In August 2008 I began to cultivate the idea of setting the Psalms of the Old Testament to music. The Book of Psalms consists of 150 psalms, each of which constitutes a religious song. So that’s quite an undertaking – I’ve always been surprised that the master composers have not done so. They concentrate on the latin portions, mass, magnificat, passions etc., but Psalms and Proverbs are really probably the most “popular” books of the Bible even to non-Christians. There’s so much “life” in them – heartache, victory, pain, joy – a roller coaster of emotions. Life.
It was this idea that led me to consider the System of Composition of Joseph Schillinger which I had been introduced to in 1990 in Los Angeles at the Grove School of music where I was enrolled as a student in the Film program. One of the teachers, Joseph Harnell, had brought in the two-volume set as a sort of “show and tell” one day and I was intrigued. When the Internet exploded on the scene I started seeing Schillinger pop up on obscure sites, most of which are now either gone or “dead” (i.e. no longer updated). So by 2008, there was some “new life” on the subject and I began to study the system, as I am still doing now, with complete earnest dedication and seriousness.
A book elsewhere described on this site, the 1921 book, “Keyboard Harmony” came into my possession while I was doing some substitute teaching in the Los Angeles School district in 1993 and I began studying it along with going through the entire Hindemith “Traditional Harmony” in about the beginning of 2009 so I could keep my compositional pencil sharp – since I was also studying the Schillinger system simultaneously, they “accidently” began to blend together. Naturally, I began inserting what I had learned of the Schillinger (Book 1, Theory of Rhythm) into my harmony and modulations exercises. Although I put time and effort into these 4-8 bar exercises, I began wondering if I was doing something worth the effort – what is the good of doing something of value when it is only 4, 5 or six bars? And yet they were important to follow through in order to master the modulations being illustrated in the Carolyn Alden Alchin’s 1921 book.
So then the lightbulb went off: Do the exercises (4,5,6 bars, i.e. whatever the Schillinger resultant I decided to use which would dictate the measure length) and add that exercise to ONE line of one psalm! In this way, I would actually be moving through the entire psalm as I worked on the exercises. The exercises, instead of being isolated pieces of value but unusable fragments, would join forces to complete the whole. “E pluribus unum” as the motto goes as adopted in 1776 on the Seal of the United States. Separately, fragments, but together, a fluid and integrated whole. (I’m writing this blog on the evening of July 4th and hear the fireworks outside my window ;).
I originally began an orchestra/choir version of Psalm 001 which is a full-scale piece and took the normal time to compose. Calculating the time it took to compose the three movement work, times 149 more psalms to complete, I calculated I would complete the series by the age 163.
Sooooooo….instead, I decided I needed something more stream-lined, which is why I began the study of the Schillinger System to begin with: shortcuts – a single voice – or perhaps duets for certain verses, with piano accompaniment – then latter, if desired, the piano part could easily be transcribed for string quartet or small orchestra if necessary (by someone else after me if the value is deemed to be there). I have all Bach Cantatas with piano/vocal lines only and that’s really all you need – from that, anyone could orchestrate them for a larger ensemble.
I also started Psalm 002 as sort of an “in between” effort of the first idea of a large-scale piece like I did in Psalm 001, versus an attempt to simplify so I could move the whole project along in a lifetime, but I was at that time not studying the keyboard modulations or applying the Schillinger ideas so it’s left unfinished (to which I’ll next most likely return with the new format using the Schillinger System and modulations next described) – so I started this new idea of integrating the keyboard modulations (her book gives mostly J.S. Bach chorale examples to illustrate the modulations), and the Schillinger resultants with a fresh Psalm. Psalm 003 shown below.
I’m using a screenshot .avi file saved in Windows Movie Maker to capture the music which was totally composed in Sibelius Notation software. There is nothing I can do (as far as I know) about improving the quality – vocal music just has “Ahs” and “Oohs” and that’s it – so obviously you’re not going to hear a vocalist “sing” the words here – but you will hear the vocal line and follow the text underneath and just have to “imagine” it being sung by a tenor. I’ve used the New Living Translation rather than the traditional King James translation of the text. I’m going for a more contemporary intepretation of the text – although in some settings, the King James with it’s “behold” and “thou” and “verily I say unto you” might be more suitable, in this case I want the most modern interpretation of the text possible so the listener, regardless of religious affiliations, if any, can immediately grasp the meaning of the text rather than being “subjected” to an antiquated format.
There is no attempt to religiously “push” anyone to any particular direction with these renditions – the Book of Psalms are great regardless of any beliefs of the listener and can be enjoyed for what they are: songs of struggle, delight, defeat, and ultimately, victory…. all while believing in a great God as creator of all the Universe and in whose faith and belief and gratitude comes all peace and victory in our own lives.
Daniel Leo Simpson
10:00PM; July 4th, 2009 USA Independence Day
(I can hear the fireworks outside my window)
San Carlos, California
p.s. one last note: the Roman Numerals were the original 4-6 bar phrases of the exercises. However as I worked to interconnect the phrases, I may have (did) re-work some of the harmonies and now the Roman Numerals do not in every case match up with the chord assigned to it – but I thought rather than remove them I’d leave them in so you can see the idea of the modulations and how the exercises proceeded to move toward an integrated whole.