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Friday, July 17, 2015

Albums 19: Like No God We Had Imagined (2015, GIA)

We are so thrilled to announce the release of our new CD and music collection, Like No God We Had Imagined. It has been almost two years since we started the process of negotiation and recording that finally emerged as this recording, and we couldn't be happier. The long and winding road that brought us to this place has been fraught with twists and turns in our personal and professional lives, and it has, in fact, turned into two collections, one of which won't be seen until next year. For now, this one is an exciting beginning, and in addition to the new songs on this CD, there are seven more already recorded, so we have work to do before next spring!

First of all, what happened was that we finally got thirteen new songs recorded for a collection that we had decided to call "To You Who Bow," with the song that made its debut at the 2014 NPM convention being the title song for the collection. As it turned out, though, when listening to the songs together, I began to feel that it wasn't going to be a very cogent listening experience, with half the songs recognizably Christmas songs, and the other half more general. It's not like it was a vinyl record or cassette that would require you to turn it over or make some other gesture of differentiation! So as I considered this issue, an idea came to me that the publishers at GIA, particularly Michael Silhavy who was liaising this with the rest of the staff at the company, came to approve.

What we decided to do was to take the six Christmas songs and put them on a separate CD with other seasonal music we had recorded over the years that we thought might deserve a second (or first) hearing with music directors around the country. These songs were recorded on several different albums in four different decades, beginning with Safety Harbor, released in 1989, over a generation since they were first released. There are also songs on this recording from Stony Landscapes (1994), Today (2007), and of course Terry's Christmas CD from 1998 which was a very popular listening collection, On Christmas Day in the Morning. We recorded the new songs in late 2014 and 2015, which means  that the songs on this album were recorded over a period of more than twenty-five years. With Mark Karney (of Norwest Communications) and Gary Daigle's careful ear, the songs on the disc were remastered to blend together as though they were all recorded yesterday.

So you see, we didn't set out to make a Christmas collection at all, like we did when Terry recorded OCDITM in 1998. I just tend to try to do a new arrangement every year, and recently have taken to writing lyrics for traditional songs that are maybe second-tier familiar, where you know instinctively that you've heard or sung them at Christmas, but you might not know the words. I thought this might be a way of bridging the gap between a modernized (or, I suppose, personalized) incarnational theology in the text and a traditional tune associated with the holiday.

A second kind of energy that is in the new songs is that they are arranged for smaller (SAB) choirs. This is the kind of choir I have at St. Anne, and I hear from other church musicians that SAB arrangements are very welcome in their work too. I intended to have four of the songs published together in a fascicle, perhaps something like, "Four European Carols for Smaller Choirs," but that turned out to be too cumbersome, and they are packaged individually, but in the collection. Those four would be "Friends in Christ, Rejoice," which is a French carol by way of England, "Still, Still, Still," which is German, "Song at the Manger," which is the Czech "Rocking Carol," and "Lullaby, Little One," which is a Polish carol. (I wrote this in consultation with a new associate pastor at St. Anne in Barrington where I work. Fr. Chris suggested it as a representative Polish Christmas song, and sang the first verse in Polish two years ago when we first introduced it before Midnight Mass.) The other two new songs are my own version of a "Christmas Glory" based on "Angels We Have Heard on High" and a new text and arrangement based on the Rossetti text and the Holst tune of "In the Bleak Midwinter." "Christmas Glory" may stand out a little bit from the crowd of similar efforts at least in its brevity! The "Angels" refrain is sung only three times. There are two verses of a simple SAB chant tone, and then after the second verse, the final refrain is sung, with the last words of the Gloria ("...For you alone are the holy one..." through the Amen) sung as a soprano descant over that refrain. Not that brevity is everything, but you might have more energy for the liturgy of the word if you're not exhausted from the introductory rites! Just sayin'...

A word about the marvelous group of singers and musicians in Arizona and Illinois who have made all these songs come alive. Some are still singing and working, inside and outside of music ministry, some have gone to God. Reading the names of the singers and players who worked on these songs over the course of the last quarter century is a humbling experience, and I am grateful to them all because they have graced my life, certainly, but kept music alive with their art and ministry for decades. Some of my Phoenix friends have died, some have retired, some are very active in ministry, others have put that part of their past aside. My daughter Claire, barely a teenager when she sang verses on "Carol of the Stranger," is now a successful author in her early thirties. Gary, Terry, and I are "changed, not ended" too, still busy, but all of us having navigated the fast-moving waters of life, and still (crazy) friends after all these years. New friends, like Breda King, who sings with Terry on my "new favorite" song, "In the Bleak Midwinter," and Paul Rausch and his sons and students and former students who made up much of the choir on these new songs, and Lara Lynch, Gerry Aylward, and Tom Yang and his crew of amazing musicians from Chicago Musical Connection, fill our lives with music we can barely believe we helped to create. A lot of Christmases have come and gone since we started singing and recording this music, but each one has been a season of grace and mercy in our blessed lives.

The title of the album is taken from a repeating motif in the first song, "Friends in Christ, Rejoice," which is set to the carol tune, "Masters in this Hall."
Noel, noel, noel! Sing the news with awe,
Like no God we had imagined is the baby in the straw.
The rest of the text is here, part of our "2013 Christmas card" on my blog. Our 2014 Christmas card was the little YouTube video linked above, in which I paired images with the music of "Still, Still, Still," track 7 on the CD.

You can audition all of these songs in mp3 form (available for purchase as well) at GIA Publications website.

Track List

1. Friends in Christ, Rejoice (2015)
2. My Soul Gives Glory (text by Miriam Therese Winter, MMS)
3. The Advent Herald (text by Brian Wren)
4. Sing We Maranatha (SongStories post)
5. In the Bleak Midwinter (2015)
6. Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day
We regularly come back to this song in our Christmas repertoire. A beautiful melody and a clever medieval text that seems to take off from Zephaniah 3:17, a prophetic text read in Advent liturgies. There is a brief instrumental ritornello between the stanzas for string quartet and flute, and the choral and instrumental parts quote from Silent Night in one of the stanzas.
7. Still, Still, Still (2015)
8. In the Stillness of the Night.
This is one of two wonderful Balhoff-Daigle-Ducote songs (Dameans) on this collection. Terry recorded this as a solo on OCDITM, and we put this SAB version on Today, but included it here to get it another hearing. I really love the wedding of text and tune on this Christmas song, its unusual modality and expressiveness. Gary's part-writing and instrumental arranging are also wonderful.
9. Christmas Gloria (2015)
10. Psalm 96: Christmas Midnight
11. Song at the Manger (2015)
12. Carol of the Stranger (from Stony Landscapes, with 12-year-old Claire singing the solos!)
13. Lullaby, Little One (Lullajze, Jezuniu) (2015)
14. Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow
15. I Saw Three Ships.
I tell Terry, whenever we're listening to her Christmas recording, that I think this is the best arrangement I've ever done. On that recording the arrangement is soprano soloist with TTB choir, but it could easily be done SATB as well, with just flute and cello accompaniment. When she asked me to do a couple of arrangements for the album, I threw myself into this one and "Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day," which also appears on this CD.
16. Light in the Darkness
This bright Dameans song, like "In the Stillness" above, has been one one of my choir's favorite Christmas songs for twenty years, and I hope that many others will discover it with its inclusion in this collection. The Balhoff-Ducote text moves through many moods as it explores "light in the darkness," and Gary's joyful musical setting and choral and instrumental arrangement captures their work wonderfully.

Like No God We Had Imagined page at GIA publications for more information, or to audition or purchase songs or printed music.

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