Isaac Everett is a musician, composer, audio designer, and the co-founder of Transmission, an underground church in New York City. His recent album, Rotation, weaves pop, glitch electronica, acid jazz, and traditional liturgical melodies into a unique but familiar tapestry of urban spirituality. Rotation and Isaac’s forthcoming album are available on Proost – inspiring new resources that fuel faith.
He will be at Greenbelt 2007 (www.greenbelt.org.uk) where he will be leading workshops on ritual and electronic music. Also, he will be accompanying Becky Garrison on her talks, which will focus on the spiritual discipline of religious satire and the New Atheists. This interview is excerpted from Becky Garrison’s upcoming book Rising from the Ashes: Rethinking Church, a series of interviews with US and UK worship leaders on how to reach those for whom church is not in their vocabulary.
Q: What do you see as the relationship between clergy and musical director in a worship setting?
A: Well I’ve worked with a lot of clergy and the most common pitfall is the tendency to completely separate the two roles from each other, giving the pastor exclusive authority on theological and liturgical matters while leaving the music entirely in the musician’s hands. Not only does this imply that musicians can’t have liturgical insights (which is insulting), it also leaves the musician to do the job alone (which can be lonely).
Sometimes, clergy take the opposite tack and want total control, choosing the music without consulting the musician. This type of pastor often picks hymns solely for their lyrical content rather than for their musical qualities. The ideal preacher neither takes control nor leaves a musician alone; instead, he or she makes the musician part of the worship planning process and is willing to engage in mutual suggestion and critique.
To step back for a moment, I personally believe that this whole clergy/musician dichotomy is problematic. It’s not something I’m very interested in pursuing myself. Rather than having a dedicated priest and musician, I want to see the whole congregation made into priests and musicians. Martin Luther talked about the “priesthood of all believers” and the broad, folky appeal of his hymns suggest that he believed in the “musicianhood of all believers” as well. The job of professional ministers and musicians should not be to direct liturgical and musical activity, but rather to facilitate them. A liturgical leader’s job is not merely to pray and to worship, but to get the entire congregation praying and worshiping. Similarly, my job is not just to play well, but also to get everyone in the room participating in the music; my job is to help everyone find an entry point into the ritual activity.
Also, a lot musicians and performers like to be the center of attention. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s probably why we became performers in the first place! Being the center of attention, however, can be a hindrance in facilitating worship, and this is why I think it’s really important that every church musician also have a secular career. When I play at a club or in a show, I get to show off my chops, get applause, and hog the spotlight. Once I’ve gotten that out of my system on Saturday night, I can go into church on Sunday morning and happily step into the role of a worship facilitator.
Having a career in secular music is also useful because it keeps your musical sensibilities fresh. Contemporary Christian Music is very 1970s – it comes out of the Vietnam protest era. It’s heavy on acoustic guitar and Simon and Garfunkel-ish harmonies. It’s not bad music, but it’s not contemporary anymore. If you also work as a session musician, however, you get exposed to lots of different stuff and your musical vocabulary stays fresh and current. If every church musician did this, Christian music would really benefit.
Q: How can secular music become sacred when used in a liturgical setting?
A: First of all, I think this duality is a little bit artificial; any music that’s performed in church is sacred music. It’s all about context – hearing the same pop song at a concert, in your car, and at church are three very different experiences. I like to use pop music in worship because folks love singing music they know, and they’ll be more likely to participate in the music if the music if familiar.
There are lots of ways to incorporate pop music into a service. Even if you don’t want to use an entire song, you can take a chorus that everyone knows and use it as a congregational response. For example, many churches pick a verse of a psalm and use it for an antiphon, often in some variety of plainsong, but I like to think of a pop song that resonates with the central message of the psalm and use that as an antiphon instead. I’ve used everything from the Beatles to Bob Marley to Cake to Damien Rice this way.
Q. Explain how you made the choices you did for the music on your first CD, Rotation.
A: Believe it or not, I’m very passionate about tradition. It’s a common misconception that being innovative means that throwing out everything from the past, but there’s a lot of room for imagination within tradition. On Rotation, I took old hymns, liturgical melodies, and plainsongs and recast them in acid jazz, glitch electronica, and pop. I wanted to show that tradition can be fresh and playful while still being ancient and powerful. Although I got a very positive reaction to my music when I played at General Convention in 2006, some people didn’t like it. That’s fine. My music speaks to me and my community. Other communities will have different forms of musical expression. The more diversity we have within our tradition, the stronger our tradition will be.
Q: How do you use visual images in your services?
A: I would like to use visuals but I’m leery of screens and projectors. Having a congregation sit and passively watch a screen is no better than having them sit and passively listen to a preacher. Although skilled VJ can make ambient visuals, seamlessly blending the images into a larger, multisensory experience, it’s also easy for images to be distracting.
For me, the best visuals are real elements in the room with which people can interact. Once, for an Advent service at Transmission, we had a collage station – we set out copies of Business Week, Glamor, and National Geographic and asked people to find Christ incarnate in our culture. That activity took a lot less effort than preparing a slide show, and it was much, much more effective. It invited everyone to participate creatively, invited everyone to express their spirituality, and allowed everyone present to explore each other’s thoughts.
Q: What did you learn from your first paid gig running an alt. w. service at St. Paul’s Chapel in the summer of 2001?
A: I was only 18 when I took that gig. The blogs, connections, and other resources weren’t as readily available in 2001, so we ended up trying to invent alternative worship from scratch. We worked very hard to think outside the box, and we did some great stuff, but I don’t think we realized how far outside the box it was possible to go.
Trinity Church, Wall Street was very supportive and threw a lot of money at us, but in some ways that hurt us. I’d be in the front of the audience (and I use that word intentionally) playing piano with the other musicians. I’d have a headset on listening to a stage manager in the back who gave cues and coordinated the band with the professional sound crew. The whole thing was scripted and produced like a live television show. We’d get about 200 people in the congregation, mostly Episcopal clergy from other congregations. It was very sincere, very hierarchical, and very expensive.
Compare this to my experience leading worship at Transmission, where I’m usually sitting on a couch in a candlelit living room with my laptop plugged straight into a home stereo system. During the service, I’ll be mixing ambient music live, occasionally bringing in whispers of liturgical tunes. We’ll only have ten or fifteen people in the room and none of them are wearing collars. Depending on the service, some people will be praying, others might be doing Yoga, some lighting candles at an icon, and some drawing on mirrors with dry-erase markers. Instead of a stage manager and a priest, everyone helps manage his or her own worship experience, organically encountering each other and whatever activities and themes we have that week. It costs us nothing except the cost of food.
One thing I’ve learned is that while people like good music, it isn’t enough to get them interested in church. It’s humbling to realize that music, the thing I’m best at, isn’t what creates community. It isn’t what people are hungry for. The Episcopal Church often buys into a mythology of “if we make our worship services good enough, people will come of their own accord,” but that’s just not realistic. Relationships, community, and mission are what bring people into church.
Building a strong community needs to come from the ground up. Don’t gather a committee of church professionals and try to target a demographic, instead gather a group of interested people and say, “let’s make church that works for us.” As the community grows stronger and stronger, other will people will join it. Organic, community-focused worship will be much more sincere, much more vital, and much more attractive.
I see this kind of misunderstanding in youth ministry all the time. It’s really common for a bunch of adults to put on a service they think will appeal to youth rather than putting the service in the hands of the youth and letting them create it for themselves. It’s scary to give up so much control and the end result probably won’t be nearly as polished or as theologically articulate as the adults would like, but I guarantee that the youth will be much more invested and engaged in what they’re doing.
I’ve been working on music for a cooking/nutrition show on PBS recently and one of the studies we read demonstrated that children are much more likely to eat food that they helped cook than food which is just placed in front of them. This is just as true in church, and not just for youth. Everyone should be encouraged to actively and creatively engage in the worship-making process.
For a sampling of Isaac’s music, check out these links: http://www.isaaceverett.com/brothersun.mp3 – St Francis’ “canticle of brother sun” http://www.isaaceverett.com/preparation.mp3 – palm sunday http://www.isaaceverett.com/misconception.mp3 – elijah