Episode 097: Hebrews in Music
Creating art that’s inspired from the Word. That’s exactly what Cody Curtis and the team at Psallos do – put together beautifully arranged music to display books of the Bible. We talk with Cody this week about Psallos’s new album, Hebrews, and discuss some points on how to create art inspired from the Bible.
Who’s Our Guest?
Cody Curtis is one of the pioneers of Psallos, a Christian musical group. He’s professionally educated in musical theory, and currently works at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee with his wife and child.
Why wouldn’t you pick up Psallos’s Hebrews and support this awesome art?
*Below is an edited transcription of the audio conversation.
With me today is Cody Curtis, he’s the composer and director of Psallos. It’s good to have you on the show again Cody.
Thanks for having me.
Yeah, if you’re listening, Cody and I actually already had a conversation on worship music back in January of this year. It was episode 52, and if you enjoy this conversation, you should definitely go and check out that last conversation as well.
But for those Cody, who didn’t hear episode 52, and just to give all of us a refresher, tell us a bit about who you are, and sort of what you do on a more personal level.
I’m from Memphis, Tennessee, it’s where I was born and raised. And my wife and I, and our daughter Ellowyne, we currently live in Jackson, Tennessee. We work at a place called Union University in Jackson, and we’ve been here for about six years, and we’ve both did our undergraduate degrees at Union. It’s a fantastic school. If anybody’s listening and is looking for a great undergraduate education, definitely check out Union.
And so we did that, graduated from there in 2009, got my master’s in Music Composition at UNCG, it’s a school in North Carolina. And wrapped up my doctorate two Mays ago in, I guess it was 2016, in Music Composition at the University of Memphis.
So, composition, music composition, is what I love to do, what I love to study and learn more about. And so my wife and I, we’ve been married since 2009, and we have one daughter right now, her name is Ellowyne, and she’s just a blast to be around,
Cool. That’s awesome. Thank you for sharing that little bit. So Psallos, this is a big part of your life right now. Why don’t you, if someone’s completely unfamiliar with Psallos, and by the way, when I’m saying Psallos, to the listeners, it’s P S A L L O S. So maybe first, tell us what that name is, and then kind of get into what Psallos is, and then what the mission and vision of Psallos is.
Psallos is a … or Psallo is Greek word, it’s used five times in the New Testament, and it’s usually translated to singing or to make melody. The main place it occurs in our mind, whenever we picked it as our name, was in Ephesians 5 when Paul says, “Singing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, and making melody to the Lord,” and that’s the word there for making melody to the Lord.
And we picked that, we added the S to it, to make it sound even better we thought. Because we thought it encapsulated what our mission was, and that was to help people to make melody to each other, and to the Lord, but as a form of worshiping through music.
And our music, it’s not congregational all the time, sometimes our music is congregational, but it’s more on the artistic presentation realm of things. And, so I guess I would summarize our mission as to create worshipful art music. We really, we lean into the fact that our music is artistic. It’s intentional. It’s based in an understanding of Western art music of composers in the past and trying to be, I am trying to be a 21st century composer, and all that comes with it.
It’s worshipful as well, it’s certainly a form of worship music, and just trying to think about just what is the role of music in worship, and then how can we do that in fresh way. And, I think that has resulted in setting Scripture to music, not word for word, but teaching people Scripture through more of a paraphrased telling of the story of different books of the Bible, so that’s probably how I’d summarize it.
Yeah. No, that’s so good Cody, and for those listening, like, you and the Psallos team, I think it’s a few years ago now, put out Romans, which I mean, the fact that you would choose Romans as your first big work is kind of unreal. But anyways, beautiful album in all honesty, and yeah, if you haven’t listened to that, you should definitely go check that out.
And just like Cody was just saying, it’s a paraphrase in a sense, verse by verse, through Romans. So you kind of have to touch on those really kind of difficult themes throughout the entire book, which is so important. Because I think for a lot of us, we can just simply go to the passages that maybe just make most sense, or that our hearts resonate most with, rather than looking at the whole thing.
So anyways, but for the last year, you’ve been working on a new project, so why don’t you just let us know what that project is, and then we’ll jump into that.
So, the follow up to Romans, it was tough, we didn’t … I did choose Romans as our first album, but I didn’t have in mind that this would be one of many. And after we did Romans, I had the idea,
“Well, wouldn’t it be nice to take all of the New Testament Epistles and put them to music,”
and so I sort of mapped that out. And I thought, “Well, if I can release one every year and a half, well maybe I’ll be done by the time I’m 70 or so.” So I decided not to worry about those details and just start working on the next album.
And so we did that little church songs album back in last October, and those were congregational songs, but our next major album, I knew I wanted it to be another New Testament Epistle. And my only really only qualification of what letter we would choose, is that it had to be small, and easy. Because Romans had wiped us out, it was just, as you alluded to, it’s a long letter and there’s so much in there, it’s so deep, so rich, and we did our best to convey everything that we thought we could in an album of that nature.
And then, so then I started looking at shorter epistles like at the end of First Timothy, all those nice four, five chapter letters. And I had written a good bit of both of those letters last summer, and by last summer, not the most recent one, but in 2016. And I just, I wasn’t feeling like it was the right move, I can’t really give too much objective reason as to why, but those letters are fantastic, and I look forward to putting those to music someday.
But just through conversations with people, I was drawn more towards the book of Hebrews, in which went against everything that I had set in motion not to do anything long or complex, and Hebrews is just about as complex as I think of a letter as you can get. And I was talking to some of my musicians about it, and I told them I was on the fence as to which letter to do. And I remember one of my musicians, his name’s Matt, he said,
“Well, maybe you should do Hebrews, because that’s a letter that, it’s probably less understood by your average believer than some of the others, and our mission really is to help to clarify Scripture in people’s minds.”
So that, I think that sold me on the fact that yeah, Hebrews is a good move.
So I picked that one, and then spent probably about five months studying it, reading different materials. I sat in on a class with George Guthrie. He’s a wonderful New Testament professor. He’s actually, I forget what school he’s headed to, but after this year, he’s going to be teaching up in Canada. So you all are going to get a jewel right there.
And then I spent probably late December until about March writing it all, and then after that orchestrating it, producing it and then we recorded it last summer. And our, even as we speak at the very, very, very tail end of that process of having it done.
That’s awesome. That’s so good. Just back to your first point about the idea of having sort of a musical piece on every single epistle, it just reminds me of, ’cause I think Sufjan Stevens wanted to do that with the states, I don’t know if you’re familiar with Illinois. I think he’s done two of them, and then-
Yeah, and then he changed.
And then he changed, but I mean beautiful pieces, so you know, I just want you to know that if Romans and Hebrews are the only two and you follow in Sufjan’s way, that’s still great.
That’s good to know.
‘Cause those are still timeless, great pieces, so there you go.
Before we jump into the kind of the creative aspect of this new album coming out, Hebrews, yeah, could you just kind of let us know a little bit, about what exactly Hebrews is even about. Like you said, it is often very… maybe not skimmed over, like people read it, but there’s lots of it that’s confusing with the whole priest, Melchizedek, lots is in there. So could you kind of tell us a little bit of what it is about?
Sure. Yeah, Hebrews, it’s thick language, and I think we can get lost in, especially if we don’t understand all these Old Testament illusions, than we’re going to be lost in New Testament context.
And so as I studied Hebrews and was just learning about it, the things that stood out to me, that this letter was about was, the personal work of Christ, so who He is and what Jesus has done.
And then secondly, there’s this call to endure, to press on to remain faithful to the end. And so, we have both of those components. And the way that Hebrews is structured, is the author, who is very skillful, I think when you sometimes first read it, you’re thinking, “Well, he doesn’t really …” “What’s his logic? I don’t know why he’s getting from this point to this point.”
But he’s jumping back and forth between exposition and exhortations. So the exposition is where he’s speaking about Christ and what’s he’s done, how Christ is superior to all these different people, and then he’ll just pause in the narrative and say, “But you need to endure, you need to press on,” and he’ll give these warnings to people. And so the exposition, maybe people will just say the overarching Christian logical narrative is interspersed with all these parenthetical commands, or these warnings to endure. Because it’s not in his mind, it’s not just enough to know that this is correct, or this is proper theology, but he uses that as a springboard to tell them, “Well then you need to keep living this way, falling away is a real danger. The deceitfulness of sin is a real danger, and so you must endure.”
So that’s, I think understanding that format was helpful to me in how I set it to music, and for people who read through it is just keep that toggling in mind from exposition to exhortation.
But overall, it’s just about Christ and His supremacy, and how beautiful He is, and how wonderful our salvation is in this new covenant context.
Yeah. Well you just briefly touched on it, but it’s interesting to me as you were talking, I was thinking in my head, “How does that truth then … how is the music that you’re going to create going to help support those themes?” Because you, Psallos has a lot of kind of orchestral sounds, and I’m hoping to hear more of that, we’ll get to that in a moment here.
But, it’s just interesting to me that you as a creative person, you definitely, music is your thing, was this sort of hard for you to imagine different melodies, different instruments, different sounds that would help sort of lift up this theme? Or does that come more natural to you?
It certainly is work to find out the right sound of each passage, and I’d write … I guess the writing of the album, it didn’t take a ton of time, four or five months. But even before I started writing notes, I was just thinking in my mind, “Well, what does this passage sound like?” And, so that does take a lot of coming up with the ideas, then ditching the ideas, and trying something else.
And Hebrews, and I didn’t come to this conclusion until I really got deeper into the Letter, but it offers these, so many different moments, different types of tones to work with musically. And, from that just developing my harmonic language, and I think whenever you write a composition, it’s each separate piece you come up with your own musical language. And then you just write within that musical language for the rest of the album. And so it took me a while to develop what that was, what if I could summarize the whole of Hebrews in just three notes, or one chord. And so once I had that figured out, all right for me it’s really more two chords, and then how do I then spread that out linearly across this whole long album.
So it takes a lot of work, and it takes a lot of work just to get it to the point where I’m satisfied with it, where I feel like my language is supporting the lyrics. On just as much, even if you don’t think about what’s going on musically, it’s all there, it’s all communicating the same message.
Yeah, that’s good. You know as you say this, I’m just thinking more to about people listening, a lot of creatives in the church, as in people that are musicians, maybe they are artists, like in the fine arts, photographers, film makers, what have you. What would you say is almost the first step, or the first sort of task when you want to take inspiration from the Word to create art? What’s something you can’t kind of forget, maybe an encouragement or-
Yeah. I think it’s super important to, and if you’re taking Scripture and you’re trying to communicate it to whatever degree, you have to know, and this is obvious, but you have to know what it’s saying, and you have to know what the overarching message is.
Like with Hebrews, I had this document where I put like layer one how do I summarize in one sentence what Hebrews is about? Okay. Layer two, how do I summarize in five sentences what Hebrews is about? Okay, layer three, layer four, and then in some point in that whole spectrum of layers, I have our music.
And so knowing how, what it is from a big point of view, and then once you zoom in knowing what each passage is, each verse, and so you have to start there, because we’re dealing with something that is objective truth. Yes, there’s some disagreements about how do we interpret certain things, but it’s saying something verbally and objectively. And so before we start imputing our subjective musical language into our art, we can’t, we have to know what we’re working with before we do that.
And then the second step, I guess the one I might even just close is that, the importance of form with everything. And with music, I wanted to understand what is the form and the structure of the letter, and then how do I translate that to the form and structure of an entire album?
And Hebrews is about 27 tracks, just as lengthy and I had to think about, yeah. It’s long. But I had to think about how does track one relate to track five, to track 13, or whatever, and how they all cohesive, and then how does just that idea alone communicate the message of Hebrews?
Yes, that’s so good. Cool. Thank you for answering that kind of side question.
This is sort of a question I had that this might be interesting but obviously the group that makes up Psallos is not just you. There’s a group of people there, and I’m just interested in what were some of the band members first reactions when you came up to them, whenever it was maybe a year ago, or so now. And you said, “Hey guys, we’re going to do Hebrews.”
There was, I think everybody was on board. And I think after we did Romans, it was such an experiment, when I approached Thomas and Kelsey, our lead singers about it. They were just surprised how eager they were to be a part of this album, and I didn’t really have a references point for what Romans would be like. I just said “You got to trust me with this idea, I hope it will work.”
And so they were on board with it, then it was even a year, two years ago, a year and a half ago, I approached both of them again, and I said, “Do you all want to do it for round number two?” And with our group, we’re just, we’re not a typical band, I don’t even usually refer to ourselves as a band, I don’t know what we are.
But Thomas, he lives in a different city, not too far, and Kelsey she’s still here in Jackson with me, but we just don’t know what our futures are going to be, and so it was never an assumption that we’re gonna keep doing this for however long. I hope we keep doing this for many, many years, if the Lord wills, but it was just like, “Hey are you all still on board for this?” And, they were, I think they spoke highly of their experience with Romans, and wanted to do it again.
And then the rest of the musicians … and with a lot of our musicians, there’s just, it’s just a very fluid cause we’re based here at a college. Some people graduate and stick around in Jackson, or some people graduate and move on. And then I have to find a new violinist, or trumpet player, or whatever it is, and so that part’s a bit more fluid. But everybody was supportive, and I think excited, but very fearful of what Hebrews would be like in music, just because it’s such a big project.
Yeah, exactly. Very big and again, like we were talking about, there’s kind of some difficult passages in there, which brings me to the next question.
When you were writing the different paraphrases of the truths in Hebrews, what passage or maybe passages did you find most difficult, if you wouldn’t mind sharing.
It may not be the ones that people might think. Just so certain passages in Scripture might be hard to interpret, and they’re controversial passages, like in Romans, it was Romans 9. And in Hebrews, it was probably Hebrews 6. And those passages aren’t necessarily difficult for me to … they don’t mean that they’re going to be necessarily difficult for me to set. That just means I stick closer to the text, and I do less interpreting, less paraphrasing, and really make sure that the listener knows that what I’m saying is what the text’s saying.
So Hebrews 6 wasn’t too difficult. I think the one I most struggled with, there’s two that come to mind, but the one I’ll say is in chapter 12, it’s the passage where the author is, he’s contrasting these two mountains and he says, “You’ve not come to essentially to Mount Sinai with this old covenant fighting imagery, but you have come to Zion, the city of the living God.” And it’s a wonderful passage, I think it’s the climax, or one of the climaxes of the letter, and it was difficult to maybe to portray each mountain, and each covenant to what it represented just individually, but then to make that those two different mountains coalesce and they could exist in the same song.
And so that took a lot of just careful writing, and working through that, and that’s, so that’s just an important song on the album and I like how it came out, but it just took a lot of time for me to figure out how to do it, and to be content with how it turned out.
For sure, no that’s good. I guess the big question of our whole conversation is, did you record in a dorm room with mattresses? Like you did with Romans?
Yeah, so yeah, with Romans, it gives us a little bit of back story, we just had zero money for that project, like none, other than what my wife and I had in savings. Yeah, we did it in a dorm room with mattresses with a very, very mediocre microphone, I would say.
And so for this next album, we knew we wanted it to be better, better quality. We were able to do a Kickstarter campaign and were able to raise some funds. But even with the amount of money that we targeted and then we got, it still didn’t allow us to go to a professional studio that would, I mean that would cost so much money, especially for an album of this length and nature, and complexity cause it is very orchestral still. So yes, we did it in a dorm room, inside a fort of mattresses, but it was a better fortress of mattresses- if that makes any type of difference. But we invested some money in better equipment, so we have, we still have, well we have two microphones now, but we just used the new one that we bought. It’s a very quality microphone. We use it for everything. It’s a Blue Kiwi. And, got a new audio interface system, stronger pre-amps, so the way we recorded it is the same, but it’s just a lot better quality.
Oh, that’s awesome, that’s good. Just before we finish up, a couple more quick questions here. One is, do you think any of the songs from Hebrews could be sung corporately in church setting or most of them more like you said, these kind of more ways of musical ways to express what Hebrews is talking about?
There might be one or two that are. In Romans I was more intentional about saying, “Okay I wanted to have a handful that would be congregational,” but I think with Hebrews I was less concerned about that because as I saw how Romans interacted, how people interact with Romans, I think it’s just more of a presentation. The music is a lot more complex than Romans is, it’s a lot more complex. And so even if melodies were within a singable range, I think just pulling them off for some church’s congregational corporate format might be challenging. Do-able certainly, but yeah, its more just presentation songs. But there might be one or two in there that can be adapted for that format.
That’s awesome. That’s so good. Well Cody thanks so much for sharing with us a little bit about this album Hebrews, Psallos, a little bit about yourself as well. So by now the album is out, so would you tell us a little bit about where people can get it, where they can hear it, things like that.
If you visit our website that’s probably the best place to get it. The website is WWW dot Psallos dot com. Again, Psallos is P S A L L O S. And, on our website there is an online store, so you can purchase physical CD’s directly there, we are still doing physical CD’s. We believe that’s an important way to listen to it, because you get the whole seamless connectedness with CDs a lot better than on digital, but you can also buy digital albums from there. We have a digital store, but it should also be available on stores like iTunes and Amazon, yeah so just check those out, but definitely Psallos dot com.
For sure, that’s awesome. And just to encourage listeners as well, some friends and I, we were at college, we got together, and we would do listening, like a listening party, where we would sit down with lyrics and play a whole album from start to finish. And I kid you not, maybe that does kind of sound boring, but it actually is incredible because you get the whole sort of album of whatever artist it is, in this one seamless thing. So I would suggest if you grab Hebrews, which I hope you do, you sit down with some friends and have the lyrics and listen to the entire thing.
I’m sure Cody would also appreciate that because it will get you the whole picture of what it all is about. So, listening parties, we have to do more of those, they’re very, very valuable.
Anyways thanks so much Cody, I hope to have you again on the show, soon.
It was my pleasure. Thank you.