UMC Review

Music Review John Michael McCluney: Hymnancipation! ™ Volume One: Advent (On Jordan's Banks) Label: Independent Artist Sound/Style: Traditional hymns performed on synthesizers By Steve Morley In 1969, when Walter Carlos' all-synthesizer album Switched-on Bach was released, a Moog synthesizer occupied an entire room and required enough patch cords to restrain an octopus platoon. The record, featuring classical repertoire translated into what were then state-of-the-art bloops, whizzes and bleeps, was a top-selling curiosity despite its robotic, somewhat clumsy sound. Purists buzzed their outrage more loudly than the wire-laden contraption itself; Pop audiences delighted in the novel effects. Rock music soon became the primary domain of the first-generation synthesizer, though academicians and serious composers continued to explore the potential of the ever-shrinking, voltage-devouring beasts. Along the way, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach was shown to be virtually limitless in its pliability—not only did it undergo the electronic treatment in the 1960s, it also became a staple of contemporary worship around that time, when young John Michael McCluney was developing a passionate interest in the music of the Protestant Church. Just as Bach was once sonically revived for a new generation, so has McCluney refreshed age-old hymns in hopes of reintroducing them to listeners who have become accustomed, if not lukewarm, to these nuggets of Christian tradition. McCluney, an accomplished pianist with decades of experience playing sacred music, has begun issuing a collection of hymns arranged for synthesizer titled Hymnancipation! ™. The clever wordplay in the series' name is but a small representation of the keyboardist's considerable creativity. The first of three available CDs, Volume One: Advent, presents seasonal hymns in an array of styles ranging from reverent to whimsical. Once again, musical purists might approach with caution, but the open-minded may find themselves unexpectedly tapping their toes or zoning out blissfully to melodies once reserved for bowed heads. "Rejoice, Rejoice Believers" appears in a sprightly piano arrangement that emphasizes its contemporary flair by materializing out of a pseudo-pipe organ intro, while "The Advent of Our God" refuses to stand still, morphing from its stately opening into a ragtime-flecked interpretation and finally into lively synth-pop. He also employs variously elegant and atmospheric styles that are most successful when they are given full-blown synthesizer treatments, utilizing the moody and evocative sounds unique to such instruments. He gets less mileage from his keyboard's palette of voice, string and brass sounds, which lack the smooth sonorities and execution to be convincing as violin and saxophone surrogates. Partly due to the merely moderate quality of the sound sources used here, McCluney's drum and percussion parts—as well as his rhythmic complexity—can at times detract from pieces that are otherwise soundly conceived and performed. It is a testament to the musician's emotional depth that he can infuse sometimes harsh and chilly sonic textures with so much passion and reinvention. As such, his Advent-themed debut disc provides unorthodox holiday mood music that symbolizes the way Christmas warms winter-weary souls with the promise of new life to come. Steve Morley is a freelance music journalist living in College Grove, Tenn. This review was developed by, the official online ministry of the United Methodist Church.

Alpha Omega News Review

John Michael McCluney Hymnancipation! Hymnprovisations Productions 3 volume/4 disk set This large collection focuses on the so-called lesser seasons of the church year, including Lent, Advent, Pentecost and Epiphany. All the songs are played on a synthesizer, without any vocals. McCluney coaxes an amazing variety of sounds from the synthesizer, from piano to calliope, 80s-era Human League to full orchestra, and saxophone to Gregorian Chant. In the liner notes to volume one, McCluney says the digital performance of these hymns is unlike the settings played on a pipe organ. "In some cases it is a radical departure from the original genre," he says. As someone who grew up in a traditional liturgical church, I'll say he's not kidding. Listening to a Polka-style version of "Joy to the World" is, to say the least, different. Also, the banjo and calliope-like version of "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" is a very different interpretation. There is a ton of music here. Before you decide that "too different is bad," visit the web site to see if this project's style of music suits you. - Rob S.

On improvisation

Improvisation (sometimes referred to as "playing by ear") is most closely associated with the jazz idiom. However, it is utilized extensively in all forms of popular music. One would be hard-pressed to find any contemporary music that doesn’t trace its origin to some form of improvisation. It has also been employed in the world of classical music — indeed, the great J. S. Bach himself made extensive use of improvisation, both in extemporaneous performance and in written form. There are some who believe he invented free form jazz! Certainly, the use of improvisation within the music of the Church reached its pinnacle in the works of Bach. For too long a time, the pipe organ has been the primary instrument employed for improvisations of sacred music. Since the 1960's, other instruments, such as the guitar, have been used for improvisation in contemporary worship services of various denominations. My wish is that more church musicians, using a wider range of instrumentation, might explore the gift of improvisation. It is the form of musical expression that brings me great and endless joy.


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