Ken Medema—Christian composer and performer—talks about the people and ideas that have influenced him and the dreams that challenge him.
RW: Could you begin by telling us a bit about your childhood?
Medema: I was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in 1943, the son of very devout, churchgoing Christian Reformed parents. By the time I entered first grade it became rather obvious that I was going to be a musician. I attended school across town in a special class for blind children, and every chance I got I'd bang away on someone's piano.
When I was eight, some people asked us to store their piano for them. After a few weeks of listening to my persistent banging on that instrument, my parents decided I should have lessons.
RW: Were your parents musical?
Medema: My mother played the piano a little bit-—well enough to play hymns—and she sang in the choir. Dad couldn't carry a tune in a bushel basket if his life depended on it, but he probably was more musical than he thought he was. He had a good sense of rhythm. And he loved music. He would sit by the hour and listen to recordings of some of the big bands.
RW: Were your music teachers influential?
Medema: Yes, we found a piano teacher who was an absolute wonder, a woman named Heather Halsted. Heather was (and is) one incredible teacher. She taught me music history, music theory—in fact, she taught me probably 85 percent of what I now know about music. By the time I was twelve years old I could analyze a symphony and I could improvise fugues. I attribute to Heather Halsted not only my love of music but also the diversity of my musical style. She encouraged me to learn a wide range of styles: sometimes during lesson time we'd spend a half hour listening to various styles of music—-jazz, for example.
Heather was also responsible for a great deal of my intellectual restlessness. She often took time to read to me from the writings of such thinkers as Plato, Gilbert Hyatt, Alfred North Whitehead, Norman Cousins, and Sartre. She was convinced that I needed a broader education than I could get in the Christian school. So she undertook that education— much to the chagrin, I'm afraid, of my parents.
As it turned out, my parents probably had reason to be perturbed. By the time I was in the tenth grade I considered myself not only a rebel but also a bit of an agnostic.
After high school I attended Michigan State University. There I studied music therapy and also fulfilled all of the requirements for performance degrees in piano and later, as a graduate student, in voice.
RW: How long did your agnosticism last?
Medema: At the university I met a Baptist minister's daughter who was an outrageously good musician, a wonderful pianist, and a sensitive person. We started hanging about together and soon were having long talks— sometimes about religion. Of course, I took pride in announcing that I was agnostic. But she wasn't very shockable. In fact, she claimed that she had once asked some of the same questions I was struggling with. "Christians don't ask questions," I objected. But she disagreed. "Christians doubt, just like everyone else does," she said. "Often they aren't even sure about who or what God is".
Gradually my thinking began to change. I decided that if the Christian church permitted this kind of questioning, wondering, amazement, and uncertainty, then I'd like to check Christianity out again. Actually, I felt chased by the truth. Before long, I started going to a Baptist church with my sensitive friend.
Toward the end of my second year in college, I walked down the aisle at an evangelistic service and professed my faith. I was intrigued by the idea of Baptists who touted the idea of freedom. That kind of church polity seemed to fit with the new directions of the sixties (Students for a Democratic Society, the hippie movement). And since those directions were important to me, I decided to join the Baptist church. I've been a member ever since.
RW: Can you briefly summarize your life since then?
Medema: After graduation I married the minister's daughter and moved to Indiana, where we both worked in a state hospital as music therapists. We then both got master's degrees in music and moved to New Jersey, where I continued my career as a music therapist. It was during this time that I began to do a lot of composing.
I began to write songs about the church—about its worship, its people, its life. People who heard my songs and liked them asked me to sing at their meetings. One night some folks from WORD Records heard my songs. They asked me to do a recording, and suddenly I was into a new career.
On January 1,1973,1 left my job and went full-time into composing and performing. When people heard that I was available, the invitations started coming in. They've kept on coming for the last fifteen years.
RW: Let's switch to your music now. Has anything from your music therapy days influenced your songs?
Medema: Very definitely. The whole preoccupation that I seem to have with woundedness and hurting and pain and community is drawn from my days as a music therapist. Songs like "If This Is Not a Place" and "Is There a Hidden Teardrop Left Behind Your Eye?" have their roots in my experience as a music therapist.
RW: Two of your songs are in the new Psalter Hymnal—-"Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying" and "Out of Need and out of Custom." Do you recall the origin of those songs?
Medema: Yes. "Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying" came out of my New Jersey years. One night I was with a youth group. We started talking about a young man who was in the hospital and really needed our prayers. In the middle of our prayer, the idea for this little chorus came to me. I started humming, then singing.
Soon the kids were mumbling along with me. We sang that chorus, "Lord, Listen to Your Children Praying," several times over. Then I started adding verses, and the kids quickly joined me in singing the new words. So it was a song born out of our concern and prayer for a friend.
"Out of Need and out of Custom" also has interesting origins. I was visiting a church in Baltimore, Maryland. One of my responsibilities that weekend in 1974 was to help the youth group plan a worship service. The young people in this particular church were not particularly "hip" on the church. In fact, most of them were very uninvolved.
On Saturday we were all hanging around somebody's swimming pool. "What do you want to say to your parents in this service?" I asked them. "Well, we want to say this is boring. We want to say that church is a drag." After they offered me a bunch of other similar gripes, I wrote the first verse: "Out of need and out of custom we have gathered here again…"
"Does this represent what you want to say?" I asked the group. "Well, yeah, it's kinda hip." We chose a traditional hymn tune, and we sang that verse at the beginning of worship that Sunday. I later wrote the other two verses, and still later a new tune. So the song grew out of these disillusioned kids who said, "We want to say that church is boring."
RW: How does Scripture influence your songs?
Medema: Scripture—especially general concepts and passages that are particularly moving and significant to me—is the source for many of my songs. For example, "A Little Child Shall Lead Them" uses a biblical concept, but plays with it in the context of how contemporary society looks at children.
RW: Do you make a conscious effort to include children in your songs?
Medema: Yes. Both in songs and in worship. Focusing on children, using children's stories, and playing with the child are significant to me because we are all children, and we need to explore and play with our "child-ness."
RW: This focus seems to tie in with the playfulness in your songs. Does that playfulness come naturally?
Medema: I think it's natural with me—I love to play. I love to play with words. I love a good joke. I've always loved to laugh and to make people laugh. I've always liked others to play jokes on me.
RW: Do you distinguish between writing music for worship services and music for concerts?
Medema: I do make a distinction. When I write specifically for a worship service, I am usually more inclined toward harmonies and textures that will feel comfortable for people who are traditionally trained. But I don't want only tradition. I try to keep in mind what Martin Marty said: "Worship is a place where both traditioning and changing take place." That is, worship is a place where we experience our past. Therefore, musically we need to have textures and harmonies that are comfortable and allow us to experience our heritage. But worship is also a place where we come in contact with tomorrow— so we need to have textures that represent tomorrow.
RW: You were raised in the Reformed tradition. Would you say that's had an impact on your music and your views on worship?
Medema: A most decided impact. Through the Reformed tradition I learned that in spite of all my doubts, questions, preoccupations, momentary failures, and other oddities, God is yet sovereign. As far as I might go out on the limb, God in his irresistible grace is not going to let me fall off.
I've also been influenced by the Anabaptist tradition, in which I learned that the church always needs to question itself, to die to be reborn again, to search itself, to demand its freedom, and to separate itself from allegiance to state and other authoritarian establishments.
A third influence was my brief flirtation with agnosticism. During that period of my life I learned that it's perfectly and absolutely all right to say "I don't know." I also learned that all of the descriptive things we can say about God or God's people or Christian worship are only language. When it comes right down to it, there are many things we don't know, and not knowing is sometimes the wonder of being involved in Christian community. The fact is that we don't have to know—we can keep on working at describing.
RW: How conscious are you of the wedding of song and story?
Medema: I'm conscious of the effect of story on people—-the effect of parables. I learned about that way back in my Christian Reformed Sunday school days. I learned that Jesus told stories, and that's always been a preoccupation with me- If you want to say something, say it in story. I tell bedtime stories to my children, make them up—always have. Story is a very essentia! part of what I do. Story takes people off guard, catches them when their defenses are down, and allows them to have new experiences.
RW: Are certain styles of worship and music more appropriate than others?
Medema: Christian worship can be as broad stylistically as people allow it to be. Essentially, a musical style is neutral. Most of the characteristics we associate with a style are a matter of conditioning. For example, if I were in India and I played a raga and some baroque organ music for an Indian, he would respond to the raga. He might have a lesser response to the baroque organ music, but he would certainly not associate it with church and worship.
RW: Are you involved in a particular congregation?
Medema: Whenever I'm home, my congregation asks me to take part, and I'm always involved in planning stuff—even when I'm not there. "Home" is a small but extremely active church in the inner city of San Francisco. The congregation works very intensely with refugees and with inner-city gay people.
Our worship style is extremely diverse. Because we base most of our services on the lectionary, we are fairly liturgical. But we're not rigid. Our services blend formality and informality. In the middle of most services we throw all formal liturgy aside and become like an old evangelistic testimony meeting. We stop to express joys and concerns as people weep about the job they lost or people rejoice about a newborn child.
Our music also is diverse. One day we'll include Bach and Brahms, the next day music from Hair, and the next day the "Blowing of the Shofar." It's quite extraordinary.
RW: You've attracted people from many different traditions?
Medema: A lot of them have run away to San Francisco from more orthodox places. They've run away from the South, from the Midwest—they've run away to this city where they expect to find freedom. But they've become disillusioned in San Francisco. So they turn to the church and ask, "Is there still a place for me?" Here they find this maverick church, diverse as all get-out, with the right answer: "Yes there is a place for me, and it's exciting!"
RW: Much of your composing is done impulsively and intuitively; if you're commissioned to do something, is that difficult? Medema: It's a different process—not so much difficult as more long-term. I tend to spend lots of time mulling over and reading things. Then, very often on a plane, I will put down phrases, little sections of text, on cassette. Later I sit down to do the composing, and it comes together in fairly good-sized chunks. The themes, ideas, and phrases have been circulating in my brain for maybe two or three months.
RW: When you're doing commissioned work, do you still work in several different styles?
Medema: Usually I ask the group what they want. If they give me carte blanche, I try to find a style that's going to be right at the edge. I give them what I think they'll want, along with at least 25 percent that takes them beyond where they think they can go.
I just finished a piece called "The Weaver," published by Broadman Publications. Stylistically, it's somewhere between Benjamin Britten and Andrew Lloyd Weber. The text is an allegory about creation, the fall, and redemption. All the language for God presents God as the Weaver. There's not one male pronoun for God in the whole thing. We wanted to do an allegory and get away from these personal pronouns for one work. Actually, I'm rather pleased with it; stylistically, it combines a heavy dosage of the very classical with a couple songs that definitely are related to a pop style, but not in it.
RW: Where do you see yourself five years from now?
Medema: I will probably be doing a lot of what I'm doing now—that is, concerts, primarily in local churches. I'm hoping, however, that I will experience other things. I would like to do more work in schools and colleges, more music for conferences. I would like to be able to do a series of concerts where I actually bring churches and social agencies together (like Habitat for Humanity)—city-wide fund- and consciousness-raising concerts, to show that we're concerned about the lives of people. Eventually I would like to be able to walk into Carnegie Hall and fill it with people who have come to raise $25,000.00 in the cause of world hunger. That would be a wonderful day!
By Ken Medema
A wide range of solo and choral music, including single anthems as well as collections, are available from GLORYSOUND, Delaware Water Gap, PA 18327. (Several other publishers also offer some of Medema's music.)
Songs for the Turning—Volume 1 is a collection of Medema songs written since 1981.
Album and Cassette
Flying Upside Down
Reflections on a Thursday Morning
Is Your Phone Ringing?
(a 2-hour live concert)
A Little Child Shall Lead Them
Bev Vander Molen
3825 Meadowood Lane
Grandville, MI 49418
Briar Patch Music, Inc.
627 Waller Street
San Francisco, CA 94117