Full of Grace: Composing Sacred Music

Full of Grace: Composing Sacred Music

NewMusicBox is pleased to welcome composer Anne Kilstofte to these pages to share her perspectives on the world of spiritual music. She recently completed her second Faith Partners Residency in 2008 with the American Composers Forum and has written more than 30 sacred works for ensembles from her two residencies alone. Kilstofte holds a Ph.D. in theory/composition and masters and bachelors degrees in composition and music technology. She is president of the International Alliance for Women in Music and presided over the recent Beijing International Congress on Women and Music in April 2008.—MS

Anne Kilstofte

The first chords wheeze to life as an electric organ, set on full vibrato by a “Left-foot Lucy” begins the worship service. Talk about suffering. But then, for many, religion is about suffering, and some of that suffering comes from the music that must be endured.

Virtually all cultures have music in their spiritual worship. In some cultures, that is the only music they have. I’ve been invited to create a blog where we can discuss the issues of composing sacred music. Although I don’t intend to discuss beliefs specifically, I do believe sacred music doesn’t have to be about suffering—or guilt. Of course I didn’t mention the thrill of hearing a truly great organist on the “king of instruments,” or even the transcendence that a choir can attain. There are a lot of reasons to compose sacred music, hopefully realizing some of the more recently mentioned aesthetics rather than the former.

There are many composers writing sacred music out there, and it would be interesting to hear about your experiences, difficulties, and the trends you are seeing or think you’re seeing—basically all of the things that you as a composer have been up against while composing for sacred ears.

I have heard from many church musicians, both those trained in sacred music, as well as those more generally trained, that certain styles are now being dictated. In some cases, separate services are being created for separate styles of music. Does style matter? And if it is does, does it come at a price? Do composers have to compromise in writing sacred music?

I hope that we can have some lively discourse on this and other topics revolving around sacred music. Please give us a snapshot of your experience in sacred music when you initially enter the conversation.

NewMusicBox provides a space for those engaged with new music to communicate their experiences and ideas in their own words. Articles and commentary posted here reflect the viewpoints of their individual authors; their appearance on NewMusicBox does not imply endorsement by New Music USA.

11 thoughts on “Full of Grace: Composing Sacred Music

  1. colin holter

    Welcome aboard! I’m glad somebody’s writing about sacred music here. Many of my earliest and most memorable musical experiences were in that realm – some of those great choral set pieces like the Verdi Requiem and the St. Matthew Passion have always stayed with me. In my current work as a composer, though, I find it’s kind of a problematic area; although the idea of writing a piece of concert music about religion seems pretty reasonable, I can’t see myself writing a piece for liturgical use.

  2. jupiterjenkins

    I am a fifty-seven year old self-described “recovering church musician” who has fallen off the wagon once again and is serving as a paid musician for a community.

    This past Sunday at my little church in West Michigan, I performed Variations on “What Wondrous Love is This” by Samuel Barber as the organ prelude for the service and did one of the “Five African Dances for Solo Organ” by the Nigerian music specialist, Godwin Sadoh, as the postlude.

    From the organ, piano, guitar and banjo I lead my congregation in a weekly smorgasbord of sung music which includes the ridiculous (“communion calypso”) and the sublime (African American spirituals and gospel tunes, sturdy standard American hymn tunes, great melodies from other countries and other centuries and last, but not least, tunes composed in this and the last century), all good humoredly attempted by most of the hundred or so parishioners present. My choir will perform works by Tallis, Tye, the Edwin Hawkins Gospel singers and newly composed pieces (not by me particularly) this fall. In my small choir area sits my own antique four-and-half-octave Deagan marimba, congas and 1969 clunky Zuckerman harpsichord as well as a small Moller pipe organ. Recently I gave a concert at my church which consisted mostly of my own compositions (In addition to my own work, I also performed “Take your clothes off when you dance” by Zappa and “China Gates” by Adams and works by a local fellow street musician).

    As one who has made much of his living in churches as the resident musician, I have found the church situation a fertile field for this admittedly obscure eccentric living composer. But often in practice the recently composed music offered in our churches is problematic either in its obvious reductive consumer aimed origins or its well-crafted but boring nature. Music of the past performed is often an esoteric disconnect from the listening and participating congregation.

    The thing that interests me most about music is the doing of it. Through my decades in the churches of America, I have been able to utilize the situation of church musician as one where I can rehearse and perform my own works as well as the works of other breathing composers, both ones I have known personally and one whose compositions I admire.

    I am inspired by musicians and composers who ignore and bridge the many stylistic and political barriers I have encountered throughout my life as a musician. When a local college lost all of its perspective and allowed me to teach a music appreciation class for a while, I taught my students the aesthetic of Duke Ellington: “If it sounds good, it is good.” I hasten to add here what I said then that this doesn’t mean, “if I like it, it’s good.” Rather, the quality and attraction of the music (to me anyway) is predominately dependent on how it actually sounds.

  3. philmusic

    My first professional commission was from Louise Basbas and the Corpus Christi Church in NYC for my choral work Psalm 51. Quite an experience for me.

    My family connections to religious music go back quite a way as my relative Isadore Freed, (half of my family spells it that way) composed many sacred works.

    Glad that you are here Anne.

    Phil Fried

  4. marknowakowski

    For me, it was the encounter with 200 former Nadia Boulanger students (at a Boulanger conference) that saved my young compositional life. Their perspective on sound, and the ultimately sacred nature of their art (as taught to them by Boulanger, who herself attended Mass daily) would inspire me to continue as a composer, and always remain mindful of where this stuff “comes from.”

    We spend a lot of time talking about why more people aren’t interested in new music, and often ignore the basic suppositions behind our arguments. To give a basic example: I think there is a reason why people “listen” to Boulez but love Arvo Part, and it’s not just an issue of complexity. It’s an issue of source and purpose.

    This is why I’m thrilled to finally see sacred music addressed on this website. I hope that it’s treated as an essential topic, and not a periphery inquiry. Looking forward to more!

  5. rtanaka

    I think the appeal of lot of the “modern” sacred composers is their ability to synthesize the sacred at the secular — the transcendental nature of music with the materialistic nature of modern society. You don’t necessarily have to be Christian to appreciate the works of Part or Gubaidulina and the like — good music is just that.

    Incidentally, one of the very few surviving practices in classical music improvisation is found among organists. Since they’re often required to accompany church services which can vary in length and subject matters every week, they tend to develop the ability to create music spontaneously. Thought that bit was interesting, anyway.

    Looking forward to more columns on this topic!

  6. William Osborne

    Please give us a snapshot of your experience in sacred music when you initially enter the conversation.

    I grew up very involved with the church and worked for two and a half years as a paid choir director while in college. As I became more educated I drifted away because I could not accept the church’s social conservatism and fundamentalist doctrine. The majority of churches are still deeply sexist and homophobic, including the two largest denominations in the United States, the Catholic Church and the Southern Baptists. Like so many composers, I had trouble accepting extremely harmful bigotry in the name of the deific. These problems drive many “cultured” people away from the church, including musicians.

    I also became very interested in other religions such as Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism. Many denominations have little tolerance for that kind of ecumenicalism. There are more progressive churches, but they are still astoundingly rare in many parts of the country, and to make matters worse, few of those churches have really active music programs. My involvement with sacred music has thus been very idiosyncratic and personal. I think my experiences are similar to many composers. I know that Anne is deeply aware of these problems, and I hope she will find a way of approaching them in the coming weeks. And I applaud the NMBx editors (and ACF) for so courageously tackling the topic in general.

    Does style matter? And if it is does, does it come at a price? Do composers have to compromise in writing sacred music?

    Style (and life style) obviously matter. I do not have doctrinaire religious beliefs, and do not have a church I would care to be a part of, but I still deeply admire Christian symbolism. One of my most important works is a 50 minute long piece for trombone, quadraphonic electronics, and video based on the Book of Revelation entitled “Music for the End of Time.” I completed the video only last summer and have never shown it in a church, but the music has been performed in churches a few times. (The video seems much more “religious” than the music, so I am curious to see what people in churches might think.)

    The first performance was for a series in Munich called Music Sacra Viva. It was supposed to be performed in a huge church with a cathedral type of acoustic. The work contains thundering percussion parts and I was worried they would blur incomprehensibly in the church. I went to the church before the first rehearsal when it was completely empty and was testing the acoustic by softly whistling single tones and listening to the echo. Out of nowhere a nun appeared and began literally screaming at me. She said it was disrespectful to whistle in church and to have my hands in my pockets. I took my hands out of my pockets, apologized and stepped outside. The director of the festival, Robert Helmschrott (who later became Dean of the Munich State Conservatory) arrived and took the nun aside and tried to console her, but my work was banished from the church and had to be performed in an general purpose hall next door. It would not have worked in the church’s acoustic anyway. (And besides, I didn’t want to risk getting my knuckles rapped with a ruler.)

    There have not been any problems with the few other performances in churches. The work is often loud and apocalyptic, but has a cinematic character church folks are used to hearing – even if not in church. The church-folk seem to find the piece a bit odd, but thought provoking. They seemed happy for something different, if not downright desperate.

    I think the important issue is not style, but quality. Even less sophisticated listeners can usually tell if something has been carefully and intelligently created, and if the composer is making a sincere effort to communicate. If composers try to go half way to the congregation, I suspect the people will try to go other half. If the composer and congregation cannot come together, I think the congregation should feel free to find someone else. It’s generally a very personal relationship.

    We also performed “Music for the End of Time” at the Lama Foundation, a rather hippie-ish commune high in the mountains of Northern New Mexico devoted to studying all religions. (Richard Albert, who was involved in early LSD experimentation with Timothy Leary and others, and who later became the guru Ram Dass, wrote the iconic, 1960s book Be Here Now at the commune. The Lama Foundation is exactly the opposite of most churches, but all those hippies really enjoyed the work. In fact, they were rocking. Afterwards, one of the commune’s leaders went to my wife (who performed the extremely difficult solo trombone part,) knelt down and touched her feet, as if Abbie were some sort of holy woman or something. We didn’t know how to react. I think Abbie picked her up and gave her a hug, but I can’t quite remember.

    Anyway, style matters, but so does the style of the audience.

    And one other thought: the greatest sacred music is both for and about religion. Music for the End of Time is very much about the patriarchal nature of Christianity and at the same time proposes a feminine balance. Perhaps I will elaborate in some future discussion.

    William Osborne

  7. rtanaka

    I was never particularly religious, but was lucky enough to have friends and teachers who were religious but nonetheless tolerant and progressive, which improved my opinion of organized religion in general. After all, at the core, the Bible is supposed to be about compassion towards the weak and the poor, and loving thy neighbor. People who embody this type of spirit rarely fall into the trap of becoming a fundamentalist — Jesus was kind of a liberal of sorts, after all.

    The nice thing about the church is that there’s a built-in infrastructure that allows for the creation of communities — even Ives and Bartok patronized the Universal Unitarian church even while writing in modern styles. I’ve noticed that there’s a sizable percentage among new music composers who are either atheist or agnostic — a lot of it seems to come from a strong negative reaction to religious fundamentalism. But I think tolerance also implies being open to other people’s religious beliefs as well. (Politics, on the other hand…) Oddly enough, most of the great wars of the world have primarily been fought over people of the same faith. Crazy stuff!

    Oh, those who’re in the LA might also want to check Jacaranda, which is a church in Santa Monica that specializes in performing new music works. Comes highly recommended by Alex Ross.

  8. jupiterjenkins

    Two thoughts.

    If you believe, as I do, that to be human is to make meaning and that one primary source of this meaning is what is sometimes called the arts especially music, then it is important not to allow current popular and consumeristic Western notions of religion and spirituality define this discussion. I think Brahms and Vaughan Williams can be interesting topics and signposts. Both men wrote spiritual and/or sacred music but wisely either claimed to be non-believers or refused to espouse an indentifiable reiligion. But both men’s music can transport the sympathetic listener spiritually. Many musics outside academic or professional Western music circles are embedded in the spiritual. Traditional chants of Native Americans is one example. Others include the inspired improvisations of the Japanese Bamboo Flute Player, Watazumido-Shuso or Charlie Parker. The list is as varied as the human experience.

    Secondly, in my opinion, integrity is a basic element to well-written and well-performed music of any ilk. It is true that craft is important to the arts, but it is only a first step. Craft without content does not interest me near as much as content with craft that demands of me new ways of thinking about and looking at sound. So when one creates music one inevitably chooses a stylistic arena. When this is successful close listeners can sometimes hear a unique voice in one’s work. But if the music is an imitation of something else, say bad popular music or even good historical music, there is something missing in it. I believe part of what is missing is honesty. While this dishonesty can sometimes serve as a short-term way of making meaning (even pleasure), in my experience disastisfaction and ennui eventually surface. Of course this kind of integrity can be difficult to discern and requires constant examination and discussion.


  9. rtanaka


    Since nobody else responded, just gonna say that was a very nice post.

    Integrity, I would argue, is something that results from a consistency between the abstract and the real. When people do what they say and say what they do, their words automatically carry more weight because they’re generally deemed as being trustworthy. Some people lie to get ahead while others seem to enjoy being lied to, but eventually that sort of thing collapses upon itself and in the end you’ve got nothing left.

    I’d like to think that the stuff that stays around longer does so because the artist is honest about something that others can come to appreciate. If it’s truthful, then it should resonate with the audience beyond what’s written in the notes.

  10. jaquick

    Most of my sacred music has been written for the Latin Mass…first at St. James Anglican Catholic in Cleveland where I was a church singer for about a decade, and then for the hardy schola of Immaculate Conception RC, also in Cleveland. I got a lot of encouragement particularly at St. James, which even commissioned some pieces. Most of my earlier sacred music was written when I was a Wiccan, and while it expresses the text beautifully, I find now that there’s a little too much “me” in it. But I had this drive to express the sacred, and there’s really no support or infrastructure in the Wiccan community to do the type of music I wanted to do. I hate drum circles and love Renaissance polyphony, and I finally decided that my muse knew better than my ego did what my belief system should be. We’ll see now how that style develops. I find myself more drawn to setting English, certainly.

    I enjoy the frameworkiness (?) of liturgical music. I don’t find myself inhibited by sung incipits or ninefold Kyries or other traditions or requirements. I like the fact that I’m writing to enhance somebody’s worship service. That means there are things musically that I might not do, but so what? I less like the limitations on performability; it seems that whenever I write an idiot-proof passage, somebody invents a better idiot. OTOH, even that forces you to say what you have to say in the simplest and clearest terms, which is I think a mark of a skilled composer.

  11. BMD

    I’m not sure that perspectives on the world of spiritual music necessarily means the same thing as “sacred” music, but in any event, I’m proud to say I’m an athiest. So, if I compose for a religious institution or for some overtly ceremonial purpose, the intent of the music remains agnostically secular. So there must be, of course, agnostic spiritual music around too.


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