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More Voices

songs in a new key

By Donna Sinclair

National church staff and volunteers didn't have to guess whether congregations were ready for a new songbook -- they simply asked. And when a survey showed a vast majority of congregations using Voices United were ready for new music, creation of the More Voices supplement was put into motion in early 2004.

What congregations will get when the 225-song collection is published early next year is a mix that will likely challenge their sense of rhythm, push the edges of their theology and get them moving. The music will let them play a variety of instruments and sing in new languages.

"I just hope the church is ready to sing new songs," says Rev. Mark MacLean, the General Council staffperson who helped shepherd the project. So far, after testing at regional events and in about 500 congregations, response is "very positive." About 2,700 congregations will receive a 21-song sampler this month and have a chance to see and sing for themselves.With Kelowna, B.C.-based Wood Lake Books paying the book's $640,000 development costs as part of a joint venture agreement in return for a share of the profits, the business side of making More Voices was easy.The year-long process of seeking, testing and selecting songs from about 10,000 submissions was more daunting. That job fell to More Voices managing editor Bruce Harding and a development committee of 10 volunteers.

They were divided into sub-committees considering contemporary Christian music, Canadian content, global music and contemporary Euro- American songs.

Another "special focus" committee made sure areas such as feminist spirituality and creation theology were covered. After Harding pre-screened songs -- which arrived at the rate of hundreds per day for several weeks -- sub-committees would winnow their own hundreds down to 20 to 30. Then they took those "finalists" to three three-day development committee meetings. There, says MacLean, "they had a timer on the table and, bang, nine minutes per song. They would play it, sing it and come to consensus." Committees were only shown lyrics and music, so "they really had no idea whose music they were getting."

The result, almost finalized at the end of last year, is about 30 percent Canadian, with generous helpings of global music and what is called praise music -- songs that usually originate in the contemporary Christian music industry, with shorter lyric bases and melodies. There are also songs aimed at children and youth.

Harding says the development committee has discovered some "amazing" new songwriters. Overall, he thinks the collection has struck a good cultural, theological and musical balance. More Voices is the United Church answer to praise music "in some ways," says Harding. But it goes further and deeper.

"There are many different expressions of spirituality, many musical forms," says Harding. More Voices tried "to find that balance, not to ram a particular theological vision down the church's throat but to celebrate the diversity of who we are as a church." While encouraging new and diverse instruments, the collection has not sidelined organists and choir directors, Harding says. More Voices' creators also make it clear that the book is a supplement to the 10- year-old Voices United, not a stand-alone hymnbook.

"Voices United... has really served our church well," says Harding, "but there's an ongoing thirst for new songs. It's a matter of encouraging people to find that balance of the old and new. And we're sunk if we don't have both."

While there's something for everyone, the amount of new music and styles ensures the supplement won't be bland. Even the supplement's cover, an abstract painting of a burning bush that appears on the sampler, is striking. An earlier, blander version was rejected. As for those world-beat rhythms, a planned "audio companion" CD and more regional workshops will help church musicians learn how to sing the supplement's new songs.

Following its release into congregations this month, the More Voices sampler will be used at spring Conference meetings; the official launch will take place at the General Council meeting this summer in Thunder Bay, Ont. The pew edition of the supplement is priced at $15 a copy, but pre-publication pricing of $13.50 is available any time up to Nov. 15, with full payment for hymnbooks ordered. The books will be printed and delivered by this time next year.

Plans call for print runs of 150,000 books in the supplement's first three years. According to project forecasts, that should garner $884,000 in profit, shared between the church and Wood Lake Books.

As well as the Voices United launch at General Council, MacLean is hoping there will also be introductions "at the grassroots level" of the church.

"As far as I'm concerned," he says, "this resource has come out of deep listening to the church.... These are very much songs from different and diverse communities, and we want to give those songs back to those local communities."

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