For Heaven's Sake
Roger James first made a name for himself in local music circles as a jazz pianist. Last year he released Voyages, a collection of tasteful keyboard-laden originals that wouldn't seem out of place next to recordings by Yanni and other artists who straddle the line between jazz and new-age music. These days, however, there's a different kind of sound emanating from James's Denver studio, one resulting from the pianist's recent exploration of a musical style that falls far outside the mainstream. On his self-released Music of the Prophets, he delves headlong into an obscure academic art form derived from a belief that the Masoretic Hebrew Bible, the source of the Old Testament, is actually a piece of music.
"Listen to that," James says, his hands floating across the piano while he plays a selection from Music, producing a classical-sounding creation that rises and falls dramatically. "That's good songwriting. It's the music of God."
Indeed, if the works James has committed to his Music of the Prophets CD are derived from the ancient text, some people may soon have reason to regard the Creator as one heck of a composer. The selections are rich with complex chord voicings and heart-grabbing minor-chord progressions. On Music, James builds on the work of Suzanne Haik-Vantoura, a French composer and music theorist who first determined that the symbols above and below the lines of copy in the Masoretic text were a complex series of musical symbols, not simple melody notations and punctuation marks, as most scholars now believe. For the past two years, James has built on Haik-Vantoura's discoveries by adding harmonies to the original ancient melodies, recording them with modern instrumentation and translating the lyrics to English.
"I've made this music available to English-speaking non-scholars," he says. "No one's ever done this before."
James, a Christian, found this somewhat mysterious musical world in 1999, when he was learning Hebrew. He came across the discoveries of Haik-Vantoura, who had published her findings in 1976 in the book La Musique de la Bible Revélée; later that year, Haik-Vantoura released a recording of the same name on the Harmonia Mundi label and went on to supervise several more recordings of Masoretic-inspired scores. Her music appealed to James's musical and religious sensibilities, and his elaborations on her findings have since become something of an obsession.
In addition to creating an accessible, Living Bible-type version of Haik-Vantoura's work, James has made a few discoveries of his own. He's documented these findings in a manual titled Music, Spirit and the Keys to Prophecy, which he's releasing in conjunction with Music of the Prophets. James's revelations include his belief that music is the "fingerprint" of God and a tool for interpreting the meaning of the Bible. He also delves into more edgy topics, such as his theory that the mechanics of music are a key to understanding the prophecies of the Apocalypse. James admits that these topics may have people thinking he's one more religious nut worthy of a good cracking. Adding to that sense is the book's "Notice to truth censors," in which James states that he has taken steps to make sure his work gets published "should any significant harm befall the author" or in the event that he is "significantly hindered from the publication" of his work.
"That might be overkill," James says of his concerns, "but some of the things I'm touching on in the book might be touchy to some powerful groups."
James counts the entertainment industry and organized religious groups among those who might be threatened by his revelations. But after one listen, it's hard to imagine how anyone could regard his project as a threat. Music of the Prophets opens with "The Creation," in which James recites an English version of the Creation story to a musical backdrop. The piece has a neo-classical feel and features church-friendly piano parts that echo the drama of the Bible text. "The Benediction" is a stirring, slowly moving piece that features luxurious Hebrew singing (by Peter J. Tuff, a Colorado Springs singer) and James's reading of the Lord's Prayer. "The Sh'ma" opens with a flourish from a shofar, an ancient trumpet made from a ram's horn, that builds to an a cappella chorus of Hebrew singers and one more moving passage from a lone Hebrew vocalist. "Isaiah 6" features James reading that text backed by his own flute track, while "Psalm 23" is a satiny lullaby with a contemporary feel, hushed Hebrew verses and delicately played piano parts.
Like many of the compositions on the CD, "Psalm" loses some of its emotional impact during James's bone-dry readings of the ancient Hebrew translations. While James admits that his music might suffer a bit in translation, he says he's not concerned with instant gratification, for himself or his listeners.
"I don't expect to go out and rock the world," he says. "This is more contemplative music. It's not pop music designed for our three-minute culture." The narrations are a tradeoff he has to make, he says, in order to get the music to Hebrew-impaired masses. And if people have problems with his compositions, he can't help that. "Somebody told me 'The Creation' was too long," he says. "I said, 'Well, you can't blame me for that -- it was seven days long. It's not my problem. If you don't like it, blame it on God.'" James also refuses to stray from the original melodies of his material or bend them to suit modern-day attention spans. "If I did that, then I might as well be doing Christian contemporary music. That would be heresy."
To some, James's work is already viewed as mildly heretical.
"There are very few Hebrew scholars that take her work seriously," says Dr. James D. Price when asked about the theories of Haik-Vantoura. A professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at the Temple Baptist Seminary in Chattanooga, Tennessee, Price says that although he's been impressed by some of Haik-Vantoura's research, her conclusions are suspect. "I'm sure she was very sincere. But she did her research selectively. What she's done is gone contrary to the oral traditions that have been handed down through antiquity in the Jewish community." He says Haik-Vantoura's sensibilities as a musician got in the way of objective research, and that the music heard in synagogues today is closer to the cantillations coming from ancient Hebrew temples than it is to what she has come up with. The original score of the Bible, Price says, "might have drifted a bit over time. But to assume these conscientious rabbis just lost this music, and she has come on the scene and recovered it, it doesn't match up to expected reality."
James believes Haik-Vantoura's musician skills were her greatest asset as a researcher. "None of the other scholars were musical enough to understand it like she did," he says. John Wheeler agrees. A Houston, Texas, music researcher, Wheeler edited English-language versions of Haik-Vantoura's writings and continues to publish her work on the Web and in print. He has also recorded pieces of her music on ancient-styled harps akin to what the Bible's authors might have played. He says Haik-Vantoura's findings hold up to scrutiny: "There is no other explanation for all the physical pieces of the notation. No one's come up with one yet in a thousand-plus years. In the end, it's the interpretation of the words by the melody that is the ultimate proof of the validity of her method. The methodology is faultless."
Wheeler has consulted with James on the pianist's musical creations and applauds him for being the first to take Haik-Vantoura's efforts and the supposed songs of God and the prophets to English-speaking masses. "I would say the music and the words share a common divine inspiration, to be certain," he says. "But they also reflect the personalities of the author as inspired by God, not as they were dictated." James says some sections of the Bible do bear the songwriter stamp of their authors, writers who "had their own styles, just like Bob Dylan or Mozart or Beethoven had a style." And their music attracts lovers of these composers. "It's enjoyable for people who want to slow down and ponder," James says. "It's a meditation; it's a proof to the theologians."
Yeah, but who's going to buy it?
"People interested in the Hebrew-roots thing, they've got to have it," James says, "and Christians need to have it. And musicians need to have it as a point of interest. Any musician's got to have his self-esteem improved by knowing that God likes music. Because musicians in American culture -- we're really at the bottom of society. And that's not the biblical way."
Current Christian music, he says, "is basically watered-down pop. What sells in church is what sells in the market: teenybopper stars. Does this belong in the church today? It's not art. There's no depth of doctrine; it's pretty cliched and pretty shallow." In Bach's time, he notes, the church paid for good music, nurtured and supported its songwriters and performers and their quests for smart, holy sounds. "Music takes a backseat in the church today," he adds, "and they want to pretend anybody can do it. 'Let's get the volunteers, train them in simple songs and do it. Who cares how it sounds? It's free.' They don't take it seriously."
James is hoping that a few consumers will take his music seriously enough to buy it. (His disc is currently available through sacredscales.com or by writing P.O. Box 334, Littleton, CO 80160.) He's preparing to release his creation on the mass market and is seeking help -- in or out of the church -- to distribute and market it. So far, area church leaders have shown little interest in Music of the Prophets. "It seems to be out of their comfort zone. Thinking of the prophets as musicians? Heaven forbid." James is also a bit unsure of what to expect in terms of returns on investment for his new release. "It's a gamble. But I think this is a serious enough thing that once it gets found out, I think it could go. It could make a career." And if it doesn't? "This makes me a very versatile composer. There aren't a lot of places you can go today as a musician where you can do something nobody else is doing."
Wheeler says he would be surprised if James were actually able to pay his bills with the fruits of his endeavors, considering the limited market potential of his work. "It would be interesting if he could pull it off, but it's very unlikely. This music goes out of its way to avoid the sensual."
That's not the sort of testimonial that will have folks searching for the "God" artist section in their local music stores. But James sees other value in his work beyond sales tallies: "I just want to wake people up and let them know that this is here, that it has a historical significance of what the Bible actually is. And it has a future significance: The prophecies talk about all things being restored, and if the Bible is an eternal document, then this is part of it."
What's more, he notes, musicians of any faith should look to his music as a validation of their own efforts.
"This really shows God being musically and aesthetically intuitive," he says. "As a musician who is interested in God and goes to church, it's almost painful what you're supposed to worship to today. I always walked out thinking I wasn't spiritual enough because I couldn't lose myself like others did to all this mediocre music. I thought it was a spiritual flaw in myself. Now I've found out it's the other way around, that we've degraded the art. And you don't have to compromise aesthetics to be into God."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Denver, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.