The Search for Christian Progressive Rock

About 9 years ago, when I was looking for progressive rock bands that were Christian in orientation, I first found out about Kerry Livgren’s work both with Kansas and then with Proto-Kaw and his solo work:

Afterwards, I discovered Ajalon:

Then I discovered Glass Hammer:

A few years after that, progressive rock giant Neal Morse became Christian (although he kind of misunderstands what the Trinity is all about; his views sound like a mix of tritheism and modalism):

It doesn’t really do any justice by just watching these clips. Keep in mind that Christian progressive rock (like secular prog) is known for suites and concepts albums so it’s always best to listen to entire albums to understand the big picture i.e. the love of God manifested through Jesus Christ.

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LCSMC Stringed Instrument Ensemble Live @ “A Hundredfold for the Lord Music Festival” 03/08/2014

LCSMC Stringed Instrument Ensemble 03-08-2014
Yours truly on classical guitar, first guitarist from the left

Last Saturday’s “A Hundredfold for the Lord Music Festival” at UCCP-Ellinwood Malate Church was absolutely wonderful! I played as a lead guitar player for the group I now dub as the LCSMC Stringed Instrument Ensemble. All instrumentalists, solo singers, choirs, and support staff gave their all for the Lord. For the many people who have missed it, here’s the LCSMC Stringed Instrument Ensemble’s short set:

1. “Introduction” (Improvisation by LCSMC Stringed Instrument Ensemble)
2. “Rock of My Salvation (Music by Teresa Muller, instrumental arrangement by Joel Gervacio)
3. “Salamat Musika” (Music by Gary Granada, instrumental arrangement by LCSMC Stringed Instrument Ensemble)

Some of the things that I hope to have done in the concert include play one of my original compositions on solo piano and perform some piano as well for the ensemble (although this would equate to completely missing the point/concept of the ensemble). Anyway, there were at least six pianists around during the concert, and so it would have been redundant had I been plucked out to play some piano (plus there were much superior pianists around like Rev. Leo Rempola and Rey del Rosario).

I had initially planned to record the entire concert straight from UCCP-Ellinwood’s Main Sanctuary audio board. Unfortunately, technical limitations only allowed me to record the set where I played in. What sort of technical limitation was that? The sound guy only hand one RCA cable which he had to use to hook up mp3 players for first musical offering acts (Christian Pop). Since the group I played with was part of the second musical offering, I could only ask the sound guy to record my group’s set.

However wonderful the concert was, here’s are two items that I think could have made the concert a lot better:

1. Improved promotion. Search the Internet for this particular event and my blog shows up as the top result. LCSMC doesn’t seem to be keen on promoting their concerts except using limited exposure via Facebook. I’m not sure if this was done, but perhaps they could have also advertised the concert at 98.7 DZFE, NCCP, etc. You get the drift. I do think that the LCSMC should promote such events to a wider audience rather than to just member churches.

2. An LCSMC House Band. I am very much peeved by the preferences for backing tracks (what we call in the Philippines as “minus ones”) over live musicians by the majority of the pop singers (no offense, okay?) that performed in the concert. Such music could have been performed to a professional standard by a group of musicians available within the LCSMC. I do think that LCSMC has an abundance of instrumentalists that could have been commissioned to become a sort of house band that would play all sorts of Christian music ranging from contemporary to even classical.

Anyway, the most important thing about this concert was it was done as an expression of worship to the Lord through music. It is my sincere prayer that those who have witnessed the performance be blessed.

Hope in the Darkness Premiere 12/24/2013

Here’s a performance of one of my original compositions entitled “Hope in the Darkness”. This is actually the premiere of the piece last December 24, 2013 at United Church of Christ in the Philippines – Makati Church of Christ Disciples, J.P. Rizal, Makati City. I was playing lead guitar in this performance using a recent purchase (ESP LTD MH-300) and an EBow:

For a piece that was rehearsed only twice, it was okay. Although I feel that there can still be improvement (I suppose that many who would listen to this performance would think the same as we were fumbling in various spots of the piece), I am actually very happy and thankful that the UCCP-MCCD Music Ministry decided to go ahead and perform it.

Now, here is the solo piano version I came up with last November 2013:

The lyrics are as follows:
————-

Hope in the Darkness
(Based largely on Lamentations 3:19-33)
Music and Lyrics by Mark A. Galang

When hope seems lost
We try to make sense of things
as we’re hurtin’ deep within
Is this the cost
of our own misgivings?
As we try to forget all the bitterness inside,
We could not help but really wonder why

My soul’s downtrodden
As I remember my affliction and misery
But I am mistaken
As all these things just humble me
Reminding me of Your neverending mercy
I know in my heart Your love I shall see

Refrain:
And I find there’s hope in the darkness
For You, my Lord God I shall seek
With Your unfailing love, You show compassion
In You I find the hope that I need

All hope seems lost
As I see how the wicked prosper
as I suffer
And trust feels lost
As the world had turned its back
But I see Your light piercing deep into the night
I behold Your power, majesty, and might

(Repeat Refrain)

Our hope’s not lost
For You Lord Jesus had conquered sin and death
In You we Trust
For You alone has paid the final price, granting us eternal life
No force in this dark world can take
Your faithfulness would not forsake
All darkness will then fade away
Immanuel Your Kingdom it shall stay

Where there is Love
Where there is Peace
Where there is Hope

—————-

And so I look forward to the day that I can properly record this piece and be part of another performance. To anyone who is interested in performing this piece, send me a message and I’ll send you the sheet music. Thank you very much for our audience of one.

UCCP-MCCD’s Christmas Concert and the Premiere of “Hope in the Darkness”

Tomorrow 6 p.m. will be the UCCP-Makati Church of Christ Disciples’ Christmas Concert. I will be performing a short set of four songs with the UCCP-MCCD Music Ministry. One of these songs is an original composition of mine called “Hope in the Darkness”, effectively making that night the premiere of the said composition. The version that will be premiered would be for SATB choir and contemporary worship band. If you happen to be in Makati on Christmas Eve and you have some time to spare in the evening before your Noche Buena or Christmas dinner, please visit our church for a night of music and fellowship starting 6 p.m. The church is located at UCCP-Makati Church of Christ Disciples, J.P. Rizal St., Barangay Valenzuela, Makati City. Thank you and God bless.

The Church Pianist Experience versus the Prog Rock/Jazz Keyboardist

Last New Year’s Eve was very memorable for me. It was one of those rare occasions that happens a few years or so when a church requires a pianist. It’s another case of a regular pianist/organist becoming unavailable and I’m asked to fill in. It’s no accident that such times happen, and I do think it is God speaking through those people to call me up and help in their worship service. Therefore, December 31, 2012 became the second time that I was able to perform some music at the United Church of Christ in the Philippines – Makati Church of Christ Disciples (UCCP-MCCD for short). This piece is actually for people who are interested or called into becoming a church organist or pianist, and I would like to share what little experience I have in this field.

First, I’d like to provide a little disclaimer: I am not an authority on being a church pianist or organist. I have much more experience as a keyboardist/pianist in a progressive rock band than a pianist/organist for a typical Christian worship service that favors hymns from centuries past. There are many similarities yet there are notable differences.

  1. First obvious similarity is the instrument. ‘Nuff said.
  2. Second similarity is the need for repertoire knowledge and technical keyboard skills. Just like playing in a progressive rock or a worship band, you need to have some good chops because hymns are not easy to play. The ability to sight read is also a necessity because unless you have impeccable memory you only have a few hours to practice and get your repertoire for the service at a considerable level.
  3. Third similarity is the the need for improvisation. In certain sections of the worship service, the need to improvise becomes apparent such during certain sections for prayer, offertories on occasion, etc.
  4. The last one and most important similarity is the need for synchronicity between pianist and choir/congregation. In a worship service, almost everybody will sing, and the church congregation is always an active participant in the music making experience. Just like the prog rock or jazz keyboardist, a church pianist must be able to play in sync with the congregation’s flow and momentum.

When I say playing in sync with the congregation’s flow and momentum, I mean to say that a pianist should have the attitude that the congregation would become a band or ensemble member and that the pianist will treat the congregation as such. This goes both ways:  Sometimes, a church pianist will dictate the tempo and overall mood of the piece/hymn through his playing (unless the choir conductor takes charge of that). There are also times when the pianist has to adjust his playing in accordance to how a congregation would typically sing. One example I can think of is this: There are congregations that are used to singing a hymn in a particular key other than it was originally written. A church pianist must be able to transpose such hymns on the fly. A church pianist would have an easier time playing a hymn as written when a congregation consists mostly of members with some form of musical training. In cases where a congregation has little or no training at all, a pianist must be prepared to adjust accordingly. The worst experience I had regarding this was a congregation that tends to sing hymns in different keys after each stanza. Whew! That was challenging.

Now, let’s take a look into some differences between being a church pianist and a prog rock or jazz keyboardist:

  1. The instrument: A church pianist playing in a service where old-style 16th- to 18th-century hymns are in order only has a piano and/or an organ. Prog rock and jazz tends to be free and experimental, and therefore they can call upon a wide array of sounds as their instruments can call up. Keyboardists in a contemporary worship band have the same options as guys who play in prog rock bands.
  2. Repertoire: Church pianists would typically play the classic hymns. Prog rock keyboardists go anywhere from renaissance-era music to contemporary.
  3. Improvisation: While church pianists have the need to be able to improvise, their improvisations cannot be indulgent! No shred piano for me while in a church service. When I function as a church pianist, I can’t play blindingly fast and aggressive a la Franz Liszt. Prog rock and jazz keyboardists can be all over the place and blaze away with solos that rival Spinal Tap proportions.

Being a church pianist is an exercise in restraint and control. While I am required to have some considerable chops and precision, you need to be able to hold back and only play what is necessary. You can improvise but you cannot chop up your keyboard like Keith Emerson stabbing his L-100 Hammond organ. Such control is VERY important because the goal of being that sort of musician is to facilitate the congregation to focus on God through music and not focus on the musician.

Here’s some advice for aspiring church pianists and organists:

Learn the material: Get into the habit of sight reading hymnals every day. Make it a goal to commit to memory popular hymns like “Amazing Grace”, “How Great Thou Art”, etc. even if you can manage to play the melody at minimum.

Learn how to improvise: Improvisation helps in many ways. First, you can compose some lovely pieces on the fly and on the spot for sections of the worship service like the prelude/postlude, prayer time, offertory, etc. Second, given the fact that playing all four voices of hymns can be difficult to manage at times (e.g. intervals that go up to the 12th and 13th, unless you have really huge hands like Rachmaninoff!), being able to improvise an accompaniment based on the melody of the hymn is VERY important.

Brush up on music theory and ear training: This helps prepare you for improvisation, which is essentially an application of both disciplines.

The most important thing to take note of is pray to thank the Lord for such an opportunity to serve. Thank the Lord for allowing you to become an instrument for his glory. Also ask the Lord for necessary strength for the task. All that preparation will always fall short without the strength of God.

My pastor friends tell me that that particular instance of being a church pianist/accompanist is God’s calling. I have no doubt that in that particular day, God led me to that path in order to serve. However, I still don’t know if God would want me to go towards that direction in the long run. What I am certain is that that it’s one sign that the Lord has called me to be involved in a very musical life. I’d like to emphasize once more that it is not out of my own strength and skill that has made me capable. It’s only through the Lord that I gain the confidence go ahead and be a church pianist, even it if it’s just for one particular day. This experience always reminds me of Philippians 4:13 which says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

Reviving the Band Part V: The Outreach Concert

Last night, I was able to perform with my band at UCCP-MCCD in J.P. Rizal, Makati City. The venue was the main sanctuary of the church where a number of acts from nearby UCCP churches performed their guts out for the glory of the one true God. It happened to include us as a last act.

And so, having been censored to perform loud, high energy, virtuosic (I think) prog rock/metal originals, it was decided that we do some CCM covers (to my dismay). Regardless of my somewhat neutral and unenthusiastic opinion about the song choices, it was a good performance filled with interesting twists.

The cast last night (performing as Jacob’s Ladder) were as follows:

The madman behind the keys, yours truly.

On lead guitar, vocals and a fancy outfit, Pastor Chaz Romero.

On bass, newlywed Engr. Rodell Tolentino.

The life saver of the evening on drums, Erick Bejarin.

Now, to those very few who are familiar with the band (and again the very few who are reading my posts), Archie was expected to play with us that evening. Unfortunately, there were personal matters he had to take care of that night. It’s a blessing though that Erick attended the concert, and so we tapped him to play that night without any sort of rehearsal. It turned out to be amazing, granted the fact that he was never around during our rehearsals.

If things turn out well, my vision of a King Crimson-esque version of the band would come to life with two drummers/percussionists, sort of like the Bill Bruford-Jamie Muir partnership.

And so, despite all that turbulence going to and fro in preparation for that Sunday’s event, everything worked out nicely. The people enjoyed music from a variety of performers, and the artists were able to express their faith through music. It’s a testament of how music really is a powerful tool for sharing the good news of Jesus Christ to others. I do hope that this is the start of a wonderful musical journey for myself, but more importantly is that I do pray that my band’s music and those of other artists would pave the way to support local churches in sharing the Gospel to many.

P.S. I suggested the Greek term “Oruomai” to become the new name for the band. At this point in time, since there are already a number of bands calling themselves Jacob’s Ladder and Blue Fusion over the Internet, I felt that it’s fitting that we drop those names already and go out with something new. If you have any other suggestion, please feel free to send them in.

Reviving the Band, Part III

There’s a side of me that feels like a parrot when playing cover songs. It’s not my voice and it’s not my art. The art aspect of it only falls into place with my playing, and that aspect even suffers. My bandmates and Pastor Xiaui had noted my playing to be very mechanical and emotionless. I could nail the songs without a hitch. It’s just that as a composer, it’s really hard to try and put some emotion into performing a song I never had a hand in writing. I will still try to put on my game face to sort of “own” those songs, even if it’s just for a day.

I’m still very thankful that this opportunity came. Nothing could ever beat performing with a band regardless of whether you’re playing originals or covers. The energy between each musician is something you can never experience jamming with a MIDI file, audio track or sequence. You can expect me to perform at my best at our scheduled performance. Since we’re playing as a worship band at this point and NOT a prog band, you can’t expect me to pull out stuff like crazy synth solos. However, you can expect some piano and organ playing from me, maybe some occasional strings here and there, perhaps a harpsichord sound even.

Because of this event, talks between us band members about rehearsing for a PROG album are underway. We have two songs that we will be rehearsing and recording over the next coming months, and then I’ll continue to write music for the band as usual. I hope that this new project would push through.

We are currently rehearsing for a special performance on October 21, 2012, 6 p.m. at UCCP J.P. Rizal, Makati City. We will be performing a very short set with three songs. For those of you who are in the area interested in supporting a growing church, I’d like to invite you for that special evening of praise and worship.