150 Weeks of Composing Psalms Reaches Its Finale

November 25, 2022 - 08:38 AM - 124 views

The singing of psalms spans thousands of years of church tradition. Today’s songwriters and worship leaders mine these texts for words and inspiration as they craft new songs for the church.

For the past three years, Jesse and Leah Roberts—who perform as the duo Poor Bishop Hooper—have sung every word of every psalm and are hoping to help revive widespread interest in the singing of Scripture.

Their project joins a history of singing psalms that spans centuries, from monastic recitation to contemporary songwriters and worship leaders who mine these texts for words and inspiration.

“We should have songs that are not only upright but holy, that will spur us to pray to God and praise Him, to meditate on His works so as to love Him, to fear Him, to honor Him, and glorify Him,” wrote John Calvin in his preface to the 1543 Geneva Psalter, which guided Reformed churches in the practice of singing unaccompanied metrical psalms.

“Though we look far and wide we will find no better songs nor songs more suitable to that purpose than the Psalms of David.”

For the monk in the medieval monastery, chanting all 150 psalms each week, the psalms “were his daily bread, words always on his lips, the foundation of his life of prayer,” wrote musicologist James Dyer.

Chanting the entire Book of Psalms each week required total devotion, a rhythm of life built for prayer. Releasing an original song based on a chapter in Psalms each week—as Jesse and Leah Roberts have done with their recent EveryPsalm project—required its own kind of creative focus and commitment.

For the past three years, the Psalms have been musical and spiritual sustenance for the Robertses. Since January 2020, they have written an original song every week, releasing the new recordings Wednesdays on YouTube and music streaming sites.

They finish their collection of musical settings for the psalms with Psalm 150, which releases on November 9. The modern-day psalter is meant as a resource for Christians and churches.

The process of creating the songs has reminded them that there is a psalm for every moment, affect, and impulse to call out to God.

“There’s so much permission in the Psalms to approach the Lord in so many different ways,” said Jesse Roberts. “If you look at the top [worship] charts, how many songs ask a question and don’t answer it? That has been so influential for me as I go to the Lord in prayer. To be able to ask those questions, to ask them and sit in the mystery.”

The musical settings by Poor Bishop Hooper include meditative ballads, exuberant praise choruses, and blues-inflected songs. The uplifting arrangement of Psalm 5 features sparkling instrumentals and layered vocals in close harmony. Psalm 11 is treated as a quiet, peaceful ballad with unexpected chromaticism.

Some arrangements, like Psalm 23 and Psalm 148, are simple and tuneful, suited for congregational singing. Others are more complex and vocally demanding, inviting engagement through meditation and listening. The duo has also recorded and released instrumental versions of some of the more intricate arrangements.

The EveryPsalm project did not start as a pandemic project, but it did end up spanning those unexpectedly difficult, chaotic years. Sustaining creative energy and commitment week after week was not easy.

“Our twins went to kindergarten, but everything went online, so we homeschooled,” said Leah Roberts. “Particularly in that season, we would put the kids to bed, and then every night Jesse and I would go to the studio and it’s like, ‘All right, put your game face on! It’s 8:30, and we’ve gotta record a couple of psalms.’”

KELSEY KRAMER MCGINNIS

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