan.

It’s also worth mentioning musical ideas that didn’t make the cut. An earlier draft of the communion music ripped off the synth lines of Atoms for Peace’s “Ingenue,” but it was too ambitious. An earlier string part for The Lamb Has Overcome was inspired by Emily Jane White, but it was too dark for Easter and too showy for my taste. Earlier versions of the Celtic Alleluia string parts were more Irish-sounding, which sounded a little silly, so I cut them out.

Lastly, to give you a better sense of the full character of the service, we also sang three hymns, arranged for organ, brass quartet, and timpani. Two of them were by John Ferguson, and they were all awesome.

PHEW. What a Sunday! It was exhilarating. Like I said, this post has nothing to do with any of the lofty spiritual things that are supposed to be a part of my job, but hopefully it gives you a glimpse into the intense joy I experience in crafting the best worship music that I can for the people of God as they worship. Soli Deo Gloria, praise the Spirit for working in/with/under me, He is Risen, etc!

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One thought on “What I Do For My Job (Some of It…)

  1. Oh man, I wish I could’ve been there! I know enough of these references to know it would’ve been cool to hear it all, but not enough to imagine the whole thing. Also, Keith Green IS my childhood Easter—we’d always turn on his Easter Song while eating dinner—so it was nice to see him show up. Thanks, Steven, for doing what you do.

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