FernandoOrtega blog

2012-10-11

Immortal Invisible

Here's a video of one of the songs we did at a concert last week. It is called Immortal Invisible.

Last Comment: Dec 24, 2013 03:37:20 PM
By: DavidGB
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2011-10-14

THE HEART OF THE MATTER

After posting my last blog, I received quite the flurry of responses, most of them positive, some of them critical, and some quite offended, feeling that I had attacked their personal view of what worship is. What a massive subject - the definition of worship! It inspires tremendous passion. Most pastors would agree that nothing can tear a congregation apart faster than disagreements over worship styles. I’ve experienced the agony of worship wars one too many times.

I’d like to reiterate that the primary goal of my last blog was to encourage specifically those who are attempting to write modern hymns. I was not trying to pass judgement on contemporary worship choruses (though I have plenty  to say on the subject), nor was I turning my nose up at simple choruses and worship songs. I have written and recorded plenty of both, and intend to do more in the future.

The discussion prompted me to think about how the critical process has been instilled in me and has become vital to me as a song writer. I’ll start with a quote from one of my favorite authors of the last century - Flannery O’Connor. Please look her up. She’s well worth the effort. This quote is from one of her lectures to college students, aspiring writers:

“Everywhere I go, I'm asked if I think the universities stifle
writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them. 
There's many a best seller that could have been prevented 
by a good teacher.”

I experienced a dramatic stifling as a musician when I was 21 years old. I flew out to the east coast to audition for graduate schools in piano performance. I had worked hard for several years and knew my pieces well. I was practicing Chopin Ballade #3 one night at The Juilliard School (a friend let me in), nervous about my audition at Stony Brook the next day. Suddenly I heard the same piece coming out of a practice room down the hall. The person playing was a fantastic pianist - technique to burn - gorgeous, mature tone - deep, thoughtful musicianship. I recognized instantly that at my very best, I would never be capable of playing the Ballade as well as this person. Thoroughly intimidated, I walked down the hall and peeked into the practice room from where the incredible sound was coming. Seated at the piano was a young girl, maybe 13 or 14 years old.

 

The lesson for me was huge and devastating. In an instant, I became acutely and painfully aware of the limitations of my gifts as a pianist. I was not a world-class pianist (as I had secretly entertained in my mind). I was merely a good pianist - better than average, but by no means gifted enough to compete in the classical world I longed to be part of. I fell into a depression that lasted two years as I began to sort out more honestly what musical talents I had been given, and which talents I had not been given. I look back on the whole experience and recognize God’s hand of mercy on my life.  

It was also Providence that brought me a few years later as a young song writer to the classrooms of Elaine Rubenstein and Peter Morrison - two poets who taught writing workshops at Irvine Valley College in the late 80s and through the 90s. The workshop was, for me, at first, a fairly brutal weekly event. Each student wrote a poem within the framework of whatever-it-was we were studying that week - a catalogue poem, the Art of Tea, the Navajo creation story, a psalm, or a beatitude. At the following session, we read our poem aloud in front of the class. Critique was provided by the students and the teacher. You weren’t allowed to defend yourself or argue back - just to take it all in. I was often discouraged to realize that a weeks worth of writing had rendered perhaps only one “keeper” line, or worse, a rhythmless poem riddled with cliches and sentimentality.

As I write these two stories down, I’m reminded of the important, sometimes predominant role negativity has played in the creation of my songs - so much stripping away, so much tearing apart before I can get to the heart of what I’m trying to communicate. 

There are songs I wrote years ago that I am still proud of today. They caused me a lot of sweat and agony - struggling over single words for days or weeks, pacing up and down the length of our driveway at night, driving my wife nuts. And there are songs I wrote and recorded that I now find cringe-worthy. I would have been better off starting over from scratch, or filing them into the nearest paper shredder.

All these years later, I still send most of what I write to Peter and Elaine for critique and guidance. They have keen eyes and ears, and they are excellent teachers. They are beautifully and eloquently honest. The process of getting to the heart of the matter still isn’t easy for me, but I’ve learned to welcome it.

Last Comment: Feb 14, 2013 11:05:49 AM
By: LAL
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2011-07-22

COME DOWN, O LOVE DIVINE

Every music minister knows the weekly anxiety of searching for the right songs for the upcoming Sunday service. The criteria may differ from church to church, but hopefully, the goal is to find songs that tie in thematically with the sermon or the weekly scripture reading. However, I know of a pastor on the west coast who directed his music minister to follow a grid when planning the music service - a large W - meaning that the service starts with upbeat songs that slowly give way to medium ballads, then go up again, then back down, before sending the congregation off with a happy bang. Never mind the content. The music becomes a space filler and provides the congregation with a reason to stand up and clap, or to settle down and get ready to dish out an offering, or listen to a sermon.

I used to serve in a church that followed a similar grid. It was always those dang happy songs that gave me the hardest time. Not that there wasn’t a plethora to chose from, but the upbeat songs were always so corny and utterly forgettable. These days, no one sings the ones we used back then and I imagine the same fate will follow many of today’s happy slappy modern worship songs.

Now that I’m in an Anglican church the weekly song search is much more complicated than the W model. There’s the lectionary to deal with - scripture passages that are appointed for every week of the year - an Old Testament reading, a Psalm, an Epistle reading (or one from Acts), and finally the Gospel reading. These readings are arranged according to the narrative of the Christian calendar: Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, Pentecost, and Ordinary Time (the season after Pentecost). More often than not, there’s an obvious theme that ties all the readings together such as contrition, service, God’s faithfulness, baptism, etc. I have learned to love the challenge of discovering that theme and finding the perfect songs to underscore and enhance the various portions of the Anglican mass. This process in the last year and a half has opened the door for me to many rich and beautiful hymns that I have never heard before. It is how I stumbled upon the stunning hymn Come Down, O Love Divine (lyrics: Bianco De Siena - Music: Ralph Vaugh Williams) in the weeks before Pentecost Sunday last year. Here are the verses as we sing them at our church:


Come down, O love divine, seek Thou this soul of mine,
And visit it with Thine own ardor glowing.
O Comforter, draw near, within my heart appear,
And kindle it, Thy holy flame bestowing.

O let it freely burn, til earthly passions turn
To dust and ashes in its heat consuming;
And let Thy glorious light shine ever on my sight,
And clothe me round, the while my path illuming.

Let holy charity mine outward vesture be,
And lowliness become mine inner clothing;
True lowliness of heart, which takes the humbler part,
And o’er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.

And so the yearning strong, with which the soul will long,
Shall far out-pass the power of human telling;
For none can guess its grace, till he become the place
Wherein the Holy Spirit makes His dwelling.


I am drawn to the specificity of this hymn. It’s about something. It’s about a specific event in the Christian narrative. The humble stance, the plaintive tone; it’s a perfect hymn about God pouring out his Holy Spirit on a contrite heart that has found redemption through Jesus Christ. 

Let this be an encouragement to modern hymn writers  - a cause for inspiration to those who are suffering from writer’s block. There are so many Biblical scenes to chose from that would make for beautiful songs - for instance: the transfiguration of Christ. The feeding of the five thousand,  the woman at the well, the stoning of Stephen, water baptism, washing of the disciple’s feet, the betrayal of Judas. If just a few good modern hymn writers tackled some of these subject, the anguish that untold thousands of music ministers suffer weekly could be greatly diminished.

It’s easy to write a chorus that says

                God, you are a Holy God
                I need your grace to see me through
I need your mercy to make me new
Let me live each day for you.

I just made that up in 2 minutes and there’s nothing wrong with it. It would fit easily and competitively among the hundreds of worship songs that are available to chose from. Compare those lines to the third stanza from the above hymn:

Let holy charity mine outward vesture be,
And lowliness become mine inner clothing;
True lowliness of heart, which takes the humbler part,
And o’er its own shortcomings weeps with loathing.

It took some real thought to craft those lines, but they are timeless. They set a standard for all of us who write music for the church. 

I didn’t set out to write a didactic blog. I’m writing to myself. Be specific when you write songs about God. Avoid cliche. Avoid convenience. Avoid an obsession with the consumer. Avoid the temptation to make commercial success your central goal. Write with intelligence, employing all the craft, skill, and experience with which God has endowed you.

Last Comment: Jan 16, 2013 12:01:18 PM
By: Melodious
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2011-07-11

IF I COULD HAVE WRITTEN LINER NOTES...

Welcome to my new website. Thanks so much for visiting. I’m proud to feature my newest recording which is called Come Down, O Love Divine. The title is taken from the beautiful hymn which was written by Bianco da Sienna (1300s), and Ralph Vaughn Williams (1872-1958). I mention their dates so that you can realize they didn’t write the hymn together. Many great hymns are written by musicians who were inspired by ancient texts and then set those texts to music - miles, years, centuries apart, but beautiful music was created
 
This is all a roundabout way of letting you know that this recording was not all done at once, like so many of my favorite recordings are. Ideally, one sits down in a fabulous sounding studio, surrounded by a band of fantastic musicians  who practice the songs until they know them inside-out, then the engineer hits “record”. I’ve made several albums this way. They cost a lot of money. This time around I didn’t have a lot of money.  And so, with apologies to all the recording purists who may read this, I’d like to tell the story of how this record came to be.
 
In January 2011, I called my old friend John Andrew Schreiner (producer, arranger, writer) and told him that I wanted to make a very simple record - solo piano - of songs I’d been working on for a couple of years. I wanted to do it all in my living room on my newly re-built Mason & Hamlin BB - a piano I love. John and I figured it would take about 5 days to record. Two of those days would be spent getting the right piano sound (adjusting mics, setting up baffles, trying out various pre-amps, etc.).
 
A few days before John was to fly out to Albuquerque, I called him and said - I think I should do vocals on a couple of these, and maybe even a little electric bass. “No problem” he said, “we should still be able to get everything done in 5 days. 
 
As I practiced the songs more and lived with them a bit, I decided I wanted to also play accordion, my brother to play percussion, and that I was also hearing ambient electric guitar on several of the songs. When John got off the plane and I announced all this stuff to him he had the same look on his face as Woody Allen in Hannah and Her Sisters when he discovers he has to have brain surgery. 
 
Typically, John and I keep odd hours when we record, so my beautiful and gracious wife took our daughter and flew to Berkley to stay with family for several days to make the house quiet as a studio (ha). 
 
And so it began. My iMac was sitting on a small table in the kitchen right next to the utility room door. Several cables ran from the kitchen down the hallway to the living room where the piano is. I spent 2 days playing the piano as we tried for the perfect sound. We ran back and forth between my stereo (in the den), then back to the piano to adjust the high-end mic, or the low-end mic, or the ambient mic, or all three. After several hours of that kind of ear exercise, it’s easy to lose perspective and you might have to start all over again, or just go to sleep. But we finally got a sound we were happy with and that became the frame upon which we built the rest of the record. 
 
In the end, the record grew even larger (though still quite modest in comparison to others I’ve done). I’d like to write something about each of the players who participated. Pretend you’re reading old-fashioned liner notes....
 
Andrew Othling played electric guitar. He’s the son of Terri and Steve Othling. Terri designs and formats all the printed materials at our church - Christ the King Anglican Church. He’s a young father of a little boy. He and his wife have another in the oven.
 
Armando Ortega played acoustic guitar and percussion of various kinds. He’s my brother and a really fine musician. He lives in the world of Zimbabwean music, even though he’s Hispanic. My brother is fantastic on shakers made from gourds that he grows in his own yard. He’s the frontman for a local band called Wagogo www.wagogobanda.com .
 
Glen Holmen played bass. I’ve know him over thirty years. We went to college together, though he’s a few years younger than I. Glen has played with some of the best in the business - Steve taylor, Ricky Lee Jones, Beck. He has a beautiful wife from Argentina and a 3 yr. old son.
 
Cameron Stone played cello. He and I have played together almost 20 years now. We’ve traveled all over and recorded several records. I have never met a player quite like him, his tone, intonation, his ability to improvise, the subtlety of his playing. He’s an extraordinary musician. He’s happily married and lives in Los Angeles.
 
Dave Owens played drums. He was in my band for years so we’ve traveled all over the globe together. I always say he’s the oldest musician I know, though he’s only a year older than I. He looks young because he swims, or walks, or does both every day of his life. If he doesn’t get to exercise, he goes nuts. Dave has a wonderful wife and two grown children. He has an extraordinary zest for living and learning about the places he visits.
 
Bob Somma played acoustic and electric guitar. He’s another person I’ve known for decades. Bob travels with the Franklin Graham band and has been a worship leader for as long as I’ve known him. Bob is a superb guitarist with a gorgeous sound and effortless technique. He and his wife live in Southern California. 
 
Chelsea Ward sang harmony vocals. She’s Bob Somma’s daughter and her full-time  gig is with John Tesh. She has a beautiful voice combined with an uncommon ability to mimic other voices and styles. We met the day she came to sing on this record.
 
Cathy Schreiner is married to John Schreiner. She has sung with me for years - even before I started recording. Her voice is distinct and beautiful and people always ask me “who is that girl that sings with you on your records?” I’ve never met a singer who can instantly come up with unusual and unlikely harmonies the way Cathy can. It’s stunning to watch.
 
Believe it, or not - after all was recorded, mixed and mastered, I was still not satisfied with several of the songs. There was something missing that I could not figure out. I lost quite a bit of sleep over it before it came to me that I needed a choir. The sound I was looking for was a Renaissance sound - pure, and without vibrato. My old friend Brad Holmes immediately came to mind. He runs the choral department at Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois and he’s a first-rate musician. He’s the cousin of the bass player (Glen Holmen) and was also a classmate of mine in music school. Brad publicly humiliated me when I turned pages for his senior recital back in 1979, so he owed me a favor. 
 
Recording that small choir was was a first for me - a very memorable and moving experience. These young people showed up in their shorts and flip-flops, chewing gum, texting, excited to work. We were in St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Decatur which is beautiful and has wonderful acoustics. I was awestruck when the choir opened their mouths to sing - such tone, such maturity, such control. Everyone of them was a real professional in their own right but they were absolutely masterful in their ability to sing as an ensemble. Brad Holmes is an extraordinary teacher.
 
So in the end, my 5-day record took a few months to record, mix, and master. I did not see it coming and the experience nearly wiped me out when combined with my work as a worship leader, and my touring schedule. But here it is. I hope it’s good and that you resonate with the songs. I’ll write more later about the music on the record. Thanks again for listening.

Last Comment: Feb 23, 2013 08:25:19 PM
By: annberry
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