TheoArtistry, and a Contemporary Perspective on Composing Sacred Choral Music
For the scheme, six composers were selected (from almost one hundred applicants) to collaborate with theologians in ITIA and the School of Divinity. This led to six new choral settings of ‘annunciations’ in the Hebrew Bible, six episodes in which God—in different ways—seems to communicate directly to humankind: God speaking to Adam and Eve (Genesis 3); Jacob wrestling with God (Genesis 32); the Burning Bush (Exodus 3); the calling of Samuel (1 Samuel 3); Elijah and the ‘sound of sheer silence’ (1 Kings 19); and the Song of Songs (3: 6–11).It will be interesting to see if the next generation of composers will engage with theology, Christianity or the general search for the sacred. There has been a significant development in this kind of intellectual, academic and creative activity in the last twenty years or so. In the world of theology there is an understanding that the arts open a unique window on the divine.
2. James MacMillan: Composition as Annunciation
MacMillan’s conviction about the intrinsic religiosity of music, however, was hard won and emerged in reaction to a prevalent attitude towards music ‘in university environments’ of his generation: namely, that music ‘was complete in itself’ and that ‘anything else was extraneous and irrelevant’ (ibid.). He subsequently considered such a retreat or ‘divorce’ from ‘resonances and connections with life outside music’ as ultimately sterile, a cerebral playing around with notes on the page in ‘train spotterist fashion’, a music which delighted in its own inaccessibility and unpopularity (ibid.).12 MacMillan’s voice as a composer emerged, then, when he allowed—against this prevalent university music culture—the ‘spiritual dimension to emerge’ (ibid., p. 18).13 He came, indeed, to relish the ‘extra-musical or pre-musical’ impetus, and to compare the transformation of these ideas into music as ‘to use a Catholic theological term, a transubstantiation of one to the other’ (MacMillan and McGregor 2010, p. 75).Music is the most spiritual of the arts. More than the other arts, I think, music seems to get into the crevices of the human-divine experience. Music has the power to look into the abyss as well as to the transcendent heights. It can spark the most severe and conflicting extremes of feeling and it is in these dark and dingy places where the soul is probably closest to its source where it has its relationship with God, that music can spark life that has long lain dormant.
MacMillan has highlighted that ‘the Christian believer is paradigmatically female: receptive to the seed of God’s word. Receptive of the potency of God, the believer is waiting to be filled, longing to bear the fruit which will result from his or her union with God, to bring Christ to birth in our own life stories’ (ibid., p. 24). This is a standard theological reading of the Annunciation, of course: Aquinas, for example, comments that ‘just as the blessed virgin conceived Christ corporeally, so every holy soul conceives him spiritually’.20 Nonetheless, MacMillan draws out from this paradigm the very conditions of his own compositional process:It is not just Mary’s fecundity that is inspiring to a creative person. A more powerful and more pertinent metaphor for the religious artist is the balance between, on the one hand, Mary’s independent free will and, on the other, her openness to the power of the Holy Spirit. There is something in the instinct of an artist or a composer, or any creative person, or any Christian for that matter, which is inexorably drawn to the idea of Mary’s ‘vesselship’—the notion of making oneself as a channel for the divine will.(ibid., p. 23)
MacMillan’s compositional understanding is, then, profoundly incarnational: ‘Mary, who was receptive to God; Mary who was filled by God; Mary who bore God’s son. Mary is a paradigm of our receptivity […] a model for all creative people […] and an example for all Christian believers’ (ibid., p. 23).Mary opens the door to the very heart of God, and in the silence of my own contemplation, in that necessary stillness where all composers know that music mysteriously begins, the following words from our sacred liturgy have lodged themselves in the womb of my soul, trapped in a scarlet room, gestating gently with a tiny pulse:
- Hail Mary, full of grace,
- The Lord is with thee
- Blessed art thou among women
- And blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
As the Annunciation provides a model for his composition of music (and for artistic ‘conception’ itself), so Christ incarnate is, for MacMillan, the pattern for musical performance—the transformation of the ‘joint discussions’ and ‘inner imagination of the composer’ into ‘live musical flesh’. As the Annunciation always points to the Incarnate living word through whom Christians come to know God, so musical creation, for MacMillan, is always fulfilled through the sensual, bodily communication of performance.It is a huge thing for a composer to hear their work come alive in the hands and voices of interpreters. Up until the first rehearsal the composition remains in the inner imagination of the composer. But it comes to life, incarnationally, when conductor and singers (in this case) start to transform it into live musical flesh. The open rehearsal of these new works […] was the moment when composer and theologian began to realise where their joint discussions had led.
MacMillan therefore suggests a model for what he would describe as his ‘ideal listener’ who ‘has to be not just open minded or open eared […] but a hungry listener, a curious listener’ (MacMillan and McGregor 2010, p. 87).Music opens doors to a deepening and broadening of understanding. It invites connections between organised sound and lived experience or suspected possibilities. In the connection is found the revelation, a realisation of something not grasped before. Such ‘seeing’ offers revelations about human living and divine relationships that can affect changes in our choices, our activities and our convictions. Music allows us to see, like Mary, beyond to what lurks in the crevices of the human-divine experience.(ibid.)
3. Forming Theologian-Composer Partnerships
- […] an intimacy
- takes two people by surprise.
- It may be, in the world’s eyes
- they should not be here,
- but without their risk the house is bare.
This was important in re-approaching the Scriptures through the imaginative possibilities of the arts, always being open to how—if one allows one’s artistic imagination to engage sympathetically with the Scriptural stories—new meanings and perspectives may emerge. As MacMillan put it: ‘At the Symposium, we presented the composers with this underlying research. We then encouraged them to engage deeply with their theologian collaborator, to be open to surprises, to what such collaboration might bring to the creative process’ (MacMillan 2017a).[…] art, whether Christian or not, can’t properly begin with a message and then seek for a vehicle. Its roots lie, rather, in the single story of metaphor or configuration of sound or shape which requires attention and development from the artist. In the process of that development, we find meanings we had not suspected; but if we try to begin with the meanings, they will shrink to the scale of what we already understand; whereas creative activity opens up what we do not understand and perhaps will not fully understand even when the actual work of creation is done (ibid., pp. 1–2).32
Although research in Biblical Studies, the commentary traditions, reception history, liturgy and artistic representation was an important first stage, the participants similarly experienced the collaborative process itself as generative of ideas and theological insights.the very activity of meeting together—praying, listening, responding, agreeing, disagreeing, exploring blind alleys, arguing at rehearsals, and so on—was not only intrinsic to the final result (‘the play behind the play’, as Ben Quash put it), but also the means through which a vast amount of the most important theology was actually done.(ibid.)
4. Six New Choral Works of Sacred Music for the 21st Century
De Grande explains that his title ‘Whilst falling asleep, Savta told me of Jacob’ evokes this relationship: ‘Savta is the Hebrew word for grandmother. My own grandmother used to sing and whistle to me when I was a child and she would tell me stories as I fell between sleep and dreams’. This intermingling between ‘whistling’ and ‘singing’ is heard as a novel texture throughout De Grande’s composition. To evoke the delicate balance of adult seriousness and childlike simplicity, De Grande sets an Emily Dickenson poem, ‘A Little East of Jordan’, suggested to him by Kelsey: the poem draws out the inherent ambiguity of the Biblical text, with the unnamed opponent referred to as an angel until the very last line and word of the poem in which the Gymnast ‘found he had worsted God!’.I had struggled with many starts and stops (the irony of wrestling with a narrative about wrestling was not lost on me). […] I began to realise that I needed to develop a deeper and more personal relationship with the text, something that I could feel invested in. […] The turning point for me came when I thought about my Grandmother who was religious and the way she was full of music and stories. She would improvise bedtime stories and I would often have to wake her for conclusions that seldom ever came. I realised that it wasn’t only about the words working with the music but feeling comfortable with the numinous context that bound them together. It turns out that my own sense of religiosity was found through the memory of my Grandmother.
Stevens emphasised that ‘the sound of sheer silence’ is ‘an encounter with God’, an encounter beyond the medium of words. Composer Lisa Robertson picked up this lead in making ‘the sound of sheer silence’ the focal point of her piece:The Father spoke one Word, which was his Son, and this word he speaks always in eternal silence, and in silence must it be heard by the soul. […] What we need most in order to make progress is to be silent before this great God with our appetite and with our tongue, for the language He hears best is silent love.42
To create a soundscape ‘inspired by the vastness of the mountains’, Robertson adopts a ‘sparse but widely spaced harmonic language [including] large contrasts in the dynamics, texture and range’. To suggest the points where God is not present (‘My God is not in the earthquake’), Robertson inserts ‘percussive sounds’; where He is present, she employs another extended technique of ‘whispering sounds’, mimicking the sound of wind (and evoking the breath of God which ‘hovered over the waters’ in the Creation story).As this follows the three dramatic natural phenomena of ‘the wind, the earthquake and the fire’, it was possible to use these events as a means of intensifying the tension towards the climax point. I felt that the most successful means of achieving this would be to enhance the listener’s musical expectations with four repetitions of musical material. The fourth repetition begins to conform to the listener’s expectations, according to the patterns, but is then suddenly interrupted and, surprisingly, met with lengthy silence.
the discussion, the dialogue, between theology and the arts is not some peripheral thing that some have claimed it has been, but it actually might have been a very central thing in the development of the way that we think of our culture.
Conflicts of Interest
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In the twentieth and early-twenty first centuries, there has been a remarkable flowering of different kinds of Christian music both inside and outside the denominational churches. Genres of contemporary music as diverse as Christian Pop, Christian Hip Hip, and Praise and Worship arguably have an equal right to be referred to as ‘sacred music’. Nonetheless, due to the focus of this article, I use ‘sacred music’ or ‘sacred choral music’ to refer, as does Arnold, to the predominantly Western Christian tradition of classical choral music from Gregorian chant, through Renaissance polyphony to the present.
In surveying the situation of sacred choral music at the beginning of the twenty-first century, Alan Kreider considers, instead, the stark contrast between the omnipresence of music (of all different kinds) and the decline in organised religion: ‘Decade by decade attendance at Christian worship services continues to fall: a recent authoritative survey of church attendance in England is significantly entitled The Tide Is Running Out’. See (Kreider 2003).
For a brief introduction that situates Ratzinger’s theological aesthetics in relation to the reforms of Vatican II, see (Rowland 2008).
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI makes the major claim (‘that has recently taken hold of me more and more’) that ‘in no other cultural domain is there a music of greatness equal to that which was born in the domain of the Christian faith. From Palestrina to Bach, to Handel, even down to Mozart, Beethoven and Bruckner, Western music is something unique, which has no equals in other culture. […] This music, for me, is a demonstration of the truth of Christianity’ (Ratzinger 2015).
MacMillan has also been a vocal public advocate for the important place of sacred choral music in Roman Catholic Liturgy, especially during the period leading up to and following Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Britain in 2010. See, for example, (MacMillan 2012): ‘This is what Pope Benedict XVI is all about in his “Spirit of the Liturgy”, there’s an encouragement to regard high points of the Church’s musical history such as classic polyphony and earlier, right back to Gregorian roots, as a kind of paradigm for Catholic music, “the very sound of Catholicism” as I have heard Gregorian Chant described. It can be kept alive in the modern age—a practical consideration, and also an ideological and spiritual consideration’; Ferguson (2015) has provided an invaluable, in-depth study that analyses MacMillan’s theoretical and compositional approach to sacred music (profoundly influenced by Ratzinger, in part mediated by MacMillan’s friend and former chaplain, the theologian Aiden Nichols; see (ibid., pp. 175–553, 326–27)), and situates it within the broader liturgical tensions and with a particular focus on Scotland.
I founded TheoArtistry in 2016 as a new dimension of the work of ITIA. TheoArtistry explores how ITIA’s research at the interface between theology and the arts might inform directly the making, practice, performance, curatorship and reception of Christian art, and transform the role of the arts in theology, Church practice, and society at large.
I would like to thank especially Professor Edward Foley for inviting me to reflect on this project in this special edition of Religions.
Jonathan Arnold explores this issue of performance context at some length: see (Arnold 2014, pp. 41–83). John Tavener, whose music has achieved a remarkable popularity, recognises the space for a kind of recording of his music that foregrounds its theological inspiration, with ‘Mediations by Mother Thelka’ accompanying his music. See (Tavener 1994, p. xi): ‘The purpose of this book and CD is to try to give a hint of how it might be possible to reinstate the Sacred into the world of the imagination. Without this happening, I believe that art will continue to slither into a world of abstraction, into being purely self-referential, a sterile and meaningless activity of interest only to the artist and possibly “Brother Criticus”. All great civilizations, except the present one, have understood this as a matter of course. We live in abnormal times; as André Malraux has said: “Either the twenty-first century will not exist at all, or it will be a holy century.” It is up to each one of us to determine what will happen’.
See (Wilkinson, forthcoming). The programme order of the recording, entitled Annunciations: Sacred Music for the 21st Century, is as follows: 1. James MacMillan, ‘Ave Maria’ (2010); 2. James MacMillan, ‘Canticle of Zachariah’ (2007); 3. John Tavener, ‘Annunciation’ (1992); 4. Kenneth Leighton, ‘Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis from the 2nd Service’ (1971); 5. James MacMillan, ‘A New Song’ (1997); 6. Anselm McDonnell, ‘Hinneni’ (2017); 7. Dominic de Grande, ‘Whilst falling asleep, Savta told me of Jacob’ (2017); 8. Kerensa Briggs, ‘Exodus III’ (2017); 9. Seán Doherty, ‘God Calls Samuel’ (2017); 10. Lisa Robertson, ‘The Silent Word Sounds’ (2017); 11. Stuart Beatch, ‘The Annunciation of Solomon’ (2017); 12. James MacMillan, ‘And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them’ (2009); 13. Benjamin Britten, ‘Hymn to the Virgin’ (1930); 14. Judith Bingham, ‘The Annunciation’ (2000); 15. James MacMillan, ‘O Radiant Dawn’ (2007).
I would like to thank the six composers, Stuart Beatch, Kerensa Briggs, Dominic de Grande, Seán Doherty, Anselm McDonnell, and Lisa Robertson for agreeing to the inclusion of the scores of their compositions as supplementary materials to this article.
For studies of some of the influences on James MacMillan’s identity as a composer, see (Ferguson 2015, pp. 165–82; McGregor 2011; Wells 2012).
MacMillan again emphasises the ‘pre-musical or extra-musical starting point or impetus, its genesis, its inspiration’ in (MacMillan and McGregor 2010, p. 74): ‘music is plugged in to something more than the notes on the page or the concept of moving those notes about the page in as successful a way as possible’.
It is interesting to note that the composer Roxanna Panufnik (b. 1968), a decade on, had a similar reaction to the teaching of musical composition in the academy. See (Panufnik 2003, p. 84): ‘I left music college swearing never to write another note again, because I wasn’t getting good marks. It was during the mid-1980s when esoteric and cerebral avant-garde music was still considered the right kind of music to be writing. […] I felt very false and that I wasn’t being true to myself in writing that kind of music, so I didn’t’.
See also (MacMillan and McGregor 2010, p. 71): ‘There’s a sort of idée fixe, I think, running through the development of a lot of musical modernism that points to the sacred’.
In the epilogue to his survey of the history of English Church Music, Andrew Gant comes to a different conclusion. See (Gant 2015, p. 375): ‘Most leading composers of church music of the last hundred years have not been conventional believers’. It is notable, however, that he gives only two examples: Michael Tippett and Peter Maxwell Davies.
Quoted in (Arnold 2014, p. 29): Stravinsky was ‘as conservative [in his religion] as he was revolutionary in his music making’.
(MacMillan 2000, p. 21) notes that ‘the engagement between theology and culture, between religion and the arts is now such a faded memory for most people that a whole generation has grown up without an understanding of the true meaning and implication in the word “inspiration”. And when a creative person comes across the definition for the first time, it is a discovery made with undisguised delight—a recognition of a primal truth that has lain hidden for a long time’. See also (quoted in Arnold 2014, p. 151): ‘I [MacMillan] believe it is God’s divine spark which kindles the musical imagination now, as it has always done, and reminds us, in an increasingly de-humanized world, of what it means to be human’.
See also (MacMillan 2002, p. 34): ‘All art is a kind of mirror image or a response to divine creation, to the first gesture of creation by the Creator. In many ways, artists have a tiny glimpse into the pathos with which God, at the dawn of creation, looked upon the work of his hand’.
As MacMillan highlights, his own work Adam’s Rib (1994–1995) is ‘simply an acknowledgment of this eternally regenerative process of music as it develops through the ages’ (MacMillan 2000, p. 22).
Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, IIIa, q. 30, a. 1, arg. 3: ‘sicut beata virgo corporaliter Christum concepit, ita quaelibet sancta anima concipit ipsum spiritualiter, unde apostolus dicit, Galat. IV, filioli mei, quos iterum parturio, donec formetur Christus in vobis’ [just as the Blessed Virgin conceived Christ in her body, so every pious soul conceives Him spiritually. Thus the Apostle says (Galatians 4: 19), “My little children, of whom I am in labour again, until Christ is formed in you”].
See (MacMillan and McGregor 2010, pp. 82–83): ‘That’s certainly a very Catholic way of understanding the theology of the body, the theology of spirituality which is about the here and now, as well as a sense of the Other. It’s about the interaction—for us it has to be about—the interaction of the here and now, the mundane, the everyday, the joys and tragedies of ordinary everyday people, and some concept of the Beyond or something that we stretch towards, something that we’re not completely fully aware of. And that tension brings about the great hope and potential for human beings to rise to the heights of what humanity is capable of’.
In this way, MacMillan distances his own theology of music and compositional language from those of his contemporary, John Tavener. See (MacMillan and McGregor 2010, p. 98): ‘I [MacMillan] don’t share his [Tavener’s] disparagement of the Western canon and indeed modernism, and I think we’re even different kinds of Christian thinkers as well. And the way he talks in, I think, rather pessimistic terms about the body, although he, as a product of the 60s, is clearly someone who has taken full cognisance of hedonistic tendencies, probably more so that I have. But he talks about the body as quite distinct from the spirit and that always strikes me as rather odd, and a negation of full human potential. It seems an uneasy relationship in which to have the corporeal and the spiritual, and one could easily be dropped in relation to the other, and that worries me’.
MacMillan speaks or writes eloquently about the transformative power of music on many other occasions. See, for example, (MacMillan 2002, pp. 35–36): ‘Whether they are religious or not, people can and do speak in religious terms about the life-enhancing, life-changing, life-giving transformative power of music. This quasi-sacramental aspect of the form proves that music has a power and depth to touch something in our deepest secret selves, for music cannot be contained in its abstract parameters. It bleeds out into other aspects of our existences and experiences’.
See (MacMillan 2002, pp. 34–35): ‘Many of my works begin with an extra-musical starting-point. The pre-musical inspiration is an important factor on the specific nature and character of the music itself. It is important that this connectiveness between the pre-musical and the musical is always palpable and audible in the final creation’.
As (MacMillan 2002, p. 33) notes, Raising Sparks ‘sprung forth initially from Michael’s reading of the eighteenth-century Hasidic mystic and theologian Menahum Nahum’.
See (MacMillan 2002, pp. 33–36): Where Quickening (1998) celebrates the ‘mysterious fragilities and ambiguous sanctities of human life’, Parthenogenesis (2000) confronts head on the moral and theological issues of embryo research and genetic experimentation and manipulation: ‘areas that are uncomfortable, messy and disturbing […] theologians need to engage in these areas and be involved in debates pertaining to the nature of human life which are currently raging in our culture’. See, also, (Fuller 2015) for a brief discussion of some of these collaborations including Parthenogenesis.
(MacMillan 2000, p. 20) credits Symmons Roberts, indeed, with helping him to articulate his own theology of music: ‘Michael Symmons Roberts, whose poetry I have set a lot, has used the term “the deep mathematics of creation” about music. This is a term that chimes with me because music does seem to be a kind of calculus, a means of calculating something of our very nature. And because we are made in the image of God, music can be seen as a calculus of the very face of God’.
In a revealing BBC radio interview, (MacMillan 2010) comments: ‘When I set poetry […] I live with the poem for a long time, a necessarily long time, so that I can fully understand it, and the music can wrap itself around the words in a way that brings about the deeper meaning which is not immediately apparent in first encounter’.
The theologians and composers on our scheme were asked to engage with Begbie’s research as well as with the reflections of James MacMillan, Michael Symmons Roberts and Rowan Williams on the fruit of their collaboration, Parthenogenesis (Begbie 2002, pp. 1–13, 17–53). Parthenogenesis focused on an intriguing story, or urban myth, of ‘a young woman in Hanover in 1944’, who was injured by an Allied bombing raid, and gave birth nine months later to ‘a child whose genetic profile was identical to hers. She insisted that she had not had intercourse before conceiving’ (Begbie 2002, pp. 21–22). In addition to a methodological model, Parthenogenesis (etymologically, ‘virgin-creation’), with its theme of a peculiar ‘dark-Annunciation’, provided, of course, a key inspiration for our own theme of ‘Annunciations’. Although our collaborations explored ‘positive’ Annunciations—God communicating directly with humankind and, at the Incarnation, becoming man (and of the lived and artistic experiences associated with this)—one cannot but be acutely aware in contemporary Western culture of the ‘negative mirror image of the Annunciation’ (MacMillan 2002, p. 37) in the destruction and manipulation of human life at its earliest and most vulnerable stage.
I would like to register here my gratitude to Kathryn Wehr, then a doctoral student in ITIA, who provided invaluable administrative assistance to me in co-ordinating these theologian-composer partnerhips.
See also (Williams 2002, p. 29): ‘Artistic work is always discovery, not illustration. Or, to put it slightly differently, but to connect it with the whole thesis of this essay, artistic work both engages with the real otherness of the environment and itself becomes “other” to the original planning mind as it moves towards its final form. It is not an empty cliché to repeat that the artist genuinely doesn’t know until the work is coming to its expression just what it is going to be’.
More controversially, (Williams 2002, p. 28) goes on to draw an analogy with the process of the composition of the Gospels themselves as ‘not a story repeated, not a story invented to make a point, as the more mechanically minded critics might argue, but a set of narratives constantly being retold, and altered in the retelling because of what the very process of telling opens up, shows or makes possible’.
Although the introduction is co-written with Guthrie, the discussion of instrumentalisation, aestheticism, and orientation seems to expand directly on the passages cited in (Begbie 2002). See, also, (Begbie 2000) and, more recently, (Begbie 2013) for his evolving theology of music.
For this reason, (Broadhead 2012, pp. 157–61) characterises Begbie’s theoretical method as ‘dialogue through analogy’, and reproduces Heidi Epstein’s assertion that Begbie’s theologising ultimately ‘reduces music to a mere proof-text for biblical doctrine. Music thus remains an evangelistic revealer of Christian truths’ (ibid., p. 161; Epstein 2004, pp. 84–86).
I am grateful to Gavin Hopps for sharing with me, and with participants on the scheme, forthcoming research. See (Hopps, forthcoming).
David Brown has consistently advocated in his work a ‘generous’ understanding of God’s self-revelation in the world through human history and culture. See, most recently, (Brown 2017). See also (Brown 2004, 2007, 2008). In this context, see also (Begbie 2012)’s response to David Brown’s approach to theology and music, including his ‘misgivings’.
See also (Burch Brown 1989).
This dialogue, of course, contributes to a much wider, international scholarly discussion on the relationship between theology and music. For a descriptive summary of some of these scholarly viewpoints see, for example, (Heaney 2012b).
Martin Ganeri situates his Thomist model for comparative theology in relation to the summary of approaches provided by Gavin D’Costa.
In discussing briefly each of the six collaborations, I rely on the draft chapters of the theologians and composers which will be published subsequently in (Corbett, forthcoming).
In terms of theologian-artist collaborations, of particular note is the play Wrestling with Angels (based on Genesis 32–33 and 2 Corinthians), a collaboration between theologians and Riding Lights Theatre Company in 1998 that led, in turn, to the collaboration organised by Jeremy Begbie, Till Kingdom Come, in 2000. See especially (Ford 2002).
St John of the Cross, Maxims and Counsels, 21, 53.
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Corbett, G. TheoArtistry, and a Contemporary Perspective on Composing Sacred Choral Music. Religions 2018, 9, 7. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel9010007
Corbett G. TheoArtistry, and a Contemporary Perspective on Composing Sacred Choral Music. Religions. 2018; 9(1):7. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel9010007Chicago/Turabian Style
Corbett, George. 2018. "TheoArtistry, and a Contemporary Perspective on Composing Sacred Choral Music" Religions 9, no. 1: 7. https://doi.org/10.3390/rel9010007