Tuesday, August 02, 2022

Borderline New Age: Phillip Keveren, "Prayer Changes Everything"

This compact disc of “instrumental music for reflective prayer” was offered by the devotional magazine Our Daily Bread. Apparently uncredited on the cover and tray card, the insert includes a personal message from Phillip Keveren, who plays keyboards on the recording and arranged six of the 10 pieces. Kent Hooper, also on keyboards, arranged the remainder.

The music is performed by seven musicians led by Keveren and/or Hooper and includes flute, oboe, guitars, and percussion. Some of the pieces also involve the Sacred Arts String Ensemble, which might be a larger or similar setting of the Sacred Arts String Quartet or Sacred Arts Strings, which Keveren had a hand in. Only the concertmaster and contractor of that ensemble receive credit. Unlike most meditation or spa music (its own distinct genre!) I’ve encountered, the music—while calm and largely soothing—is more inspirational and upbeat in its tempo and structure. Prayer, though reflective, seems intended as an uplifting experience.

Opening with “Pray for Me,” an instrumental cover of Michael W. Smith’s single taken from his 1988 album I 2 (Eye), the initial sensation is borderline new age music, with Hooper’s keyboard work slightly more synthesizer oriented. The pieces Hooper arranged seem to feature synths more forwardly, while the pieces arranged by Keveren largely do not. (Actually, some do, such as “Take My Life, and Let It Be” and “In the Garden” though the synths are more muted in those cases, providing more background wash or swell than the occasional bleep and gurgle, which I welcome.)

The bulk of the songs other than the Smith cover are traditional hymns, with one—Hillsong’s “Lead Me to the Cross”—stemming from more recent devotional music currents. Of the two arrangers, I prefer Hooper’s arrangements—”Pray for Me,” “Lead Me to the Cross,” “On My Knees,” and “The Lord’s Prayer”—because they edge closer toward new age music. (“On My Knees” even includes pleasant Enya-like portions, reminding me of “Orinoco Flow.”) For the most part, however, the music is gentle, minimal—though not minimalist—music along the lines of a simpler Windham Hill or Dan Gibson’s Solitudes without the natural sounds. That both of those labels are now defunct saddens me.

Erik Gratton’s flute features prominently in “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” paired with Bill Woodworth’s oboe for duet sections. Woodworth also features in “Take My Life, and Let It Be,” offering a nice counterpoint to the predominant piano. A guitarist takes the melody line briefly in “Lead Me to the Cross” before returning for a triumphant ending. For the rest of the CD, the keyboards—the piano, really, if it be one—takes lead in most cases, with the other instruments there merely for variety.

As a prayer or meditation aid, the music is a bit dramatic and energetic for me; I’d find it distracting, though it could make excellent music for focused work. If a listener is more familiar with the hymns featured, their lyrics might come to mind, either aiding one’s prayer or meditation, or perhaps distracting one with the lyrical content.

The recording is an interesting project, one which inspires me to ask who its intended audience is. Was it merely intended as a premium for Our Daily Bread readers? Is there a market for instrumental devotional music? If so, how large is it?

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