Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Response To David Taylor's Questions About Worship Song Writing

David Taylor is the pre-eminent asker of questions. I love him for many reasons (I met my wife through him, he enjoys spicy food, has a great laugh, he lives deeply and deliberately, is generally a good time) but especially for his ache, his insistence, his persistence, even his obsession with putting a fine point to every good conversation. I recently completed the Gallup Strengths assessment test and one of my top five is “intellection,” meaning I like to spin abstractions around in my head. “Discipline” was not in my top five, thus my irregular blogging and thus my need for people like David Taylor in my life to keep me on task. In his most recent blog post he asks some poignant questions of worship songwriters. I presume much of this musing is prep for his pending presentation at David Crowders worship extravaganza at the end of the month yet the musing is also I’m sure a result of his deep love and concern for the church. So, I’ll bite.

Question 1: When you sit down to write a song, who are the people that inspire, or perhaps we should say in-form, your work?

Part 1a: the people who really matter… Part one of our first question, then, asks to whom a songwriter feels a sense of primary allegiance.

These kinds of questions can be answered both musically and textually. Trying to answer the question musically is somewhat of a mystery. I love George Steiner’s quip, “can anything meaningful be said about music?” For all of music’s physicality, the rhythmic pulse, the visceral response to melodies and harmonies, the tactile execution and reception of music…there is still an ineffable quality to any primary creative act. Scholars have wondered on this question endlessly. Where does creativity come from? Do we really have any control over it? Can a person be taught to write well or compose a song? Further is there really anything new ever made? See David, your attempt to put a fine point on these things only makes my head spin with more questions.

So let me just answer from my personal experience. For some reason I have melodies always inside of my head/heart. I can find several different melodies for any given chord progression. I don’t know why. They don’t all sound pleasant. They are just ideas. I have to sift through them and get to question #2 below briefly here. I know they are right when I’ve not become tired of them, when they stick inside of me, when I find that I still want to hum or sing them.

Some songwriters start with a text. Others with music. Some have varying mixtures between both. I mostly start with the music, but I do on occasion like to find ways of singing texts that have already been written.

So, who inspires me musically? Yes, definitely the Triune God. I feel the most joy and satisfaction when writing music. Often I try to find melodies in response to my daily Scripture readings. Singing is my most natural response to the Word of God and prayer. But I’m also informed and inspired by the music I’m listening to and playing at the time. The chorus of one song of mine, “Fairer,” turns out to be almost identical to the song “Death of a Salesman” by the band Low. I didn’t mean to steal it and didn’t realize what I’d done until a few months after the song was written. If I make the song more accessible, I may be contacting Low to square off on intellectual property rights and legally give what is due them (namely Alan Sparhawk).  My point is that if song writers want to make certain kinds of songs, they need to immerse themselves in that kind of music by listening and playing it.

I listen mostly to avant, indie rock and down tempo. Lots of the National, Arcade Fire, Bibio, Boards of Canada, DM Stith…. This stuff can actually hinder me in my ability to write contemporary worship songs. I’ve finally found a few worship song writers that I really like: Paul Baloche, Robbie Seay, some of the Jesus Culture stuff, Brooke Fraiser, most recently a song by Phillip Rice. My mainstays are of course Brad Kilman and Charlie Hall. I’ve been listening to lots of worship music this summer and it is finding its way deeper into my heart.

What inspires my textually/lyrically? Again, it all comes out of my regular Scripture readings/meditations. If a certain idea of thought strikes me and if it seems like something that I haven’t noticed in other contemporary songs, then I’ll give it a shot. Much of this is just part of my private prayer life. Most of it doesn’t occur to me as something that I will bother forming into a full song. As they say, most of art is made not by inspiration but simply by showing up at the page or the canvas or whatever the medium. The act of creating a ‘thing’ is when the artist is able to pay attention to what emerges and the artist can recognize it as something worth developing and focusing on and what is crap. The rest, the bulk of it, is left on the cutting room floor.

If I find a connection between some words and a melody that seems worthwhile, I sing it and pray it over and over to see if my own heart is warmed…if my mind is lit up. Then I take those bits and pieces and put my thinking cap on and begin another kind of work to flesh out the song. Much of what inspires and informs me is good ole bible study, word searches, cross-referencing, reading and re-reading passages and taking a few pages of notes. I keep a hymnal at hand and do some searching through topical and Scriptural indexes. I use Witvliet’s Worship Source Book and do some thematic searching. All along the way I’m asking what the full song is about, the chorus/refrain and then how do verses, bridges, tags reinforce that overall meaning.

I also have the blissful pleasure of being married to a fantastic poet, so I sing parts to her. She tells me very quickly what is good and what is not. If she is inclined she starts toying around with phrasing with me.

My favorite texts are by Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, Bernard of Clairvaux….

Part 1b: what functional authority do they play? What functional authority does the songwriter’s “primary community” play in his or her work?

On a whole other level, what inspires me? My congregation, the gathered worshipers at Hope College. I write for them. It is in my job description and it is my joy to supplement our worship diet with original material. Back in 2000 or so I heard how much money Martin Smith was making quarterly on his popular song “I Could Sing of Your Love Forever” and suddenly it became impossible for me to write corporate songs. I couldn’t stop myself from wondering if somehow I’d someday write a hit and start making gobs in royalties. It wasn’t until the summer of 2006 right before I started here at Hope that I was able to write another corporate song. It came out of my excitement of serving this new community. That first song was my experiment in wondering what would interesting in the context of a campus ministry. It was initially sparked by a desire to say to God in song what the disciples said to Jesus when he wondered if they too would leave him, “where shall we go? You alone have the words of life.”

I don't feel any particular allegiance to a denomination though. What I’m doing is explicitly ecumenical. I’m most enthused about injecting high biblical/theological content into contemporary forms. Yet, I am for the most part a Reformed creature, so I work to remain true to those theological convictions. I also make myself accountable to our staff. If they find something funky about a line, I’ll definitely change it.

Alternatively, does a songwriter sense a responsibility to write songs inspired by and in service of the global church, with a respect for the unique concerns of other cultures?

I’m not trained yet or equipped to know how to write for the global church. I don’t know if such a thing is possible. Is there a song that could be globally received? Even “Amazing Grace” may seem funky to someone somewhere. When trying to be hospitable to students of color or international students, it is much more effective to get them involved in the worship leading. I’ve stepped things up with our Gospel Choir for just this reason. I also love to meet and learn songs from the international students. We’ve been deeply affected by these songs from across the globe.

Here is a tricky counter question with issues of global music: globalization has made Western, contemporary music styles almost ubiquitous. For example, hip-hop is really popular in many many cultures because these cultures want to Westernize musically as well as technologically. What are we to do with Spanish speaking churches that would rather sing Hillsongs music in Spanish translation rather instead of using their indigenous musical styles? This is happening with contemporary Black Gospel music, a kind of fusion of sorts between contemporary rock worship styles and Gospel Choirs. This can create very exciting results, but it makes ‘global’ music a pretty complicated topic. Check out this song for example: 

It is arguable that much of what is on the top 40 charts is some blend of hip hop, hard rock and bubble gum pop. Much of popular music is becoming an aesthetic mishmash.

2. How do you know that you have written a right song?

Constance Cherry has a great checklist of things to consider in evaluating a worship song in her new book The Worship Architect. It is a pretty daunting list of criteria, but I rest in the knowledge that there is no such thing as a perfect worship song. In my journey of song selection for this summer, I found myself spending more time in prayer with a song. I’ve had to set my critical faculties aside for a bit to sense if a song makes sense to me spiritually. I’m growing back into some old habits I used before graduate school to discern a song. I’ve found that my biblical/theological training has somewhat crippled me to fully trust any songs at all. Of course, it is easy to rip any given contemporary song to shreds. I’ve been heavy handed and cynical even and so it has been a season of repentance and trust. Yes we must be “shrewd as serpents” in discerning worship music, but we also must be “as innocent as doves.” This has freed me as a leader too. During the first week of worship services, I’ve found that I can give myself to a song in a more deliberate way to lead more fully and confidently.  So there seems to be a dialectic of moving back and forth between mental and heart assessment. After doing this for so many years, for the most part, I can tell which songs will work. Constance Cherry’s criteria is a good rubric, but ultimately it is an intuition you develop after years of failures and successes. You judge a 
tree by its fruit, and so we develop a taste for the fruit.

Ironically, I had the morning off from leading and my students led in my place. They picked two of my songs. It was the first time that has ever happened—me being led by two songs I wrote for Hope College by Hope College students. I was in tears. Deep gratitude. It is a kind of fruit that blows my mind. They are such strong leaders. Hearing the whole of the chapel sing so fully. Rehearsing these lines Susanna and I wrote together. Sharing with the gathered saints. An absolutely remarkable blessing.