Editor's note: Shawn Kirchner is a composer, arranger, and songwriter active in the musical circles of Los Angeles. In May of 2012, he was appointed Swan Family Composer in Residence of the Los Angeles Master Chorale. Shawn also maintains an active career as a singer, pianist, and church musician. As a tenor with the Los Angeles Master Chorale, he sings regularly with the Chorale and the the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Whawn was raised with his triplet brother and sister in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

I Was Glad…or was I?: A composer reflects on religion
By Shawn Kirchner
Published in the Fall 2016 issue of Cantate magazine, Eliza Rubenstein, editor

What do we do about the dilemma of religious choral music in a pluralistic society? What’s the difference between “preserving a cultural treasure” and “pushing a faith agenda”? Must each new generation of composers add their own Magnificats and Requiems to the looming pile? Is there such a thing as “post-religious” sacred music? (Rumi? Wendell Berry?) In a nation that guarantees both freedom of religion and freedom from religion, how are we to be respectful, creative curators of religious works in the living museum that is our choral art?

In my recent experience composing a psalm cycle, the most pertinent question turned out to be: Can a thoroughly “modern” person—reverent and agnostic by turns, versed in many schools of thought—even write a religious piece? For a while, at least, the answer to that question in my mind was a resounding “no.” But in 2012, when first outlining the proposal for Songs of Ascent with my “bosses” at the Los Angeles Master Chorale, I presented a couple of psalm sketches with genuine excitement. So why, two years later, when the time came to work in earnest, did I discover a deep internal resistance? It was as if I were ready to dig the foundation of my house, but found, in the exact spot, a giant, buried boulder.

That boulder, of course, was religion…and my attitude toward it, which was one of extreme ambivalence. The psalms I was setting, the “songs of ascent” (Psalms 120-134), are pilgrimage songs for festival times in Jerusalem. But my throat, as it were, began to constrict when my textual research revealed that Jerusalem—the “city of peace”—had, even in its first mention in Hebrew scripture, been a site of horrific bloodshed. That this fact came to light just as a new round of violence was flaring up in modern-day Jerusalem was all the more distressing. (I should add that I was a Peace Studies major, and was raised in a pacifist denomination, and am hypersensitive to any linking of religion and violence.) The early sketch I had made of Psalm 122 (“I was glad when they said unto me, let us go into the house of the Lord”) now felt entirely naïve; how could I make the psalmist’s ancient words my own, knowing both the violent past and the violent future of his beloved city? How could I be “glad” to go there?

I found—beneath my peaceful exterior and despite my many years as a church musician—a long-known yet unexpressed rage at religion. I was angry at religious people for doing awful things for millennia, angry at religious scriptures for inciting such actions, and angry at people for believing that scriptures condoning violence could be divinely inspired. At a more basic level, I was angry that religion caused people to behave tribally in terms of “us” and “them,” and I was angry at myself for participating in the process. Why would I, how could I, add one more religiously-based work of art to a world torn apart by religious divisions and wracked by religiously-motivated violence?

Further digging revealed that beneath the anger was a deeper, more personal layer of resistance: shame. The novel Brideshead Revisited had become my artistic companion at this point in the journey, entering my path as an audio book to pass time on the way to a writing retreat. But because I saw so many parallels with my own angst, when I got back home I immersed myself in the BBC television version; I wasn’t really making much progress on the piece, and it was summer, so I might as well binge-watch a 13-episode series! The theme that glared out at me was religion: the iron grip of the Catholic mother’s fundamentalism, exerting itself invisibly yet inescapably in the lives of her adult children, no matter the years elapsed, no matter the miles between.
I realized that the old proverb—“Train up a child in the way he should go: and when he is old, he will not depart from it”—was proven only too well. I recognized in myself the “iron grip” of my religious upbringing: the automatic “niceness,” the sense of duty, the predictable guilts, the oppressive prohibitions. I felt trapped inside a religious persona that I didn’t know I had agreed to, and now it seemed too late. The edifice of my identity, built up within the scaffolds of particular religious ideals, now stood on its own, unshakable. The boulder was not going anywhere. Neither was my piece, and neither was my deadline….

A turning of attitude came in late summer, whileof all things—I was sweeping up after my messy backyard mimosa tree. As I swept, for some reason I began to sing an embarrassing old hymn. (Making up a new tune for it took the edge off, but I still won’t say which one.) I sang it for the better part of an hour, running inside once to consult a hymnal to verify obscure phrases in the latter stanzas. After that hour…I felt markedly improved. My inner angst, maintained to varying degrees of intensity for several months, had given way to a palpable peace. Hmm.

This turning was confirmed the next month when I saw a performance of A Trip to Bountiful in downtown Los Angeles, starring Cicely Tyson. Her character loved to sing hymns around the house, to her daughter-in-law’s consternation. As Ms. Tyson sang, she was spontaneously joined by hundreds in the audience, including me—singing “Amazing Grace” and “Blessed Assurance” in beautiful harmony. What a magical moment. My mother would often sing hymns to herself in the evenings, cleaning up after supper, and sometimes I’d play along from the other room. (I had actually learned to sight-read by playing through our hymnal.) Could I disavow this religious tradition—my tradition—that had produced a treasury of devotional songs that were now inscribed within me, just as they had been within my mother?

Could I feel anger, shame, and blessing all at the same time? Sure, terrorists, extremists, and fundamentalists were giving religion the worst possible name. Billions of religious people the world over, were far more “programmed” than they thought. But we still had hymns! No, in all seriousness, I knew that I was deeply enriched by the religious culture I contained within me: the great “saints” I had known, the parables of wisdom hovering within me like guardian angels, ready to intervene with a “still, small voice” when a relevant life situation arose, and the hundreds of internalized hymns poised to offer inspiration, insight, or comfort. This boulder wasn’t going anywhere, but that was okay. I could build on top of it.

At last I could “set sail,” catching the wind of my own willingness, and make Songs of Ascent what I needed it to be: a prayer for peace—among all people, all nations, and most especially among what I was now envisioning as Jerusalem’s three estranged “brothers”: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I set out to find an order for the psalms that would trace a narrative arc from diaspora toward reunion, from estrangement toward reconciliation. Some psalms would end up on the “cutting room floor,” like Psalm 124, which referenced “the Lord” being on “our side,” as opposed to “their side.” But we would get to the Temple somehow.

The months passed, and Songs of Ascent got written! Once it got going, the piece had plenty of its own life to propel it forward. A fugue was delightedly attempted, harp technique was studied, and my great-grandfather’s violin was dusted off as string phrasings were vetted. Sleep was postponed, and the deadline was met, more or less. At last we made our way (speeding a bit) to the Temple that is Walt Disney Concert Hall for the premiere. The LA Master Chorale sang gloriously under Grant Gershon’s joyous baton. And I was glad.

But what about the questions posed at the beginning of this essay? I find myself searching for a ringing conclusion, as I would wish to end a piece, but definitive statements still elude me. Certainly I came away from writing Songs of Ascent changed, no longer fantasizing about a path to peace in which everyone suddenly drops their religious influences and creates, from scratch, a post-religious culture—a sort of Esperanto of the spirit. But, reflecting now, I find that I feel chastened, even defeated, in the face of religion’s awesome power as a deep, holistic, cultural force—for good or for ill—shaping the identities of the world’s billions in their respective religious streams.

This heightens my sense of our choral art’s mission. Musicians have always been bridge-builders and peacemakers, fluent speakers of the universal language of music. But we, as choral musicians, can’t “hide” behind wordlessness. The medium of the human voice brings the dimension of text into play, and with it, a more precise and vulnerable revelation of self. This revelation may well include religious aspects, and bring many differences to light. But at its best, our choral art is an ideal “commons,” a safe place in which to share and learn—to speak with our own authentic voices, and to extend empathy in our listening. As such, it is perhaps the most powerful counterforce to the world’s wracking divisions that we have.

In the face of all that would tear us apart, our choral art offers the experience of oneness—making the words of others our own, letting them soar out of our own mouths. 

Shawn Kirchner can be readhed at: