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Monday, July 15, 2013

Albums (8) - Vision (1992)

Song Listing

1. I Am for You
2. One Is
3. Psalm 1: Roots in the Earth
4. If/Si
5. Psalm 85: Your Mercy Like Rain
6. Psalm 25: Remember
7. Be Thou My Vision
8. Now
9. Psalm 51: Create Me Again
10. All Things New
11. Covenant Hymn
12. Mission Song (La Misión)
13. Spirits Seeking Light and Beauty
Trio in 1992, St. Louis. Photo by Gary Bohn.

Funny how, as I move closer to present in remembering these albums, the less detail I remember. That could be a function of rapid deterioration of memory (since it's only 5 months since I started the blog) or possibly that by 1992 recording was getting to be less extraordinary to me. Let's go with that. In addition to my own recordings, I was privileged to direct choirs on other recordings as well, several by Fr. Lucien Deiss, for example, as well as for Tom Kendzia's projects, his own music and recordings which he produced for others. Many of the choir members and musicians were recidivists; we couldn't get rid of them. (KIDDING!) So I suppose that it's a bit like the hundreds of photographs you have of your first child, with diminishing numbers as the headcount of offspring waxes. Consider yourself lucky, maybe. 

A couple of trips in early 1992 to the north woods of Arizona near Prescott helped me flesh out some song ideas that I wasn't having time or space to write in my "real" life. One trip I took by myself, one with Gary Daigle. On the first one, several songs that appeared on Vision took shape, including I Am for You, One Is, All Things New, and the three psalms. Covenant Hymn came on the second one, along with Gary's May We Be One, which appeared on his album Praise the Maker's Love a couple of years later.

Looking over the acknowledgment pages of the CD booklet that still ships with the recording, I'm amazed by some of the cryptic things I wrote in there. The dedication makes zero sense to me any more! Of course the address and phone number are over twenty years old now. I thanked people whom I still remember as generous friends for something(s) about which I have no recollection. I was already using the "misconducted by" joke about my abilities way back then. Maybe I invented it, who knows?

Rather than keep going on about things I don't remember, let me just launch into the song-by-song reflections. Thanks for your patience so far.

1. I Am for You. I had finished writing this song, commissioned for the Big Island Liturgical Arts Conference to be held in October-November 1992, on the Prescott week. I've already written about this at length in one of my "SongStories" posts, so I'll just link back to that here. This is still one of my favorite songs to sing in concert or in worship, though I must confess its length militates against most liturgical use in my current parish.

2. One Is (the Body). "One is the breath of the star and the rose." It is from this line of the lyric that the cover art was imagined by my brother-in-law, Gary Palmatier. Having worked in "Re-membering Church" institutes for so many years with lights like Jim LoPresti and Joe Favazza and others, the confluence of scriptural and ecclesial images of reconciliation took shape in this communion song. Yes, it has a long refrain (most persistent criticism), but I think that the short lines and rhyme scheme mitigate that issue, and make the refrain memorable. It's scriptural, trinitarian, and takes a fresh look (I think) at all of that in the light of the eucharist. And it should still be in Gather.

3. Psalm 1: Roots in the Earth. I don't remember the specific occasion for which I wrote this song, or why I dedicated it to Ginny, though I suspect dance was involved. This psalm comes up three times, I believe, during the Lenten weekday readings. It may have been written for a winter conference at which we were both involved in the music. I still like the feel of this setting very much, though the use of the djembe on the downbeats of the refrain, with its deep bah-OOM sound, makes it sound on the recording like we're singing "boots in the earth" to the irreverent ear. 

4. If/Si. This one has a definite "Santana" feel to it, so it seemed appropriate to ask Jaime Cortez to do a Spanish translation, of which he did a terrific job. "Mmmmm...¡Sabor!"

5. Psalm 85: Your Mercy Like Rain. For this recording, I wanted to do new versions of the two common Advent psalms, Psalm 25 and Psalm 85. Both are beautiful songs about remembering and waiting for rescue. Psalm 85 is characterized as a national lament, that is, it is born from the matrix of some calamity or dire situation in which Israel finds itself, but moves toward hope because Israel remembers God's loving-kindness in the past, and God's faithfulness to the covenant. The verses chosen for the Advent lectionary are the second half of the psalm, so they leave out the exposition of Israel's situation, and begin with the verse that is the antiphon, "Lord, let us see your kindness and grant us your salvation."

Hearing this verse, I thought that the Advent message for us ought to put the "accent" on "us": Let us see your kindness. Grant us your salvation. You brought kindness and salvation to people in the past. What about now? So my refrain became, 
"Let me taste your mercy like rain on my face, 
Here in my life, show me your peace. 
Let us see with our own eyes your day breaking bright. 
Come, O Morning. Come, O Light."
Being a desert person myself, I know the delight that rain brings to people who live in the desert. (Well, not so much flash floods, but there's too much of a good thing...) Since the psalm uses the metaphor of agricultural abundance to describe God's mercy, it seemed cohesive and organic to us the metaphor of rain in the refrain. The music, influenced by Stephen Sondheim's lush harmonies as much as anything, tries to convey the spirit of divine abundance while evoking our longing for it as well. It should also still be in Gather, but isn't. 

6. Psalm 25: Remember. The other Advent common psalm, Psalm 25 hinges on that haunting prayer that encloses the text from verse 5 and verse 21, "I wait for you," when we pray it in the Advent spirit. It's been said by many that "Remember" is one of the most beautiful sounding words in our language, and its resonance in verses 6 and 7 inspired the litany of verse 3, in which the choir sings "Remember!" and the cantor asks God to remember, and therefore act, with covenant mercy on behalf of Israel. The language of "Remember" is personal, but the psalm itself is cultic, it is "we" who are "I", Israel, the church, in the "I" that sings. I really love this setting: in the "hits" and "misses" department, it's a miss, probably because it's too long and possibly because the overlay between the verse and refrain makes the choir a necessary component of the performance. Nevertheless, I think that its inclusion made Vision a more intense listening experience for those who use these recordings for prayer.

7. Be Thou My Vision. This song and the final song on the recording are songs I have loved from my childhood, with little twists that bring them, for me, into my present. "Be Thou" I had learned in a simple pentatonic chant, probably from the St. Gregory Hymnal or one of the other Catholic songbooks that arose in the late 50s and early 60s. I am guessing that the tune "Slane" was not used because it came from the "wrong part" of Ireland, but that's just a guess. Van Morrison's crazy version in Hymns to the Silence also seemed like a homage to a youthful memory, because it seemed that the lyric was wildly pasted together, almost improvised, from his recollection. I updated the text a little bit, regretfully setting aside the evocative "High King of heaven" title, which is about an Irish a name for God as one can find, and excising a few other gender-specific terms. But this song is such a part of my personal spirituality and its lyric so wonderfully focused that I was driven to arrange it and include it here. I hope that the more upbeat treatment of "Slane" and the energy of the arrangement have added something to this hymn's usefulness. For me, it's a perennial choice for both the 2nd Sunday of Lent, with its gospel of transfiguration, and the 4th Sunday of Lent, with its gospel of the Man Born Blind.

8. Now. I wrote this for a night prayer at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress in 1992, which the preparers wanted to do in the dark, without a worship aid. LAREC typically occurs during Lent, so I took the familiar text from 2nd Corinthians 6 which quotes Isaiah 49, and made it the refrain sung a cappella of the song. The choir adds a simple pop harmony, and a soloist sings verses that try to confess faith in salvation now, in this world, and not just a better world after everyone's dead.

9. Psalm 51: Create Me Again. I had written a complete setting of Psalm 51 in college, the Jerusalem Bible version with nearly all the lectionary refrains, but wanted to try it again in this period of my life, and a footnote I read in a bible gave me an entree to the text in a new way. The footnote said that the verb "create" as in, "Create a clean heart within me" is never used in (ancient) Hebrew unless the subject is God. This made me hear that verse in a more radical way. It's not just a "clean" heart the psalmist wants (on behalf of Israel), but something completely new. We're damaged goods, and the problem is unfixable. We ask God to create a new heart in us. The heart is a metaphor for whole self, the center that makes us who we are, so it is a simple step from "Create a clean heart in me" to "Create me again." So here's the refrain for my setting of Psalm 51:
You fashioned the heavens, You gathered the sea.
Can you create a new heart in me?
God of compassion, your servant has sinned.
Breathe out your spirit. Create me again.
The verses paraphrase the commonly used verses for Psalm 51 in the lectionary. Or translate, as long as you know I mean dynamic equivalence. :-) Also a "miss" in the long run, I suppose, because it's not a strict translation, it's kind of long, and requires two cantors in spots to perform it without rearranging the music. Sigh.

10. All Things New. I should pay more attention to this, but I know that I wrote this song because I thought there were an awful lot of Christmas songs available, but not so many good choices for Easter, and I wanted to make a conscious attempt to write something new for the season. I tried in the lyric to use images of spring, new beginning, memory, justice, equality, and Spirit with music that suggests the joy and exhilaration of resurrection life. Happily (to me), this song has endured to the latest incarnation of the Gather hymnal, for which I am most grateful.

11. Covenant Hymn. Like track 1, this song has its own SongStories post, linked here.

12. Mission Song (La Misión). My high school and college formation with with the Vincentian community in the US (the Congregation of the Mission.) We've enjoyed a good relationship through the years, and I'm grateful for the many priests and laypeople who have supported my music. One bastion of Vincentian spirituality and mission is St. Vincent de Paul Parish in St. Louis, Missouri, which has had a succession of pastors focused on the Vincentian vision of service to the poor while maintaining a dynamic liturgical tradition under the longtime pastoral leadership of Dennis Wells for many years. St. Vincent's commissioned this work from me. I tried in the lyric to suggest the Vincentian motto (Evangelizare pauperibus misit me, from Isaiah 61, "He has sent me to bring the gospel to the poor), and the context of that motto, that the mission derives from the sending of the Spirit of God. Other writings of St. Vincent influenced the text too, including a conference Vincent gave to priests:
"Our vocation is to go and enflame the heart of men, to do what the Son of God did, He who brought fire into the world to set it alight with His love. What else can we wish for, than for it to burn and consume all things?" 
Thus it is true that I have been sent not only to love God, but also to make men (sic) love Him.
It is not enough to love God if my neighbour does not love Him. 
This became, in my lyric:
May your people live your promise
To fulfill what the prophets spoke.
Not enough to know their comfort
If a neighbor has no hope.
Til the world shall be your body,
May no song of praise be enough.
Not enough that we should love you
If our neighbor needs out love.
There is nothing else that we long for.
There is nothing else that we seek.
But as you are the rock of your people,
Make your people the rock of the weak.
Frank Dominguez, a friend from Phoenix who was also part of the Corpus Christi Center for Advanced Liturgical Studies classes I was in, did the beautiful Spanish translation.

St. Vincent de Paul is still doing great work in St. Louis. If you're in the neighborhood, stop in some Sunday and lend your voice, and a hand.

13. Spirits Seeking Light and Beauty. The last cut on this album is another song that I brought from the childhood, another Irish tune whose text I altered a bit. We have a mini-tradition on some of our recordings that the last cut is a little off-beat in some way. We added children's voices on a playground to Psalm 118 at the end of "You Alone," used windchimes and Japanese flute on "NightPrayer" at the end of Do Not Fear to Hope. There's an Easter egg at the end of "Psalm 90: You Have Been Our Home," which is the last cut on Terry's Family Resemblance. This song starts off like an Enya song, with sustained synth pads while Terry sings the tune over the top, and then goes into time and the choir sings the whole tune again. It's nothing fancy, but the tune is haunting, and the original lyric, in the singular (Spirit Seeking Light and Beauty) had been with me since I was a choirboy in the 5th grade at St Vincent de Paul school in Phoenix. All I tried to do, with my lyric changes, was to make it a more communal message, and avoid the Pelagian-sounding, very Irish idea that striving can win heaven. The lyric never says that, but it's a short leap from longing to striving. And there's the whole dualist thing, too, between "this land of shadows" and blessed eternity. Not that I blame the Irish for thinking the world is a shite place, with all they'd gone through with the Brits and famine and the troubles and all.

That's Vision, which is still one of our finest listening collections, and has some really strong material on it for liturgical use as well. 

Here is the album on iTunes with its infamous misentered title, which no one at GIA or iTunes, I assume, has been able to fix for ten years. And they say that technology is so elastic. I have not been able to figure out what "well ky" means or how it became the title. Luckily, the title "Vision" was derived from one of the song titles, so if someone is looking for "vision cooney" with both words in an iTunes search, it pops up. Sigh.