Reece Marshburn is a composer and member of St Gabriel’s Episcopal Church in Portland, OR. Here he offers a reflection on composing sacred music; viewing it as both spiritual practice and gift. You can listen to a piece inspired by the community.
by Reece Marshburn
There is a simple place of being.
It is a quiet place of being.
It is a sacred place of being.
It is a place where time and space and even self cease to exist and the only relationship you have to the world at all, is your relationship to God. God the creator.
It is a place found through prayer,
a place found through meditation.
It is a place found in the midst of a bustling community,
or in the solemnity of solitude.
It is a place found through incredible acts of physical exertion, say a sport,
or through peaceful repetitive action, say weeding a garden.
It is a sacred place of being.
I find this place with most regularity when sitting down at the piano to write.
I sit, lay my hands on the keys and listen.
I listen for an idea to follow.
The thinnest filament of an idea.
At first, the idea as tenuous and fragile as a spider’s silk. But the more I give myself to the listening and following and being with God, the stronger the thread grows. From silk to twine. From twine to rope to a line so strong, it cannot be split. And it cannot be ignored. I write it down, this now strong length of melody, harmony or lyric.
From there, I play the fragment over and over and add bits and pieces to that original idea. I think, “No actually, this melody should go up here,” or “I think the bass needs a few moving notes at this point.” And when it is just God and me and the piano, it is as if the song being written can only happen in that way. It’s natural outcome is inevitable. All I need, is to be present in that place of being. Where God the creator resides.
If the end result is a song, or a solo piano piece, or a chamber ensemble work, where does it begin? Where does that thin filament of an idea come from? Sometimes it feels as if it forms out of nowhere, or out of the tiny invisible particles dancing imperceptibly before us. But sometimes, I sit at the piano with an intention. With a thought or a phrase or a mood or a feeling. Since coming to be part of the St. Gabriel’s community at the end of 2012, many of these filamental ideas have come from being part of a wonderful community. Sometimes it’s a snippet of the lectionary, or one of the more hummable tunes out of the hymnal, or the trembling majestic lyrics of one of King David’s psalms. Sometimes, it’s the confluence of all of these things.
My commute out to St. Gabriel’s is about a half hour and during the days leading up to Christmas, I travel out there quite a bit to prepare for services. Last year as I was commuting and listening to one of my favorite holiday traditions, All Classical 89.9’s festival of carols, it seemed like they were playing quite a few arrangements coming from the English church tradition. Lessons and Carols from Kings College, or St. Martin’s-In-the-Field, and arrangers like John Rutter and Ralph Vaughn Williams. I was so moved by the beautiful pastoral quality of the music that I wanted to try and write in that style.
After holiday services were over, in the relative quiet of January, I sat down at the piano and found my way to that place of being with God the Creator. And that tenuous filament grew into a melody and then a chord progressions. And the text that came was, in part, about the community of St. Gabriel’s, which has been so wonderful and welcoming to me and to all who gather there. But it was also about the community who gathered long before us, in the upper room, and broke bread together.
And so I wanted to say thank-you for being welcomed as part of the Community and being part of the inspiration that sends me to the piano, to go and find that place of being with God the Creator. That simple place of being, that quiet place of being, that sacred place of being.
Here a recording of a piece inspired by St Gabriel’s; “Let us give thanks”
Reece Marshburn is a composer and member of St Gabriel’s Episcopal Church in Portland, OR