New Album for Advent & Christmas Melds Wide Range of Musical Styles

An interview with composer and pianist J.J. Wright about "O Emmanuel", a Dynamic Catholic release featuring the Notre Dame Children’s Choir, Fifth House Ensemble, and Wright on piano.

Two years ago I came upon an album by a jazz trio that caught my attention because the leader was Director of Music at Sacred Heart Parish (the crypt church beneath the University of Notre Dame’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart) and held my attention because it was one of the best jazz releases of 2014. Five of the songs on Inside Looking Out by the J.J. Wright Trio contain the initials “JTC”, which stand for “Journey Toward Christ”, and one of the songs covered was “The Transfiguration”, a song by by noted singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens. I ended up speaking to Wright on the phone and found out that he was young (not yet thirty at the time), had a wide range of experience in both jazz and sacred music, and was influenced by Cannonball Adderley, Brad Mehldau, Arvo Pärt, Steve Reich, and James Macmillan, among others. 

Now Wright and have released an Advent and Christmas album titled “O Emmanuel”, which features the Notre Dame Children’s Choir, Fifth House Ensemble, and Wright on piano. I recently corresponded with Wright, who is currently in Rome studying at the Pontifical Institute of Sacred Music and interning with the Sistine Chapel Choir.
Composer and pianist J.J. Wright (Image: CWR: What was the inspiration for the “O Emmanuel” project? Did it come naturally from within your work with the Notre Dame Children’s Choir?

Wright: There are a couple layers to this question. More pragmatically speaking, I was working with Dr. Mark Doerries and the Notre Dame Children’s Choir (NDCC) on the details of a commission of a new work centered on Handel’s Messiah. Around the same time, I had the opportunity to meet with Matthew Kelly of Dynamic Catholic and show him some of my previous work as well as explain some of my bigger aspirations for sacred music. He immediately suggested the idea of composing a new work for Advent and Christmas to be released with Dynamic Catholic. Dynamic Catholic has been an amazing partner and their mission to re-energize the Church in America has been a guiding principle through the process. 

Now that the infrastructure was in place, I needed to compose the work! My music career so far has centered around two poles: jazz and sacred music. The marriage of these two forms has been one of my primary goals and so this was an obvious place to start, but when I originally conceived O Emmanuel I was looking at using only through-composed classical music, or in other words, no jazz. For six weeks I studied Advent and Christmas texts before assembling the final texts for O Emmanuel. When I finally settled on using the “O Antiphons”, which are some of the Church’s most ancient Advent prayers, I set about trying to find a seamless musical narrative to bring out their inner drama. I started writing the music by picking the text that resonated most with me, walking back and forth in my studio, and repeating over and over “O Radiant dawn, shine on those who dwell in darkness . . . ” I must have tried it with one hundred different melodies and rhythms until I started hearing a tambourine in the background of my thoughts. At first I pushed it away, but the rhythm kept coming through more emphatically until I heard the children’s voices burst out in my imagination, singing the melody that can be heard in “Oriens.” I wasn’t sure where it came from, but it seemed like the perfect way to express this joyous and hope-filled text. I decided then that O Emmanuel would be a journey through time through the lens of musical styles both old and new.

CWR: Did you compose all of the music yourself? How did you approach the composition? 

Wright: For the most part I composed all of the music. That said, I borrowed heavily from different traditions within sacred music including hymnody and Gregorian chant. Movements III and VII (‘Radix’ and ‘Emmanuel’) both have familiar hymn tunes embedded within them, ‘Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming’ and ‘O Come, O Come, Emmanuel’. Within these movements I composed around these songs – trying to bring to life the inner life of the texts and melodies in order to allow listeners to hear them in a new way. There are other movements where I have included the original Gregorian chant melody for a particular antiphon. Movement I, ‘Sapientia’, is nearly identical to the original chant until we arrive at the exultation “Veni”. Here the Soprano and Alto adult soloists take over the texture, embellishing the original melody in order to bring out the immediacy of the request. Movement II, ‘Adonai’, begins with a harmonized version of the chant, but then moves to a more minimalist texture. In this movement, through the consistently rising pitch and intensity, I try to paint a literal picture of Moses ascending the mountain to meet God in the burning bush.  

In a more general sense, my approach to this composition and all my compositions is to find what my mentor calls “the inner life of the piece”. This process is not unlike prayer for discernment or even building a narrative for a book or film. For me, the purpose of this process is to discover the way that this particular project will allow God to bring me to the next stage in my journey. During the process, I create an extremely detailed graph with several rows and columns, each filled with musical descriptors. As I search through the text, I begin to fill in the blocks, while trying to take note of the emotional and spiritual journey that the text is taking me on. Through this dual process of intellectual discovery paired with emotional/spiritual discovery I am able to decide on the building blocks of the piece. Once I have this framework (which can sometimes take weeks or months), only then do I actually start to write ‘the notes’! 

CWR: What are some of your main influences when it comes to composition? 

Wright: I can’t help but to have been deeply influenced by past educational and professional experiences at Notre Dame, the New School, the United States Naval Academy Band, and even high school. They are the people who I’ve gotten to bounce my ideas off and get feedback from during my entire educational and professional training, and the people who have formed my musicianship and intellect the most. Some of the composers and jazz musicians I really love and have spent the most time with over the years are Arvo Pärt, Miles Davis, Steve Reich, Bill Frisell, Brad Mehldau, J.S. Bach, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, and Herbie Hancock. 

CWR: How does your background in jazz shape or inform how you compose sacred music? What are the differences and similarities between the two types of music? 

Wright: Jazz ends up finding a way into every corner of my life. Creativity, freedom, personal expression, and respect for tradition are all foundational tenets in the history of jazz music. These tenets resonate with me and with my faith in a very meaningful way and very much shape my entire musical life, but also very much who I am as a person. When we play jazz, we can express ourselves uniquely in every moment, and respond musically to the smallest reactions, whether from band members or listeners. To me, this is a great model for a Christian life—working together, in relationship together and with Christ, in order to respond to each other and to God in endlessly new and creative ways. 

I value very much the sense of immediacy jazz can bring to sacred music. I think of musical styles as picture frames – different frames allow us to look at the picture in several different contexts. In sacred music, we are trying to express the sacred (the picture). The frames (musical styles) allow me to show people the picture in a context they can relate to. 

In O Emmanuel, I use different types of music (chant, hymnody, improvisation) to express different emotional states that I want to evoke in the listener. For example, there are similarities between certain groupings of the “O Antiphons.” The first three Antiphons point toward extremely ancient names for Christ: ‘Wisdom’, ‘Lord’, ‘Root of Jesse’. The movements progress, just like salvation history, until we arrive at the fulfillment of the prophecy, the birth of Christ. I thought I could highlight this progression by having the texts that spoke about the most ancient ideas use the most ancient sounding music: Gregorian chant. As a result, the first three movements are infused, to varying degrees, with the original Gregorian chant melodies. I also wanted this piece to include the more familiar rhythms of contemporary music, which were usually communicated through the children’s choir. I used the piece to survey many of the musical techniques that have been used throughout the development of Christian sacred music. My thought was that as the text progressed forward in history, so too would it’s musical treatment.

One of the guiding texts for sacred music in the modern Church is entitled Musicam Sacram, written as a fuller exposition on music to the principles laid out in Sacrosanctum Concilium from Vatican II. In understanding this text, one of my main objectives in my own sacred music is two harmonize two paragraphs from this text: 

52. In order to preserve the heritage of sacred music and genuinely promote the new forms of sacred singing…the study and practice of Gregorian chant is to be promoted, because, with its special characteristics, it is a basis of great importance for the development of sacred music. 53. New works of sacred music should conform faithfully to the principles and norms set out above. In this way they will have the qualities proper to genuine sacred music, being within the capacities not merely of large choirs but of smaller choirs, facilitating the participation of all the faithful.

61. Adapting sacred music for those regions which possess a musical tradition of their own, especially mission areas, will require a very specialized preparation by the experts. It will be a question in fact of how to harmonize the sense of the sacred with the spirit, traditions and characteristic expressions proper to each of these peoples. Those who work in this field should have a sufficient knowledge both of the liturgy and musical tradition of the Church, and of the language, popular songs and other characteristic expressions of the people for whose benefit they are working.

One of the ways I’ve tried to make these ideas more accessible within O Emmanuel has been to create a ‘Guided Listening Mediation’. I recorded six spoken tracks that are placed between the music on the CD. In these tracks, I take the listener through the musical, spiritual, and emotional journey in a practical way so that they can enter into the music more fully.  

CWR: How many singers and musicians were involved? What was the recording process like? 

Wright: O Emmanuel is scored for children’s choir, SATB adult vocal soloists, string quartet, woodwind trio, and jazz piano trio. In the movements where everyone was involved, we had about fifty people on the sound stage! The recording process was a fantastic experience, especially since most of my prior recordings have predominantly been in jazz. The joy that the NDCC brought to the sessions was incredible – they were so full of energy and happiness and inspired everybody to play and sing their best. It was also a huge honor to be able to work with Thom Moore and Rob Friedman of 5/4 Productions. They’ve both won several Grammys for their work and their feedback (including knowing when to tell a joke or to be super strict!) always came in the perfect tone at the perfect time.  

My hope is that O Emmanuel helps inspire a whole new generation of musicians to create world-class expressions of Christianity through art. O Emmanuel features prominently the NDCC performing on the same level as professional musicians. The simple acts of working together, day after day, to learn music and to care for one another are at the core of the choir’s mission. I believe that giving children the opportunity to connect in a meaningful way with sacred music will fill them with enough hope to fill the Church and world with beautiful and engaging music.

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About Carl E. Olson 1217 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.