Sunday, October 29, 2006

cranking up the banjo, liturgical style

This morning at the 9:00 service, we played Sufjan Stevens' "All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands" for the anthem at Communion. I'd been looking forward to playing this piece for months - the opportunity to play a song in church that I enjoy listening to anyway (ie, quality singer/songwriter stuff, no cheesy Christian pop) is an event worth noting. I was given the task of writing the Music Notes about the piece for the Sunday bulletin. I know this is two postings in a row in which I've put up something I've written that has to do with church...but please indulge me one more time, as I really feel strongly about this song as a quality piece of writing that achieves in structure what it intends to convey in lyrical theme.

This morning’s anthem at Communion is “All the Trees of the Field Will Clap Their Hands” by Episcopalian singer/songwriter Sufjan (pronounced SOOF-yan) Stevens from his album Seven Swans. The title of the song is taken from Isaiah 55:12. More “indie singer/songwriter” than “contemporary Christian pop,” Stevens scrutinizes his own faith in lush soundscapes of unconventional instrumentation and introspective, less-than-overt lyrics that hint at a myriad of emotional responses: doubt, hope, self-consciousness, joy, awe.

“All the Trees…” begins with a simple banjo line that repeats like a meditative mantra beneath the opening question, “If I am alive this time next year / will I have arrived in time to share?” This kind of lyrical tension exists throughout the piece as Stevens alternately notes the joy of God’s kingdom (“I heard from the hills a band was made”) and wonders at his own place within it (“Will I be invited to the sound?”). As the song progresses, musical layers are added in sequence to the banjo foundation. Each part is uncomplicated, but completely different from the others: a piano line, a second banjo, a chorus of women. A declaration of intent comes into focus as Stevens, over the sum of these musical parts, states with purpose, “I am joining all my thoughts to you / and I’m preparing every part for you.” Indeed, the structure of the music itself mirrors the devoted intention of the singer as these seemingly disparate pieces are “joined” and “prepared” in a unified offering of praise to God.

If you aren't familiar with Sufjan Stevens, I highly recommend listening to Seven Swans in its entirety. Even if you're not into music with religious themes, the instrumentation alone warrants a second listen. It is a challenging record that drifts beyond quirky into downright weird at times...but on the whole, I think it's absolutely mesmerizing.


Anonymous said...

Boy? Why aren't you out there writing for a living...or on the side...or something???!!!Or, maybe you are...

Anonymous said...

i'm giving dad step by step instructions on how to post. george, see this? this is what you can do once you figure it out. great post chris. you are so fascinating and smart! -nancy

Anonymous said...

I'm listening to Dylan, Secular but familiar. The hymns we use are mostly from the 1500's and up. The most recent was 1923. You and NEB sould write your own using your banjo. NEB is good at English, I hear, you're good at the banjo. I'm a great listener. NEB writes the words, you play a tune, I'm the critic. Yes? Perfect! I await the product!

Anonymous said...

Hey, Roy. Do I know who RFE is? I'll bet I do. JCF