Sunday’s Coming

The dilemma of a church organist: Sunday’s coming. There’s always another Sunday, or a wedding, or memorial, or other special event to prepare for. And somewhere after Monday I realize I need another prelude (postlude/offertory). And there’s not much time! Theoretically, of course, I practice weeks ahead. But organ playing is a rather practical sport, not long on theory.

I had this bright idea to ask a flautist in the congregation if she would like to play one of my settings of Jesus Loves Me. We’re focusing on children this Sunday in conjunction with World Communion Sunday, and JLM is one of the hymns. She liked the idea, but the timing wasn’t quite right in her life. In the meantime, I’d committed to JLM in the bulletin. So I got up this morning and wrote down what’s really an improv on the tune.

I started with a walking bass. My example shows the first half of the pattern, which just keeps repeating. [Note to Dan and others who like to hear things: here’s the link to the mp3 of the whole piece.] The left hand has a simple pattern based on the first four notes of the tune. It also keeps repeating. That didn’t take long! Now all I need is a bit of melody.

I decided to ornament the melody a bit. Enough so the tune gets elaborated, but not so much that the tune gets lost in the lettuce. Or broccoli. Or salad dressing. Whatever. The tune starts quite simply, as my second excerpt shows.Except for the first two notes, this first piece of melody presents the tune pretty straightforwardly. In order to make things more interesting (at least for me as composer) I decided that each each chunk of melody would be responsible for four measures, even though in its original form it is only two measures long. And then I made the measures four beats long, rather than the two of the original. It meant I had to figure out how to fill more time, and yet make sure that the connection of the material I wrote to the original tune was clear.

There’s an interesting musical problem inherent in the procedure I applied here: there’s no real harmonic progression or direction. Or rather, the walking bass implies motion, as it heads down the scale, makes a slight turn, and begins again just as it reaches home. But while the bass suggests motion, the sustain note in the left hand and the short repeated rif suggest a kind of stasis. Even with all the motion of the bass, and a fairly active melody line, there’s almost a timeless aspect to the piece.

The lack of harmony and constant rhythmic repetition of the bass and left hand places the responsibility for the shape of the piece firmly on the melodic line. I haven’t had a chance to practice the piece yet, but I think that I’ll have to focus on the melody to keep the piece moving–or is it enough that these elements are just there? Although my recording suggests only one tone color for the melody, I have in mind alternating between a flute and a reed sound.

I gotta tell you that it felt good to be doing this again: write a piece Friday morning that I’ll play on Sunday (well, I got the left hand/bass ideas Thursday evening right before choir practice). I’d been a little down about the rather reduced organ I now play, compared to the instrument at my previous church. Clearly, size is less important than making use of what you’ve got…

Which is, of course, music to my ears.

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