The Contrite Heart

Looking for texts to set (I am always looking for texts to set) I stumbled over this one by William Cowper. It looks to me to be a response to Psalm 51:

The Lord will happiness divine
On contrite hearts bestow;
Then tell me, gracious God, is mine
A contrite heart or no?

I hear, but seem to hear in vain,
Insensible as steel;
If aught is felt, ‘tis only pain,
To find I cannot feel.

I sometimes think myself inclined
To love Thee if I could;
But often feel another mind,
Averse to all that’s good.

My best desires are faint and few,
I fain would strive for more;
But when I cry, “My strength renew!”
Seem weaker than before.

Thy saints are comforted, I know,
And love Thy house of prayer;
I therefore go where others go,
But find no comfort there.

Oh make this heart rejoice or ache;
Decide this doubt for me;
And if it be not broken, break—
And heal it, if it be.

The last two verses, especially, seem very powerful. So I decided to set it. I had a go at a three-part polyphonic setting of the last two verses, but it wasn’t really working and felt too much like an exercise. It’s a while since I wrote anything suitable for the London Gallery Quire, and I like writing hymns, so I started over and I’m pleased to say it worked rather better. This can be sung as a congregational hymn by cutting out the first three repetitions of the third line of text (so, jumping to the point where the soprano comes in), but if being done as an anthem by a four-part choir, the staggered entries make it quite effective. In the next few days I’ll try and sort out a hymnal-style file, too, for congregational situations.

It’s on the Choral Public Domain Library site as usual, but won’t be visible there for a day or so; in the meantime, the London Gallery Quire website also has a PDF. And we sang it at rehearsal on Wednesday night, so I recorded it.

As usual, the license is CC by-SA, which means Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike. What’s that in plain English? If you want to use it, use it. You already have my permission! But you must list me as the composer.

Like this music? Want to encourage me to write more? Please share it with people who might sing it. Additionally, nineteen lovely people are doing just that by being my patrons from as little as 66p per new work. Please consider joining them if you can afford to, and please don’t if you can’t.

Patreon — a sort of milestone

I’ve had a couple of new patrons over on Patreon this week. Hurrah! Hurray! Why is having 19 patrons a milestone? Well, after Patreon’s fee, and banking fees, and exchange rates, I’ve just gone over the £100 per new piece mark.

postcard thumbnailI’m making some modifications to the page there: adding pictures to some of the rewards, changing the video from the demo of “Christ has no body now on earth but ours” to the one of “Pied Beauty”, and adding rough GBP equivalents to the numbers — why didn’t I think of this before?! I’m hoping that the changes will make it a bit easier for people to relate to what I’m doing. I still haven’t done a “why you should become a patron of mine on Patreon” video, which I’m told is really the kicker. I’ll be honest, I’m not convinced, so it’s pretty far down the priority list.

If you have any suggestions for other improvements, I’m all ears…

postcard thumbnail 02postcard thumbnail 03

Meanwhile, thank you to my nineteen patrons for your financial support, and to everyone else for everything else!

Patreon, one year on

It’s a little over a year since I first set up a page on Patreon, with a view to getting paid for some of my composing. I’ve been promising to write a post about my experiences, and I’m finding the “what” and the “why” aren’t easy to consider separately. But I’ll have a go at discussing the “what” in this post, and the “why” in the next.

Patreon is a platform for distributed, or crowd-funded, patronage of the arts. Unlike commissioning or purchase, patronage in this sense leaves control of the artwork with the artist; patrons trust the artist to act as they are inspired, rather than dictating the terms or context of a work. Unlike Kickstarter and other project-based crowdfunding sites, Patreon is suitable for people who create smaller works, from daily comics to occasional YouTube videos. Creators decide whether they prefer regular monthly contributions, or patronage on a per-creation basis. Patrons choose the amount they pledge, and can stop or change their pledge at any time. On the pledge-per-creation scheme, patrons can also specify a monthly cap on their contributions.

I’ve been saying for years that I really wanted patronage rather than a job or to have to sell my work, so when I found out about Patreon I signed up pretty much right away. After a year, I can certainly say I am glad I did.

Set-up was fairly straightforward; the interface isn’t perfect, but it’ll do. At first I just had a picture and some text. I decided that a per-creation scheme, with my focus on new choral works, would be ideal for me. If I were paid per month I would feel guilty about the months when I am too busy to compose much.

Then I started telling people about it. My first patrons were people I know, and the majority still are. The money from those first few patrons meant I could afford a demo recording of “I walked in darkness” — something I’d not done before. That in turn caused a small snowball where people who hadn’t heard my music before were suddenly interested. More followed, and I now consider demo recordings as an important part of putting my music online.

A year on I have seventeen patrons. My first new work each month means that, collectively, they contribute USD $156; thereafter it’s a bit less. Patreon keeps 5% of that total, and around another 5% goes to various credit card and banking fees, so I get to see about 90% of what my patrons spend, or roughly $140.

Now, $140 is not a huge amount of money. It’s considerably less than, say, the average commission rates per minute of music, and that information is a few years out of date. It isn’t even a good hourly rate, given that most of my compositions take at least sixteen hours to complete, and some much longer.

But composers being paid badly isn’t new. Most of my composer colleagues struggle to find commissions; most take up other work to make ends meet. Talking with one colleague, I learned that a piece which sold 1800 copies over eight years only resulted in being paid about £130. This was considered a “pretty good” seller for the composer in question. I’m not at that rate yet; but I haven’t had to do the work of finding a publisher.

Patreon isn’t magic. I haven’t put as much time or thought into my profile as some people have, and that probably means I have fewer patrons than I otherwise would. I don’t do as much advertising or community-building as some people do, either. I mention Patreon on blog posts with my choral works in them, and on choral demo track videos. I tweet about it from time to time, but usually not more than once a day. I mention it at the end of Passing Notes, my monthly-ish newsletter. I have some stepped “rewards” to thank those who pledge (pledging $3 per work will get you a postcard; $10 a postcard with a recording of the music on the postcard; $20 means I’ll give you print-outs of the music too), and these do take a bit of time.

This is a level of advertising I’m relatively happy with. Beyond that, I would rather spend time and effort on composing than on self-promotion. It’s also less disruptive for me than filling out endless grant applications or trying to find a publisher interested in my work when I insist on CC BY-SA. It’s more reliable than entering competitions (I’ve never won one yet, though there are other good reasons to participate).

But the main reason that Patreon works for me is that my choral works are available online, for free. I don’t put my work behind any kind of paywall, not even the paywall that I could use at Patreon to give patrons early or special access to my work. My patrons aren’t buying a product from me. Rather, they want me to keep composing and they want me to keep putting my music online, either because they like my music or because they like me and want to support me in doing work I love.

However, Patreon is not the reason I release my work under a CC BY-SA license. If it all evaporated tomorrow, I would not have as much time available to compose, but I would continue to make the music I write available online for free. I’ll discuss why in my next post.

In the meantime, if you already make art and put it online, there’s very little to lose in setting up a Patreon account and telling people about it.

Nunc dimittis

Canterbury, Canterbury cathedral-stained glass 11Today is Candlemas. Yesterday I preached at Christ Church Wanstead for the occasion; today I put the finishing touches on my setting of the Nunc dimittis. It’s SATB a capella, and a bit crunchy in places; being a bit calmer than some settings, it would be particularly appropriate for use during a service of sung Compline.

I’ve put it up at CPDL as usual but it won’t be visible there for another 24 hours, unless you have an account. In the meantime, the score is here.

And I’ve experimented with having some robot flutes play an mp3 of the file, since MIDI is getting hard for people to listen to on phones and so on:

Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace:
according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation:
which thou hast prepared before the face of all people.
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles;
and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son,And to the Holy Ghost.
As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.

As always, this is licensed under CC by-SA: that’s attribution share-alike, and means that you can perform it, adapt it, whatever — as long as a) you attribute me b) you share your work under a similar license. I’d be delighted if you could let me know if you do use this music, but it isn’t a requirement.


Nobody commissioned this piece from me; my work is community-supported, not commercially sold. This means that I am encouraged in spirit by your positive words and good wishes, and supported in the nitty gritty by my kind patrons. I would love you to share this music with others or to become a patron yourself from USD $1/work (but $3 will get you a postcard…).

Sermon for Candlemas

Candlemas 2015
Christchurch Wanstead, 8am
Malachi 3:1-5
Luke 2:22-40

Candlemas is a sort of pivot or turning point in the church calendar. On this day, we look back to the birth of Christ, giving thanks, and we look ahead: to his death and passion, and ultimately to his resurrection. It’s time to remove any remaining Christmas decorations, and start thinking about how we might endeavour to have a good and holy Lent.

But first we look even further back. Our Old Testament reading this morning is from the book of Malachi. The book was written around the time of the second Temple, over four hundred years before Christ’s birth. Prophets writing at this time had a laundry list of things that were wrong, both with the religious hierarchy and with society in general. Among the more serious accusations were that people were engaging in oppressive social practices. Another repeated accusation was that the Temple sacrifices weren’t being done correctly: blemished or sick animals were being used, rather than the whole, healthy animals clearly required.

The name Malachi means “messenger of God”, and the message of this morning’s reading to the people of Israel is similar to that of other prophets of the time: it is a warning. “The Lord you seek will come to his Temple”. That time is to be a time of judgement: Malachi is quite broad-ranging in the list of wrongs, ranging from sorcery and adultery to paying unfairly low wages, failing to support widows and orphans — some of the poorest and most vulnerable in society at the time — and casting aside the foreigner.

The people of Israel are told that anyone who does these things and does not fear the Lord will be brought to swift judgement. “Who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” Who, indeed? This is strong stuff. But the warning of judgement also carries a message of hope: the descendants of Levi, the priestly tribe, will be purified, refined. Then they will present offerings in righteousness — no more sick or lame animals — and the offerings will please the Lord. Ultimately, the Lord coming to the Temple will be part of the salvation of Israel.

Fast forward a few centuries to our reading from the Gospel of Luke, and the Temple is still there. Mary and Joseph are good Jews and when the time comes, forty days after the birth of Jesus, they bring the baby to the Temple and offer the appropriate sacrifice: a concessionary rate for poorer households, according to Leviticus, a couple of birds substituted for the lamb that more well-to-do families would be expected to provide.

So far, so normal: going to the Temple for purification after a birth, and presenting your first-born son to God, was a fairly ordinary thing to do — maybe even a bit like a christening would be today. But then something remarkable happens: Simeon takes the baby in his arms and starts praising God and prophesying. If you’re a fan of Evensong then you might recognise his words in the more traditional language:
Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace:
according to thy word.
For mine eyes have seen thy salvation:
which thou hast prepared before the face of all people.
To be a light to lighten the Gentiles;
and to be the glory of thy people Israel.

Simeon identifies that little tiny child from a poor family as the promised Saviour, not just for the people of Israel, but to be a light for all the nations. Anna, too, recognises the child and praises God — so it isn’t just one man, righteous and devout as he is, who sees Jesus for who he really is. This virtuous, wise old woman sees it too. This isn’t a fluke.

But Simeon and Anna’s joy is tempered by sadness. Simeon’s words to Mary are difficult: not only is the child destined to bring turmoil, but “a sword will pierce your soul too.” Here is another strong warning from a prophet, a bitter-sweet mixture of hope and pain, acknowledging the joy of the birth of Christ, but also ahead to his suffering and death on the cross.

At Candlemas we too look back to Christ’s birth, and ahead, through Lent and Passiontide to the crucifixion.

Mary went to the Temple to present her son to God and for the traditional rites of purification; Malachi also spoke of a time of purification, particularly of the priesthood. There are various passages in the epistles, though not in today’s readings, which refer to all Christians as a royal priesthood. What might it looks like, and what might it feel like, for God to purify our own lives today? The laundry list of things that are wrong in society still seems pretty accurate, for the most part: there are people who swear falsely and mislead others, people who cheat, people who put profit before paying their employees a living wage, and as a society, the amount of support we give to the most vulnerable is very low — especially if they happen to be foreign.

But there is more to consider: as Christians we believe that process of purification and refinement, of making-good, was completed by Christ on the cross. Redemption is a done deal, even amongst the mess and pain of life and death. That doesn’t mean the injustice we see doesn’t matter, but that it doesn’t ever have the last word. The sword that pierced Mary’s soul at the death of her son was also the salvation of the world.

That isn’t always obvious, and I’ll admit that at particularly dark times in my own life, I have struggled to see it, let alone believe it. Yet Simeon and Anna both rejoiced. They saw Jesus and knew him to be the Christ, the Messiah, and that was the reason for sharing their joy in that great light. So one important question for us as we prepare for Lent, even more important than the one about purification, is this: Do we see Christ in the world? How can we know and recognise Jesus?

Anna was a faithful woman, a woman of prayer and fasting, and perhaps it was her long practice at prayer that made her able to recognise Jesus as the Messiah when she saw him. Simeon, likewise, was a devout and righteous man. Luke says it was the Holy Spirit who caused him to know he would see the Messiah before his death, and the Holy Spirit that guided him to go to the Temple that day. Our predecessors in faith learned to recognise Christ by faithful prayer; by being aware of Christ’s presence when receiving his Body and Blood in the Eucharist; by diligent study and Bible reading; by concerted efforts to see Christ in every day life.

Heavenly Father, as we look back with thanks at the miracle of your birth and prepare ourselves for the journey of Lent, help us, like Simeon and Anna, to see your light and love, and to recognise and rejoice in the presence of your son Jesus Christ, through whose death and passion all our imperfections are redeemed. We ask this in his name. Amen.

New Atheism, Christianity, and Identity

Someone re-tweeted this into my timeline today:

This is a test. If you don't believe in god, share/comment/like this image. If you do believe in god, pray that not one single person likes or shares this image. Let's see who wins.“This is a test. If you don’t believe in God, share/comment/like this image. If you do believe in God, pray that not one single person likes or shares this image. Let’s see who wins.”

Now, there are a few obvious issues here, such as God not necessarily answering our prayers in the way we expect, the exhortation to waste a rich and deep prayer life on a petty contest, the notion that atheists would definitely believe in God if the image hadn’t been shared (I wonder if any of them did, between the posting and first re-tweeting?), and the idea that if lots of people agree with you, you must be right. It’s all a bit tiresome. We’ve all seen it before.

But the thing that struck me about it, and about the person who re-tweeted it into my timeline, is this: They have an incredible amount of their self-worth invested in being smarter/cleverer/more rational than people of faith. I know not all atheists are like this, but the sort that make images like the one above? Really want to think themselves, and to be thought of by others, as clever.

Now, I’m pretty smart, and it’s a part of my identity, the way grey-blue eyes and being tall are part of who I am. But I don’t need to feel I’m smarter than others to feel good about myself. I don’t go out of my way to cultivate my identity as a Clever Person. I’m occasionally frustrated with people who are much less intelligent than I am, I occasionally meet people who are so much smarter than I am that I don’t know what hit me, I am mostly just grateful that my intellect makes many things in life easier for me than they would otherwise be.

Far more important to me is my identity as a Christian — a “little Christ”. By birth I am God’s child; by baptism I am part of the church, the Body of Christ. And that membership, that identity, that dying-to-self, means answering Christ’s demands on my life. And so, these are the criteria for any kind of “success”:

  • Do I love God?
  • Do I love my neighbour as myself?
  • Do I feed the hungry?
  • Do I give shelter to the homeless?
  • Do I give water to the thirsty?
  • Do I set the prisoner free?
  • Do I heal the sick?
  • Do I comfort those who mourn?

Being clever doesn’t come into it. There is no commandment to be smarter than your neighbour. I don’t have to reject my cleverness or hide it, but my success or lack of same in answering Christ’s call on my life is not based on how smart I am. Ever.

The list of criteria to measure success at being a Christian is pretty daunting, and on a strictly practical level I fail at most of them, most days. Why this is not actually impossible, why my failure does not mean I am miserably damned, is a topic for another post.

Meanwhile, I know what I’d rather base my identity in.

Flash Compline 27th January 2015

There will be a Flash Compline service at 8.30pm on Tuesday, 27th January 2015, at the north end of the Millennium Footbridge.

Music: We will use this setting of Compline.

We will have a small number of spare copies, which you can purchase for £3 if you want to keep them, or borrow if you don’t. Don’t worry if you aren’t a confident singer — follow along with the text and see what you can pick up. Everyone is welcome.

You may wish to bring a torch or book light.

@FlashCompline on Twitter
Flash Compline on Facebook

Transfiguration — Demo recording

Transfiguration-Mariawald-Abbey” by Master of St Severin – Victoria and Albert Museum, [1].
Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Some time ago I set Thomas Thurman’s poem, “Transfiguration”, as a flexible anthem. It can be sung unison and organ, but if there are more voices can expand to soprano and alto, or even soprano, alto and baritone.

I’ve finally gotten around to doing a demo recording. This is a bit patchy; recording on the organ at St Andrew’s and then adding more vocal tracks when I get home leads to an odd, not very blended sound. But it gives a better idea of what the piece sounds like than MIDI robots would! As always you can download the sheet music for free, there’s a link on my works page.  This piece would be especially appropriate, this year, for Sunday 15th February (if you’re using the Common Worship or Revised Common Lectionary), the Sunday Next before Lent, when the Gospel reading deals with the Transfiguration.

So, without further ado, here it is in video:


What’s seen is seen, and cannot be unknown;
and so he turned my soul, and turns it still.
We’d walked a while, just him and us alone;
we’d wandered up some ordinary hill.
The air was cold. The conversation died.
I wondered if I’d left the stove alight.
The curtains of the world were torn aside,
and naked glory overwhelmed my sight;
and oh, the voice, that called to him by name,
so comforting, so terrible to hear:
that man I knew, the same, yet not the same,
touches my arm, and tells me not to fear;
but as I raise my eyes, the light is gone,
and life, and something more, must carry on.

And here it is on Soundcloud:

Flash Compline 16th December 2014 8.45pm

There will be a Flash Compline service at 8.45pm on Tuesday, 16th December 2014, at Christ Church Greyfriars, near St Paul’s tube – here’s a map

Music: We will use this setting of Compline.

We will have a small number of spare copies, which you can purchase for £3 if you want to keep them, or borrow if you don’t. Don’t worry if you aren’t a confident singer — follow along with the text and see what you can pick up. Everyone is welcome.

You may wish to bring a torch or book light.

@FlashCompline on Twitter
Flash Compline on Facebook