Thursday, September 25, 2008

The Power of Music

As I read over Toni's thoughts about our music I am again reminded of why I hooked up with her in the beginning: She has such a beautiful, poetic way of conveying gospel principles that soothes the soul, uplifts the heart, and brings hope when life feels gray. How grateful I am that she has this gift and way with words. Also, with Toni writing the lyrics, I can focus on writing music, which is where my heart is.

Having insightful lyrics is the first step in creating music that resonates within, but then comes the challenge of setting the lyrics to music that is equally stirring. Soulful music coupled with lyrics bearing truth is especially powerful because it has a way of slipping through the back door of one's heart, quietly, unannounced, and melting away emotional barriers that otherwise would remain in place. When composing heart-felt music, it is important to match the emotional depth of the lyrics with the style of music. Have you ever heard a song sung where the lyrics were intense, but the music just didn't fit? Or, the music was so beautiful, but the lyrics were trite? Creating lyric-music unity is something Toni and I feel strongly about and try to achieve in our music.

For the greatest musical effect, the climax of the music needs to align with the climax of the lyrics. All accents should come together at the same moment: lyric, agogic, dynamic, metric, and tonal. I like to have the vocal part/parts begin a piece simply, with thinner musical textures and harmonies, build to the climax utilizing these accents, and then simplify again, bringing emotional resolution and peace (closure). Hopefully, the heart of the listener is gradually softening as the song progresses so when the music and lyrics simultaneously peak, the spiritual message is deeply felt and internalized. That's the goal.

When Toni and I first began writing music together, we had to learn about these concepts through much trial and error, and through the graciousness of choral directors who were willing to subject their choirs to our first pieces. Though many moans and groans were expressed by those choirs as they tried to read hand-written scores, learn unfamiliar tunes and lyrics, and put up with editing changes along the way, it was through their patience and tolerance that we were able to grow as writers. We will be ever grateful for them. Zelma Kinnison is one choral director who will always remain an angel in my eyes. Another person whom I will forever thank is Anna Carson (her voice is not of this world). I probably sought her opinion of my music with a self-defeating motive--if she thought it was bad, I would quit writing. But...she liked it! That vulnerable beginning opened the door for me to believe a bit more in myself, gave me courage to continue on, and even allowed me to meet Toni. I often wonder what I would be doing today had I not risked asking Anna what she thought of my music. This has taught me to always encourage others in their artistic endeavors, no matter what their level of ability, believing it is better to inspire than to judge.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Child of Mine

Child of Mine was written at the request of our stake president, for a stake conference meeting. I came up with a lyric, but Diane pretty much thought it was lame-o. Nonetheless she began composing and had a pretty melody when, after more discussion, I rewrote the whole song! 

The ideas of this song are important for parents to hear. Parenting brings such joy and misery, and can be very discouraging at times. Nonetheless, we need to remember, that we are not alone in this task--our children are God's children first.

The chorus borrows heavily from the words of Orson F. Whitney, because I don't believe anyone could say it better: "You parents of the willful and the wayward! Don't give them up. Don't cast them off. They are not utterly lost. The Shepherd will find his sheep. They were His before they were yours--long before he entrusted them to your care; and you cannot begin to love them as he loves them. They have but strayed in ignorance from the Path of Right, and God is merciful to ignorance. Only the fullness of knowledge brings the fullness of accountability. Our Heavenly Father is far more merciful, infinitely more charitable, than even the best of his servants, and the Everlasting Gospel is mightier in power to save than our narrow finite minds can comprehend" ( Conference Report, April, 1929 p. 110).

The verses are inspired by a letter that I wrote to my son as he left on a mission, expressing my hopes for him and the inadequacies every parent feels: "Have I taught him all he needs to know?"; "Have I passed on to him, unwittingly, my imperfections?" 

This song has touched many hearers, and we hope it will continue to comfort and inspire parents, who have such an amazing charge to fulfill.

Friday, September 19, 2008

A New Star Over Bethlehem

On that holy night so long ago when the Savior was born, the veil of the heavens was rent and glory spilled to earth as hosts of angels, a veritable army of heaven proclaimed peace to the world.

Yet as the angels departed and darkness once more claimed the night, one bright witness remained in the heavens; the scriptures tell us that a new star arose and stood fast over Bethlehem. Although wise men at some distance saw the star and knew its significance, apparently, those near Bethlehem were oblivious to the light shining from above.

Nonetheless, through that night and through the nights that followed, the new star gleamed in the sky, steady, penetrating, reaching every part of the world with its still, small light. Did not some glimmer of its light grace that scene about the manger where Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus found rest?  In the loneliness of night could not the fisherman have seen its reflection dance in the black water of the Sea of Galilee? Night after dark night, did not the light of the star of Bethlehem offer hope to the child born blind? To the prodigal son who had forgotten the way home? To the woman, ensnared in sin, condemned by those who should teach forgiveness? 

And still today, in man’s darkest hours of despair and fear, does not the starlight yet shimmer as it weaves amid the twisted branches and tangled olive leaves of the ancient grove at Gethsemane? For the star of Bethlehem was sent as sign, symbol, and promise of the great work that Christ came to the earth to perform.

For in that ancient grove at Gethsemane, on another sacred night when moon and stars wove through twisted branches and tangled olive leaves, Jesus suffered in agony of body and spirit, in anguish so intense that an angel was sent to strengthen Him. There Jesus paid the penalty for all the wrong, the weak, the weariness and sin in all creation. When, finally, the Savior surrendered His life on the cross and rose to live again, the permanence of death and sorrow, misery, and injustice were destroyed.

“Come unto me,” Jesus calls, “All ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I shall give you rest.” That is to say, “I have suffered for your sins, for your weakness, for your sorrow. Allow me to take away what I have already paid for on your behalf. Come and have peace in your life now, and eternal blessings in the world to come."

That is why I wrote the lyrics to "A New Star Over Bethlehem." Diane has made a beautiful song of it: it is available as both a simple solo version and as a more involved choral arrangement.

The Kidron

Diane and I wrote "The Kidron" more than ten years ago and it's an unusual song for several reasons. Usually we approach a song in a more traditional way: I'll write the lyrics and then Diane will create the music to the lyrics. In this case, however, we were working on another song when the Kidron music came to her. Diane knew she had something great, but it didn't fit the song we were working on. 

When I heard the haunting melody, I knew what the music was telling about: Gethsemane.  

When Jesus and his disciples left the upper room where they had been celebrating the Passover feast, John records that they crossed over the "brook Cedron," or Kidron, and entered into the Garden of Gethsemane. The Kidron Valley separates the Temple Mount from the Mount of Olives, while the brook Kidron is actually a dry steam bed, except when it rains. 

This song uses the imagery of the soft, soothing rain as a metaphor for the atonement: Christ suffered our sins; we are ransomed by the sacrifice of His life and His blood which flowed freely under the olive trees in Gethsemane as Jesus suffered the anguish of an infinite burden, and paid the debt for our cumulative sins.

The Kidron has been recorded by Michael Ballam and was presented at one of his Education Week lectures on Jerusalem. You can also hear it on our website, as sung by Anna Bjarnson Carson.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Hearing the Music

For me, writing music begins in the morning when my mind is fresh--free and uncluttered from the worries of the day. I remember back in my childhood, hearing bits and pieces of melody, and I would try to pluck them out on the piano to make some sort of musical sense out of them. As I played these simple themes, I would hear additional music coming into my mind. I didn't know why I heard these songs, but they were fun to play and kept me entertained. 

Over the years, as I progressed on the piano, I began to hear more embellished music. I remember struggling to notate these pieces and turned to classical music books for help. I also studied the notation styles in favorite pieces of choral sheet music and tried to incorporate them into my own compositions. It was a long, arduous process. Before I had a computer, or music-writing software, I remember spending tedious hours cutting bazillion noteheads, clefs, staff lines, and every other music notation symbol out of old music in order to manually paste them together for a professional-appearing copy of our Cantata: Christ--Life and Light of the World. Now we have programs such as Sibelius to do this tedious work for us.

In writing music with Toni, the process of writing in the morning still continues. She will hand me some lyrics (the first draft anyway), and I sit at the piano with my mind a blank slate. I always say a prayer before I begin. I put my hands on the keyboard (in faith that something will come), and begin to pluck away. After a few random keystrokes, a melody often jumps into my mind, and I feel my fingers following the melody. This is the part that still amazes me, that a unique melody does come, each time. I am constantly humbled by each experience and know it is not "me" writing the music. 

You might think that after all these years of composing I can do this by myself. I have tried to "write music" on my own--it doesn't work. I can sit on the bench all day long, struggle to logically put this or that chord together in some sort of musical semblance, but nothing magic happens, nothing spiritually stirring, or emotionally touching. But as I allow myself to "hear the music" Heaven wants me to hear, it flows easily. Miraculously. It is a gift.

As I write the initial music down, Toni usually hands me a second draft, or third, or...fourth! But I am no diffferent. Sometimes the opposite happens. I will be playing along, and I think the song is finished when all of a sudden my hands start playing something completely different, as if they had a mind of their own, right in the middle of the piece. I then tell Toni about the new section and need for additional lyrics. This has now become the norm, both in changes in music and lyrics, as we come to complete what the Lord has intended all along! 

I remember being asked to write the music for a play for the stake that would be performed in the community in honor of the pioneers. Toni and I were hard-pressed because that meant a full 2-1/2-hour production with roughly 25 songs to be composed and arranged for full choir, soloists, and background music. In three months. We both needed a miracle. Never before, or after, have I experienced hearing so many melodies upon first awakening as I did writing that play. Each morning I would wake up with a new song in my head, clear as day. I would call Toni and ask her if she had ever heard the song before, as it sounded so familiar to me, like I had sung it all my life. She would say no and then hand me the lyrics for the next day's music she had just written. We were under intense pressure, and yet it was so wonderful to hear each new development of the play, and then write more music every day. The true miracle of it was that I had never arranged music to this extent before; I felt empowered with musical abilities greater than my own. This is a gift.


Thursday, September 11, 2008

Joseph Knew

This song is probably our best known. It is difficult to write a song about Joseph Smith; there is so much to say, but it's hard to find a new way to say it!

But the title pretty well sums up the song--Joseph knew. He saw; he heard; he felt; he knew. And with that knowledge, he was unshakeable from the course the Lord had set for him.

We originally wrote this song over 10 years ago for a fireside about Emma Smith. Since then, it has been included in plays, several missionary CD efforts, and many other sacrament meetings and firesides.

How have you used it? Send us a message and let us know!

Link to "Joseph Knew"

The Yoke

This song is very dear to my heart. It began as a poem that I wrote many years ago. Then as we were considering a setting for an Easter song, the ideas of the poem came back to me and I decided to incorporate them.

The metaphor of the song--the Yoke--refers to Christ's promise to carry our burdens, a promise that was made possible through the atonement, which included Christ's willingness to shoulder the cross. Although often the cross is portrayed as something that resembles a plus sign, in actuality, Christ bore only the heavy cross beam through the streets of Jerusalem on his way to Calvary, and in my mind it seems as a kind of yoke.

And so I portray Him as a child, learning the carpenter's craft from his father, and then as a man fashioning a "yoke" that would bear all of our burdens.

There is a lot to think about in the words, but aside from that, I hope that the loveliness of the song can carry its message even on a superficial level.

Diane has done a wonderful job setting the emotions of the words to music, steadily building to the climax, and then delivering it with tenderness.

Most importantly, we hope that the words and music encourage people to accept the Lord's invitation, "Come unto Me."

Link to "The Yoke"

Here Am I; Send Me

Awhile back, a friend of Diane's asked her daughter to sing at their son's mission farewell. Well, nothin' like a mission farewell to inspire the creativity and bring out the Spirit, so we decided we'd squeeze in a song. We had been quite busy, me with the Messiah and Diane with school and life, so it was an occasion where we really had to count on the Spirit it get it done. In a week.

So I wrote a verse and a chorus and sent it to Diane to start composing; then I wrote the second verse and bridge. It all came together amazingly quickly. Originally, the chorus ended simply with "Here am I; Send me," but Diane had the inspiration to stretch out the musical phrasing and repeat "Here am I" three times before concluding with "Send me." When she sent the music to me, I adapted the lyrics to read as they do now, "Here am I; I will go. Here am I; Send me." As is usually the case when we collaborate, the synthesis of our separate efforts combines to make something greater than either, alone, could have created.

"The love of God has followed me all of my days," is one of the phrases in our music I love the best. It says so much of how I feel about the Savior. I'm not sure I can even take credit for writing it; it was a gift.

But this song is our testimony of the Gospel with gratitude for all that the Lord has graced our lives with.

Link to "Here am I; Send Me"

Sunday, September 7, 2008

How it began...

Anna Carson introduced us. Diane wanted to write a song about a widow; I had written a poem. That's how I became a lyricist! Evidently that is all it takes, someone willing to write music to your poetry!

That was about 18 years ago, and we have written many songs, musicals, and programs since then.

I must say that I'm chagrined when people ask me if I "wrote" the music they just heard. I don't write music, you see. I only write the words. Diane is the one who has the genius for melody and setting, the knowledge, and the patience to work with me!

It's been great; that's the truth of it.

Toni Thomas