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Monday, May 21, 2018

SongStories 53: Song of the Chosen (Psalm 33) - OCP, 1985 and 1998

When we were working on our first trio album for North American Liturgy Resources in 1985, I was very excited because since my You Alone album the previous year, an album which had a lot of music I’d written over the previous 10-15 years, I had written a number of new songs that reflected some new insights I’d gotten in my classes with John Gallen SJ in Phoenix. I was “beta-testing” these songs at my "new" parish (since 1983) in Phoenix, St. Jerome Catholic Community. Gary Daigle, Terry and I were very excited about doing a recording together, and maybe starting to work together as a trio.

The album that eventually came out was called Do Not Fear to Hope, and in addition to the title song, there were several songs that were anthologized from the collection in hymnals and worship aids for many years: “Come to Us,” for instance, is still published in OCP’s Glory and Praise, Third Edition and in GIA’s Gather Third Edition three decades later, as is “We Will Serve the Lord. “Faithful Family” was on that recording, as were some of my responsorial psalms like “The Lord Is Kind (Psalm 103)” and “Psalm 98, Psalm for Christmas.”

Tom Kendzia was the producer. Tom and I had been friends for about five years since we'd first met when he came to work at NALR and invited me to help introduce his music at an NPM in Detroit. Tom brought in to the sessions a former college roommate of his from Manhattanville College in New York, a fellow named Stacy Widelitz. Tom wanted Stacy to play synthesizers in place of a lot of “real” instruments, and among his keyboards Stacy had brought a state-of-the-art synth called an Emulator, which boasted a wide range of beautifully sampled orchestral and rock instruments. I had written a setting of the 19th century text “Save the People,” or “The People’s Anthem” by Ebenezer Elliott, a contemporary of Charles Dickens, that had also been used in Godspell. I had imagined the accompaniment as a woodwind quartet. Stacy played the flute, bassoon, and oboe parts separately on the Synergy, and we were all amazed at the authenticity of the sound, especially when a "real" instrument or two was added into the mix. Stacy had played an Oberheim OB-8 during the sessions.

I was new to the whole synth scene, but like everyone else had been amazed by the use of the Mellotron by the Moody Blues and other bands since the 1970s. Wendy (nee Walter) Carlos had made synths mainstream with recordings like Switched On Bach, Vangelis had a huge pop hit with the soundtrack from Chariots of Fire that featured synth as well. Tom's interest in using computers to arrange and sequence music got me mildly interested for a while, but his expertise showed up in his use of sequencing in some of his liturgical music, which was always surprising and energetic to me. I went to a workshop on the Synergy system, that Carlos had used for his performances, but the price aside, the recording studio metaphor that computer recording was based on just eluded me, and I was happy to cede all that to Tom and later to Gary in our work together. 

But this whole lead-in is oriented toward the first song on the record: “Song of the Chosen.” This was a setting of Psalm 33 I had written on a private retreat at my former high school seminary. It found its way into later editions Glory and Praise hymnals and is still in the 3rd Edition, and was in Gather Comprehensive, the 1989 reboot of the Gather series published by GIA. "Song of the Chosen" had an energetic refrain, “We are God’s chosen people, we are saints. We are God’s work of art, signed and set apart: let us sing!” Later, I added the refrain, “Happy the people you have chosen, chosen to be for you alone,” so that the psalm could be used on Trinity Sunday and the RCIA Rite of Acceptance. This later refrain was featured when we re-recorded the song with alternate verses on our 1996 recording, Cries of the Spirit, Volume 2.

Stacy was experimenting with synth pads on the song, and had an idea to start the music before the downbeat with an upward-moving “portamento,” an effect that slides the tone of a note or chord upward smoothly, to land on the opening piano chords as the rhythm starts. It sounds incredibly eighties, but makes me smile every time I listen back to it. (If you haven't already done so, listen to the beginning of the SoundCloud track above.)

We wouldn't be able to afford Stacy any more, I’m sure: he went on to co-write the song “She’s Like the Wind” with the late Patrick Swayze for the movie Dirty Dancing, and did music for Beverly Hills 90210 and other television and movie scores. 

"Song of the Chosen (Psalm 33)" was, when I wrote it, an attempt to write a song that would help me and others to sing into being a belief in ourselves as God’s beloved children, God’s “work of art,” against the sometimes prevailing thought of ourselves as rejected and sinful. This may be less so now, but it was a strong current in popular pre-V2 Catholicism, and as a songwriter I just wanted to offer a way, out of scripture, that might present a way out of that mindset. The refrain comes from 1 Peter 2:9 and Ephesians 2:10, combining the ideas of the chosen and the saints (Peter) and God’s work of art (Ephesians), while the verses are a metric paraphrase of almost all of Psalm 33. 

The record Do Not Fear to Hope was on cassette and vinyl, and was never digitized, but I did have a friend at St. Anne's, Mark Karney, at whose studio most of our albums since 1995 (including Cries of the Spirit Volume 2) were recorded, digitize the vinyl for me so I’d have a copy.The SoundCloud track above from “Song of the Chosen” was digitized that way.

In those days, I was using the Jerusalem Bible for most of my work, and it was an approved translation in the US, with its own lectionary. Admittedly too, I wasn't sensitized yet to the way the use of the divine name (Yahweh) being used in public prayer can be insensitive to some. As one friend of mine put it, "It's like repeating a joke you don't get." Over the years, I've changed the original text which used "Yahweh" like the Jerusalem Bible did to more generally acceptable terms.

Song of the Chosen (Psalm 33)
words and music by Rory Cooney
We are God's chosen people,
We are the saints.
We are God's work of art,
Signed and set apart:
Let us sing! 
1. Rejoice, you saints, in God, for praise from you is right;
Music makers, sing by play, and play with all your might!
Sing God a new song, play well upon your strings,
For God loves truth and righteousness, God's word does wondrous things. 
2. God's kindness fills the world, whose word the heaven forms,
Whose singing mouth, to north and south, as spoken stars and storms,
Whose might forbids the waves to trespass on the land,
And gathers all the oceans up to cup them in a hand,
Who gathers all the oceans up to cup them in a hand. 
3. God speaks and it is done, whose word existence gives,
So let the world its God revere, and hear the One-Who-Lives.
Your wondrous plan, O God, is known to you alone,
And happy is the people you have chosen for your own. 
4. From heaven, God looks down upon all humankind,
God knows the dwellers of our globe, and probes the heart and mind.
No, none escapes the glance of God who reigns on high:
No secret can creation keep on earth or sea or sky,
No secret can creation keep on earth of sea or sky. 
5. No king is safe from death, though armies guard him well;
No warrior armed and mounted strong can long escape from hell.
But see! The eyes of God look earthward west and east
To snatch the poor from famine's thrall, and call them to the feast. 
6. So wait upon the one who is our help and shield.
Rejoice, you saints, to sing the Name. Proclaim God's might revealed.
May your blessings fall upon us all our days.
We hope in you, we trust in you. To you be endless praise.
We hope in you, we trust in you. To you be endless praise. 
Copyright © 1985, 1989, 1996 OCP, Portland Oregon. All rights reserved. 
Alternate refrains:
1. Happy the people you have chosen, chosen to be for you alone.
2. Lord, let your mercy be upon us; we place our trust in you.
Lord, let your mercy be upon us; we place our trust in you.

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