Creating the Psalms Project

Steven writes:

“The Psalms Project brings together the two things I do professionally in life: composing music for media and being an ordained minister in the Anglican Church. But I’ve always found the Psalms puzzling. All those sudden and extreme changes in emotion are difficult to understand.

“I tried to rationalise these mood swings, but a purely intellectual understanding of the Psalms, however well thought through, is not enough: we are forced to admit that they express rapidly shifting, and at times contradictory feelings. Could this offer us a clue, though? By being open to the fluctuating, often unpredictable world of emotion, maybe we could go deeper into the Psalms, and begin to come to terms with our own experiences too…

“As a composer, I try to awaken feelings and create shifts in mood. For the audience this can be a conscious experience, but it’s often more subliminal than that. This is especially true with music for radio, TV and film. In dramas, but also in documentaries, music that might, when heard on its own, sound emotionally restrained – or even boring – can transform pictures and other sounds, in a kind of alchemy that draws out our sense, say, of fear, jeopardy, courage, or humour.

“When studying theology for ordination, one of the Old Testament courses involved reading theologian Walter Brueggemann on the Psalms. He sees the Psalms as songs and laments that are rooted in life as it really is. So they mirror our journey, as we move through seasons of well-being, to times of pain and anger, and then perhaps to experiences of surprising new life. All this appealed to me as a composer, because a typical movie or story plot follows a similar trajectory: stability, to conflict, and finally to resolution or closure. Surely dramatic plots capture our imagination because they mirror real life, even if there is plenty of escapist fantasy thrown in!

“So I have applied an unashamedly plot-like structure to these Psalm settings, both within individual poems, and across the whole. I don’t set complete Psalms; rather I use key verses and meditate on them. Neither do I tackle every Psalm – that would run to at least 10 CDs!”