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From time to time I agree to give a concert at my mother's church. My mother is an Episcopalian, and although live performance is not my forte, I do believe in lending my talents now and then for the greater good of the community. Also, the church pays me $50 to do a short concert, followed by a 15-minute Q&A.
This week my mother asks if I'll consider sitting in with the organist and choir for a Sunday service. The choir director, a man named Steven Took, is an adventurous sort, always looking for new ways to expand and energize the liturgical soundscape. He decided that a bit of percussion would help liven things up and wanted to know if I would bring a bunch of my instruments and gadgets to accompany the group. My mother assures me that I will have complete creative control over all percussion arrangements, and if it works out, we can explore the possibility of incorporating my work regularly into the church's repertoire.
I am not a man of God. The idea of organized religion has always struck me as absurd, misguided, and even pathological, but my mother finds great comfort in church activities—her knitting group, her Bible study, her Tuesday pot-lucks—so I try to keep my views to myself. On the rare occasions that I do go to church with my mother, I refuse to chant along with any creeds or prayers. To my ear, the parishioners' monotone drone sounds more like the dark hymnal of Satan than holy worship. I get the shivers when they say things like, “We look for the resurrection of the dead,” or, “We bewail our manifold sins and wickedness.”
I am willing, though, to sing along with church songs because, for me, music is the least offensive part of any church service. After all, much of the music in the Episcopal tradition comes from great composers like Beethoven, Mendelssohn, or Bach, and the lyrics from such poets as Milton, Herbert, and Donne. That's why, when my mother asks, I agree to perform at the next Sunday service. One could do worse than to shake maracas and bang cymbals to the works of the greatest creative minds in Western culture. Also, my mother says the church will pay $75 for my time and effort.
Using my mother as courier, Steven Took sends me a draft program for the service and a set of sheet music covering all the hymns and prayer songs. I do not read music, so the sheets are useless to me. Luckily, though, my mother has an uncanny memory for hymns and prayer songs. It takes a little needling, but I finally convince her to sing each melody into a microphone in my home recording studio. The poor women is extremely self-conscious about her voice, and she makes me agree ( in writing ) not to play back any of the recordings while she is still within earshot.
Listening to the melodies over and over in my headphones, I familiarize myself with their contours and textures. Eventually, I am able to create a bold but tasteful percussion arrangement for each. Some songs seem to require a strong backbeat, while others only call for occasional ornaments, flourishes, and accents to intensify their dynamic range. I even work out a few synthesizer parts—rhythmical bleeps and blips to give a couple of the tunes a more contemporary flare. Grafting my own musical ideas onto these antiquated compositions, I feel as if I have tapped into the rhythms of a distant past, and that I am leaving my own mark on a sacred tradition of music that has spanned centuries, and which will endure for centuries to come. Never have I gotten so close to a set of songs, dived so deeply into their melodies and cadences, understood so implicitly their bold lines and subtle shadings. Sitting in my office with headphones on and a cowbell in hand, I sense for the first time in my life the presence of a benevolent spirit, a higher power. I wonder to myself, is God here in these songs? When Saturday evening arrives I put the finishing touches on my arrangements, pack my instruments and gadgets into a crate, and lay out my best Sunday suit.
Steven Took fidgets with his conductor's baton and smiles brightly as I set up my instruments on a small table in the organ loft. He has grown a beard since the last time I saw him. The choir, made up mostly of women in their middle age, assembles in a semi-circle around me. They are astonished that I have memorized all of the songs, and that I will play my part without the aid of sheet music. After some final preparations and a few words of advice from Steven, we all join hands and bow our heads in prayer. Normally a group prayer like this would make me squirm, but this morning I am simply glad for the assurance that God will guide my performance, and that if only I will entrust myself to His loving embrace, all will be as it should be.
The church hushes as parishioners make their way to the pews. The organ prelude is a piece by Salzburg , the textures of which I am able to deepen with a subtle combination of maracas and train whistle. Immediately, the place buzzes with excitement. People turn to see the source of these unconventional sounds, whisper to each other, giggle joyfully.
I reserve my musical grand entrance for the opening hymn, “Holy Spirit, Font of Light,” and when it begins, I can feel shockwaves rippling through the chapel. With each rim shot, bass beat, and synthesized chirp, I feel the miracle of creation in my heavenly soul. This is God's music, I think, and as the song progresses through its first and second verses I give myself up to the vibrations of divine inspiration. The congregation swoons. They turn and stare with their mouths agape. As the service charges ahead, I improvise wildly through the offertory anthem, through “Glory to God in the Highest,” and through the post-communion hymn. With each tune, I feel more strongly the presence of the holy ghost in my instruments. When we arrive at the final hymn, I am aflame with the spirit of the lord. The sounds that burst from my humble corner of the organ loft transcend all earthly limits. I channel the cosmos. I breach the divide between body and spirit. No one is more surprised than I am by the spontaneous blasts and sonic eruptions emitting from my instruments, my gadgets, and my own throat. I step outside of myself. I howl. I groan. I am ecstatic. I am awash in God's battering riptide!
When it's finished, the entire place seems to exhale in unison. No one says a word. Apparently the priest has decided to forego the dismissal. The parishioners, clergy, and choir members file out of the chapel. Finally, I am alone with Steven Took, who strokes his beard and looks at the floor. “That was quite something,” he says. “Really something.” I pack my things and leave.
It's been almost a week since the service, and I haven't heard from Steven Took. But what is there to say, really? My mother assures me that the performance was well received by all, but I have my doubts. In fact, I've become suspicious of the entire affair. Was that God's grace I felt coursing through my veins? Or was I simply caught up in a grand deception, mistaking my own natural enthusiasm for divine intervention? Maybe it doesn't matter.
When my mother hands me a thank-you card from the choir, I am glad to find seventy-five dollars in cash tucked neatly inside.
“Thank God,” I say, and my mother swells with pride.