Praise Band Converts Psalms to Music Using Numerology
Grace Baptist Tabernacle in King is the home of a unique musical project
“I don’t look like your typical Bible-thumper,” says Chris Graham. He’s right. He looks a little more like an avid gamer who’s grown up, or like a mild-mannered metal head. He’s got a wispy goatee-meets-fu-manchu type deal, some Armani eyeglasses. But Graham, 36, the pastor of Grace Baptist Tabernacle in King, will thump that Bible.
He’ll thump it, but he’ll also spend hours and hours poring over lines from the book of Psalms, in the original Hebrew, using a complicated numerological/musicological system to convert letters and words into notes and chords. (Graham doesn’t read Hebrew, but he’s studying it.) Graham is a preacher, but he’s also a musician, and music is a central part of how he and his congregation worship.
Graham and his congregants point to scripture to explain why making music is so important. (“Praise him with loud clanging cymbals”; “He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.”)
The theological inclination to make song goes fairly deep with Graham.
“Because we’re created in God’s image and that’s how God created,” explains Graham. I say that I thought that God created using the word in Genesis, and elsewhere. Graham says yes, but that there are those who interpret the scripture to mean that God breathed song into those first heaven-and-earth-creating words. It was a mix of word, breath and melody and rhythm — song — that sparked the creation of the cosmos.
We’re hanging out at Krankies in Winston-Salem and Graham and his bandmate Jonathan Riddle are walking me through the system they use to generate musical settings for the five Psalm texts (146-150) they’ve been working on. Their band is called At the Threshold, and they play more traditional praise music, but the Psalms project has been consuming Graham and his bandmates for over a year. They have a notebook with texts in Hebrew with English translations. Graham assigned a numerical value to every letter, something akin to “A=1, B=2, C=3, D=4” and so on. He then wrote up three separate tallies and strings of numbers. One line would correspond to the numbers value for each individual letter in each line from the text. Another set of calculations added up the values for each word, so if the line had three Hebrew words with three letters in each word, Graham would end up with three separate numbers representing the corresponding numerical value for each of the words. A third tally would represent the sum of all number values from each letter in a given line. Graham says he based the system in part on the tradition known as Gematria, which was incorporated into ancient Jewish hermeneutic techniques, some of which went on to be associated with the Kabbalah. (He consulted with a rabbi to make sure that his Hebrew-to-numbers experiments made a kind of sense.)
It gets even more complicated and far-out from there. Not wanting the music to push too far outside of the conventional bounds of Western harmony, Graham made each number correspond to a note in the diatonic scale, meaning that he would, somewhat arbitrarily, pick a key signature and then let each number from one through eight represent a scale degree or note in that key. So every number becomes an extrapolation of one of those eight numbers. For instance, if one of the Hebrew words adds up to the number 11 in Graham’s system, then, in the key of C major, say, that would translate to three notes above an octave over C. So that equals the note F in C major. In this fashion, every letter in the Hebrew alphabet is given a corresponding scale degree in traditional Western musical notation. Thus, Graham has a string of notes derived from Hebrew text, a specific note for each letter. In the resulting music, those strings of notes turn into a sort of solo line for Graham to play on guitar. (It turns out that Graham was a little bit of a metal head in his youth, and he says he’s still into groups like Opeth, which might explain the fondness for dense and complex musical logic.) There’s no specific designation for rhythm or phrasing, so the system allows for a fair amount of expressive interpretation.
Graham says the intent wasn’t to make music that was fundamentally challenging to the listeners’ ears or somehow outside the realm of traditional harmonic logic.
“This isn’t funky jazz,” he says.
That’s true, but a listen to the music that Graham and his collaborators have made signals that something different is happening here. The songs hover in unexpected harmonic pockets, with shifting colors that don’t necessarily broadcast immediately recognizable Hallmark Card emotions of uplift and good feeling. I don’t think a listener would think “hmm, this is music derived from a complex numerological system related to the ancient Hebrew texts,” but I also don’t think that listeners will hear this as standard contemporary Christian praise music.
The challenge was to make praise music that was fully anchored in the text, so that the music itself pointed everyone back to the words, in a way, says Graham.
“The goal wasn’t necessarily to do anything mystical as much as it was to mine the word and honor it and be able to hear it in a different way,” says Graham.
People have been setting Bible verses to music since people have been reading the Bible. Maybe even before that. A majority of the Hebrew Bible is poetry, which was probably meant to be sung, whether because of the inherent ritual/religious importance of song or simply because it was easier to memorize that way.
Graham has been a pastor for six years. His father was a pastor where he was raised, in Charleston, South Carolina. Graham also studied family counseling. He arrived in the area after setting out in search of a place to set up his congregation, driving around North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia, waiting for the spirit to move, basically. Graham and about five families from South Carolina originally set up the Grace Tabernacle in Pfafftown, in northwest Winston-Salem, but the zoning regulations and fire codes made operating their space problematic.
“Most of us came up here with no job guaranteed,” says Riddle, 27, of the families that joined Graham on his mission to the north. “We knew that we wanted to be part of it.”
The Psalms Project is something that Graham and his At the Threshold bandmates want to document and share. They’re launching a Kickstarter campaign in hopes of recording the songs in a studio and producing copies of the material.
I was going to say that I thought Graham and his musical collaborators were proud of what they’d done, but I’m guessing that pride isn’t something they would embrace as an appropriate way of feeling about all this. Graham and Riddle make a point of saying that this music isn’t about them and making a concert or a recording that people are entertained by, necessarily. It’s part of their religious practice. It’s a form of prayer.
As Graham says: “Worship is us reminding ourselves of what the scripture says.”
Learn more about At The Threshold and the Psalms Project at psalmsmusicproject.com. Hear Graham and the band on Sundays at Grace Baptist Tabernacle, 221 Ingram Drive, King.