The Psalms Project

This item was posted a while ago, on 1 September 2014.

Steven Faux lives and works in two very different worlds – as an award-winning media composer, writing music for the BBC and other media production companies – and being a curate in a church in Bath. His music credits include the David Attenborough series’ Life of Birds, as well as Earthflight (in collaboration with Will Gregory of Goldfrapp), and the very successful Radio 4 series, The history of the world in 100 objects.’ But the two worlds were quite separate until he had what he describes as an epiphany, when raking leaves…

‘We have a lot of trees in our garden, and this is an annual ritual. It is strangely pleasant but also melancholic, and makes you think about the passage of time. And I was wondering what am I going to do, what have I achieved, and reflecting on where I was going with my music. I had been on a recent fact-finding trip to Hollywood, staying with a film producer friend, because I had always wanted to write music for the movies. But by now I was ordained, so I was not sure how God would make that work …’

He had also been shocked by what he had found in Hollywood. ‘The quality of the lives of the film composers I had met was so appalling. Everyone had sacrificed so much – their marriages had fallen apart, marriage after marriage; they were under huge amounts of pressure, and they never saw their children. And they would have to completely redo things, because someone in a suit would say so, and then they would often have to change it all back again.’

So if writing films scores was not the way ahead, what was? ‘I could write something musical that would draw on my ordained life, something that would give the thought of writing for its own sake some legitimacy. I could write something with a sacred foundation. I had been studying Brueggemann on the Psalms, and I had seen the pattern he writes about in the Psalms – of orientation, disorientation and new orientation. It is like the structure of a plot, a story arc. Whatever I wrote would come from the perspective of someone who grapples with the issues in the Psalms, of conflict, tension and unexpected blessing, using the language of film music.’

And that was that. ‘He says, ‘Within five minutes I knew I would do it, but I had no idea how much work it would entail. Not that this would have stopped me.’

How would he describe the Psalms Project? ‘It explores both the words and the fluctuating, often unpredictable, emotions of the Psalms, in search of a greater understanding of their meaning. I tried to rationalise these mood swings, but a purely intellectual understanding of the Psalms, however well thought through, is not enough: we are forced to admit that they express rapidly shifting, and at times contradictory, feelings.’ And, he says, it is by ‘being open to that world of emotion, maybe we can both go deeper into the Psalms, and begin to come to terms with our own experiences too.’

Film music is there to accentuate the impact of what is being watched and this is the approach that Steven uses with the Psalms Project: ‘As a composer I try to awaken feelings and create shifts in mood. For the audience this can be a conscious experience, but it is often more subliminal than that. This is especially true with music for radio, television and film. In dramas, but also in documentaries, music that might, when heard on its own, sound emotionally restrained or even boring, can transform pictures and other sounds, in a kind of alchemy that draws out our sense, say, of fear, jeopardy, courage or humour. The actual music of the Psalms Project is quite filmic. I have been influenced by key film music writers, such as Bernard Herrmann, who composed for Hitchcock; Thomas Newman, Kurt Weill and John Powell.’

So far, Psalms Project CDs 1 and 2 have appeared, and gone from strength to strength, being performed by Cantilena, the local county youth choir in Bath; during the Afterhours programme at Spring Harvest, in Montana, USA, and as part of the Party in the City, the Bath International Music Festival. Now the third disc has been released – and will feature during the weekend at Lee Abbey at which Steven is speaking: ‘We are doing a concert on the Saturday evening, and performing some of the songs from the new album, and some other pieces, maybe some Kurt Weill pieces and some of the singers’ own songs … And, during the day, we will be talking through the new Psalms I am looking at, which will be a vehicle to talk about their theological and pastoral ideas.’

While the Psalms Project was not written for congregational use, Steven is keen to see more choirs perform it, and delighted that Cantilena have made it their own, even producing their own CD, The Psalms Cantata. ‘This is just the kind of independent life I had hoped the music might achieve, and I wish them every success.’ So if you know of a choir looking for something new and different to sing …

Ali Hull

To hear more of Steven’s music, go to his website: www.stevenfaux.com

Psalms Project CD 3: Do Not Be Far, was released in July and is available from stevenfaux.com.