I’m delighted to be able to review and recommend Dan Forrest’s new CD, “Arise, Shine!”
I’ll first offer some broad impressions of the whole album, and then I’ll make some comments about the individual pieces. There are several things about this recording that stand out as significant benefits in my book:
“Arise, Shine!” is recorded by a real choir.
Most choral recordings today are put together with a bunch of studio musicians who have come together solely for the purpose of recording that album. They are chosen or auditioned, they come into the studio, learn the music on the fly, and then recorded it piece by piece.
With “studio magic” this method can usually produce a fairly good product. But nothing compares to a real choir of individuals who have rehearsed together over a period of time under a skilled choral conductor.
“Arise, Shine!” is a recording of such a choir under such a skilled conductor. The album features the Bob Jones University Chorale, the premiere choir in the university’s graded choral program, under the able direction of Warren Cook. This choir has a superb sound and technique as anyone familiar with Cook and the Chorale knows. The pieces recorded on the album were not thrown together in a studio but rehearsed over time, each in preparation for live performances. Which leads to the next benefit of this recording:
“Arise, Shine!” is a recording of real performances.
Again, most choral albums today are recorded in a studio, which allows the group to produce songs that are, well, “perfect.” Many average listeners don’t realize that when an album is recorded this way, rarely is a piece of music recorded all at once straight through the song. The choir stops and starts if there are mistakes, phrases are pieced together, and usually the group records the song at least two separate times to layer voices on top of each other to create the allusion of a larger group. I’ve actually been involved in recording projects where the piece being recorded would actually be impossible to perform live; it was written with the studio in mind.
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, of course, but there’s nothing like a live performance. Adrenaline, anticipation, and feedback from an audience combine to create a superior choral experience.
That’s what you have with “Arise, Shine!” Each selection on the album is a live recording. No layering, no piecing phrases together — this is the real thing. I’m sure Dan did some mixing and mastering before releasing the album, but there’s not much you can do to “fix” a live performance.
Recordings of live performance have their weaknesses, of course. The most glaring are the audience sounds. You’ll hear occasional coughing and other noises here and there (and why do people always feel the need to cough in the soft sections?). And the songs are not “recording studio perfect” in some instances. But in my opinion, the benefits of recording live performances outweigh the negatives.
“Arise, Shine!” is a recording of real art music.
Most sacred music being written today is produced with “the market” in mind. Whatever that “market” may be (even a traditional, fundamentalist market), composers write their music for the primary purpose of publication. For better or for worse, a need to “sell” is always at the root of a composers decisions regarding his music and a publishers decision whether they will publish a piece of music. Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing as long as there is also music being written simply because it is good, whether or not it will sell.
Each selection on this album is published by Hinshaw Music, but to my knowledge none of the pieces were expressly written to be published. Dan has developed a reputation and a relationship with publishers like Hinshaw, and there is no doubt that his music sells well, but it is evident that these songs were not written to be sold primarily. This is just good art music. Of course, that means that not all of it is immediately accessible to the average listener. But again, that’s a strength in my book.
Several of these pieces were commissioned for specific groups or occasions (in one case a premiere in Carnegie Hall), one multi-movement work was composed for Dan’s doctoral recital, and several selections were written for specific occasions in Dan’s life. None of this means Dan did not have an audience in mind or desire for his music to be enjoyable or accessible to listeners. His music is all of that. But these are not cookie-cutter, assembly line produced, market-driven octavos intended to sell thousands of copies to hundreds of church choirs around the country. This is real music.
Comments on Individual Pieces
1. Arise, Shine (2006)
One of my favorite choral composers is Morten Lauridsen, and I’m particularly a fan of his “Lux Aeterna (second only to his “O Magnum Mysterium).” The title song from this album was commissioned for a premiere in Carnegie Hall to accompany a performance of Lauridsen’s “Lux Aeterna” Like Lauridsen’s work, “Arise, Shine” is about light, specifically focussing on Christ as the true Light of the world. The rich, brilliant harmonies and choral colors beautifully express the message of Isaiah 60:1-4, 19-20, from which the text is taken.
2-6. Words From Paradise (2005)
Probably my favorite work of the album is this 5-movement piece, written for Dan’s doctoral recital. The Chorale came to our church when I was ministering in Rockford, Illinois, and rather than having them do their standard program, I asked Dr. Cook if they would perform some serious music. Among other selections, the Chorale performed “Hallelujah, “Selah,” and “Hosanna” from this work, and I’ve loved them every since along with the other two movements, “Holy,” and “Amen.”
Each movement is a picturesque setting of one singular word, yet the meaning packed into the musical development, rich harmonies, and spectacular tone colors communicate far deeper messages to the soul than many songs filled with hundreds of words. I found this explanation of the work, taken from the program of a performance, to be quite helpful:
The five pieces are 8-part a cappella settings of one word from the Bible. Each represents a different aspect of eternal life in heaven. The five pieces form an arch, of which Selah is the keystone. The 5-piece arch is symmetrical in many ways, but most obviously in its tempo/mood scheme. Holy depicts the Holy God as the fearsome, awe-inspiring Judge who dwells in unapproachable light. From this turmoil emerges a single note, beckoning. Hope springs: His Holiness is not unapproachable. Timidly, we approach the throne and find the scepter extended, and are comforted, wrapped up in His mercy. Hallelujah depicts a gathering crowd, tittering with excitement. Shouts of exaltation burst forth randomly, until the whole throng sings as one, “Hallelujah!” Selah is a pause, a rest from whatever else is happening, to contemplate the Truth of the God of Heaven. Hosanna reflects the irrepressible joy and celebration of the throng around the throne, hailing Christ as Savior and King. Amen is a postlude, a picture of eternal peace and rest: “So be it.”
7. A Basque Lullaby (2003)
I heard the Chorale rehearse this piece, again when they were on tour in Rockford. Written for Dan’s soon-to-be-born daughter, this is a very accessible (to the listener!), tender lullaby.
8. Where Go the Boats (2003, revised 2008)
I directed a community children’s choir in Rockford for several years, and one year we performed settings of several of Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. One of the selections we performed was “Where Go the Boats,” which Dan set for SATB. This is another accessible, picturesque, peaceful selection.
9. Good Night Dear Heart (2008)
In October of 2008 a little girl that Dan’s brother and sister-in-law were planning to adopt died tragically. Within a day of her death Dan wrote this memorial setting, and it was performed in concert one week later by the Chorale (this is likely that very performance). You can read Dan’s account of this event here. This simple, quiet, tender farewell is moving, especially considering the circumstances surrounding its composition.
10-12. Three Nocturnes for Chorus and Percussion (2006)
This multi-work piece brings a unique if not surprising addition to the album. Probably the least immediately-accessible work on the album, these nocturnes are also probably the most evidently meant to picture the text through percussive sounds and choral techniques. I’ll admit that it took me a few times of listening to the work to really understand and appreciate it, but it was worth the time. Dan masterfully mixes unique percussion instruments, rhythms, harmonies, consonant placement, and dynamics to musically examine the mysterious intricacies of the night sky.
13. You Are the Music (2005)
A fitting beginning to the album’s close, this piece beautifully pictures the power of God’s gift of music to us. The text-painting is vivid and the musical development throughout is engaging.
14. Oread Farewell (2007)
Reminiscent of “Good Night Dear Heart,” this farewell is sweet and tender, yet rich and multi-facited in its text-painting, tone colors, and development.
15. in paradisum… (2008)
I couldn’t stop listening to this work, commissioned and premiered at the 2008 BJU Commencement Concert, when Dan sent me a copy last year. It’s magnificent. Like “Word From Paradise,” this piece causes one to wonder if these are indeed the sounds of heaven. This piece is another unique parring: symphonic wind band (conducted by Dan Turner) and chorus, perfect for the message of these texts. The brilliant colors, spectacular crescendos, and massive performance forces render this work immediately accessible to the average listener, yet its careful composition and development give no question as to its excellence.
The piece combines several biblical texts (Psalm 116:15, John 14:2-3, Revelation 21:4, and Luke 23:43), each focusing attention on God’s promise of eternal life in paradise for those who believe in Him.
At this point there should be no doubt that I am highly recommending this album to you. This is a stunning example of the kind of music I wish we’d see produced by conservative Christian colleges, universities, and even churches on a more regularly basis!