By Lacey Brown M.M.
Director of Music at Church of the Apostles and Saint Matthew’s Lutheran Church and songwriter for Poor Clare.
I have seen the concept of “blended worship” played out many times in well-meaning congregations, seeking to lift up the gifts and breadth of the community. Perhaps the organist plays the prelude, the praise band does their thing for the song of the day, a young musician plays a piano solo during communion - all good things and something I would like to see more of, but I am usually left wanting more - more, connections, collaboration, and intentionality.
I would like to experience worship as a whole composition and not in compartmentalized sections. I would like to see something new happening that can only be produced by the gifts and interests of the people coming together. Of course, this is easier said than done. Not everyone approaches worship this way — and that is definitely okay — but the composer in me is always searching for those threads to pull everything together so that each piece means more in context of the whole.
I grew up in a church called The Evangelical Orthodox Church - a small denomination founded in the late 70’s in effort to synthesize Evangelicalism and Eastern Orthodoxy and honor the treasures from both east and west, ancient and new. This was the church that helped formed me spiritually and while it’s not perfect (as no denomination is), I am still very much drawn to this approach. It does not fit into any of those terms out there desperately trying to describe worship style. It is neither “traditional” or “contemporary.” It’s not “blended” or “casual.”
In my church we had icons, incense, ritual, pieces of the divine liturgy, prayers and litanies written by the community, folk music, chant, original compositions, extemporaneous prayer - it (usually) all worked together, beautifully crafted and thought out, ancient and new.
Through this upbringing and my own background in music (orchestral percussionist, songwriter, drummer, lover of Tom Petty and Palestrina), I feel great permission to bring everything to the table, mix things up, synthesize, and create. I have less of a boundary between the polar “contemporary” and “traditional” and see another way to do things - drawing from the rich diversity available in music, liturgy, poetry, and art - honoring it, and making it accessible to whatever community I am in.
This is what composers do all the time. We borrow material (sometimes we steal) but we make something new out of it. Everything is recycled and repurposed and not thrown out just to make way for the next new thing. In a piece of music, each section has to be connected to the other sections, either by key or melodic themes or chord structure...A good composition sets up the next part, borrowing from previous material and hinting at future themes. It is a journey and it is not always wrapped up in a resolved bow at the end. Many compositions leave you with more questions than answers and many compositions or pieces of art have the power to transform us.
I see liturgy as a composition and music as a thread, connecting all of the pieces and providing a unique way to process content and emotions, keeping us engaged. Music has the power to lift our mood, disrupt our thinking, provide space for contemplation, and awaken our imagination.
So why limit ourselves to a certain type of music when designing worship? Why force these categories of “traditional” and “contemporary” and limit our options? Of course each musician has their own areas of expertise and we cannot expect every musician to be able to play both Petty and Palestrina, so this is where we must rely of the unique gifts of the community, create something new out of existing material, and alter a piece of music to fit the context.
So how might this look in a worship setting? The possibilities are endless. It just takes some play and risk. Not everything will work: that is okay. Here are some examples of some recent things I have experimented with at Church of the Apostles in Seattle where I am Music Director:
I was drawn to a couple pieces for Ash Wednesday last year: Funeral Canticle by John Tavener and Spiegel im Spiegel by Arvo Pärt, but I did not have a chamber choir or string quartet at my disposal to perform these pieces. Since the Taverner is twenty-three minutes long, I played the recording as the prelude music to set the mood for the service. I provided the title and composer along with program notes about the composition to provide the opportunity to appreciate the piece and not dismiss it as merely background music. I used the Pärt piece during a time of personal contemplation in our service called Open Space. The piece is perfect for this place in the liturgy as it is interesting enough that some will attentively listen but repetitious enough that it does not require your full attention. The treatment and intentionally in using this music helped to make it accessible to a large variety of congregants.
Each season, I treat the psalm differently. Sometimes I will write a refrain to be sung in between spoken stanzas, other times we will chant the psalm together or we will have the congregation hum a fifth while a cantor chants (either improving or using a chant tone). We always have a band at our services so if we have the right kind of instrumentation like an electric guitar or hammond b3, we will often play a drone underneath the chant. Sometimes we will begin the drone underneath the reading or prayer that comes before or use whatever key the gospel acclamation is in to connect the sections. Whether a cappella, humming, or ambient drone, I find treating the psalm in these new and fresh ways brings the poetry to life and allows it to speak in surprising ways.
Hymns are a great opportunity to breath new life into the ancient heritage of our faith. Since our service is in the evening we often sing Phos Hilaron. Commonly sung at evening prayer, it is the earliest recorded Christian hymn that is still used today. The melody is very straight (quarter notes) and easy to learn, leaving opportunity for playing with chord voicings and arrangement. We have done this hymn with a full band and we have also sung it simply with piano or with just voices in a cannon. Whenever I sing this hymn, I feel a connection to my faith unlike anything else.
I use the music from taize often as it is both easy to learn and sing but also incredibly well composed. Most of these songs have four part harmony that stands alone - no instrumentation need, no creative spin, just simple and beautiful. However, I have also played around using different accompaniment - electric guitar swells, glockenspiel playing the melody, deep bass tones...Taize songs appeal to a large demographic of church goers and are easily done with whoever you might have as your musicians or bands for the day.
And of course, I am a huge supporter of creating new music for the church. Often times, I cannot find a piece of music that will work for my context so I will write something myself or commission someone else to write. This is such an important discipline as we are often starved for new material, for new songs to sing. And when liturgical pieces are written by the community for a specific service or season, I find that is speaks to the community in ways other music cannot.
These are just some of the ways I play with music throughout the service but really this should look different for each person and each congregation. There is no formula for this approach other than knowing your community and being willing to play and create and risk. Each service is an opportunity for transformation and often art is that vehicle. So find that place in the service for the organ piece and the young musicians’ piano solo and the Tom Petty song and connect it to the liturgy. Provide the context and the art will speak whether you are playing The Beatles, your own composition, an ancient hymn, a psalm chant - always think of your community first (both those attending and your musicians).
Make it exciting.
Make it new.
Be true to yourself.
Honor the ancient. To create and innovate is to honor the heritage we come from. Whenever we worship, we are worshiping with the community of saints, with all Christians across space and time.
May these offerings fill in our lungs,
in our very being,
and then may we breathe that out into our world, each note a prayer to God.
The blog space is where we'll cover things: why we're using a specific focus during a season, to discuss liturgy, and random things that don't quite fit elsewhere.