Swee Hong Lim was born of Chinese ancestry on June 11, 1963, in Singapore. In 1989 he received a bachelor of church music degree from the Asian Institute for Liturgy and Music, where he studied with I-to Loh, the well-known scholar of Asian church music. Lim then came to the United States for further education, studying at Southern Methodist University (master of sacred music, 1996) and Drew University (Ph.D. in liturgical studies, 2006). After graduating from Drew, he returned to Singapore, spending the next four years as lecturer in worship, liturgy, and music at Trinity Theological College.
In 2010 Lim joined the church music faculty of Baylor University in Waco, Texas; two years later he moved to Toronto, Canada, where he now serves as Deer Park Assistant Professor of Sacred Music at Emmanuel College, Victoria University in the University of Toronto. A member of the United Methodist Church, Lim is frequently called upon to present papers and lectures at scholarly conferences and church music workshops and to serve as a worship planner and leader at events around the globe. Though still a legal citizen of Singapore—and, in some senses, a citizen of the world—much of his education and recent employment has been in the United States and Canada.
Having traveled the globe extensively, Lim is familiar with the people and cultures of numerous regions and maintains contact with acquaintances around the world. However, the three most significant influences on his congregational music are I-to Loh, Michael Hawn, and S. T. Kimbrough. Lim has followed Loh’s example by encouraging acceptance of indigenous hymnody in Asian churches and raising awareness of Asian song in the global church. While a student under Hawn, Lim received his first opportunity to lead a class session on Asian hymnody, and this led to further teaching and involvement in promoting global song. During the late 1990s, Kimbrough enlisted Lim’s help to train Cambodian Christians in liturgy, worship, and church music. Kimbrough also helped him become a published composer by including his music in several collections.
Lim’s study under Loh and Hawn, as well as his association with Kimbrough, helped to shape his philosophy of church music. Music, he believes, has four primary functions in worship: accompanying rituals, expressing proclamation, voicing response, and enriching the lives of congregants. Lim has devoted considerable effort to composing tunes for theologically rich hymns for the modern church. As a Methodist, Lim believes that Charles Wesley’s texts, in particular, embody his tradition’s theology, so he has composed music for several of Wesley’s hymns. Lim has also set texts of other hymn writers in various musical idioms, including the styles of Asian songs, Western hymns, or praise and worship choruses.
When composing music for congregational use, Lim’s primary consideration is the text, and the ability of the congregation is second. In his view, the words already carry a melody, and the composer’s job is to flesh out the tune in a way that supports and embodies the text. The music must also reflect the identity of the people for whom it is written, and because he is able to write music in several styles, Lim always considers the needs of the context for which he is composing. Because he wants to expand the repertoire of congregations, he often creates an interesting juxtaposition by setting Asian-style music to Western texts.
One of Lim’s techniques for giving a piece an Asian flavor is the use of pentatonic (five-note) scales. Pentatonic scales are characteristic of many types of indigenous music the world over but are often associated particularly with the music of the Far East. A good example is the G-major WAIRUA TAPU, set to “As the Wind Song Through the Trees” by Shirley Erena Murray, which avoids the pitches F# and C throughout the melody. These pitches are included in the keyboard accompaniment but they are largely unobtrusive, and the overall effect is one of simplicity and naturalness.
A similar situation occurs in SOON TI (LUYH 939), the single stanza of which (translated “May the Love of the Lord”) was written by Lim’s wife, Maria Ling, after nurses revived their first child when he stopped breathing the day following his birth. The sung melody in G major is completely pentatonic, and despite the presence of the pitch C in the bass and treble of the accompaniment, the gapped-scale character of the melody dominates the composition. (For more on this hymn see RW 103, “Songs for the Ascended Christ and Descending Spirit,” available at ReformedWorship.org.)
The keyboard parts of WAIRUA TAPU and SOON TI illustrate other techniques of Asian music that Lim employs, particularly the use of drones and of rhythmic and/or melodic patterns that seem to imitate the plucking of a stringed instrument such as the Japanese koto or Chinese zheng. The first note in each of the eight opening measures of WAIRUA TAPU is a low G, giving this section a drone-like quality. The rhythmic effect at the beginning is guitar-like, with an arpeggiated figure on the downbeat of each measure followed by an added-note chord on the second beat, an approach to which the composer returns at the end. In the middle section, the arpeggiated figures are transferred to the right hand and are used consistently over long-held notes in the left.
Like WAIRUA TAPU, SOON TI opens with a drone on G. The upper “voice” of the left-hand keyboard part repeats the same two pitches (D and E) again and again in varied rhythmic configurations, implying an improvisation on a stringed instrument. This figure is mostly absent in the second half of the tune, but does return to help generate continued motion when the voices sing a long note (m. 14) and again as a sort of coda to the tune.
Another important feature of these tunes is their harmonic structure. Both make significant use of “added-note” chords—major or minor chords with an additional non-harmonic tone. The chords often consist of octaves and fifths without thirds, and dissonance is used freely, as in the sixth measure of SOON TI, in which the singers hold the pitch A for four beats against the G drone. This “non-Western” harmony further serves to lend the music an Eastern flavor.
While his compositions frequently use these and other Asian techniques, Lim is an eclectic composer who also writes well using Western styles and idioms. For example, his POHCHOO, a setting of Brian Wren’s “Bring Many Names,” consists of a tender melody that is chorus-like in its simplicity and limited range and follows an ABCABC’ form. The harmony uses full chords (except for the ending) and incorporates several splashes of color, particularly the use of a G minor chord in second inversion with an added sixth in the second measure. There is little about the tune to indicate that it was written by a native of the Far East.
One of Lim’s best known tunes is CHU LEUNG, originally composed for Charles Wesley’s text “Ye Servants of God, Your Master Proclaim,” but set in #7 of Lift Up Your Hearts to Martin Leckebusch’s “Sing Praise to the Lord, You People of Grace.” This joyous, one-beat-to-the-bar triple-time melody is infectious in its exuberance. The stanza portion was written to be sung in unison, but Lim added a two-part “Hallelujah” refrain. The accompaniment for the stanzas mainly consists of one chord per measure, but both the stanzas and refrain also include syncopations and hemiola-like passages. The nature of this piece is such that it seems equally at home in a traditional hymnic format or as repertory for a Christian pop music ensemble.
As might be expected from an eclectic composer, sometimes Lim creates an interesting juxtaposition between Eastern and Western styles. The melody of ANGSANA, a setting of Shirley Erena Murray’s “Loving Spirit, Loving Spirit,” is in D minor. The tune is not pentatonic, but it makes use of all the diatonic pitches in that key. It might be characterized as a typical Western hymn melody, and there is little about it that suggests Asian influence.
The accompaniment, however, is another matter. The keyboard texture is sparse, with arpeggiated figures in the left hand serving as the sole accompaniment for the first two beats of each measure. The third beat of every measure features a group of sixteenth notes in the right hand; in two instances these serve as decorations of the sung melody, an attribute that is frequently found in Oriental music. The repetition of the same rhythmic figures in each measure creates a hypnotic effect, as well as suggesting a plucked string accompaniment.
It will be noted that many of Lim’s tunes are written for unison congregation with keyboard accompaniment. In singing tunes such as ANGSANA or SOON TI, which have spare accompaniments that do not necessarily double the melody, it is important for the congregation to learn the melody thoroughly before attempting to add the instrumental part(s). This can be done by having a soloist or the choir sing it (or a portion of it) without accompaniment first, then having the congregation join (a cappella) until they are comfortable with the melody, and finally adding the instruments. This layering effect is actually characteristic of much Asian music and can add significantly to the meaning of the singing.
Swee Hong Lim is a fine representative of the global dimension of Christian song. His works span the spectrum of pieces reflecting his native heritage to those using Western melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic idioms. His tunes truly help us “Bring Many Names” from all over the globe to celebrate the One who is our Savior.
Where to Find Swee Hong Lim’s Tunes
Lift Up Your Hearts, #7, 18, 289, 914, 939
Glory to God, #292, 549, 576
Hope Hymnody Online (hopepublishing.com/hymnody)