Convivium’s Hannah Marazzi talks to musical scholar and choral director Ben Ewert about his new role creating music to remind us that “God requires worship from every part of our being, not just our emotions.”
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Convivium: You are a musician, a scholar, a composer, and a choral director. Take through your journey into music.
Ben Ewert: My dad was and is a pianist. My parents were missionaries in Brazil and while we were there, he started to teach myself and my sister piano and just kept pushing us. He did not let us quit. I just hated practicing piano, but I am now very thankful and regret not pushing myself a little bit more.
My parents were always singing and doing quartets, specifically in church. A lot of my connection with music began in the church. When we moved to Canada for good, we joined a Mennonite Brethren church that was supporting my parents, and they were obviously very musical. People were still alive who had come over from Ukraine or come over from Germany. There was a big tradition of singing acapella, singing in four-part harmony, and singing in choirs—so I had that in the mix as well.
Going through my teenage years, I wasn't totally sold on classical music. I still listened to it, but I really liked bands like Smashing Pumpkins and Weezer—those grungy, pop/progressive-rock bands. I liked the epicness of it all. When I went to college, I had a chance to sing in choirs and discovered that same epicness in choral music – how big and powerful some of these choral works were. We were singing works like Mozart's Requiem, and Handel's Messiah.
I was doing the music program in college and took conducting lessons, and was given the opportunity to conduct part of Mozart's Requiem. That’s really where, for the first time, I discovered my love for conducting and the power of making music together in a big group—the choir and orchestra together, being able to encourage that from the front, or direct it.
C: You have degrees in sacred music, piano, choral studies, and are completing a PhD in music and conducting. I understand that your dissertation is devoted to the study of the interplay between the secular and sacred spheres.
BE: My dissertation will focus on the meeting of sacred and secular in music. Within my dissertation specifically, I’ll be focusing on a composer named Sir James MacMillan. A composer of Scottish background, he's a great source for very outspoken views on sacred music in secular culture.
He wrote these pieces called Cantos Sagrados. Written in the late 1980s, he set the poetry of the Mothers of the Disappeared in Argentina – who lost their children to kidnapping and murder, never to hear from them again – to music, undergirding it all with the Latin Mass interwoven into the whole piece. My dissertation will focus on how that blend of sacred and secular fits together within those works in particular, and some of his other music. More broadly, my dissertation will explore how sacred music can inform secular culture and vice versa.
I’m drawn to MacMillan because it’s hard to find someone who will extol the value of sacred music within its Christian context, basically. You'll find lots of people who will talk about the value of sacred music, and how we shouldn't lose this vast tradition of music, but to find someone who is encouraging Christian artists, in particular to write, say, classical music and engage with secular culture, that strikes me. To him, this engagement is natural and an out flowing of one’s faith. There's not this divide between sacred and secular.
I'm attracted to the sacred-secular interplay because I don't view those spheres as necessarily separate. We live in secular culture, but we might engage with sacred activities, or we hold sacred views, or have this faith framework or context to our thoughts. In my mind, this shouldn't be hidden away and separated from the conversations that take place in the secular sphere. I believe the music offers us a great opportunity to engage with the secular sphere in a very unique way.
C: How would you define sacred music?
BE: I think sometimes we, especially myself, tend to use that term a lot and just expect that other people will kind of clue into what it means. When I speak about sacred music, I fully admit that I'm thinking of that term within a Judaeo-Christian context.
Sacred music has to do with the worship of God and is written by composers with that in mind. This current definition has opened up the faith of other composers and how they experience God in their worship or how they approach God in their worship for me.
C: What role has music played in your personal journey of faith?
BE: As a person who grew up in an Evangelical free type church, I was only really exposed to sacred music in a limited way. We sang contemporary worship and hymns sometimes as well. My classical music understanding was limited to the sphere of Royal Conservatory of Music, so it was very formalized music training.
This has, of course, shifted over the years. I so clearly remember encountering the work of Anton Bruckner, a 19th century composer, whose work set a piece – Christus factus est – which is the setting of the passage in Philippians that talks about Christ taking on flesh—to music. The title is part of a larger phrase that means “Christ was made (or became) for us obedient even unto death,” or “Christus factus est pro nobis obediens usque ad mortem...” There’s this four-part harmony that engages with this passage in an incredibly nuanced and beautiful way.
When I sang that for the first time, I was completely mesmerized. As I began to study it as I performed it for years, I saw how intelligently and creatively Bruckner had crafted this passage to illumine what the text was saying. The music itself didn't over-ride the text. He made the music a servant to the text.
Seeing extremely talented musicians engage with Scripture has been so encouraging for me. I feel incredibly lucky to be able to perform those pieces over and over again. In some sense, once you perform a piece of music it's gone and then it's fresh again for you to perform the next time. I'm able to experience that for myself over and over again and in some way meditate on that Scripture passage through these works. I find it just so exciting to be able to share that with other people through performance or, if God is willing, in a service. Choral music really for me has been an illuminator of the Scriptural.
C: Was there a moment in which you realized that music was, in a sense, both a profession and a vocation for you?
BE: No, I don't think there was a moment. It's been a slow and sometimes depressing realization. I don't come from a family of academics or musicians who make their living off of music. My dad was a piano teacher, but he had another day job. There really was no one to say to us, “Go this way or try this, or this is how you do this.” For me, I found it incredibly difficult to hash out through trial and error a career in music. I'm very thankful that it has landed where it has.
C: You have been a member of multiple congregations during the course of your studies. What have you observed about the contemporary church’s relationship to music over the last 10 years?
BE: I've seen churches do it well and I've seen churches do music technically well. I think that sometimes the technical aspects of music and the display of contemporary music is difficult to navigate.
I have also seen music done quite well. Saint John's church in Vancouver is a congregation I would highlight. There was a man named Etienne there who was so humble and a talented song leader. He was able to take contemporary music and make it so that the congregation was welcome to sing along.
I think that would be my biggest critique about contemporary music leaders and writers: the music is not always, well, sing-able. We really need to consider a fuller age spectrum while approaching music in church. I felt Saint John's did that quite well in their evening service.
C: You very recently made a big move from Edmonton to an English village to serve as the Pioneer Worship Minister at Chalfont St. Peter Parish. Tells us about this unique role.
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BE: The Church of England started this initiative a while ago where a designation called “Pioneer” was developed. The “Pioneer” bit in my job description means this is a new initiative. The person fulfilling the position participates in new initiatives to enliven the church in whatever way required.
The “Minister” bit is a designation from the bishop to allow the person filling a position to also do teaching. For example, last Sunday I led a talk in the contemporary service and one of the evening prayer services at one of the traditional churches. I gave the sermon and led the service as well.
The worship side of this position is fairly broad and pertains to whatever is happening in the church worship – be that music, liturgy, a special service, or community outreach. I would contend that broad spectrum of activities is what is “covered” by the term “worship.”
I think that some people might just think of worship as music, which drives me absolutely nuts. They'll say, "Oh, that was great worship this morning. You know, let's now pray."
Everything you do in that service is worship. I just hope a big part of my role will be encouraging that kind of thinking. The alternative is not helpful. That said, the focus of my role is on music in the contemporary service, traditional services, etc. I will be working on building music teams, because the musicians, there aren't a lot of musicians who are in the church right now, especially for contemporary music. I’ll also work on building up choirs in the traditional services and working with them as well.
One of my passions is exposing people to great sacred music in a way that's not threatening. In some of the churches that I've worked at, we've done something like a community choir. At Christmas or Easter time, we open up the church and invite people in from the community to join choir, to sing for the special events. It's not a church service, but we do talk about the music and its origins. Or we'll do something like a carol service, where people are don’t feel threatened.
We also want to start a choral evensong service at one of the churches here. My hope is to draw in either children to form part of that choir, or university age singers, much like I've done in a couple of other cities. They wouldn't have to go to church. They wouldn't have to have ever gone to church. The idea is that we're focusing on making some really high-quality music in an Anglican service of evensong.
C: If you could say one thing to the contemporary church about the relationship of music to their spiritual journey, what would it be?
BE: Be careful with the music that you choose. Apply to the music and the contents of that music and the lyrical content the same kind of standards that you would apply to someone who would come and preach at your church or your sermon content or whatever, your Bible study content. Be careful with what you choose and apply rigorous standards to it. Because whatever you fill your congregation with, that's going to become their language basically. You are accountable for the content that goes in and then comes out of their congregation.
Stay away from equating big emotion with true worship. Think about the fact that God requires worship from every part of our being, not just our emotions.
Encourage songwriters in your own churches. No matter how painful it might seem at the beginning, I think it's so valuable to be able to foster people who actually write your own worship songs or find someone in the community who does it maybe for another church or something like that.
We feed this consumeristic worship culture through radio, through buying albums, through CCLI licenses, and all this kind of stuff, where we're basically told, "This is what's popular, so therefore you should sing it." I think it's important, then, to have an alternative. It's not necessary to throw all that other stuff away, because there is good stuff in there, but I think it's important to also foster your own song writing, or your own music making or things like that.
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