Dave Brubeck’s classic LP Time Out presented an experimentation with complex time signatures to both the jazz world and to the general public. (Paul Desmond’s “Take Five” sold hundreds of thousands of records in 1959. We may never again see straight-up jazz break into the pop music mainstream like that.)
We church musicians have very little of this. We have the free flowing music of plainsong, of course. Well over 95 percent of our metered Christian repertoire is in either three or four time. An occasional tune in 2. Very occasional in 6/8, though perhaps a bit more in contemporary music.
I confess I like a tune with a compound meter. The first Marty Haugen song I was ever exposed to was “Burn Bright” from the LP With Open Hands. The verses are in ten-eight time (2+2+3+3) and the refrain is in 7/8. I like seven. At the Newman Community, the trick was to keep the vocal line legato, and let the instruments maintain the tempo with a minimum of drive. When I was involved with a prison ministry in the 80’s, the group’s music director utilized the song–she really liked it. The prisoners sang it. I mentioned this to Marty when I met him in 1988. He was amazed. I got the idea it was a fun piece to compose and play, but the publishers didn’t seem to take it seriously. The song never made it into GIA hymnals. And I’ve never been to another parish that sung it–aside from my university parish, the church I attended while in grad school. And the county jail, of course.
My new parish’s musicians and singers have a challenge this Easter. Brought back (from Christmas) by popular demand (of the music directors), is Howard Hughes’s Joyful Alleluia (number 262 in Gather Comprehensive, first edition). How easy it is for the seven-eight time to slip into a syncopated 4/4. I first heard and sang this piece as a guest musician in my friend Mike’s church well over twenty years ago. I remember seeing a four-part arrangement for this 1973 composition (I remember Mike singing the bass line), but when I called GIA, they had no record of it. Maybe Mike’s director arranged it. Lacking a published choral version, I harmonized the acclamation myself.
Do you know the piece? The cantor leads a double alleluia in four different pieces. We use the Gather Comp chant tone from the LBW set to Easter verses. The compound meters inject a bit of fun into the liturgy. Easter would seem to be ideal for it. I’m fortunate to have musicians who can handle this, and not draw too much attention to the unusual. What about you?