Virtual Choir: How We Did It

With churches around the world gathering virtually, and choir rehearsals suspended indefinitely, I took the past few weeks as an opportunity to “gather” our choir for a virtual choir anthem last Sunday.

Check it out!

How We Made It

See my instructions to my choir here

The process of creating a virtual choir video is not for the faint of heart. It involves many hours of editing click tracks, instructing choir members, mixing audio, editing video, and syncing clips all together to create the final product that looks so simple. This was my first go at it, so it was a learning process for me. Along the way I figured out a few things that I would do differently next time. If you’re ready to get your hands dirty, get a bit frustrated, but really want to work hard to produce a virtual choir, keep reading!

What You Need:

  • Computer. A new-ish one. If you don’t have that then you can quit now.
  • Digital Audio Workstation (DAW). This is the software that lets you record and edit audio on the computer.  I used Ableton Live as I am most comfortable and familiar with the interface, but you could use also use ProTools, Logic Pro X, FL Studio, or free software like Garage Band or Audacity. There are dozens of DAWs out there, so I won’t get into the pros and cons of each but there’s plenty of info online about how to use each one of these. If you’re just starting out with music production, learning how to use one of these (I’d recommend the professional software: Ableton, Logic Pro, or ProTools) will be the a great time investment that will benefit you for the long term. Learn it.
  • USB Digital Audio Interface. This is a piece of hardware that lets you plug microphones and other line inputs into your computer. It also lets you monitor sound through headphones and external monitors. I have this one from Scarlett but they are even cheaper today.
  • A decent microphone. For recording instruments it is well worth the investment to get a good quality microphone. Spend more than $100. Don’t spend over $500. I love the Rode NT5 because they sound great, come as a pair for recording in stereo, and can be used for so many different applications: single acoustic instruments like guitars or strings, stereo piano mics, and even choirs. This mic can do it all and won’t break the bank.
  • Option 1: Headphones. DO NOT try and do this with only your laptop speakers. You need a way to accurately hear the sound from all the different sources you’ll be mixing. A pair of studio monitor headphones will set you back about $100-200. Again, a worthwhile investment on your path toward music production glory. I like these from Beyerdynamic because they’re comfy. These from AKG are only $76 and are good for the price.
  • Option 2: Studio Monitors. Active speakers are better because you don’t have to wear headphones all the time and can sit back and listen more comfortably. I bought a pair from Event Electronics for $300 back in college and they have been with me ever since. They’re going on 15 years of use and still sound great. Spend $200-300 on something from here.

Note, you will notice I didn’t actually even include a video camera. I used this one because we have it at the church, but these days your cell phone takes great video under the right lighting conditions, so most people can get away with just that. When your final product is a little square in the middle of a huge grid of videos, you don’t need the best quality video.

Got it all? Let’s get to work.

Before We Proceed…

Just so you know what you’re getting into, this is what my final mix looked like. It doesn’t even fit on one screen:

Yowza…That’s 44 tracks.
The timeline view doesn’t even fit on one screen.

ONE: Create a click track

This was probably the hardest step for me to accept as a musician. As someone who trains the choir to be musical and allow the tempo to ebb and flow as we sing together, the idea of syncing everyone up to a click track and then conducting seems to go against everything I learned in conducting school, but these are strange times and this was the best way I could think of to get us all to sing together. But that doesn’t mean you have to start a song at 100BPM and stay there the entire time. Ableton allows you to manually automate tempo changes throughout an arrangement.

Tempo Automation in Ableton Live

As you can see there are about a dozen or so tempo shifts throughout the piece. The downward slopes are ritards. The steep downward and quick upward slopes are slight lifts for a breath together. It took me a while to get the tempo change to feel natural. I think there might be a way to record tempo automation by tapping live while recording in ableton, but I didn’t figure that out. I just drew it in.

TWO: Create the reference instrumental part.

For any piece for piano and choir it means recording the piano part, since singers will likely sing to the piano more than they’ll sing to the click. To do this I simply recorded the piano into Ableton (I didn’t bother recording video, but in hindsight I could have also recorded video at this point). You’ll sync up the video later. Confession: I didn’t want to learn the rather tricky piano part to this piece so I actually recorded the left hand and right hand parts separately. This actually allowed me to add more notes to fill out the harmonies and make it sound more orchestral, which is what I think the composer would want out of the piano part!

THREE: Record the virtual conducting video.

Ableton doesn’t handle recording or editing of video but it can actually import video, which is a nifty feature.

I then played back the music on Ableton and recorded myself conducting to a video camera. The result is this:

FOUR: Record rehearsal tracks for the singers. (Optional)

Because I work with amateur singers, many who don’t read music, I went in and recorded each vocal part. As much as I wish all my singers can read music, the fact is that their experience is so much better when they have someone singing in their ear, so I’m happy to oblige. I then exported them individually to create these:

Soprano 1 | Soprano 2 | Alto 1 | Alto 2

Tenor 1 | Tenor 2 | Bass 1 | Bass 2

FIVE: Export a final virtual choir demo. (Also optional)

This step might not be necessary for choirs with music readers and I would also discourage it for music educators or school choirs. If your goal is still to be teaching music reading and musicianship, this step might be seen as a crutch. But for church choirs, and amateur choirs, where the goal is community, having fun, and praising God, this step makes sense. Ableton (remarkably) can actually export a video, so I made a rough mix and exported video. Result is this:

For this one I turned OFF the click track, but in hindsight I might have kept it on for this one too.

SIX: Recruit your choir!

Now you have all the components the choir needs to record their tracks. I used our church website to host all this stuff so the choir can easily access the rehearsal tracks and recording. I also included a few tips, the most importantly being use headphones when you record your choir part! I also wrote all the tempo adjustments in there so they could write notes in their music before they sang. Whether or not they did is up to them.

SEVEN: Request Video Submissions

For uploading, I bit the bullet and got dropbox plus. I’m requesting large files for upload so after doing a bit of research it seemed like the best option and gives me 2TB of space. Google drive and box.com seem like good options too.

On dropbox, I used the “request files” feature to create simple perma-link that the choir members can upload. Uploading video is sometimes a hard slow process, so be ready for choir members to ask questions and need help. If people have apple devices, airdrop makes transferring the file from the phone to the computer very easy.

EIGHT: Mix the audio.

From each video submission I used adapter to easily extract the audio as a wav file from their .mp4 or .mov video submission. Then I brought this audio into Ableton and got to work mixing. A few tips about audio mixing for virtual choirs:

  • Some recordings sound good. Others sound bad. Depending on the quality of the cell phone microphone, some may have a muffled sound, some may have a high pitched hiss, some may have a lot of ‘noise’. You work with what you have. For the better ones, I used minimal compression and some simple EQ that looked like this:
Simple EQ and Compression for vocals

For others that had some background noise I had to cut a lot of high frequencies. You loose some of the vocal brightness, but with 44 tracks, you can’t really have any audible hiss or noise in them or it will really ruin the final product.

Ableton Channel Strip – EQ to remove hiss
  • As with a non-virtual choir, sometimes it’s hard to get all the singers to sing in tune and at the same time. Hard consonants are particularly tricky, as any minor variations come through as a muddled mess of t-t-t-t-t-t-t in the final product. In hindsight, I would be super clear about where I want those harder consonants like T/S/D/K placed. I did quite a bit of adjusting in Ableton after bringing the voices in. In the example below you can see the cuts and shifts I made to make some of the vocals line up with the rest of the choir. Yeah sopranos.
Ableton single track editing
  • Using Ableton’s automation feature, you can also automate the track volume throughout. I know the guy who mixes NPR’s tiny desk concerts uses volume automation very liberally to achieve a natural even result.
Volume automation. Sometimes singers don’t do the dynamics as written so a little bit of help can go a long way. (This one was actually me trying to sing the alto part so I needed all the help I could get as my falsetto is very much NOT even in volume throughout my vocal range and varies quite a bit depending on what vowel I’m singing. Voice lessons would help, but in a pinch we fix it in post).
  • Add some ‘verb. Jesus’ blood is the most effectual thing for covering sins. A sweetly tuned reverb is probably the next best thing. I used this as a return track, which means I can dial in the amount on a per-channel basis. I used about %60 on my vocal tracks and only a very little on the piano so the piano cut through and the vocals blended together. You could never get this result in a live acoustic performance.
Reverb settings. Note you can EQ the reverb after in the channel strip. I pulled out the highs to reduce that ‘fake’ reverb sound. Yes that is 6.53 seconds of reverb. 
  • Group tracks and apply glue compressor. This tool helps “glue” your tracks together to make them sound like one unified unit. I don’t really know how it works (but I’m sure someone else could tell you), but I know it works. Here are my settings for the “men’s voices” group.

    Glue compression and group EQ
  • When you’ve spent 9865873648245 hours mixing and are ready to make the final master audio track, head over the master channel for a rough go at audio mastering. I’m aware mixing and mastering are really two separate skills and art forms, so I acknowledge that I’m very much a beginner at this. Ableton has a nice audio effect rack that has mastering tools. Here’s what mine looked like. This should all be very gentle … no harsh adjustments here. Listen on multiple outputs (Nice headphones, cheap headphones, nice speakers, cheap speakers) to see what your track sounds like across multiple devices. It might sound amazing on your nice headphones, but what about when 90% of the people listen to it off their phones or laptops. You gotta make it sound as good as possible on as many devices as possible. A bit more compression is your friend here.
Master channel with some gentle EQ, more glue compression, and a final limiter to stop clipping.

Okay all done? Now export it! Make sure you turn off the click for your final export :-).

NINE: Video Editing

This is actually the step I know the least about. If you’ve gotten this far and were really hoping for help here, I’m really sorry! You’ll need video editing software: Apple’s Final Cut Pro and Adobe’s Premiere are the standard software for video editing. You will struggle if you try to use iMovie for this. I had a colleague that is much faster at video editing grab all the video submissions, sync them up, and generate the final product. It involves cropping, resizing, and arranging all the videos one by one. It takes a. long. time.  I started at it, and used Premier’s effect controls to adjust the position and scale and cropping of each clip. Syncing is tricky here. In hindsight, I would ask the singers to clap for the camera four times during the intro so we could sync the video easier using the audio spikes as they are visible in the video editing software. This is why movies use those clap-boards to start takes.

So that was my journey of doing a virtual choir. It was fun. It took probably 50 hours of work and another 10 from our video editor. I’m sure I’ll be faster if I do it again, but it does take a TON of work! People loved it though, and there’s a special joy you get when you see everyone’s faces singing “together.”

17 But, brothers and sisters, when we were orphaned by being separated from you for a short time (in person, not in thought), out of our intense longing we made every effort to see you. 18 For we wanted to come to you—certainly I, Paul, did, again and again—but Satan blocked our way. 19 For what is our hope, our joy, or the crown in which we will glory in the presence of our Lord Jesus when he comes? Is it not you? 20 Indeed, you are our glory and joy.

– 1 Thessalonians 2:17-20

Have Fun and Enjoy! Questions? Email Me.

Lent Log Day 13: The Two Day Rule (or, perhaps, humanly imposed limits)

Turns out it’s a bit hard to keep up writing every weekday during lent. I skipped yesterday and was about to skip today but then remembered a video I saw on the “two day rule (note there are ads in the video).” It is born from the reality that habits are easy to start, but very hard to maintain consistently.

In my last post, divinely imposed limits, I talked about how sometimes in ministry we have to remember to stay in our lane, and not over extend or over invest with our time or energy or emotion.

But what about a humanly imposed limit?

A humanly imposed limit, (one could call this a “ritual” or “practice”) is something we hold ourselves to and live by, no matter how we feel at any particular moment. Rituals or practices are tools for building consistency and, as the video explains, are the antidote to procrastination, doubt, and fear (see this post on rock climbing, doubt, and fear)

Consistency is the antidote to the resistance of doubt.

The two day rule is simple: If you skip a day, it’s not a big deal, but once you skip two days, that’s no longer a habit but a one time job. For any habit you are trying to build, whether it’s working out, practicing the cello, reading the Bible, or (in my case), blogging every day in lent, not allow yourself to take off more than one day in a row.

Because we don’t want to be slaves to achievement and try to brute force our way into good habits. Going to the gym every day is hard if you’ve never gone before. The two day rule allows you to skip a day if you’re feeling tired. You can even skip multiple days in one week as long as you never skip two days in a row.

I think this is brilliant. Hope it helps us with our lenten (and life-long) disciplines.

Lent Log Day 8: Holy Water and Hand Sanitizer

I’ve always wanted to write a post about how some churches have a fount of holy water at the entrance and others have a bottle of hand sanitizer. Today seems like that day.

The former says the world is God’s – God made the material world for us to experience and enjoy and the raw material of water reminds us of his goodness to us (the dab of water on our forehead reminds us of our baptism). For more on this I commend Schmemann’s “Of Water and the Spirit” chapter from his book “For the Life of the World.” The fact that water is placed at the entrance to churches is in part to remind us of the ecclesiological (or, communal) significance of our baptism. It is an entrance into community – the body of Christ, and not solely an individual act.

The latter says the world is dirty –  that we need to protect ourselves and get rid of the germs of the outside world. It is practical, pragmatic, and on the surface theologically neutral – how is using hand sanitizer related to how I enter worship?

Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi. It matters. Everything we do shapes what we believe. The phrase speaks to the fact that all our actions shape our beliefs, and it’s a two way street. If we kneel in worship, our hearts kneel. If we check our bank account balance every morning, our hearts worry about money. If our hearts worry about money, we’ll check our bank account balance every morning.

Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against hand sanitizer and use it frequently when traveling. Obviously things are a bit different these days and I’m using it more often. But I’m actually really struggling with what the church’s response should be toward Coronavirus fears. During flu season, it’s often suggested that we refrain from handshakes during church, and with Coronavirus fears (and actual cases in the US) rising, we’re considering how to modify our communion practices to be more sanitary. Fortunately, for us Evangelicals, we are already well on our way to individual sanitary practices. We have those tiny plastic cups which are better than all drinking out of the same cup (though I learned that using a fortified wine such as port for its germ killing properties served in a single chalice is actually more sanitary and less of a risk than contamination from hands reaching into the same plate or loaf of bread. The mouth is cleaner than the hands.)

While I am concerned with how to best guide the church’s practices safely, responsibly, and taking advice from medical professionals, I’m also thinking about long-term affects on our practices and therefore our theology. Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi. I read of one church who changed from handshakes to waves and nods during the H1N1 outbreak in the 2000s, and the practice has by popular choice remained.

Shouldn’t we as Christians be the first ones to remain ‘in the world’ because we know that we are ultimately not of it, but belong to God? This is not to say we don’t exercise caution and common sense, listening to the recommendations from doctors and modifying our practices to be more hygienic, but if the world is living in a state of fear (and it seems like it is), perhaps we should open our doors to welcome the weary, not close them. We’ll also live-stream our worship service too :-).

God is our refuge and strength,
an ever-present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way
and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea…

Psalm 46:1-2

One of our own missionaries remained in Liberia to care for people during the Ebola outbreak a few years ago. Many non-Christians would see this as irresponsible – the recommendation surely would have been to get out of the dangerous area, but he was celebrated here. In the early years of the church, during one such plague outbreak in AD252 Christians were known to be the ones that stuck around to care for the dying. While others fled, Pope Dionysus of Alexandria commended those Christians who remained, writing,

“The best of our brothers lost their lives in this manner, a number of presbyters, deacons, and laymen winning high commendation so that death in this form, the result of great piety and strong faith, seems in every way the equal of martyrdom.” (Source)

So I’m not sure what direction this current pandemic is going to go. Certainly let’s pray. Pray that doctors find a cure or vaccine quickly. Pray that Christians would know how to respond to this as disciples of Jesus. Pray that we would not fear. I will use hand sanitizer. I will also remember my baptism.

Lent Log Day 5: Feasts

Luke chapter 15 contains the well known parables of lost things – the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. I always thought these parables were about how God seeks after us and finds us even when we are lost, but in my New Testament class last week (and in last Sunday’s sermon at TCC), I was shown that each story also ends with the theme of celebration. The shepherd calls his friends and neighbors together to celebrate finding the one sheep, the woman does the same for the coin, and the Father throws a big party when his son returns home. The message of the parable is clear for the Pharisees and scribes (Jesus is telling this parable to them, see Luke 15:1-2)  – don’t grumble about the ‘unrighteous’ who are found by God. Don’t be like the older son, indignant that those who did right all their lives were not getting any special treatment but the “prodigal son” (note that Luke doesn’t use the word prodigal – that’s just the editorial heading) gets a feast with the fatted calf and a new wardrobe: ring, robe, and shoes. The parable is also for us – don’t just be glad for your own salvation but seek out those who have been newly found by God and throw a party. Bring our most lavish gifts to celebrate with any and all who want to celebrate. Not those who we’d expect to see at the banquet – friends and relatives, but the poor and social outcasts. Remember the parable of the Great Banquet was just the chapter before!

The theme of feasting, hospitality, and eating together is all over the pages of Luke’s gospel. Once I started noticing it, it is so clear that Luke really wants us to know that eating together is very important. It’s quickly becoming my favorite Gospel narrative. Because of its emphasis on eating together (Jesus eats with ‘sinners’), it shows that these simple actions are actually very important to God. I like cooking for people and because of passages like Luke 15, I am beginning to see the dinner party as a necessary spiritual practice in my life. So come on over for dinner sometime!

 

Five tips for your sound guys

This article is cross-posted at Seedbed’s Worship Design Collective. Check it out here!

I love our sound guys.  I love them because they are increasingly consistent, reliable, fun to work with, and eager to learn and grow. They respect me and the musicians, and they are always eager to help with additional services or projects. Though we are not a big church by any stretch of the imagination, we are privileged to have a team of 3-4 guys that give ~4 hours of their time on a Sunday to make sure we have excellent worship services.

Here are five qualities I encourage in our sound guys:

1. See yourself as part of the worship team. The person sitting behind the mixer has as much influence on the service as the worship leader. Remember that you are doing so much more than setting levels and muting/un-muting microphones. You are shaping the tone of the service, from prelude to postlude (or, from pre-service background music to post-service worship-team jam). The job of sound guy (or girl!) is not simply technical, it involves pro-active decision making, spontaneity, and creativity.

Take for example the rehearsal time. As the band is practicing the music for Sunday, listen to the form of the song. If possible, get a copy of the charts so you can follow along with the form of the songs. You should know when there is an extended instrumental section and consider boosting lead instruments as they carry a melody. If a song starts with just pads/guitar and boost those to support the congregations voice before the other instruments come in, then bring them back down to sit in the mix when the full band is playing.

Another example: If the service starts with a three-song worship set, try starting with the master fader 20% below unity to allow the congregation to settle into the space and hear their voices. By allowing the congregation to hear themselves as active participants you set an important tone for the worship service, our voices are important! As each song progresses, boost the master fader up with the energy of the song to encourage the congregation to sing out even more.

In short, ride those faders! Listen, listen, listen, and adjust as needed.

2. Be the first (ok, maybe second) person to church. Remember: If you’re early, you’re on time; if you’re on time, you’re late; and if you’re late…well, don’t be late! By arriving at the same time as the worship leader you can both get a head start on running lines and setting up microphones so that when it’s time for sound check things are ready to go.

Talk with the worship leader about time expectations for the morning. When is the band expected to arrive? Are the expected to help setup as well? By making clear expectations about arrival times and rehearsal start times, Sunday morning setup and rehearsal will be much more productive and everyone will be happier!

3. Think like a musician. Be creative, especially during rehearsal. Listen, listen, listen. Are the musicians balanced? Are the singers able to be heard but not overpowering? If it’s too “loud,” can you identify what frequencies are too loud? Remember that you are the only member of the band that can actually hear what it’s like in the house, so use your ears! You don’t have to be a musician yourself, but you do have to know music, and know what sounds good. Even away from the board you can think like a musician. When you listen to music in your car or on your headphones, think about the mi, the EQ, how amazing the kick drum sounds, and how you would achieve the same sound. Consider it all “sound guy practice!”

4. Communicate. Talk to your musicians. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you need to help you shape the sound. Ask for each musician to play by themselves while you set gain, EQ, compression, etc…

While they are playing, consider their performance and how you can help them achieve a better sound. If a vocalist looks timid, them down in their monitor and tell them to sing out. If a guitarist is strumming to harshly ask them to move their strums away from the bridge and towards the fingerboard. Check mic placement. There are so many simple ways to influence tone before it gets to your board.

Part of your job is to make the band sound as good as possible, but sometimes the ‘raw material’ leaves something to be desired! Maybe you’re trying to shape a song to have contrasting dynamics but the band is playing everything medium-loud. Feel free to (kindly and respectfully) offer suggestions regarding dynamics or articulation. If the bass is boomy and muddy, EQ might help, but so will a cleaner attack and quicker release from the bass player or dampening the kick. If you’re thinking as a musician, then you know there are often a number of ways to fix a given problem. Consider the musician – how this real human playing this real instrument before you reach for that EQ, fader, or compressor.

Of course giving advice to singers and players is a sensitive topic. Read more thoughts on communicating with musicians here.

5. Never stop learning. There’s always room to grow and improve your craft. Learn what every button, knob, and fader on your board and rack does. Learn about your tools: EQ, compression, reverb, gates, delays, and how to use them. Research new gear upgrades. Learn how to identify frequencies to nip feedback in the bud. Learn how our ears respond to sound pressure and how to make it sound “full” but not “loud”. Audio engineering takes decades to learn and master and there is so many resources out there. Not sure where to start? Check out blogs, listen to some live sound podcasts , visit other churches and see what they do, read lots of books and magazines.

 

I wrote a tune

Heart with Loving Heart UnitedA friend of mine I met at the spirit and sacrament conference gave a pretty compelling pitch for looking into some of the old Moravian hymns. With common themes of love, self-sacrifice, humility, and sincere commitment to following Jesus, they are a great fit for any congregation. One in particular that was suggested is “Heart with loving heart united,” a hymn about the Church’s fellowship led by Christ. The text speaks for itself:

Heart with loving heart united, met to know God’s holy will.
Let his love in us ignited more and more our spirits fill.
He the head, we are his members, we reflect the light he is.
He the master, we disciples, he is ours and we are his.

May we all so love each other and all selfish claims deny,
so that each one for the other will not hesitate to die.
Even so our Lord has loved us, for our lives he gave his life.
Still he grieves and still he suffers, for our selfishness and strife.

Since, O Lord, you have demanded that our lives your love should show,
so we wait to be commanded forth into your world to go.
Kindle in us love’s compassion so that ev’ryone may see
in our fellowship the promise of a new humanity.

So I wrote the tune above! Let me know what you think in the comments:

 

 

Why I’m excited about our upcoming art exhibition

Several months ago I began a conversation with Nasser K., the director of ArtsWayland, a nonprofit org. that seeks to promote artistic expression in Wayland and Metro West. After a few conversations in person and over email, a partnership began to materialize. We decided to launch our first “call for works” for an exhibition at TCC.
My vision for artists at TCC is to be culture-makers in Metro West; to be a tangible witness to God’s beauty, grace and love; to show how God is “making all things new;” and to use art to build relationships with non-Christian artists in our city (Not to mention, to share our beautiful building with the community!).
I hope this excites you as it excites me. Though I am not myself a visual artist, I want to be the supporter, encourager, and cheerleader for our amazing and talented artists. I want to help the artists in our community help us as a church worship Jesus more deeply.
Art Exhbition with ArtsWayland @ TCC
Opening Reception January 9th, 2015 – 6PM
 
Here are some details:
– 2D and 3D works (no theme – artist’s choice) may be submitted.
– The exhibition will have an opening reception on January 9th @ 6PM.
– The art will remain up for one month (January 7 to February 7, 2015)
– This is a juried show – ArtsWayland and TCC will collaborate for final art selections
– Art may be sold at the end of the show through ArtsWayland (not through TCC)
– Deadline to submit work: December 1, 2014. Entry fee of $20.
More info, and submission page can be found here:

Theology, Watches, Competing Liturgies, and why James K.A. Smith is a baller and a scholar.

Remember this post? In it I wanted to discuss the undeniable fact that apple stores look like and effectively function as religious shrines for the faithful consumer. Well 3 years and 3 iPhone models later, I guess its time to blog it up.


 

Theology of Space. Every place tells a story.

How do our public spaces tell stories about humans and what we desire? How do our churches tell us what is important in life, and where to direct our attention and focus during a worship service?

These and other questions make us realize that no space is a neutral space, and that every space both explicitly religious (a church) or not (an apple store) are pointing our hearts towards things to love (and in the same breath, worship).

Don’t believe me? Take a look at these pictures from the latest apple press conference (aka the iFeast day) and see for yourself…

apple1 Screen Shot 2014-09-09 at 6.15.09 PM Screen Shot 2014-09-09 at 6.08.14 PM Screen Shot 2014-09-09 at 6.15.13 PM

And you thought it was a cult before… these iconic, monumental, yet strangely familiar spaces (there’s one on Boylston St. and one in the Natick mall) invite in the faithful apple junkie to gaze upon the newest objects of worship, bathed in light and set apart from the darkness or chaos from which you enter. In the center, the emblem and icon of the fruit – no Eden reference intended but I’ll bite 🙂 – reminds us who is behind all of this, and who will receive our offering when we purchase the things for $649 for the 16GB-model–without–a-2-year-contract-thank-you-very-much-t-mobile…

Competing Liturgies. Who (or what) do we love?

But the connection to religious doesn’t stop with their stores temples.

I’ve been reading James K.A. Smith’s fascinating analysis of competing liturgies in his book “Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation,” which makes 3 basic claims:

  1. Human beings are oriented and defined by desire (what we love).
  2. Human beings are influenced and shaped by practice (by what we do)
  3. Some practices or rituals communicate a specific vision of “the good life” (Smith categorizes these as “liturgies”), and compete for first place in our lives.

In short, the church is not the only liturgy in our life, and it is not even the loudest or most effective.

Smith then exegetes competing liturgies in our 21st century western culture. Consider his first analysis.

The layout of this temple has architectural echoes that hark back to medieval cathedrals – mammoth religious spaces that can absorb all kinds of  different religious activities all at one time. And so one might say that this religious building has a winding labyrthinth for contemplation, alongside of which are innumerable chapels devoted to various saints. As we wander the labyrinth in contemplation, preparing to enter one of the chapels, we’ll be struck by the rich iconography that lines the walls and interior spaces. Unlike the flattened depictions of saints one might find in stained-glass windows, here is an array of three-dimensional icons adorned in garb that – as with all iconography – inspires us to be imitators of these exemplars. These statues and icons embody for us concrete images of “the good life”. (Smith, 21)

If you haven’t guessed it by now, Smith is describing, albeit from a unique tongue-in-cheek perspective, any suburban mall. His evocative depiction of a “full worship experience” at the mall, complete with all the “smells and bells” needs to be read in full to be truly appreciated, as his depiction of the mall as a cathedral pilgrimage site makes unfamiliar the familiar, and makes us truly stop and think about just what kind of liturgy we’re competing against. As Smith states, The mall understands humans as desiring creatures.

I think we must admit that the marketing industry is able to capture, form, and direct our desires precisely because it has rightly discerned that we are embodied, desiring creatures who’s being-in-the-world is governed by the imagination. Marketers have figured out the way to our heart because they “get it”: they rightly understand that, at root, we are erotic creatures–creatures who are oriented primarily by love and passion and desire. In sum, I think Victoria is in on Augustine’s secret. (Smith, 76)

The mall (or marketplace) is of particular interest considering Apple’s press coverage today. I think Apple’s brilliant marketing, design, and a knack for grabbing our hearts fits in perfectly with Smith’s analysis.  They even have their own saint…

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from the homepage at abcnews.com

These pictures tell a story. Combine that with insane apple fanaticism, monumental media attention, and a half a billion “followers” (apparently there are 500,000,000 iTunes subscribers), and you have a religion. A religion that tells us what is good, what we need, and what we’ll buy as soon as we are able to.

 

 Where do we go from here?

In part 2, “Desiring the Kingdom”  James K.A. Smith offers a counter for the church to paint the picture of “the good life” through our Christian practices of worship based around the teachings of Jesus. We cannot simply shun consumerism – we need to offer a replacement. The result of the fall was not that we stopped loving, but that we began loving the wrong things. It’s up to the church – the hands and feet of Jesus – to re-orient our desires to what they were intended for and the only thing that will bring ultimate fulfillment. Lord help us. More on that after I read part 2, and even more on that after I read his second book: “Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works“. Unfortunately I have to save up for my iWatch so it will be a while until I can afford paper books again.

 

Family Polyphony Vacation [new recordings!]

St. Francis de Sales Church, Phoenicia, NY
Nestled in the Catskills – Phoenicia, NY

I’ve been doing a lot of singing lately. When two conductors marry each other, family vacation means driving to a festival and putting on a concert. A few weeks ago I got to sing with a stellar ensemble of 11 voices at the Phoenicia International Festival of the Voice in upstate NY. The festival is mostly centered around opera so we are definitely the black sheep choral group, though after 4 years now, we’ve gained a bit of a following from festival attendees who look forward to hearing us every year.

This year’s festival theme was Spanish music, so Rachel and Matt put together a program of music from the Spanish Renaissance, centered around Morales’ Missa de Beata Virgine. The mass is a superb piece of music, particularly the final Angus Dei. Our program was aptly titled “Heaven’s Paradise on Earth: Music of the Spanish Renaissance“. Indeed, heavenly music!

Check out our recordings here:

9 Observations on Singing New Songs

Singing a new song? It’s more than meets the eye! Good words from cardiphonia

Cardiphonia

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I’ve had a couple of people mention to me Jamie Brown’s recent set of blog posts reflecting on his time at the National Worship Leaders Conference (DC). IN particular they were questioning his thoughts on introducing new songs in church.  This is a topic I’ve wrestled with a lot in the various churches I’ve worked for so I thought I’d share my gathered wisdom.

1. A New Song is his Name…but don’t wear it out.

When the Psalms (in particular) speak of ‘singing a new song’ they are specifically foreshadowing the incarnation event.  The early chapters of the gospel of Luke show us in spectacular form that Christ is the cause, inspiration, and embodiment of the ‘new song.’  Our ‘new songs’ are simply reflections of that One eternal never-ending, never sick of ‘new song.’  i. Try and make your new songs more of a reflection of the new songs of Luke…

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