Under the radar: Five Christian musicians who go unnoticed

 

Pop-rock acts like Switchfoot and Relient K have managed crossover popularity. Punk act mewithoutYou has impressed the mainstream press with its highly experimental sound.

Sufjan Stevens covered the Innocence Mission song, "Lakes of Canada" for NPR's "All Songs Considered."

And it seems like ever increasing numbers of indie bands are being “outed” in media outlets like Relevant as Christians (Cold War Kids, Sufjan Stevens and The Civil Wars to name a few). These acts often see the confines of the Christian music industry as a hindrance to their art and to reaching a larger, not strictly Christian, audience.

This is not really anything new though. The boundary between “secular” and “Contemporary Christian Music” has been breaking down for several years now.

There are many Christians, though, who have been quietly making fantastic art and winning over critics in a wide array of genres for years, well outside the confines of CCM.

While the aforementioned bands and musicians have largely found acceptance among Christians and Christian media outlets, the following is a selection of artists who have been largely ignored by the Christian press despite their critically acclaimed body of work.

Dave Brubeck

At 90 years old, Brubeck is the elder statesman of the group by far. His case is an interesting one, though.

Brubeck is best known as a jazz musician. His quartet’s classic album, Time Out, is a platinum seller with heaps of critical acclaim.

Brubeck had been raised a Protestant but was never baptized. He decided to more closely investigate his Christian heritage after WWII. Brubeck had strong objections to war and responded with spiritual classical works that touched on Christ’s command to love one’s enemies.

Though he composed many religious works, Brubeck remained outside organized religion until 1980.

In 1979, he was commissioned to compose a mass. His struggle while composing the “Our Father” portion of the mass had a profound spiritual effect. It came to Brubeck in a dream, which he immediately transcribed upon waking up. He took the event as a sign.

Shortly thereafter, Brubeck became a Roman Catholic.

To Hope! A Celebration is a beautiful spiritual work and is the first of many sacred compositions. Brubeck is still composing and recording jazz and classical music.

“Take Five”

“Our Father”

 

Don and Karen Peris (The Innocence Mission)

Karen Peris has written songs for CCM artists, including Amy Grant. However, she is far from a household name.

The Perises have been producing understated, beautiful alternative folk since 1989. Their music exudes honest joy and humble sorrow, but sadly remains largely unknown to the Christian press.

Non-Christian media outlets, on the other hand, have consistently praised their music since 1993’s Glow. Even the Perises’ most explicitly faith-inspired release, Christ is My Hope, got more attention outside of Christian media.

The album consists largely of Catholic and Protestant hymns, spirituals and traditional songs including “It is Well with My Soul” and “Were You There?”

The song selection is fantastic and the originals are stunning.

“No Storms Come”

“Lakes of Canada”

 

T-Bone Burnett

Joseph Henry Burnett started his career playing drums on outsider musician The Legendary Stardust Cowboy’s novelty hit “Paralyzed,” and is a quality songwriter in his own right. But his biggest contribution has been as a producer.

Burnett has produced albums by Elvis Costello, Roy Orbison, Bob Dylan, The Wallflowers, Counting Crows, Gillian Welch, Natalie Merchant, Ralph Stanley, B.B. King, a Robert Plant and Allison Kraus collaboration (Raising Sand) and countless others.

His passion for Americana has also led him into film, his best known film work probably being the soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ Oh Brother! Where Art Thou? Burnett’s painstaking compiling led to a perfect auditory accompaniment for the witty Southern Gothic comedy.

Burnett also helped Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon learn to sing like Johnny and June Carter Cash for Walk the Line.

His excellence in the industry has garnered several Grammy Awards (four just for Oh Brother), Academy Awards, Golden Globes, an Independent Spirit Award and the list goes on.

Burnett has made a permanent stamp on American traditional music.

“Earlier Baghdad (The Bounce)”

“Killing the Blues” (Burnett on guitar)

 

Arvo Pärt

Pärt is an Estonian classical composer. He is perhaps the most prominent living composer of sacred music. Pärt’s music is dramatic, yet simple; avant-garde, yet accessible. His work has won over listeners of all faiths.

Pärt’s country was enduring the stranglehold of Russian communism when he first began publicly releasing pieces. His work caused considerable controversy for its supposed Western influence. It was 1968, however, that brought Pärt real notoriety though…and tried the patience of the devoutly atheistic Russian government.

Pärt’s “Credo” was a musical setting for the Nicene Creed. Its blatant profession of Christian faith met with hasty censorship. The struggles that followed would force Pärt to leave his home first for Vienna and then Berlin. He returned to Estonia in the 2000s.

The enthusiastic response of the people and hatred of the government led Pärt to consider his faith more deeply. Born into a Lutheran family, he ultimately decided to enter the Russian Orthodox Church and began studying Gregorian Chant and other music of the Church’s past.

In the 70s, he created his “tinntinnabuli” style, which has become his calling card. The word, meaning “bell,” refers to the unique timbre Pärt managed to create. Critics have referred to Pärt’s style as “holy minimalism,” a reference to its combination of minimalist and avant-garde composition with sacred text and ancient influences.

Pärt’s use of the sacred has managed to gain him praise from critics, rather than the derision that often greets Christian pop. His music captures the eternal in a way that few, if any, have managed. The music’s sheer beauty and peerless accomplishment cannot be denied by even the most hardened atheist.

Perhaps that’s why it scared the Russian government as much as it did.

“Credo” Part 1

Pärt discusses his new musical style with Bjork (BBC, 1997) –
Contains clips from “Cantus for Benjamin Britten” and “Miserere”

Nick Skiles is arts & entertainment editor for Aviso AVW.

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