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New age, old story

Music | Christian artists' collaboration sets Celtic legends to music

Issue: "Spring Draining," April 12, 1997

During the last 16 years, the Oregon keyboardist and composer Jeff Johnson has emerged as a leading figure in the musical genre commonly known as "New Age." Unlike most of his peers, however, Mr. Johnson--who publishes his songs under the imprint "Sola Scriptura Music"--is a devout Christian.

His latest album, Music of Celtic Legends: The Bard and the Warrior, is his fourth in collaboration with the Irish flautist Brian Dunning and the Christian author Stephen Lawhead. Like its predecessors, Music of Celtic Legends consists of music based on themes suggested by Mr. Lawhead's fantasy-based fiction. What makes Celtic Legends the high point of the series is the intimacy with which the music and the fiction interact.

"In the past, Brian and I tried to capture the spirit of books that already existed," Mr. Johnson told WORLD. "This time the process was much more collaborative and spontaneous. Because Steve and I exchanged ideas as the music was being created, Brian and I were able to contour the music to the elements of the stories."

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They chose the pre-Christian legends, in part, he explained, because "a Christian should be a person who admires and respects a good story." "Any good story--one that's full of truth, beauty, and goodness--will ultimately reflect God, who I often think of as the ultimate storyteller, and all the things that we find in the story he tells us in Scripture."

Because of the album's collaborative nature, the titles and melodies of the songs closely follow Mr. Lawhead's retellings of the Taliesin and cuChulainn legends. Because the stories are reprinted inside the CD booklet, one can read them while listening to the album as if it were a soundtrack. Of the 11 songs, five accompany "The Dream of Taliesin" and four "cuChulainn's Last Battle," leaving the annunciatory "The Bard and the Warrior" to open the album and the poignant "The Ancient Song" to close it.

One can also enjoy the album without the stories. In addition to the flute, Mr. Dunning--a member of the Windham Hill quartet Nightnoise--plays the pennywhistle, uilleann pipes, and accordion. But it's his flute upon which Mr. Johnson, as the album's producer and engineer, focuses. In "Lady Sovereignty," for instance, it carries a melancholy melody while echoing eerily against a background of muted synthesizer and gently strummed electric guitar. In "Isle of the Everliving" it bears an exultant melody upward over a bed of synthesized percussion, crashing waves, and the siren-like singing of Janet Chvatal. If more New Age music were this painstakingly detailed, perhaps fewer people would dismiss it as the audio equivalent of the lava lamp.

Mr. Johnson, who prefers to call his music "contemporary instrumental music," is aware of the confusion among Christians that the term "New Age music" occasionally causes. "Frankly, the 'New Age' term is not something that people within the industry like, but that's what the music's called, and beyond a certain degree there's nothing you can do about it. That's the practical level. On a philosophical level, those of us who were there when the Meadowlark albums [Sparrow Records' mid-1980s line of instrumental recordings by Christian artists] first came out were simply trying to expand contemporary instrumental music as a genre and have our faith somehow permeate that."

"As it turns out," he explained, "even though I never start the day in the studio by saying, 'What Bible passage am I going to portray with my music today?', my worldview does permeate what I do. And my worldview happens to be a Christian one."


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