For centuries, the organ was the foundation for Anglican and Lutheran liturgical music, and in Europe’s great gothic churches and cathedrals, some of the greatest composers in the Western tradition held day jobs writing music that would be played at services, rather than concerts.
The “Electro-acoustic Vespers,” composed by Joel Peters and Adrian Foster and based on the vespers service found in Evangelical Lutheran Worship, features new musical settings for hymns like “The Magnificat” and the “Phos Hilaron.” But it also includes a practice becoming increasingly common in the composition of classical music-the incorporation of electronic elements to enhance and change the sounds created by acoustic instruments.
“It is very important…not to get stuck in that kind of mode of just performing music that has already been written,” said Foster, who recently ended his tenure as assistant organist at the Anglican Christ Church Cathedral in Montreal to pursue a Doctor of Music at McGill University.
“It’s also a conscious effort to keep this kind of ancient tradition, but infuse it with this new, modern sound.”
This is not the first time Peters and Foster have worked together. In 2015, they presented a concert at St. John’s called “In Nomine Lucis” that put new organ electronics pieces composed by contemporary musicians alongside classical pieces by the English Renaissance composer William Byrd.
But Peters, who is the music director at St. John’s, stressed that the current project is much more ambitious. In addition to composing their own music, Peters and Foster have also explicitly rooted the electronic elements of the composition in the actual community at St. John’s.
“We had both composed smaller things here and there, but not anything to this scale or this unified,” he said. “It really is a setting of the vespers, because all the pieces are connected in various ways musically and textually.”
As Peters explained, the service is a meditation on the summer that has just passed, and much of the electronic component is comprised of snatches of sound recorded in and around the building over the past few months. Amidst the new music, worshippers will hear everything from birds singing in a nearby park, to readings and choral performances from regular services at the church.
The Rev. Erick Dyck, the pastor at St. John’s, said this was very much in keeping with the spirit of what a vespers service is supposed to be.
Founded in 1853, St. John’s is the oldest Lutheran church in Montreal. Photo: Image capture/Google Earth
Dyck noted that vespers is a service of “review and preview,” one that looks back on the day that has passed, and looks forward to the day that is to come.
“[Peter’s and Foster’s compositions] are focussed on contextualizing that review and preview to the community at St. John’s,” he explained. “The soundtrack…is created out of the sounds of summer around St. John’s…they are from the sound tapestry that is around the church.”
But while the vespers service reflects the local community, Dyck said he also expects it will draw outsiders in as well.
“People will come to this because they want to hear the electro-acoustic compositions,” he noted, “and yet once they’ve been attracted we’re also engaging them in prayer. And we’re engaging them in prayer not in a doctrinal way…but we’re sensually engaging them.”
While the October 21 service is the only performance planned so far, Foster said he hopes other churches will make use of the new music in their own services.
“I think that is kind of the dream goal, ultimately-that the music really stays alive and doesn’t die with the first performance,” he explained. “The idea is to have these pieces fit into the liturgy not just for vespers. These Psalm settings can be used for anything, for many different settings in church.”
Foster added that he hopes at some point to compose a setting of the “Nunc Dimmitis”-which accompanies “The Magnificat” in the Anglican service of Evensong-so congregations can make use of both.
“That is the goal: to have something that is very unique and original to this service, but something that people can take and adapt to their own needs,” he said.