Song Journeys, Make a Joyful Noise, Psalm 66, vs. 1-4
Gotch, Thomas Cooper. A Pageant of Childhood. 1899. Oil on canvas. Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool.
A Joyful Day
August 6th, 1996 was a joyful day. I had finished classes early for the day at the Recording Workshop in Chillicothe, Ohio, and was walking back to the upper room attic apartment rented during my stay. I was elated to be learning the new skills being taught to me in class, and stopped at a payphone to call my parents in Texas to tell them about my day. They had wonderful news. My brother Bryan called to report that his wife Sarah delivered a healthy baby boy who they named Isaac. It was a great day. I was in the midst of fulfilling a long-awaited dream of going to recording school, and my brother and sister-in-law had just received their third child.
After arriving to the attic apartment, I noticed that none of the other students staying in the house below had yet arrived. Perhaps they all had late classes, or were going out to dinner. I took my guitar out of its case, and then opened my Bible to Psalm 66. The opening verses expressed the feelings I had that day…
Make a joyful noise unto God, all ye lands: Sing forth the honour of his name: make his praise glorious.
I stood up and began to play. The wooden floor and arched ceiling of the attic space reverberated the guitar sound like a cathedral. The chords were simple. I strummed a C major chord, and composed a melody for the first phrase, “Make a joyful…” Then F major went with “noise unto God, all ye lands…” Then C and F alternated back and forth repeatedly every two beats for several measures as if there was a “stall” to think about what comes next. Then a full measure C chord returned, and I sang “Sing forth the honour of his…” Then on the downbeat of F, I sang “name: make his praise glorious“. The melody was joyous, and I knew that something very special was happening. A new song was being delivered to me on the day that my nephew Isaac was born.
The rest of the song arrived quickly and encompassed only the first 4 verses of the psalm. I sang it repeatedly for hours, and was concerned that I may have been disturbing other students, but oddly the house below was empty that afternoon and evening. I took advantage of the opportunity to loudly celebrate the joys I was experiencing. The song was simple with basic chords throughout. When playing this new song, I heard imaginary choirs singing the melodies, and hoped that someday I would hear real choirs singing the same song.
The First Demo Recording
Two years later, using a Roland VS-880 hard disc recorder at home, I recorded the first demo of Psalm 66, vs. 1-4. The recording used MIDI programming of an Ensoniq SQ keyboard to provide a bass track and limited percussion. The demo recording is below…
Demo Recording for the Psalmody Album, completed April 1, 2000
Psalm 66, vs. 1-4, was chosen to be included on the Psalmody album which was released in 2001. In preparing the song for studio recording, I recorded a new demo featuring only guitar and voice. I left out synthesizer, bass, and drums, so that the studio musicians previewing the song for the first time would hear only the melody and chords rather than my bass and drums experimentation. Because of concerns that my voice would have difficulty reaching the high notes in the original key, the music for the new demo was lowered three-half steps in pitch. The rhythm guitar, however, sounded higher because it was doubled using higher fingering positions on the fret board (a technique that my producer John Piper had encouraged, mentioning that it is commonly used in Nashville).
Eighth note arpeggios on the guitar were created for later passages in the song, which were adapted for use in the studio recording. A few of the high notes in the harmony vocals were provided by my friend Jan Johnston. My voice in the new demo occasionally had an “L” sound at the beginning of words on the start of phrases, such as with “L-unto” for “unto”. This became a bad habit of mine that needed correction in the studio. I played a shaker in the demo to provide a filler during the alternating back and forth chords that seemed to be a “stall” when the song was created. The melody near the end was modified to go higher in pitch for variety. The end of the song was problematic because of its relative abruptness, and this became a challenge when recording in the studio (explained below). The pre-Psalmody album demo is presented below…
The Psalmody Album Recording
The bed tracks for Psalm 66, vs. 1-4, were recorded in several takes with piano, electric bass, drums, and scratch guitar. When the time came to record keeper guitar tracks, John Piper recommended opening the song with two whole note strums, followed by half notes. The piano joined the guitar entering on the 3rd measure. The 8th note guitar arpeggios used later in the song were essentially identical to what was in the demo. The abrupt ending of the song was addressed by adding another pass of the same chord progression near the end. The additional measures at the end provided a more natural ending to the song, especially when strings were added.
When recording vocals, my unconscious habit of singing “L” at the beginning of phrases persisted. The habit was very difficult to break. Jan Johnston taped a sign to the control room window to remind me to sing with “No L” (the sign with tape at the top is seen in the photo to the left). John had to remind me repeatedly about this, and in his witty & gracious manner asked me to focus on “No L” as in thinking about Christmas. We laughed. In keeping with the “No L” spirit, Jan placed stripes on the “L” to make it look like a candy cane.
One morning before going to the studio, a thought entered my mind of placing 16th note runs of violins in the “stall” portions where the A major chord alternated repeatedly with D major every half measure (C alternating with F in the original key). The shakers in the second demo had played 16th notes in these passages, perhaps a prelude to what would come later. We did not have a budget to hire an entire string section, so I added the notes to the lead sheet (reproduced below), and asked pianist Ken Boome if these notes would work as a strings patch, or perhaps as piano notes or both. Ken pulled up a string patch on a synthesizer and recorded the passages for the song. After the album was released, a listener commented that one of the things he appreciated most about the song was the use of strings.
The final result for the Psalmody album was as follows:
St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church Choir Performance, Summer 2001
Suzanne Anderson, the Music Director of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Dallas, contacted me in 2001 to request having a few songs from the Psalmody Album performed by the St. Andrew’s choir for a psalm festival. I was delighted to receive the request, but was saddened to inform her that choir arrangements of the music did not yet exist. However, Suzanne did not see this as a limitation. She suggested that I try to create choir arrangements for a few songs from the album. I had never been trained in arranging music before. Ideally, hiring a professional to arrange SATB parts would have been best, but we did not have enough time or a budget to do so. I then took a crash-course in learning how to use Sibelius software, and put together arrangements for three of the songs from the album, one of which was Psalm 66, vs. 1-4.
I sought help from several musician friends to play piano, guitar, and other instruments for the psalm festival. The musical score of Psalm 66, vs. 1-4 contained vocals for SATB choir, and included basic elements from the studio recording including the 16th note runs for a string section which were played with a piano/synthesizer.
The rehearsals were wonderful. I had never heard this music sung by a choir before, and was pleased that the musical scores worked. The Psalm Festival was well attended by close friends and family, including my brother Bryan and his wife Sarah. Paul Buckley, a musician and religion editor who wrote a review article about the Psalmody album in the Dallas Morning News, was also in attendance.
To my knowledge, the performance was not recorded. However, the memories of the choir singing this song are very precious to me.
There was a glitch at the end of the performance of Psalm 66, vs. 1-4. I wanted to make the ending more dramatic by reprising the second phrase of verse 2, “make his praise glorious,” with a new melody. All of the voices were to sing this phrase loudly. This change was made rather late, and the rehearsal time to adopt the change was short. When the performance came, most all of the choir members forgot to sing the phrase at the end. There was an awkward moment when one or two singers tried to sing the phrase, but the rest did not. I learned an important lesson that day: never make a major change to a song late in the rehearsal process, especially if it involves the ending of the song! Nevertheless, in spite of this minor glitch, the entire experience of preparing musical scores, rehearsing songs, and delivering music as part of psalm festival was immensely rewarding. I am grateful to Suzanne Anderson and St. Andrew’s for the opportunity they gave to me to develop and share this music.
Arrangement of Psalm 66, vs. 1-4 for Choir, Piano, and Orchestra, by Paul Ayres, completed January 2017
For the past 2 years, I have been blessed to have worked with award-winning pianist/organist and composer Paul Ayres who lives in London. Paul has arranged SATB-piano works for Psalm 23 and Psalm 24 (both songs from the Pastoral Psalms album), and he is currently working on a choir-orchestra arrangement of Psalm 115 (previously unreleased).
In January of this year, Paul completed a SATB-piano arrangement and a choir-piano-orchestra arrangement of Psalm 66, vs. 1-4. I had requested that the end of the song include the phrase “make his praise glorious” repeated multiple times in different voices leading up to the finale. Paul’s arrangement accommodates this request beautifully. However, he raised concerns that the “ous” of “glorious” is not ideal for choirs to sing as the end of a finale (which may explain in part the glitch that occurred 15 years earlier!). He recommended that we keep the repeats of “make his praise glorious”, but that we select a different phrase for the very end, containing a different word on the end, preferably a word of a single syllable. We decided to change the last phrase of the song to “sing the honor of his name”.
The name of this new arrangement by Paul Ayres is “Psalm 66, vs. 1-4, Make a joyful noise“. The following video features a MIDI MP3 mockup of the full score of the choir-piano-orchestra arrangement. MIDI choirs sing only “ooh” and “ah” for the words in this mockup (MIDI choirs cannot sing actual words yet, at least not very well with current technology.) The musical notation displayed in the video is the SATB-piano parts…
The journey continues. We hope to do a large scale recording project of the choir-piano-orchestra arrangement of “Psalm 66, vs. 1-4, Make a joyful noise”, using a real full orchestra and choir. Several symphony orchestras in the UK and elsewhere have expressed interest in helping us. The timing depends upon scheduling and funding. The most cost effective recording session would include doing this work in addition to recording another work of similar format during the same recording session. Paul Ayres is currently arranging Psalm 115 (previously unreleased, nearly 8 minutes in duration) for that purpose. Please prayerfully consider donating to our GoFundMe account to help us complete this project.
When I think about how Psalm 66, vs. 1-4, was originally composed, where this song has been, and where it is going, I am amazed with how all the parts of the story fit together. When the song arrived on the day of nephew’s birth, I had no idea that the “stall” section of alternating chords was serving as a temporary placeholder for the 16th notes on strings that would come later. When struggling with what to do with the end of the song during the recording for the Psalmody album, I was not aware that this would lead me to try and find an even better ending for the psalm festival choral arrangement. This “better ending” led to a glitch during the performance. Fifteen years later, when trying to prevent a future glitch by requesting that the last phrase of the song be sung multiple times up and down the musical scale, it was revealed by Paul Ayres that the last phrase itself was problematic. This led to the selection of a different phrase at the very end, but also with retention of “make his praise glorious” sung multiple times. This combination permitted the development of a dramatic ending I was hoping for all along… but in a much better way than I could have ever anticipated.
The birth of my nephew Isaac on the day that this song was born was no accident. Considering that the Hebrew name of Isaac יִצְחָק (Yitzchaq) means “he will laugh, he will rejoice” is highly symbolic to me when thinking about the history of this song. I look forward to the future, and hope that God grants me the opportunity to continue experiencing the exhilaration, joy, and happiness that this song has brought to me and others participating in its development.