Wednesday, March 4, 2009

BYU-Idaho Hymn Festival

Tonight I had the wonderful opportunity to hear my latest hymn "A Sacred Pause" sung at the BYU-Idaho Hymn Festival. It was a spiritual experience. Musically I suggested the 'pause' referenced in the title of the hymn by inserting an instrumental interlude between the second and third verses. There was a beautiful reverence there as we waited, then all came in for the quiet climax of that last verse.

After the concert one of the other hymn composers asked me how I achieved such a unique sound with my hymn. I've been thinking about the answer to that and here are a few thoughts:

Do you ever just sit down at the piano (or your instrument) and just play with the sounds possible? Do you ever just try different chords and let them just ring? Do you ever just play around with a single thought until you find the best side of it? My hymn came off in just a few hours working time because I have put in a lot of time doing just those things. So it was when I sat down the first time to explore musical ideas how to set the text. I tried going dozens of different places with the melody and harmony, and much of it simply flowed as I listened to the sounds and explored the places they could go.

One of the simplest questions I asked over and over again was - What if that inner voice didn't double that note - what if it hit a seventh, sixth, or ninth? Part of the distinct sound of my hymn came from that sort of thinking.

Another thought - I was half-trying to create a sort of modal sound to my hymn. Many of the harmonies would be perhaps odd to analyze, or to pigeonhole as a traditional numeric progression, but all the notes either fit in D Major (Ionian) or D Mixolydian, with the exception of the occasional Bb/A# functioning in different ways. The use of modes in a hymn actually goes back to the roots (in a modern way!) of sacred music.

Dr. Kerr was a great help in reminding me of one important but often neglected principle of composition. He sent me back to the drawing board on a few things that just needed to be different. The funny thing was that with nearly every spot he pointed out I had already known there was a weakness. (In one case though, he thought I should completely change the harmony. The A# leading into the chorus was approached by an awkward augmented second- Yeah for music lingo! He thought I should just change it to the modal A natural, but I reworked the whole section leading up to the note to make it work. I think you'll agree that the A# just needs to be there to move forward into the chorus.) The point is, that while a musical idea may be inspired, I've found the most 'inspired' moments come after the initial 'inspiration'.

Finally, a thought on the fact that my hymn doesn't keep Theory 101 voice-leading rules. Guess what - those 'rules' were meant to create good sounding music, but they are not the only way to create good sounding music. That isn't to say that in composing my hymn I didn't pay careful attention to how the voices were moving and what the relationship of that movement was. I even tried to make each voice easily singable. I was not trying to 'rebel' or 'breaking rules because they are meant to be broken' - I was simply creating music. I kept all the rules I imposed on myself in the context of composing a singable four-part hymn setting.

I wonder what will happen in the church now that the 1985 hymnbook is here to stay - what about all the thousands of great LDS hymns written since then? Is there any way to collect the best of them and distribute them to a wider audience, even if they were just sung in homes or as musical numbers and not as congregational numbers? There is a much deeper need in the church for more 'sacred' music than for more 'LDS inspirational'. What do you think are solutions to this dilemma?


Qait said...

I wish I knew! Because you'd be part of the solution! Your hymn...was so beautiful tonight. It really does sound more reverent on the organ. And I admit it made me cry a little bit--it's a neat feeling to be the wife of a talented composer. I felt a lot of gratitude for you and your sensitivity to beauty and reverence. I love you. And I love your hymn.
Great thanks to Jim Richards for the text as well.

Eric Hanson said...

Michael, thank you for sharing your work! I think your hymn is wonderful - very interesting and sophisticated harmonically with some great ideas. Keep it up! If you want any suggestions let me know - I know that sometimes I get a little over-saturated by them and they become less useful, particularly when my work is presented publicly. Plus, I was taught to never give a colleague (or brother-in-law :) ) suggestions unless they ask for them. I particularly love the fourth system and beginning of the second page harmonically and textually. The interlude is a great idea. Great words, and great concept. Good work! I have high hopes that we will move on to a new book eventually. President Packer was in charge of this one, so maybe when he goes they will decide to integrate some new works. We'll have to see. Good points in your blog - rules are meant to serve us, not the other way around. For example, when I first saw all of the parallel motion in your hymn I thought it would bother me a bit, but instead it sounds almost chant-like in places - very reverent and appropriate. It has to sound good first :).

Rae said...

My music-reading skills are very limited--even my cello bass-line-reading skills are pretty rusty, so I couldn't imagine what your hymn sounded like just by looking at the music. How can I listen to it?

For the record, I REALLY hope that more hymns are "allowed" to be made into a new hymnbook. There are a couple in there that I actually *gulp* don' mostly I just like the thought of new music; new opportunities for worship.

By the way, when is Prayzz coming out? I'm chomping at the bit to hear the latest-and-greatest LDS pop star! *cringe*

Rae said...

Also: I just have to point out the literary beauty of the phrase "awkward augmented second". You have the "ah" sound in both aug- and awk-, and then the -mented sound is echoed in the word "second". ah-ah-eh-eh. That's really cool. Both Asonance and Alliteration in the whole three-word phrase. Cool! :)