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Friday, April 5, 2013

Albums (3) - Mystery - 1987

Mystery was my first CD. I was so jealous of Tom Kendzia getting to CD first with No Greater Love, which was a beautiful album with songs on it that I still love and treasure. But in 1987, the medium was new, at least to liturgical music, and it was A Big Deal to move from vinyl to CD. Now folks are moving back to vinyl, but I wouldn't know where to go to play one. I'll need to figure that out before we start our next recording, whenever that is.

I started preparing for this post by opening up a cassette of the recording and reading the J-card to look at the names of the principals, all the Phoenix cats who sang and played on the recording. Tom Kendzia was still producing at this time, and his wife's very talented sister, Paula Wolak, was the engineer on the project. Allow me to say: Never a dull moment. It is a genuine pleasure to be in a room with a woman who gives as good as she gets, which is not easy to do when TK is sitting next to you.

The late Ray Bruno, NALR's founder and president, was very much alive and present for some of the sessions. Gary Daigle was a big part of the creative team, since he and Terry and I were going on the CD as a trio for the first time, and two of the songs on the CD were collaborations between us (more on that later.) Gary had assembled at the Casa de Paz y Bien, the Franciscan Renewal Center in Scottsdale, where he was the music director, an incredible team of musicians, some of whom played and sang on the recording. Jimmy Whitaker was the main keyboardist, and as you listen, you can sometimes hear his tasty, sparse playing ("As We Remember"), and sometimes experience the dramatic, irrepressible virtuosity that was also his gift (listen to the speedy glissandi he plays on the last verse of "Up from the Earth.") Bob Warren, Gary's drummer for years at the Casa, was the percussion point man. Bob died a couple of years ago very suddenly in Texas, shocking everyone who knew him. The hyper-professional Matt McKenzie was the bass player on this and some of the later music we made in Phoenix. Matt was shortly afterward playing with Lyle Lovett's Large Band, and has played with Patty Loveless, Don Williams, and toured with Olivia Newton-John. So many amazing cats. The trumpet parts were covered by everyone's #1 guy, Fred Forney, who has more jazz credits to his name than most of us dream of having in our field, and after a long stint teaching at Arizona State University, is now Director of Jazz Studies at Mesa Community College.

Singers too, a mix of Casa people, St. Jerome people, other music directors in the area. Pat McDonald, a bass, and longtime music director in Phoenix, also passed away recently. Most of the people from those sessions I still keep in contact with via Facebook or some other means; some, I regret, I have lost track of. (Their whereabouts is a mystery. Coincidence? I think not.)

Did I mention Gary Palmatier's grooviest CD cover ever? We never knew really how to describe it.
People tended to see what they wanted to see in it, but it was a great piece of digital art that really caught for me the nature of what we were trying to do with this collection of songs. Privately, Gary and I came to think of the main image as "a giant green olive stuffed with the sun." But this is about the music, isn't it? I'll get to that.

I wrote to Fr. Andrew Greeley who, at the time, was writing books like The Cardinal Sins before sins by cardinals got to be so popular and disgusting. Greeley graciously did write the introduction to the Mystery songbook, which we did use, but in which it was fairly clear to me that he might never have actually listened to the music. Greeley is not a musician, but he is a fine priest, and popularizer of church culture. "I don't dare endorse Rory Cooney's hymns as music, any more than I would expect him to endorse my sociology as sociology."  I was thrilled, am still thrilled, that he said, "All I can say is I enjoy listening to them and I am sure congregations will enjoy singing them." That's all I needed to hear!

I made a playlist on Soundcloud (free, nothing to download or buy!) with some of the songs on Mystery are my own now, that is, which OCP is no longer publishing. Like we did with You Alone and Do Not Fear to Hope, we re-recorded the anthologized songs on Mystery to incorporate them into Change Our Hearts, which we made in 2000. Here's the SoundCloud player - you can listen to the songs while you read the rest of this, if you'd like. More below the break.




Mystery - the songs

1. Servant Song, words and music by me, dedicated to Archbishop Raymond Hunthausen of Seattle. I wrote this song when reading over the scriptures in year B that are proclaimed in the weeks between the Bread of Life Sundays and the Feast of Christ the King. The pattern that I was perceiving was, of course, a theological theorem that I already knew, it's just that it jumped out at me at the time. I can summarize it like this: the servant of God of the Isaiah canticles is a pattern for Jesus, who by his paschal mystery and gift of the Holy Spirit makes us, the church, also to be formed as the servant. I remember sitting in a big reclining chair in a back bedroom of my mom's house where my wife and I were living at the time, when the "hook" of the chorus popped into my head, "This is my servant, whom I shall uphold. His name is Christ is her name."

As strange as the grammar was, the line felt really good to me. I was reading Christian Century at the time, too, and was steamed about the way that (I perceived) that the American bishops were deserting Archbishop Hunthausen as he stood against the Reagan administration's deployment of nuclear submarines from Seattle's harbors. I thought the bishop did what all of them should have done, that is, protest against this casual act of nuclear belligerence. So I dedicated this song to him, and told people that everywhere I used it. I still have a note he wrote me to thank me, right in front of my face every day as I work at St. Anne's, with other treasures. This song was a favorite, too, of another great friend and mentor of mine, Fr. Jim Dunning. It made it to almost the final cut of Gather Comprehensive, thanks to Michael Cymbala, but eventually dumped because some of the editors thought the language ("his name is Christ is her name") was too controversial. I don't know, they might have been right. But I always consider this song as one of mine that "got away," and I think there's room in the repertoire for things that are at least a little bit edgy.

2. (I Myself Am the) Bread of Life, words and music by me, dedicated to the people of St. Jerome Parish, Phoenix, Arizona. As I mentioned above, when I was writing these songs, it must have been a Mark (B) year in the lectionary, probably mid-1985. I remember sitting with the leaders (late high school, college age and some adults) of the youth group, talking with them about the Eucharist, and what an expansive theology of real presence was available to us in our tradition, and that we ourselves are the bread of life for other people, not because of anything we did, but because in baptism it is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us, by the presence of the Holy Spirit. They told me to write a song about that, so I did. If you missed my blog post on Real Presence, click on that link for more on that. Also, one of my first posts when I started this blog was called "Theological Tempests in Musical Teapots," and one of the songs I dealt with was this one, because people still get all hot and bothered about the text. Nowadays, I just state my case, and tell them, "Hey, it's not worth fighting about. Just sing another song. Better for us to sing together than to be crabby and insistent we're right." Click on that blog post's title to read it, some day when you have time.

3. Like You, words and music by me. This was my attempt to write a "contemporary Christian" ballad, like a Sandy Patti or Amy Grant song. Terry did a great job singing it, I love Bob Warren's drums, Gary Daigle's guitar, and the keyboards. Needless to say, neither Sandy nor Amy called me.

4. As We Remember, words and music by me. This was one of the real favorites at St. Jerome Parish. I remember very well the response to this song every week. We used it as a song during the breaking of the bread for years until the bishop finally told us to quit it, because it didn't have the "Lamb of God" text. (Remember, this was the 80s. We weren't the only ones!) So I did write a "Lamb of God" part to be sung simultaneously to fulfill the letter of the law, but it's not in the score.

The text of the refrain uses an evocative metaphor that invites us into the mystery of God's mercy that can feel ambivalent. How, for instance, is a crucifixion merciful? The refrain channels The Brothers Karamazov by way of Dorothy Day. This is the text:
As we remember, we are becoming;
What we see broken, we hope to be.
Show us your mercy, show us your mercy,
Your mercy, harsh and lovely as the sea.
© 1987 NALR.
Like "On Eagle's Wings," that metaphor invites to enter into it, and let our lives resound inside its semiotic field. I think the movies Places in the Heart and Tender Mercies both touch on this mystery, but there's no explaining it. Love that gives itself to the point of death, divine love, agape, sometimes looks for all the world like death. Dorothy Day, a big fan of Dostoevsky, used to say that "love in reality is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams," which paraphrases a line in Brothers. I think she knew what she was talking about. And I think we all have experiences of this, which is why the refrain resonates with folks, or did, when it was published in Glory and Praise Comprehensive and then, happily, in Gather Comprehensive. For the first edition, anyway.

5. In Our Hands, words by me, music by Gary Daigle. I think this is one that Gary thinks got away. Sometime I'll write about our various collaborations, but this one is pretty typical of the style of them. Gary writes music first, almost always. Sometimes he has a fragment of a text in mind, but generally doesn't care whether I use it or not (though I always try to.) For one of our first attempts, I thought this was a good product.

6. Mystery. Words by me, music by Gary and me. Commissioned by and dedicated to the Vincentian Community (Congregation of the Mission), USA Western Province, by Steven Viau, CM. In the composer's notes, I mentioned the title of a book that was fairly contemporary, Your God Is Too Small, and I think that's fair, because scripture is clear that God is ineffable, and "dwells in unapproachable light," and yet we take such delight in idolizing our definitions and limning God's preferences and laws as though we had some primary access to them. I went on to say that "theologians...may haggle over the appropriateness of metaphors, 'Father,' 'Mother,'  'Lover,' 'Fire, —but none of these metaphors gives us more than a glimpse of the shadow of the Holy One." Now, I would say, "no more than the memory of picture of a shadow," but it's still better than nothing, as long as we don't imagine it's the whole picture, or even the right color.

This collaboration was a little different. I wrote the music and words except for the melody of the contrasting verses, 3 and 6, which Gary wrote. And I have to say, it's Gary at his best.

7. You in Our Day, music and lyrics by me. Dedicated to the Midwest Province Vincentians, and written for the closing of their seminary college at Perryville, MO, St. Mary of the Barrens. I wrote some about this song as we were getting ready for Easter, in the post about "Horse and Chariot." I don't want to repeat myself, so you can read that if you like, start about halfway down, where the SoundCloud break is. I was trying to write an Easter song (the event it was commissioned for was on an Easter season Sunday), but it had to have that sense of a Risen Lord who still had the wounds on his hands. The sense of the grief of Magdalene, and Clopas on the road to Emmaus. You know what I mean, because you've been there.

8. Up from the Earth, words and music by me. Another attempt to write an Easter song that could be sung by an assembly but "dressed up" with choir and instruments, but with the unrestrained joy of the day predominating. As I mentioned above, listen to the keyboard stylings of Jimmy Whitaker as he strays further and further away from the part I wrote, sort of in my "Joe Jackson" chord cluster phase. Just beautiful, really. 

9. To My Surprise,  words and music by me. This song was part of a musical that my high school and college friend Frank Karl wrote, and asked me to write some songs for, called Song of Mary. It covered the Annunciation and Visitation episodes of Mary's life with some modern teenage feelings thrown in. It wasn't Glee, but it wasn't Beverly Hills 90210, either. This song is a duet between Mary and Elizabeth sung at the Visitation, with Terry singing Mary, and Mary Pat McDonald singing Elizabeth. You may recall the song "Say the Word" on the recording Safety Harbor. That song is also from this musical. There were three other ones we never recorded. And another musical called Yours Today, that took place on the morning of the resurrection, with the three women rising and going to the tomb as the characters.

10. Carol of the Mother, words and music by me. I wrote this text and music as part of remedial composition and arranging classes I was taking at Grand Canyon College, when I was feeling like I had to learn more about the craft of songwriting and arranging. One of the highest compliments ever paid to me on this song was by the great Paul Inwood, who told me that he loved it, and often used it in his workshops. No higher praise than praise from a colleague, especially one of such great standing.

11. You Are a Sacrifice, words and music by me. Gary, Terry and I sang this at almost every concert we have ever done together, it's just one of our favorite songs. It was also a favorite of mine when I used to work at St. Jerome, especially at the Sunday evening teen mass. I remember writing this song at Terry's house in St. Louis one summer when we were visiting there, maybe for a convention or God knows what. But even though I wrote this song over twenty-five years ago, I think it still works very well and expresses something about my faith in a way that speaks to me today. I would not be surprised if, since the rights to this song have reverted to me, we record this song again on another collection on of these days. I dedicated this song to John Gallen, SJ, our teacher and mentor, for all the affirmation and challenge and learning he gave us through the years.

12. While We Breathe, music and lyrics by me, based on Psalm 146, dedicated to Ray Bruno and NALR on their 15th anniversary. I think the lyric is better than the music; there's a lot to like in the paraphrase of Psalm 146. Maybe the refrain is too lazy and spacious, I don't know. Sort of New Agey? but the text is right on:


Sight and light are you to the blind,
Hand outstretched to raise the fallen,
Hospice and home, the alien's friend.
Widow's lover, orphan's mother,
You are God, there is no other and
We will make music to you while we breathe,
Music to sing of the justice you bring, and your peace.
Music to help us remember,
Songs of our journey of hope and surrender and
We will make music to you while we breathe.
OK, I have to wrap this up before it starts rivaling Proust for bandwidth.

Hits and misses. I always thought of Mystery as a concept album, and felt that the thread that held it together was the title, even when the songs were wildly varied in style, so for me, there aren't any misses. But there's no arguing that "Bread of Life" was by far the most successful song in this collection, and continues to be. Others had a good run through Glory and Praise Comprehensive Edition and Gather Comprehensive Edition, like "As We Remember," "Up from the Earth," and to a lesser extent, "Servant Song," but in spite of the naysayers, "Bread of Life" has endured, and I give OCP a lot of credit for standing by the song and by me when the heresy hunters were trying to shout it down. Thank you, OCP.

And thank you for all your support through the years. Just in the past week, I've had requests for the music for both "To My Surprise" and "You in Our Day" from people who contacted me directly, and I find it gratifying that people are still trying to sing these songs even though many of them have gone out of print. Thank you. And thank the Mystery who gives us song, and who teaches us what to sing. 

"We will make music to you while we breathe."