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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Songstories 34: To You Who Bow (GIA, 2014)

I usually don't do "SongStories" posts about songs that aren't totally "out there," both published and available in a recording, but I'm happy to say that someone actually asked me to write one about this song after it was featured at the GIA showcase (with a number of other fine compositions) at the NPM convention a couple of weeks ago. In fact, I was just thrilled in that I scored a rare "trifecta" at the convention in that, for the first time for me, I actually had a song I'd at least co-written at all three of the major publishers' showcases. At the WLP showcase, the company presented a couple of the movements of my Mass of St. Aidan that was revised in 2011 and released last fall, and at the OCP showcase  they presented a communion song I co-wrote with Tom Kendzia called, "One in Love." Really, any of us feels fortunate to have a song in just one of the showcases, but to have one in each is an embarrassment of riches.

The story of "To You Who Bow" starts back on my birthday in 2012, when I turned 60. A lovely gathering of choir members and friends from church had a birthday party at one of our friends' house, and my perennially generous choir gave me, as a birthday gift, a commission to write a song just for them, something suited to their voices and strengths. I think that they were tired of me writing songs for everyone else, and thought they had to get in some kind of a queue in order to get something special. That's not really true, but this definitely had the effect of moving them to the front of the line. I didn't start work on it right away, either. I wanted to get it right, because whatever else might be true, they deserved it.

Detail of the framed "card" from my choir,
detailing the occasion and commission 
If there is a "theme" running through the texts I've written over the last 8 or 9 years, it's something about trying to help reshape the image of God we've inherited from monarchy and haven't shaken off, an image of God derived from power, rather than from the stories of Jesus, the "image of the invisible God," that we get from Scripture. What I've been trying to do is to take what Jesus says and lives about service ("whoever wants to be greatest among you must serve the rest") and present that as an image of God alongside John's "God is agape" and the early Christian hymns quoted in Philippians about the kenosis of God and that in Colossians about Christ as eikon or image of the invisible God. There is so much richness in that vein of imagery that runs through the Christian scriptures that I don't think I'll run out of material for a long time. It was this cluster of scriptural metaphors that I wanted to start from, in any case, and develop into a song.

It's striking when you hear this strain of the tradition sung, because it's so counter-cultural to some main lines of hymnody and even modern praise choruses, which seem to delight (in my limited exposure to them) in praising and much noise-making around the God whom hymn writer Brian Wren described as KINGAFAP, i.e., King, Almighty Father, and Protector. the lightning-wielding, all-seeing, problem-solving warrior who kicks ass and takes no prisoners. You know. The image of the invisible Charlemagne. But a few years ago, I went to hear one of my songwriting heroes, Greg Brown, sing a little concert and a local venue, and he performed a song written by his wife, folksinger Iris Dement. The song was called "He Reached Down," and I was just smitten by the simplicity of the music and the way it wove the story of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery ("he bent down and touched the ground") and the Good Samaritan with the apocalyptic parable in Matthew 25, when the just say, "When did we see you hungry, thirsty, naked" and Jesus replies that whenever they "reached down ... and touched the pain" that they did it for him. This downward movement in those stories from three different gospels is typical of the movement of God in the New Testament, who "came down from heaven" and pitched his tent in our midst. In bending down to wash feet and being buried after the crucifixion Jesus continues the downward arc, and even after returning to the Father, he sends down the Holy Spirit to teach humanity to be like God, to bend down, pour ourselves out in love. 

Anyway, somehow as I was thinking about all this and the song I was trying to write, the "bow" and "bend" image kept recurring, and I began to see the possibilities of a song structure, using different verbs to suggest the downward arc of divine love and matching them to images from scripture, contrasting them with our song of praise, which is "lifted" to the "God who bows." 

A couple of notes about the text: I have always loved the idea in Isaiah that the servant of God is so gentle that "a bruised reed he shall not break." I wanted to contrast that image with a fluid image of divine omnipotence, one that allows for an imagining of God who doesn't necessarily control the destiny of the universe, but is present to its unfolding and whose "power" is hinted at by Jesus's insistence that "the greatest must serve the rest," a redefinition of power. This is why I chose to say that God is one "who know the boundaries of Orion/ But will not break the reed." The other is the one line at which I chose to slightly break the meter in order to perhaps call attention to a traditional nomenclature for God, "Alpha and Omega," i.e., the first and last, after the letters of the Greek alphabet. The line is, "At once the Alpha and Omega," by which I hope to suggest that God's presence and plan isn't linear, a good ending after a rough life, but rather, offers the possibility of the fullness of life no matter how rough things are; not light at the end of the tunnel, but light in the darkness, not a joyful reunion after death, but solidarity ever-present in the difficult journey of life. 

Someone asked me, at the convention, "when would you use this song at mass?" The short answer is that it's a song about the paschal mystery, and so I think it could be used at any mass, anywhere a hymn might be used. The first time we sang it was on the Solemnity of Christ the King. We also sang it on Holy Thursday, and I would use it on Good Friday and Easter, for that matter. For complete transparency, any time the gospel mentions the cross or service or the nexus of the two would be a good occasion. Christmas. Or funerals. When we do Sunday right, and Sunday's celebration is "about" the paschal mystery, the message of "To You Who Bow" is appropriate. We will be using it for August 31, the 22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, when the gospel, the second part of the "Peter's confession" pericope, is about taking up the cross, losing life in order to find it. We will probably use it again on September 14, the Triumph of the Cross.

Publication note: GIA opted to publish flute, trumpet, and cello parts for the octavo. I also wrote parts for the rest of a string quartet (which are on the recording). If you want a copy of those, drop me an email. Also, the assembly reprint box is not on the octavo even though I think of the assembly as being the main singer in this song. GIA is making it available through their "" division. Please use the reprint box and invite your assembly to sing too!

(Big THANK YOU to Lara Lynch, who took the video above at the convention.)

To You Who Bow page at GIA Publications, Inc. Instrument parts.

To You Who Bow, by Rory Cooney

To you who bow
To you who bend
To you who do not cling to heaven
But unto us descend
You who summon us as servants,
And call your servants friends:
To you we lift our song, 
Love ever new,
O God who bows, we sing our song to you.

To you who teach
To you who heal
To you, the leper's restoration,
The victim's last appeal,
You whose life is sown and gathered
And offered as a meal:
To you we lift our song, 
Love ever new,
O God who bows, we sing our song to you.

To you who weep
To you who bleed
Who dreamed the boundaries of Orion
But will not break the reed
You who sow the end of empire
With tiny, peaceful seed:
To you we lift our song, 
Love ever new,
O God who bows, we sing our song to you.

To you who starve,
To you who thirst,
To you condemned by malice,
Abandoned and accursed,
You who promised to the wretched
The last will be made first,
To you we lift our song, 
Love ever new,
O God who bows, we sing our song to you.

To you, who rise,
To you, our peace,
To you who lead the way before us
Whose spirit binds and frees
At once the alpha and omega,
Whose love shall never cease.
To you we lift our song, 
Love ever new,
O God who bows, we sing our song to you.

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