Composerly Thoughts

The Music of Forgiveness

The Music of Forgiveness

If you asked me a decade ago what I wrote music about, I would have given you an exhaustive (and probably exhausting) list of themes. In fact, such a thematic list actually dwells on my website, enticing performers with everything from the sublime (Peace, Diversity, Freedom…) to the kind of wacky (Mangoes, Hopelessly Catchy Songs, Songs that I thought up in the shower…)

While such a list is a helpful tool for musicians and listeners — or at least I hope it is, since it took me one heck of a long time to create it — the longer I’m at this composer schtick, the more convinced I am that everything I write is secretly about forgiveness.

Songs about beauty, children, or music? I’m reconciling myself to the transience of life. Songs about social justice, grief, or honesty? I’m reconciling myself to the imperfections hard-coded into our existence. Songs about women’s handles? Hey, don’t even get me started on that one. Whether I’m writing about flowers or freckles, Easter or butter – underneath it all it’s probably about reconciliation.

I can’t even get away from forgiveness with a light category like Fun (or Funny!). At some point in the compositional process I always get ambushed by a keen awareness of how much joy people deny themselves and others, and how our oh-so-serious-and-productive culture works overtime to deny its people this birthright…and there I am sniffling at the piano again. But don’t waste any pity on me. These tears are not altogether unhappy; in fact, they generally make me feel more alive. And alive is something I very much want to feel.

If I started riffing on forgiveness at this point, I could write a post as long as your most recent credit card statement. Instead I’ll just say that I’ve come to believe that music and forgiveness are not only symbiotic, but that on a societal level one cannot fully exist without the other. That unless music can let itself lean into forgiveness, it can’t be considered a complete form of expression. And that without music (along with art and poetry and film and dance), a society’s wounds cannot completely heal.

So…when my own church commissioned a choral piece last year, I wove the community’s words and values and actions into a lyric. I built the song around our frequent assertion that “there are no other people’s children.” I folded in some words from our annual ritual of atonement: “I forgive you. I forgive myself. We begin again in love.” And it was impossible not to be inspired by my church’s partnership with Above Every Name, the predominantly African-American congregation that shares both our sanctuary and our vision of a more just and inclusive world. That is why, when I was told I might write this song for any choir at my church, I chose ALL of them, and the congregation as well.

No Other People’s Children is not kind of about forgiveness. in this song, reconciliation and right relationship are explicitly asked for and offered, for our own past wrongs as well as those of our culture. Yes, most of my music is about reconciliation in some form or another, but this time I wasn’t going to beat around the bush. Not even a little bit.

Take care, and keep believing impossible things —