For the past couple of weeks, after hooking up an old record player I bought at a yard sale recently, I’ve been listening to a lot of the vinyl albums I have. One artist whose work I didn’t have in another format is pianist Roger Williams, and every time I put on one of his records, I’m reminded of my friend Larry Dalton, a wonderful pianist, arranger and composer, who saw Williams play when he was a boy and whose music bears his influence. I haven’t seen Larry since he moved away from Nashville two years ago, and I just received word that he tragically died in his sleep Friday night from an apparent heart attack. The sense of loss is profound.
I first met Larry at a keyboard workshop he was teaching about five years ago. One of his handouts, an exercise sheet, was handwritten, and I volunteered to typeset it for him with the music notation software I use. Through that process, we became friends, and shared many meals together. He loved telling stores of gigs he’d played and people he’d met, the times he’d played for artists like Henry Mancini and Mel Torme, the presidents he had played for, the orchestra sessions he was a part of. I’ll never forget sitting in his music room after lunch one day, listening to him play through a piano arrangement on his nine-foot Steinway grand piano that he was in the middle of writing, or seeing the score where he was transcribing a Mozart symphony by ear, because an orchestra he worked with couldn’t find the music for one of the movements and he wanted to help them out.
Growing up, I listened to and volunteered at a radio station where my mom had – and has – a daily radio program, and later worked for them for three and a half years. We had all of Larry’s CDs there at WDYN, and I played his music all the time. Larry loved to take modern praise choruses, the ones that have great melodies, and arrange them in a classical style. He was a great pianist, arranger, and orchestrator, and taught me a lot about orchestral colors, both from listening to his recordings and stories he told me. I have no doubt that Larry is one of the reasons I do what I do today. Larry, you will be missed.
One project that has occupied much of my time over the last couple months has been doing all the music prep. for a concert that took place this past Thursday, a concert by the Baltimore Symphony. Last year, a friend of mine, Grammy-nominated arranger and composer Don Hart, co-wrote a 30-minute piece for Electric Guitar and Orchestra, Time Turns Elastic, with Trey Anastasio, frontman for the band Phish. It was performed at a sold-out show at the Ryman Auditorium, featuring Orchestra Nashville, along with several other Phish tunes Don arranged for orchestra. In December, Trey recorded the piece up in Seattle with the Northwest Sinfonia, and that recording is now available for pre-order, releasing on June 9th. Last week’s performance was the East Cost premier, and included first performances of several other Phish tunes Don orchestrated. Last I checked, I had spent over 100 hours preparing parts and printing out several thousand pages of music for the show, and it was a real privilege to be involved in a project with such great music.
Musical worlds collided Thursday night when rocker Trey Anastasio took the stage with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and conductor Marin Alsop. There were no casualties.
Anastasio, founding member of Phish and a songwriter with a refreshing avoidance of conventional chord progressions, has been collaborating with traditional classical ensembles for several years now. His most ambitious effort in this field is a half-hour piece called Time Turns Elastic that he co-wrote with Don Hart, composer-in-residence of Orchestra Nashville. It premiered last September with that orchestra and received its East Coast premiere at this BSO concert, which drew a young, animated crowd.
Quick, name the last time an artist sampled a clip from Sesame Street in their song? The answer: Derek Webb, in a newly released song from his upcoming album, “Stockholm Syndrome.” Here’s the Sesame Street clip:
Derek’s song is titled “The Sprit vs. the Kick Drum,” and is apparently built around a great quote from Rich Mullins about worship. In an interview about the Caedmon’s Call record In the Company of Angels, Cliff Young relates this story: “Rich used to talk about how people would come up to him after concerts and say, ‘Wow! The Holy Spirit really moved at that certain point in the song,'” Young remembers. “And Rich would respond by saying, ‘No actually, that’s where the kick drum and the bass came in.’ It’s easy to mistake energy and emotion for worship.”
I’ve had the song on repeat all morning and love it. You can download it for free from www.derekwebb.com. Confused? Kat at Bloggable Music Network explains how to find the clues to download the song from the hidden page.
Derek posted on his twitter account that he’s written a bunch of this record at Ugly Mugs Coffeeshop in East Nashville, one of the two best coffeeshops in town and one where I spend a lot of time. Several times I’ve seen Derek with his notebook in his lap and his headphones on, writing lyrics, so it’s fun to finally hear one of the songs.
Start from zero. Try to forget your presuppositions. What do you say to someone who doesn’t seem to have any of the same questions you do about life and religion when they ask you what and why you believe? In a conversation I had about religion with a friend, he started out by describing himself as a “flaming atheist,” later backing down from that descriptor and saying that more than anything he didn’t really think about the subject. He grew up going to church once or twice a year with his parents, but in the last forty years just didn’t think questions about God had any relevance to his life. In the conversations that followed, and the time that has passed by since then, I’ve tried to figure out the best way to answer his questions, the best way to explain why I bother to believe in anything, before I get into any specifics.
Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill in Grand Rapids, author of Velvet Elvis and Sex God, and coauthor of Jesus Wants to Save Christians, was asked a similar question in a recent interview with Christianity Today. The question was, “How would you present this gospel on Twitter?” and Rob’s answer is a more fleshed out version of the answer I’ve started to give. Remember, Rob is not defining the Gospel here, nor giving a full explanation. He is presenting an introduction, calling the hearer into the journey.
“I would say that history is headed somewhere. The thousands of little ways in which you are tempted to believe that hope might actually be a legitimate response to the insanity of the world actually can be trusted. And the Christian story is that a tomb is empty, and a movement has actually begun that has been present in a sense all along in creation. And all those times when your cynicism was at odds with an impulse within you that said that this little thing might be about something bigger—those tiny little slivers may in fact be connected to something really, really big.”
Of course, G.K. Chesterton said many of the same things when talking about the need for fairy tales, like in this quote: “Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies, that these strong enemies of man have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.” And it’s one reason I’m convinced that art matters because it points to something better, that it has the power to stir up questions and desires in us that are otherwise drowned out by the noise and busyness of our everyday lives.
What about you? What answer do you give when asked why you believe?
Last Wednesday, I joined my friend Matthew Paul Turner for a quick one-day trip down to Atlanta for a speaking gig he had. After reading a couple excerpts from his book Churched, along with some new essays, for the Wednesday Fellowship dinner at St Mark United Methodist Church, we headed over to a nearby pub for their weekly Theology on Tap, a combination of two of my favorite things. A friend of mine who moved to Atlanta a couple years ago, Will, joined us at the pub, as did my sister who lives there, and we enjoyed a great couple of hours of conversation about life and theology. I especially enjoyed getting to know Mandy, a pastor at St. Mark, and her husband Matt, who is working on his PhD in Homiletics while serving as an Adjunct Professor of Preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary. Mandy blogs at Reverend Mama, writing about her kids, her sermons, and life. I’ve already enjoyed reading her recent posts, and have added it to my blog list over on the side.
If anyone knows of an event similar to Theology on Tap here in Nashville, I’d love to find out about it. Or if not, who’s up for starting one?