As we begin to approach the season of Advent I want to tell you the story of an unexpected adventure. An adventure is, literally, something that comes to you, that’s what the word means, it’s built around the latin word Veni, to come. Adventures are what come towards you out of the future, which is why the knights in Mallory’s Morte D’Artur so often (and so wisely) say ‘Let us take the adventure that God sends us.” The other place we see the true roots of the word adventure is of course in the word Advent. Advent is the season in which we look towards the One Who comes towards us, Jesus Christ the great Adventure whom God has sent and is sending.
Any way the advent of my Advent adventure was the arrival in Cambridge in theSummer of 2011 of the Canadian singer song-writer Steve Bell. He had come as one of the presenters and musicians at the CS Lewis Foundations Oxbridge Conference at which I was also a speaker. I was interested to hear him as I love the singer-songwriter genre but to be honest I was also a bit wary. Whilst many supposedly ‘secular’ singer songwriters have deeply nourished my faith, especially in its encounter with darknes or pain, I have often found specifically ‘Christian’ contemporary music glib, bland, and frankly a bit naff. Well when I got to hear Steve perform I had my preconceptions blown away! For starters he was very good, with brilliant guitar technique reminiscent in places of Richard Thompson and in places Joni Mitchell, and a fine clear compelling tenor voice over which he had complete mastery. But much more to the point was the content and feel of what he played. He did some wonderful reworkings and recastings of the psalms of lament, gritty music dealing with pain and despair, with unfulfilled longing, as well as the psalms of praise. He did an amazing version of St. Patrick’s Breastplate, and between the songs he spoke with real honesty about the pains as well as the joys of our pilgrim path. It was the exact opposite of the ‘shiny happy people’ Christian triumphalism I had been fearing.
So I sought him out later in the conference to tell him he had a new fan when it turned out that he was looking for me because he had found my Advent Sonnets and they had struck a chord with him! As Charles Williams said when he found that the fan letters he and CS Lewis had sent to each other had crossed paths ‘You have to admire the staff work of he Omnipotent.”
Now the reason my Advent Sonnets had struck a chord with Steve was that, like me, he was uneasy about the bright, baubly, tintel-town approach we have to Christmas, the advent of our greatest adventure. Like me he wanted to deepen our aproach to Christmas, help us understand its true Joy and beauty by rediscovering the preparatory season of Advent, the time we wait in darkness for the coming light.
Then early in this year I got an email from Steve to say that instead of doing a ‘Christmas Album’ with all the usual trimmings he wanted to an Advent Album and he wanted to weave the Adven sonnets into it. I was very happy with that, but there was more to follow. Steve had begun to work musically with other poems on my blog, and in an amazing feat, had taken my sonnet Epiphany on the Jordan and combined it with phrases from my sermon on that subject and turned it into a totally new song with an unforgettable tune. There was more to come. In the spring Steve flew over to England with a bunch of further notes and ideas and stayed with me in Cambridge for a few days of intense and exciting work and collaboration, out of which came amongst other things, the transformtion of my short Christmas poem Descent, into a new song with a strong tune and extra verses.
I do my own bits of singing in pubs but this was the first time I’ve worked collaboratively with a full time professional singer-songwriter and it was a compelling and instructve experience. We also benefited from the presence and advice of Jeremy Begbie who spent an evening wih us as we played back our efforts giving really incisive commentary and advice on both the music and he theology and especially on the way the music and the theology worked together.
Well now the Album, Keening for the Dawn is complete and is being released on November 12th which is, by sheer co-incidence, my birthday. (but in my experience middle-aged waistcoat wearing, pipe-smoking folk always have adventures on their birthday.) I have heard an advanced copy of the album and it is really beautiful.
If you want to know more, check out Steve’s own account of our collaboration here,
Plus you can now hear Emmanuel, the song which weaves in my reading of a couple of the Advent Sonnets here
And there is a first review of the whole album here.
In a later post I will tell you in a little more detail about the making of the song Descent and post up the lyrics. If you’re in Cambridge you may like to know that we will be playing some tracks from the album at the launch of my book of Sonnets Sounding the Seasons which will take place in St. Edwards Church at 7:30pm on the 5th December.